FeaturesDec/Jan 2010 Issue

Making Merry: Allergy-Friendly Tips For Enjoying Hospitality & Good Cheer

Allergy-friendly tips for enjoying hospitality and good cheer

Allergy-Friendly Tips

I live in Alaska where winters can be bitterly cold with temperatures dropping to minus 20 for weeks at a time. With frequent blizzards and only five hours of sunlight a day, folks tend to gather together and stay indoors close to the fire, particularly during the holidays. Traditions of food and family are not only a pleasant way to spend time, they often become a survival strategy.

For the Christmas holiday, my father and I travel to Nelchina, a tiny dot on the map that’s a five-hour drive from my home in Anchorage. This village sits on the ridge of the Majestic Valley in view of the Nelchina Glacier and Wrangle-St. Elias National Park. A group of us, typically eight adults, ten kids and ten dogs, spend the holidays in my friends’ home. This surrogate family is of Norwegian ancestry and is highly musical. Since cable TV doesn’t exist out in the wilds of Alaska, we carol and sing into the night—and we eat.

Allergy-Friendly Tips

As a guest with food allergies (I’m severely allergic to cow’s milk, wheat and oats), I’ve been accepted with open arms into this happy group of foodies. With recipes deliciously altered to accommodate, we feast on a traditional Norwegian Christmas dinner.

It’s become customary for me to bring special dishes to pass around the table that I know are safe. Since Nelchina has only a “general store” (think back to the 1800’s; the nearest Walmart is some 300 miles away), securing the more obscure ingredients for special dietary needs is significantly more challenging. For this reason, I create my dishes at home and they ride along with me to Nelchina. I also pack a cooler with other necessities. It’s the ultimate potluck holiday.

When I first discovered I was allergic to dairy, I was absolutely devastated. It took a long, painful process of trial and error to figure out what was safe to eat and cook. I had to relearn everything. Just as I figured out the dairy issue, I found I couldn’t stomach wheat and oats and I had to start all over again.

The biggest challenge wasn’t eating at home; it was eating out socially—parties, potlucks, gathering with family. I was turning away well-intentioned friends who offered cookies and were insulted when I refused and I was struggling to explain why I wasn’t eating. The more time I spent at crowded parties, the more I felt emotionally isolated.

But as I became better educated about allergies and began playing with recipes, I grew more confident. I began to plan ahead and think strategically. I was determined to have fun socializing again. Fortunately, there are ways to savor the hospitality of others and really celebrate the season. Here are a few suggestions.

You’re the Guest

The chief goal of attending a social gathering is to enjoy the event. No one wants to spend the evening in the bathroom doubled over in pain, or worse, have to use an EpiPen and be hauled off in an ambulance. Here are steps you can take to avoid being a party pooper.

Talk with Your Host Call well before the event and politely alert your host to your food allergies or sensitivities. Ask about the menu and offer to bring something that everyone will enjoy. This is particularly important if you’re attending a small dinner party or a weekend get-together. Be specific in what you can and cannot eat, explaining the food items that make you sick and, if you have anaphylaxis, that a reaction could be life threatening. Inform about cross contamination so that there is no surprise or awkwardness should you find you must decline part of the meal.

If the event is to be catered, ask your host’s permission to speak with the caterer. Then call the company well ahead of time to inquire about food selection and ingredients. If a catered buffet is planned, request that each dish’s ingredients be labeled. If that's not possible, plan to arrive a few minutes early and walk through the dishes with the caterer.

Allergy-Friendly Tips

Tell Another Use your best judgment about divulging your medical condition but consider this: You give yourself extra eyes, ears and taste buds by alerting others to your allergy or sensitivity. Whether it’s your spouse or a close companion, one informed person can tip you off to potential hazards in the kitchen or dining room or on the buffet table.

If you decide to confide in others, you’ll discover you’re not alone. Everyone knows someone with a food issue. You may build your support network and discover new friends (and recipes!) by sharing your story.

Arrive Early If you show up before the other guests, you can offer to help in the kitchen. This is instructive because you can see how the food is being prepared and served. Chances are your host will appreciate the extra hand and you’ll be able to scope the place for cross contamination.

