Be prepared and plan a welcome party for dietary preferences
Paula Mee helps you get your menu sorted this Christmas for all of your guests, and their preferences
Casual buffet-style suppers work really well. Guests can help themselves rather than have a meal served to them. That way everyone is in control of their portion sizes and the breadth of foods they wish to enjoy. Photograph: Thinkstock
What is it about families and their Christmas traditions? We love regaling each other with seasonal time-honoured rituals: how we prepare the ham, rustle up sumptuous suppers, and just what we can do with the turkey trimmings. Festive foods contribute enormously to the holiday experience, with mealtimes delighting even the most holiday-weary and cynical of us.
That is, unless you have to sit and explain your food choices at the table. Or feel like you are compelling friends or family to adjust their favourite dinners and desserts.
Vegans and vegetarians can feel alienated by rolling eyes and sideway glances. Coeliac and gluten-free diners can field neverending questions about why they don’t eat or can’t tolerate what everybody else seems to digest and enjoy.
Questions come from those who are genuinely interested, intrigued or concerned, while others come from those who are blatantly aggressive, challenging and dismissive. Either way, it can make for a very uncomfortable and negative dining experience.
Guests with special dietary needs can cause some frustration, even anxiety if unexpected. It is usually a good idea to explain what you can and can’t eat prior to the visit, rather than hoping your host has a grasp of your requirements.
If you’re entertaining, preparing a dish that suits everyone is better than doubling your workload. It also avoids making the guest feel conspicuous.
Some options may cater for a number of different people around the table: vegetarians, coeliacs and those who want to eat lightly.
A really rich, flavoursome vegetable curry can tickle everyone’s taste buds and is a great crowd pleaser.
You can make the curry paste several days in advance, leave it in the fridge, and reduce your preparation time on the day you are entertaining.
There are many vegetarian-friendly ingredients that are also gluten-free: garlic, ginger, chillies, coriander, cumin, turmeric, ground cinnamon, ground star anise, cardamom pods, shallots, lemongrass and coconut milk.
Vegetarian sources of protein such as lentils, chickpeas, butter beans and kidney beans are also gluten-free and make useful additions to curries, soups and vegetable bakes. Small cubes of calcium-rich tofu can be added to roasted vegetables.
Quinoa, unlike couscous, is naturally gluten-free. Ground nuts or seeds such as pumpkin, sesame or sunflower can add flavour, great texture and boost the protein content of vegetarian meals.
Coeliac disease is characterised by a permanent intolerance to gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye and barley. Some people with coeliac disease are also sensitive to oats.
When people who have coeliac disease eat gluten, their immune system responds by damaging the villi in the small intestine, preventing them from absorbing vital nutrients such as iron, folate, calcium and vitamin D. After a positive diagnosis, the treatment is a gluten-free diet for life.
The Coeliac Society of Ireland has produced a cookbook called Gluten-Free All Sorts. You can call its office and order a copy if you think your gluten-free guest may become a frequent visitor to your home. There is also a monthly newsletter, Coeliac News Online, which has a few seasonal recipes to try. See coeliac.ie.
The gluten-free range of flour, bread, cereal and bakery products is extensive in many supermarkets, but gluten is sometimes found in less-obvious processed foods you might buy.
Wheat, rye and barley derivatives can be used as processing aids or binders, fillers or as carriers for flavourings and spices. Less obvious foods to be checked before serving include: Sausages, burgers and processed meats where flour may be used as a binder.
Stock cubes, soy sauce, gravy, sauces, Worcester sauce and salad dressings where flour may be used as a thickener.
Processed cheese and grated cheese.
Any processed or canned foods may contain a source of gluten, for example, sauces, curry powder, mustard powder, mayonnaise, salad cream, white pepper, mixed spices.
Check labels for: wheat starch, modified wheat starch, modified starch of unknown origin, wheat germ, malt, malt extract, barley malt, oat bran, wheat rusk.
Light supper favourites include smoked salmon with gluten-free blinis. Some delicious cheeses, grapes, fresh figs and some artisan chutneys (make sure to check labels) served alongside gluten-free crackers can be a nice centre piece on the table.
A quinoa-based tabbouleh or Rachel Allen’s winter leaf salad with radicchio, pomegranate, apple and walnuts, extra virgin olive oil and lemon juice are both gluten-free too.
Tapas-style gluten-free dishes include stuffed peppers with feta cheese and gluten-free breadcrumbs, roasted lemon and fresh herb baby potatoes, tahini made with natural yogurt, cucumber and mint, and homemade hummus (chickpeas, lemon juice, garlic, gluten-free tahini) and guacamole (avocado, garlic, lemon juice, olive oil). Weight-conscious
Casual buffet-style suppers work really well. Guests can help themselves rather than have a meal served to them. That way everyone is in control of their portion sizes and the breadth of foods they wish to enjoy. There’s little waste and little guilt. There are fewer feelings of conflict over what should and shouldn’t have been eaten.
While it’s true that Christmas is only once a year, when family members or guests say “No, thank you” to a second mince pie or slice of cake, it’s important to support, not sabotage, their resolve. Sneering at their sliver of cake is unhelpful and disrespectful.
Bear in mind that the size of our plates and the shape of our glasses influence our serving amounts.
Plate sizes have grown considerably and the larger the plates, the larger the portions. Older tableware seems so small now that a side plate seems more like a saucer and a medium roast potato can look awfully lonely on a 12-inch plate.
So let them help themselves to various sized plates and platters of specially adapted recipes. Simple crowd pleasers can cater for everyone, including those with special dietary needs. And make sure you assign the washing up to the dinner guest who forgets to give you advance notice of their special dietary requirements.
Paula Mee is a dietitian and a member of the Irish Nutrition and Dietetic Institute. Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @paula_mee
Minority ethnic groups: dietary requirements
Food and drinks that might be avoided by religious groups:
Muslim: pork, non-halal meat and chicken, shellfish, alcohol
Hindu: beef, sometimes lamb and chicken, oily fish, sometimes white fish, eggs, alcohol
Sikh: beef, sometimes all meat and fish, alcohol
Buddhist: chicken, lamb, pork, beef, shellfish (sometimes all fish), alcohol
Rastafarian: animal products (except milk), foods that are not Ital (Ital food is organic, not tinned or processed), added salt, alcohol, tea, coffee
Jewish: pork, any meat that has not been koshered, fish without scales and fins, shellfish. Meat and milk products served at the same meal or cooked together