This post on how to survive Thanksgiving (or any group event where gluten-full foods are served) and stay gluten free at the same time was originally shared at the end of my first year of blogging (over a decade ago now—ha!). Because the advice is just as timely today as it was then, I thought I’d share it again with you all. I hope that you will find these 5 tips for a gluten-free Thanksgiving helpful and that all of you who celebrate Thanksgiving will have a truly special celebration with your friends and family!
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, avoided the gluten land mine, 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 on Thanksgiving 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. Seriously. Unless I’m eating with my family members—who know how to keep my food safe—I serve myself first, getting one plate and then no more food until I eat dessert (following these same tips).
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 gluten-free 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 (clean ones!) 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 for this event 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.
Hey, I’m willing to let my salad go home with a friend, but I want my pie! You understand when it’s a pie like the Crustless Coconut Pie shown below, right?
So, again, be sure that all the dishes have their own serving utensils. And, as Steve (formerly Gluten-Free Steve and The Grateful Celiac) noted in comments, “ALWAYS inspect the serving utensils too.” Serving utensils that are rarely used and hurriedly pulled out from storage can sometimes have dried gluten-full food on them.
One other related factor that most don’t think about is that even when folks are using a separate utensil for each dish, when they’re putting the food on their plate, the utensil is often touching the gluten-full food that they have already served themselves. Think about how crowded a plate can be. That’s why I often serve myself first and then don’t eat anything else—i.e., no second helpings unless I’ve reserved some of my food elsewhere.
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 new sheet 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 and 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 more easily at the same time.
Of course, I know that some 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 these 5 tips for a gluten-free Thanksgiving have been helpful to you! I also hope that 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.
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 that I do to eat safely I do instinctively after so many years of eating gluten free. (I’ve been gluten free since 2003.) So, I also 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.) The message in the quote she shared is timeless.
“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.”
Originally published November 25, 2009; updated August 30, 2019.
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!
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!
Thanks again for your web site!
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!
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.
Shirley, enjoy your Thanksgiving, eat all the food you can and let us know about it on your Blog!
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.
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. 😉
Well, typical tour guide….off season….it’s getting cold now. I rather swap houses for a while.
House swap sounds good! Find a ski bunny who lives in a warm climate and you’re set. 😉
Jennifer R. says
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!!
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!
Katrina (gluten free gidget) says
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. 😉
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!
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.
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.
Thanks for the excellent tips. You are doing a service to all who stop by here.
Hi Chaya–Thank you! You always say the nicest things … you are much appreciated as a gfe reader and commenter. 🙂
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!
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. 😉
Gluten Free Steve says
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!
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!
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!
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! 🙂
Shannon @ Enjoying Gluten-Free Life says
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.)
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. 🙂
What a lovely post. What great, practical tips! I like your point about serving yourself first! So much contamination happens if you wait…that’s such a great point. You never know what gets flung into the surrounding food.
I remember four years ago emailing you with my deepest heartfelt thanks for your guidance and support as I started my blog! I can’t believe how much has changed since then. But I love that I can still connect with you and my other blogger buddies and we will always have this special connection.
I am thankful again for you and this wonderful community. Although I can’t blog as much as I would like, it proves to be one of my most fulfilling activities and brings me so much joy.
Big hugs to you Shirley. Wishing you a wonderful Thanksgiving full of love and laughter.
Hi Amber–Oh my goodness, you are such a dear! First, thanks for the feedback on these tips. I know that some folks are reluctant to stand out in any way, but safety to ensure our health rules.
I went back and re-read your letter from 4 years ago. Such an amazingly kind letter. Thank you again for that and your words here, dear. I love the connections I’ve made with friends like you. I don’t blog as much as I used to either, but really appreciate it when I can blog.
Love to you, Amber! Hope you have a fabulous Thanksgiving with your beautiful family!
Ina Gawne says
A great post Shirley with very thoughtful tips! Have a Happy Thanksgiving as it arrives very soon for you….we had ours in October where I always do the big dinner – gluten free of course! Such a great holiday, and a thankful time it is. 🙂
Hey Ina–Thank you, dear! I am always envious of my Canadian friends celebrating in October. November seems too close to Christmas for us. Anyway, I bet your Thanksgiving meal was amazing and I will love celebrating Thanksgiving with my family next week, with Son home, too. 🙂
April J Harris says
Shirley, I am so glad you shared this post! It is not only valuable for those who need to eat gluten free, it will help those of us who don’t too. So many people don’t understand about cross-contamination etc. Pinning and sharing. Thank you so much for bringing this post to the Hearth and Soul Hop!
Thanks again for featuring my post on this week’s Hearth and Soul Blog Hop and sharing everywhere else, April! I do hope it helps many, both for gluten-free folks to stay gluten free themselves and to ensure that those who are not gluten free can understand our struggle and will learn to keep their gluten-free friends and family members safe.
Happy Thanksgiving across the pond!
These are still relevant suggestions eight years later. Luckily, more folks are starting to become aware of gluten sensitivity and what that means but I still experience people that just get a funny, glazed over look when you say something about gluten. Generally at potlucks I stick to the meats, a fruit salad and whatever I have brought. Had never thought about cross contamination from utensils, guess I’ve just been really lucky in that regard. Thanks for the tips!
Shirley Braden says
Thanks and you’re welcome, Nancy. I don’t eat a lot of shared meals with gluten-full folks and the ones I do share are typically with my family. After 14 years of helping feed me and Son, they’re very knowledgeable and careful. But I’d say that most folks cooking just grab the utensils at hand and don’t necessarily think, “wait, I need a separate pie server for my gluten-full pie and another pie server for Sandy’s gluten-free pie.” I’m convinced that shared utensils are what “get me” most often in restaurants. I often think that if I could just be in the kitchen for a few hours where they were preparing food for gf diners that I could actually witness what mistakes are being made. Then the folks making the mistakes could be kindly stopped mid-action and educated. That would be so much more effective for educating kitchen staff and having them actually learn. Having to use a server as a go-between is challenging for both sides!
Funny, but I hadn’t really thought about that aspect. I think every time, through the years, when I’ve been glutenized it was at a restaurant. Even though I was eating gluten free pasta or gluten free bread or whatever. We don’t eat out too often unless we are traveling, and then we usually rent an apartment so I can cook most of our meals. When eating in restaurants I tend to stick with salads—lots of salads! Like you say, education is the key and thankfully it is starting to change a bit.