5 Tips for a Safe, Gluten-Free Thanksgiving (or Group Event)

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I had an all too familiar experience yesterday at the office potluck. Because I sat right next to the buffet table and was sort of expecting the “violation,” I saw what occurred and did not get glutened, but it could easily have gone the other way. Read on to find out what happened and prevent the same thing from happening to you tomorrow and at other communal meals. Note: These tips can also apply to being safe when having other food intolerances and allergies.

1. Serve yourself first.

No, I am not telling you to be obnoxious or rude, but before anyone else has touched the food is the safest time to serve yourself a plate. You’ll know that the food you brought has not been cross contaminated and, likewise, the corn pudding that your boss made for you with cornstarch or the naturally gluten free mashed potatoes that your friend made (both dishes that you have eaten without issues) will be safe once again for you to enjoy. Once other folks start serving themselves and things happen, all bets are off.

2. Place your food away from other gluten-containing foods.

Do this if at all possible—just in case you don’t get the opportunity to serve yourself first and would like to go for seconds and/or have other family members who need to eat safely. If you’re not hosting the event and are eating at a friend’s or relative’s house, volunteer to be part of the set up crew. This act will make you look like a very kind person, which will come in handy later when a) the dishes are being washed (you can honestly say, I already helped with setup) or b) you want to leave before the football games come on or c) you have to leave suddenly because you got glutened. If the tables are placed against a wall, place your dishes to the side and against the wall. Placing them in the back prevents the crumbs and pieces from other gluten dishes from falling into your dish.

3. Ensure that your dishes all have serving utensils and all the other dishes have serving utensils.

Again, you can be part of the set-up crew and endear yourself to the hostess at the same time.  You might be thinking, why do I have to worry about the other dishes having serving utensils? Isn’t that their responsibility? Well, this tip relates to what happened yesterday at the luncheon. After years of eating gluten free, I’m always on the alert for cross-contamination situations. Frankly, I just do it instinctively now. I made my Great Salad and placed it near the other salads but away from the Caesar salad with the croutons. (Well, as far away as possible—you know how crowded those buffet tables can get.) I knew there might be trouble because the Caesar salad had no serving utensils. Nada. At your own home or someone else’s, you can quickly add some utensils, but in the conference room at work, that’s not likely to happen. I even said out loud that the salad had no utensils and for others please not to use my utensils for that salad because I was allergic to bread (yes, I say that … even though it’s not accurate, people are more likely to “get it”). Well, this guy behind me sort of did that nervous, silly laugh thing. Alert, alert!

When I was just about finished eating and contemplating getting more salad, I saw the same fellow snag my utensils and use them to serve himself Caesar salad, and then place them back in my bowl. (To be fair, although I don’t know this individual, he’s always pleasant and seems to be a decent guy; he’s just uneducated about gluten issues … as many are.) While I could have protested and at least stopped him from putting the utensils back in my bowl, it happened all too quickly. If I hadn’t been looking that way, I wouldn’t have even noticed that the cross-contamination incident occurred. Of course, I didn’t get any more salad. I passed what was left of my salad on to my friend to take home. She loves it (she’d already had seconds) and was happy to take it. Be aware that this type of cross contamination seems to happen even more frequently with desserts, particularly pies. Folks have one or two pie servers that they use to go back and forth between several pies. I’ve yelled, “Wait!” in the past when I saw that happening. Of course, then I do explain the situation after I’m sure my pie remains UN-violated. I’m willing to let my salad go home with a friend, but I want my pie! So, again, be sure that all the dishes have their own serving utensils.

4. Remove your food to a safe place after serving.

Immediately after the meal or course, if you are confident that your dish has made it through safely and you want to take it home (you can still share more of it with others for leftovers if you like), remove it to a safe place; i.e., away from other food, perhaps by your purse or coat. If it came with a cover, lid, etc., place that same covering back on your dish IF  it’s remained uncontaminated. If it was covered with aluminum foil and your covering is now in a stack with several other pieces of aluminum foil or has been tossed, cover it with a clean piece of aluminum foil. You still might want to take a quick look at it when you get home to see if you feel comfortable eating it. Obviously, if some of Aunt Betsy’s glutenous macaroni and cheese is in the corner of your prized gluten-free green bean casserole, sadly, you’ll probably want to pass it on to someone else who still eats gluten.

