Wednesday, November 27, 2013

So, There's a "Picky Eater" Coming to Thanksgiving. . .

Creamy Carrot Soup

I had a friend who was asked on a date by a man who wanted to make her a home-cooked meal. Very romantic. That is, until he found out she was a vegetarian. Suddenly the date was off--he said he "had no idea what to cook for her." For some reason, the idea of cooking for vegetarians makes people afraid--very afraid. Other special diets--dairy-free, vegan, paleo, etc., also seem mysterious to those who do not follow them. Thanksgiving is especially trying--perhaps because there are traditional food expectations, extended family, and more people, which means more food preferences to indulge or risk offending someone.

I'm not a vegetarian, but I spend a lot of my practice time encouraging people to eat more vegetables. I was also a (mostly) vegan for two years before I realized it was not the best diet choice for me. I know a lot of people who choose to eat vegetarian meals for one reason or the other, and I'm used to screening restaurants to be sure there are good veggie options when I meet anyone for a meal. And since I have a lot of food sensitivities myself, I've been the one at a table full of food and nothing I can eat without getting sick. Sometimes less-understanding friends and associates call those with special diet needs or preferences "picky." But most people who follow a restrictive diet have a reason for doing so. Many of the "picky eaters" I see in my clinic must eat carefully to avoid being seriously ill, or even have allergies so severe a slight exposure to the wrong food can cause anaphylactic shock and death. Making a meal for people used to feeling excluded for their health or diet needs is a wonderful way to show love to a friend or family member.

Here are a few tips for successfully feeding your "picky eater" at Thanksgiving.
  • Communicate. When I invite someone over to dinner, or set up a time to meet at a restaurant, I ask them if they have any food restrictions. It doesn't do to find out after you've slaved over a beefy lasagna that your guest doesn't eat meat, is allergic to wheat, or hates tomatoes. Ideally, your guest will be able to politely warn you if they have a different diet. I often offer to bring my own food--I don't eat processed food because I'm sensitive to the chemicals. If the cook is willing to accommodate me, I keep an idea for something simple (plain baked chicken and frozen veggies with a little butter, for instance). If not, having a few extra vegetable dishes with no butter, eggs, or other animal ingredients available will insure even the vegan in your group will have something other than carrot sticks to eat.
  • Be confident and respectful. This suggestion is for both the host and the invitee. Thanksgiving is not the time to argue your different eating choices. While planning this post, I realize I have been guilty of looking down my nose slightly at those around me who don't care whether their food is organic or not. Shame on me! If someone invites you to her house and is willing to cook, appreciate it--even if you cannot eat the food she offers, acknowledge that another person wants to share a meal with you. For the host/hostesses, don't make fun of the person who doesn't eat as you do. But don't leave out dishes that are important for your traditions, either. If Grandma's special dressing calls for turkey drippings, and just isn't the same without it, make some rice with mushrooms and parsley for the vegetarians and make Grandma's dressing. Have fun carving your turkey, and trust your vegetarian guest to be respectful and not hand out PETA bumper stickers at the table. (Really, I've never had a problem with anyone with a different diet being pushy about their viewpoint except in family settings. Most people just want to eat what they eat and not be stared at for it. But since sit-com plots revolve around the food philosophy fights this time of year, I figure my experience may not be typical.)
  • Cook what you cook well, with minor adjustments. It's really not that difficult to tailor food for a special diet. I make gluten-free dressing using cornbread and a loaf of (ridiculously expensive) gluten free bread. Because my husband doesn't eat chicken, but I love it, I often make a vegetable dish, and then augment it with beef for him and chicken for me. Some firm tofu with lemon juice and lots of garlic (made the night before so the tofu absorbs the flavors) does a decent imitation of cheese cooked into casseroles. Mushroom broth makes a hearty base for gravy. And most dishes that have vegetable in them (stir fries, pasta dishes, etc.) are easily turned vegan by simply upping the veggies, and maybe adding some mushrooms for extra texture. Check out Pinterest or do an internet search for versions of your favorite food that follow your guest's diet. Many of my recipes on What's Teresa Cookin'? have vegan, low starch, or other variations included in the recipe.
Feeding friends and family with special diet needs does not need to be stressful. With open hearts all-around and little sense of adventure, helping the "picky eater" enjoy your cooking will be fun and educational.

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