Hosting Thanksgiving for vegan and gluten-free guests is easier than you think

Back in the day the biggest variance from one room to the next at my family’s holiday feasts were those in the dark vs. light turkey meat camps. I guess there was also the occasional oddball who didn’t like cranberry sauce (never understood you people) but other than that, it was pretty simple.

Nowadays, however, menu planning for our Thanksgiving get-togethers requires a spreadsheet that rivals in complexity to the stats sheet for the Cowboys game in the background.  Between extended families and friends who dine with us we collectively have:

  • vegans
  • vegetarians
  • wheat allergies
  • chocolate allergies
  • cheese allergies
  • lactose intollerances
  • soy intollerances
  • those afraid of grains
  • those afraid of carbs
  • those who eat only everything the above people won’t
  • toddlers who at any given moment like everything or nothing
  • that weird person who still doesn’t like cranberry sauce

I know what you’re thinking – that sounds like a great time! Actually, it’s not bad – we’re good at menu planning by now. And, I exaggerate a bit, as there hasn’t been a time when all of these people have been at the same dinner at the same time.

I’m guessing this scenario is happening with more frequency at tables across the U.S., especially as people are becoming more conscious of their health and more in touch with food allergies.

I know this because every year I get a panicked email or a call from a newbie to the “mixed diet crowd” hosting duties; someone who for the first time is cooking Thanksgiving dinner for carnivores, vegans and gluten-free’ers all at once, and who is totally stumped about what to do.

The good news is that it is not actually that complicated. The even better news is that a Tofurkey does not have to enter the equation! Here are a few stress-free strategies to make your  “mixed diet crowd” Thanksgiving hosting duties a success:


Anchor Dish 

Don’t think you have to completely revamp your tried-and-true carnivorous favorites. Instead, concentrate your efforts on ONE anchor dish that is both vegan and gluten-free. This pièces de résistance should be hearty, eye pleasing, and really good. You’ll want it to be really good because it will also serve as a side dish for all of your guests (not just the V’s & GF’s.) This will save you from doubling your cooking efforts.

There are plenty of rice, quinoa, and squash dishes that are packed with protein and Thanksgiving flavors and are filling enough to be a meal in and of themselves. However, since you are most likely going to make a vegetable side dish anyway, make sure the veggies are prepared without butter, sauces or chicken/beef stock.  Steamed broccoli, asparagus, or sautéed spinach with olive oil are a few good choices. 

If you have an anchor dish and a good veggie side, you’ll have a complete meal for your V & GF guests.  

Here are a few places to start when searching for anchor recipes:

Wild rice cranberry & pine nut stuffing

Quinoa cranberry stuffed acorn squash

Quinoa salad with butternut squash  (substitute agave for the honey to make it truly vegan)

Kale & brussels sprouts salad with butternut squash  (keep the cheese on the side as an option)


Simple swaps

If you don’t live in the plant based world on a regular basis you might not know that there are some simple replacements that can make already near-vegan dishes fully vegan. Mashed potatoes, sweet potato casseroles and vegetable dishes can taste eerily similar to the original version by changing out the following items:

  • Plain almond milk is a good replacement in dishes that call for cow’s milk. Soy is also readily available but almond milk tends to have a more neutral taste with the same consistency of cow’s milk. (Be sure to buy the regular almond milk and not vanilla flavor!) 
  • Believe it or not there are vegan butter spreads available in most grocery stores. Earth Balance offers vegan and gluten-free varieties but most brands have their stats clearly labeled on the package so it’s easy to tell.
  • Two easy alternatives will bind your casseroles or biscuits just as well as eggs. ENER-G makes an egg replacer that I’ve used with much success for various recipes. You can also blend 1 tbsp ground flax seeds with 3 tbsp water to equal one egg. (Let Google be thy guide when trying this for the first time.)
  • Save the day with a marshmallow substitute. Many major grocery chains carry Ricemellow ,or if you want to search a bit more you can find a bag of vegan marshmallows.

To echo my sentiment above about not trying to revamp your entire menu; I’m not suggesting you make every single one of these swaps.  Just try one for starters.  Mashed potatoes are an easy one.  And if you’re still not convinced, you can separate a small batch of potatoes to “veganize,” leaving the rest to go the traditional route.  

It’s important to note that I’m not suggesting the butter spread & marshmallow swaps are “healthy” alternatives.  Your vegan guests (hopefully) won’t be expecting meals that are the pinnacle of health (it is a special occasion after all!)  These swaps merely give you a way to make the meals more accessible to everyone.  


Delegate dessert

V’s and GF’s enjoy their coffee and sweets too! If your guests ask what they can bring, delegate them to bring a V & GF dessert. This will take the extra baking onus from you and assure they’ll have something yummy that they’ll like.

Do be sure, though, to have some almond milk on hand to serve with coffee and tea!


One final tip

I hesitated to add this line here as to accidentally negate the “stress-free” aspect that was promised to you earlier.  However, if you’re not used to cooking for a mixed crowd it may not be something you’d even think about so I decided it’s important to mention.  If possible, prepare the gluten free dishes separately from the gluten dishes – meaning use clean bowls and utensils to prevent cross contamination.  Same goes with the vegan/non-vegan dishes.  While your guests won’t be expecting certified gluten free kitchens (they probably wouldn’t have accepted the invites if they did,) the gesture will be greatly appreciated by your guests.  


While our family has gotten good at the mixed crowd dinners, I’m always looking for tips to make it even easier.  If you have any suggestions for hosting a mixed crowd, please share!

About Kristin Dowell

Kristin is a group fitness instructor and personal trainer with certifications from ACE and AFAA, is qualified to coach over a dozen specialty programs, and is the creator of 3 exercise DVDs. From creating physical training programs for fire academies, to teaching preschool dance, (and just about everything in between)...
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