5. Start planning and educating for the next event.

This tip is critical if the latest event has not gone well. However, although it’s tempting to some to seize the moment and teach big life lessons right then and there about eating gluten free and cross contamination, it’s really not the best time. (Much like when opening Christmas gifts is not the best time to say, “Hey, what do you say we do away with giving each person a gift and exchange names next year?”) So much emotion is infused into these holidays and special events that people want to enjoy the moment and are not ready to hear about possible alternatives to their traditions. But, a week or two after Thanksgiving might be the ideal time to say to your family member or friend, let’s try to do things a bit differently for our next group meal so that I can eat safely and we can all enjoy the meal. How about if we do this? or that? I always repeat that old adage about putting yourself in other’s shoes. If you were hosting and had never dealt with serving folks with food intolerances/allergies before, what would you need to know? How could I make it easier for you? That is one of the reasons behind the gfe concept—it shows others how to feed you safely and easier at the same time.

Of course, I know that many will read this last tip and think of their own family members who don’t seem to care if they eat safely or not. I understand that … there are some of those types in a faction of my family, too. I’ve seen the eye rolls, heard the comments about eating gluten free being another fad, have been irked at the sometimes total disregard as to whether I could eat anything served, etc. Try to let it go and don’t focus on those types. Focus on the folks who want to feed you safely and educate them as kindly as possible. (You might find my two-part series on this subject helpful:   They Just Don’t Understand:  Dealing with Gluten-Full Friends and Family)

I hope those of you who have been gluten free for a while and have learned to eat safely at group events will share any other tips you have developed over time. Linda shared her story of a recent group event over at her site, The Gluten-Free Homemaker. Several who commented offered some future options for eating safely, as well as their own personal experiences in this category. Please share what works for you in these situations; we can all benefit from the wisdom gained from others. I know I haven’t listed all the things I personally do because so much I do to eat safely I do instinctively now after 6 1/2 years of eating gluten free. So, I look forward to hearing your input and I know it will be greatly appreciated by those who are enjoying their first gluten-free (and/or “other”-free) holidays this year.

In closing, two things …

Keeping the true meaning of Thanksgiving in mind, here’s today’s quote from the BeFreeForMe site and blog. (Kathleen Reale shares a thought-provoking quote on her site each day. Kathleen, who has celiac herself, has created a great source of allergen-free information including reviews of products, giveaways, coupons, etc. at BeFreeForMe.)

“Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life.  It turns what we have into enough, and more.  It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity.  It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today and creates a vision for tomorrow.” –Melody Beattie, American author

And, as the Sarge (Sgt. Phil Esterhaus) used to say before he sent the force out on the streets on one of my all-time favorite television shows, Hill Street Blues, “Let’s be careful out there.”

Not just gf, but gfe!

This post is linked to Gluten-Free Tuesdays, Gluten-Free Wednesdays, and Allergy-Free Wednesdays.

Full Disclosure/Disclaimer: This post may contain one or more affiliate links. If you purchase through them, your cost will always be the same, but I will receive a small commission. Thanks for the support! Read the full disclaimer here.


31 Responses to “5 Tips for a Safe, Gluten-Free Thanksgiving (or Group Event)”

  1. Kari on November 25th, 2009 2:18 pm

    Hi Shirley. Thank you for recommending that book, Heat, about working in Mario Batali’s kitchen. I haven’t read it and hadn’t heard about it, but it sounds great and like something I’d really like to read. I may get the audio version like you since I don’t have as much time to sit down and read these days. Thanks and have a great Thanksgiving!

    • Shirley on November 25th, 2009 5:45 pm

      Hi, Kari–Welcome to gfe! It was my pleasure to recommend Heat. I’ve become addicted to audio books (they sure make my 15-minute drive to work pass by even more quickly and they are awesome for trips to town or points further). Bill Buford tells his own story beautifully. Some dear friends of mine even met the Tuscan butcher in the tale and they say he is larger than life, just as depicted.