Eat Before Don’t arrive famished. Hunger makes you lose your edge—you may take a bite that you’d never risk on a full belly. Play it safe by munching on a wholesome, satisfying snack before you leave the house. This way, you won’t be disappointed and feel irritated if there’s not much at the party you can eat.

Share Favorites Bring a safe item or two to share. Alert your host ahead of time that you’d like to make a special dish, one that will complement the menu and that others are certain to enjoy. My criteria for BYO foods are that they be well balanced and taste good. I like to know that I will have a sufficient “meal” if it turns out that the item I carry into the gathering is the only food I can consume.

Go First If they’re serving buffet-style, try to be one of the first in line. You want to avoid any potential for scattered ingredients and mixed-up serving spoons. Another option is to ask your host if you can prepare a plate early before the buffet starts. Then set your meal aside and eat when everyone else is served.

Keep It Simple Be mindful of hidden ingredients. Stick to foods that you know are safe—whole foods that haven’t been processed, coated or mixed, such as plain fruit, vegetables and meats. Avoid the obvious no-nos, like breads and pastas. Watch out for sauces, dips, marinated items, casseroles and desserts unless you know for certain what’s in them.

Give Thanks Be resolute about your safety but be gracious and courteous. Remember to say thank you to your host for being accommodating.

Allergy-Friendly Tips

 Have Fun Party on! With your safety plan in place, you can relax and enjoy the festivities.

My allergies are serious and I never take them lightly. But I use my food challenges as an excuse to experiment with flavors, techniques and approaches to cooking. I say it’s okay to play with your food.

Friends and family can be a great source for recipes. Last year, a group of us engaged in a recipe swap, trading holiday favorites. I had great fun adapting everyone’s dishes into allergy-friendly versions. Here are ideas for recipes you may want to bring along to your next dinner party. As we say in Norwegian tradition, “La oss spise!” Let’s eat!

Easy Oven Risotto


This recipe is a lovely creamy dish that, with a few additions such as fresh vegetables, meat or seafood, can easily make a one-dish meal.

3½ cups gluten-free vegetable or chicken stock

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 tablespoon butter, ghee or dairy- free alternative

1 large yellow onion, diced

2 cloves garlic, minced

½ pound mushrooms (baby

portabella, crimini, shitake), stemmed and sliced

1½ teaspoons salt

Pepper, to taste

2 tablespoons fresh herbs, such

as basil, Italian flat-leaf parsley or marjoram

1½ cups Arborio rice, rinsed thoroughly

1 cup baby peas

½ cup grated Parmesan cheese*

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Set out a 9x13-inch baking dish.

2. In a medium saucepan, heat stock to a boil; then lower the temperature to simmer while preparing risotto.

3. In a large saucepan, warm oil and butter over medium-high heat. Add onion. Saute about 3 minutes. Add garlic; cook for an additional minute.

4. Add mushrooms, salt, pepper and herbs. Saute for 3 minutes.

5. Lower heat. Add rice; stir and coat with oil. Cook until the rice begins to turn a pearly white, about 2 to 3 minutes.

6. Gradually stir all the hot stock into the rice pot. Add peas and simmer for an additional 2 minutes.

7. Pour rice mixture into a casserole dish and cover with lid or foil. Bake 20 minutes or until rice is almost tender. Remove cover and stir in the Parmesan cheese. Bake for another 10 minutes or until all liquid is absorbed and rice is tender.

Each serving contains 314 calories, 13g total fat,4g saturated fat, 0g trans fat, 17mg cholesterol, 937mg sodium, 39g carbohydrate, 2g fiber, 11g protein.

*TIP For a dairy-free version, omit the Parmesan cheese and add more salt and pepper, to taste. Decrease the stock by ¼ to ½ cup.

Recipe reprinted with permission from The Gluten-Free Italian Cookbook (The Wheat-Free Gourmet Press), by Mary Capone.

Winter Soup


Here’s a quick way to turn veggies and apples into a comforting, nutritious meal. This soup complements most menus as a nice first course but it’s hearty enough to stand alone. Add cooked chicken chunks to make it even more substantial.