      I’ve been enjoying your Eating Simply blog. :-) I know I want to eat as you aspire—frugally, healthily, and simply. Thanks so much for the Thanksgiving wishes … I wish you the same!


  2. Fatcat on November 25th, 2009 3:34 pm

    Thanks again for your web site!

    • Shirley on November 25th, 2009 7:05 pm

      Hi Fatcat–So good to see you again! Thank YOU for being a reader. I visited your blog and think it’s awesome that you’re 4 weeks gluten free–keep on keeping on as they say! I promise you it will get easier and easier … in a relatively short time, you’ll be living gluten free easily like breathing and you should feel better and better.

      Happy Thanksgiving Eve! I loved that you are an Eve celebrater, too (per your blog)—cool!


  3. H.Peter on November 25th, 2009 9:32 pm

    So much gluten, so few Celiacs.

    We have stopped going out to any “communal buffet style” set ups as you are absolutely right.

    We love to meet people for drinks, or host in our home, which is now 100% (ok, 98%) GF.

    Ignorance everywhere.

    Shirley, enjoy your Thanksgiving, eat all the food you can and let us know about it on your Blog!

    • Shirley on November 25th, 2009 11:23 pm

      H.Peter–Yes, hosting is the safest by far! And, meeting out when you are in control. LOL on eating all the food I can … so far it’s been one of those rare bad baking days … cookies coming out finnicky, pies spilling, etc. (Guess I’ll need to write about that, huh?) Just a reminder that it’s not the food that really matters. ;-) Luckily, everyone is elsing is bringing so much food, all mine could be disaster and we’d still have plenty. Son and I are very fortunate that my mom and my sister can feed us safely with the food they make especially so we can eat it—crab casserole, mashed potatoes, corn pudding, ham, etc. See … there’s enough food right there to feed everyone!

      Thanks so much for taking the time to comment! I’ve been missing being over at The Celiac Husband as often as I’d like.


    • Shirley on November 25th, 2009 11:26 pm

      Oh, forgot to say we heard from our tour guide friend in Calgary. He’s trying to entice us to visit with some new tours. ;-)


      • H.Peter on November 26th, 2009 7:54 am

        Well, typical tour guide….off season….it’s getting cold now. I rather swap houses for a while.

        • Shirley on November 26th, 2009 11:27 pm

          House swap sounds good! Find a ski bunny who lives in a warm climate and you’re set. ;-)


  4. Jennifer R. on November 25th, 2009 11:06 pm

    Great post, Shirley! As this will be our first Thanksgiving being gluten free (well, 4 out of 5 in my family), I am a little nervous about going to another family members (gluten) house and the risk of cross contamination. Thanks so much for all your tips! I will try to make sure everything has its own utensil tomorrow :)
    Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family!!

    • Shirley on November 25th, 2009 11:30 pm

      Hi Jennifer!–It was a last-minute idea to post based on my experience yesterday and thinking of everyone like you experiencing their first gf Thanksgiving. Remember that even if you are cautious and only eat a few things, that will still probably be enough to satisfy you. Sometimes I’ve only eaten a few things and the dessert I brought and it was enough. I’ll be interested to hear how it goes and, of course, I am hoping all will go well! :-)

      Thanks so much for the Thanksgiving wishes! Hoping the same for you and yours, Jennifer!


  5. Katrina (gluten free gidget) on November 25th, 2009 11:11 pm

    I am bringing my own Thanksgiving meal in a tupperware to a family get together tomorrow. I want to be able to enjoy the company and not worry about getting sick. ;-)

    • Shirley on November 25th, 2009 11:32 pm

      Hi Katrina–Thanks for weighing in. Sometimes taking your own food is indeed the best option. Like you said, no worries and then you can focus on just being with family and/or friends. Others don’t have to worry about feeding you safely either.

      Hope you have a lovely Thanksgiving!


  6. glutenfreeforgood on November 26th, 2009 8:09 am


    Just wanted to stop by before the day begins and thank you for your friendship and for all you do. I’m very grateful for our connection. Seth Godin had a great quote today and it applies perfectly to you.

    “Thanks for being here, for making a difference and for doing work that matters.”

    Sending warm wishes to you and your family this Thanksgiving.


    • Shirley on November 27th, 2009 1:01 am

      Melissa–Wow … what a truly lovely thing to say—thank you. I’m equally grateful for your friendship. Re: “making a difference and for doing work that matters” … of course, I count you as a critical partner in the greater gluten free for good cause.

      Reciprocating those warm Thanksgiving wishes as well to you, Melissa. Ours was just right … very relaxed, with family we love.


  7. Chaya on November 26th, 2009 12:18 pm

    Thanks for the excellent tips. You are doing a service to all who stop by here.

    • Shirley on November 27th, 2009 1:23 am

      Hi Chaya–Thank you! You always say the nicest things … you are much appreciated as a gfe reader and commenter. :-)


  8. Lauren on November 26th, 2009 8:10 pm

    Great tips! Another one is to stick together – occasionally there will be a few of us, so then we point out what we brought (I’ve even gone to potlucks before without a worry)!

    Enjoy your Thanksgiving!

    • Shirley on November 27th, 2009 1:29 am

      Hey, Lauren–That is an excellent tip! That’s exactly what all of us gluten-free bloggers did when we were together at BlogHer Food ’09. Although we were mostly eating food prepared by others, we still looked out for each other. Sometimes there’s strength in numbers as far as ordering, too. But, we all brought a few food items with us or made a grocery store run after arriving, and were happy to share with each other. That came in handy for outings like the bus trip for sightseeing. :-)

      Thanksgiving was great … all done, except for the leftovers. ;-)


  9. Gluten Free Steve on November 28th, 2009 10:50 am

    Shirley, what a great post and all are lessons we should remember. I had a safe Thanksgiving this year because I did follow all of the rules above. One other tip, ALWAYS inspect the serving utensils too. My neighbor gave me a spoon for my gravy bowl, but there was something dried on it. So it went straight to the sink to wash it! I need to stop being afraid if I am going to offend someone, but take charge for my health and wellness. We all do!

    • Shirley on November 28th, 2009 8:17 pm

      Hi, Steve–Thank you for adding such great tips: inspecting the utensils, not being afraid if you’ll offend anyone, and taking charge of your own health and wellness. I’m sure your neighbor would have felt far worse if you had gotten ill versus the embarassment of having a spoon that had not been cleaned properly. (A utensil that doesn’t make it out of the dishwasher or sink is something that happens to all of us from time to time.)

      Thanks so much for taking the time to share this info, Steve. So glad you had a safe Thanksgiving!


  10. Kate on October 22nd, 2012 3:20 pm

    My 4 year old is gluten, wheat, egg, and dairy free. Once a month, my church has a potluck. I usually bring something that caters to his allergies, but I also make up a plate for him ahead of time. It’s just easier for him to sit and eat right away. It’s nice not to have to go through the line and tell him he can’t eat any of the other dishes! What I bring to share is mainly just to point out to others that gluten-free foods can be just as tasty as gluten foods!

    • Shirley on October 22nd, 2012 3:27 pm

      Hi Kate–Welcome to gfe! Thank you so much for sharing your approach with us all. It makes perfect sense to me. You are keeping your child safe (and not hungry), but also are educating others while you participate in the event!

      Thanks so much for taking the time to comment! :-)

  11. Shannon @ Enjoying Gluten-Free Life on October 22nd, 2012 6:31 pm

    Excellent article, Shirley. I hadn’t read this one before. We have a lot of potlucks at church and, like Kate, I’ve learned that it’s easiest to take a meal on a plate for us even when I’ve made part of it to share. There are so many iffy foods there that I don’t want to take a chance. (And those moving serving utencils. My baked beans’ spoons shifted to another dish this summer but we’d already taken what we wanted.)

    • Shirley on October 22nd, 2012 8:35 pm

      Hi Shannon–Thanks so much! Some folks don’t think about these issues, so I’m so happy to have you and Kate join in with your concerns and strategies. :-)


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