1 butternut squash, peeled and shredded in a food processor

2 Granny Smith apples, peeled and shredded

3 carrots, peeled and shredded

¼ cup finely chopped sweet onion

4 cups water

1-2 tablespoons fresh ginger, grated

¼ teaspoon ground mace

¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg

1 teaspoon salt

3 tablespoons maple syrup

3 tablespoons coconut milk

1 cup milk of choice (rice, soy, hemp, nut)

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1. Combine vegetables and apples in a large stockpot. Add water and let mixture boil for about 15 minutes or until tender.

2. Stir in spices, maple syrup, coconut milk and milk of choice.

3. Carefully transfer hot soup in batches to a food processor and puree until smooth. Or puree with a hand-held blender. Serve hot.

Each serving contains 167 calories, 2g total fat, 2g saturated fat, 0g trans fat, 0mg cholesterol, 433mg sodium, 38g carbohydrate, 4g fiber, 2g protein.

TIP Look for jars of freshly grated ginger in the produce section of your supermarket. Much less work than grating your own!

Creamy White Bean Dip


This dip is loaded with protein and fiber, plus a hint of fiery flavor. Served with whole-grain rice crackers and a variety of fresh vegetable strips, it can fortify you when there’s not much else to eat.

1 (15-ounce) can white cannellini beans

1 (15-ounce) can artichoke hearts, packed in water or marinated

2 cloves garlic, roasted

2 tablespoons dried parsley + more for garnish

¼ cup pine nuts, optional

2-5 drops Tabasco sauce

 Salt and pepper, to taste

 Paprika, for garnish

1. Drain and rinse beans and artichokes.

2. Combine all ingredients, except paprika, in a food processor and puree until very smooth.

3. Place dip in a decorative bowl and garnish with a dash of paprika and extra parsley.

Each serving contains 60 calories, 0g total fat, 0g saturated fat, 0g trans fat, 0mg cholesterol, 19mg sodium, 12g carbohydrate, 4g fiber, 4g protein.

Chicken Enchilada



This dish makes a potluck offering that's well balanced and satisfying. It's also called Mexican lasagne because it consists of tortillas layered with salsa, chicken and a spicy sour cream-cheese filling. Use a nondairy cheese replacement to make it dairy free.

11/2 cups sour cream or dairy-free yogurt

1 (8-ounce) can diced green chiles

4 large green onions, chopped (including green parts)

1/2 cup minced fresh cilantro

11/2 teaspoons ground cumin

2 cups diced cooked chicken

2 cups firmly packed shredded sharp Cheddar cheese or nondairy cheese replacement, divided

 Salt and freshly ground blackpepper

1 (16-ounce) jar medium-hot salsa

6 brown rice or corn tortillas, cut in half 

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9x13-inch glass baking dish.

2. In a large bowl, combine the sour cream or nondairy yogurt, green chiles, green onions, cilantro, cumin, chicken and ½ cup cheese or nondairy cheese replacement. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

3. Spread ¼ cup salsa on the bottom of the prepared dish and lay 4 tortilla halves in the dish to cover the bottom. Spread half the filling and ½ cup cheese or nondairy cheese replacement on top of the tortillas. Layer 4 more tortilla halves on top of the cheese. Then spread with ¼ cup salsa. Spread the remaining filling on top of the salsa, followed by the remaining tortillas. Top with remaining salsa and cheese.

4. Cover with greased aluminum foil and bake in preheated oven until heated through, about 40 minutes. Remove the foil and bake an additional 10 minutes or until cheese on top has melted. Let rest for 15 minutes before cutting and serving.

Each serving contains 435 calories, 27g total fat, 15g saturated fat, 0g trans fat, 109mg cholesterol, 1472mg sodium, 22g carbohydrate, 4g fiber, 29g protein.

Recipe reprinted with permission from Gluten Free Every Day Cookbook (Andrews McMeel Publishing), by Robert M. Landolphi. For more information or to purchase his cookbook, click here.


Carmel Nelson is a freelance writer who lives in Anchorage.

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