I started cooking Thanksgiving dinner for my entire, ever-expanding family when I was about 12. Because I have loved to cook since before I can remember, Thanksgiving, with all its abundance and tradition, seemed like the pinnacle of meals. Getting to drive the car, so to speak, made me feel empowered and so connected to everyone I was cooking for. Although the satisfaction of preparing the meal has never left me, something has changed: Just about everyone at my table now has a dietary restriction.
The restrictions vary, and whether they exist because of necessity or choice, I do my best to honor them. This approach took me some time to embrace, however. It’s hard enough to get a big meal for a group on the table. Extra variables to consider, especially ones that can threaten your loved ones’ health, make an already stressful situation even more so. But there’s a silver lining: The more complicated my guests, the more straightforward my cooking. I approach the wealth of dietary restrictions in my family as an invitation to simplicity. And it turns out that this has made my life, as the host and cook, a whole lot more relaxing.
I have learned that I am at my most content when the people at my dinner table feel happy, considered and taken care of. To achieve that end while faced with such a variety of needs, I cook a lot of things, but each one is very pared down. In other words, many simple things are better than one complicated thing. Not only do you ensure that everyone is attended to, but also it’s much easier. (Needless to say, this is a good strategy whether or not your guests come with a veritable rider.)
For example, instead of one elaborate turkey (not vegan!) with nuts (allergy!) in the bread stuffing (gluten!) and a glaze (sugar! sugar!) and mashed potatoes (carbs!), I do a simple roast turkey with roasted lemons for squeezing over it, next to a whole-grain stuffing, next to a few interesting salads and vegetables. Something for everyone.
Cooking that way also keeps everyone at the table from feeling alienated. When you are always the exception in a group of people eating, it’s nice to be included. That means no separate vegan meal for my brother and sister-in-law. It means lots of delicious side dishes that happen to be vegan that they can make a whole meal of and that everyone else can enjoy alongside their turkey. Have you ever been on an airplane and wanted to eat the vegetarian meal even though you’re not a vegetarian? The same sentiment applies. Make lots of each thing, so everyone feels as if they have access to the same dishes. Plus, you’ll always end up with plenty of leftovers, which is what holidays are all about, right?
The simple dishes need not be boring. As a cookbook author and lifelong lover of all things edible, I am sensitive to the emotional power of food, especially nostalgic holiday food. I’ve noticed that someone with a lot of dietary limitations usually ends up eating the same foods over and over at the holiday table, so I like to dial in on the menu’s “regulars” and add a little something to make them special. For example, instead of steaming Brussels sprouts, I’ll roast them to boost their natural flavor and give them a bit of crunchy texture, then I’ll drizzle them with an herby dressing with lots of garlic and lemon. Extra flavor without much effort and without affecting anyone’s health or beliefs: win, win. Or instead of a ho-hum green salad, I’ll shred radicchio, with its bitter depth of flavor, and mix it with peppery radishes and tart pomegranate seeds for an all-red salad that’s as refreshing as it is striking and that just about everyone can eat. It cuts through all the rich food in the meal, plus it can sit for a while once it’s dressed, so you won’t end up with wilted greens that no one is interested in anyway.
To make a number of dishes, no matter how simple, thinking ahead will make your life a lot easier. Just about every dish has at least some component that can be prepared in advance. That salad I just mentioned? Shred the radicchio and slice the radishes ahead of time, and get all the seeds out of your pomegranate. Store them all in a resealable plastic bag with a damp paper towel to keep them from drying out, and whisk up your dressing and put that in its own container. When it’s time to eat, put everything in a bowl and toss. In general, food is forgiving and reheats well. Most of the time, it tastes even better the next day. You know how the plate of Thanksgiving food that you warm on Friday is sometimes even more satisfying than it was on Thursday? Make everything on Wednesday!
When you’re serving a meal for a group with lots of restrictions, a buffet is your best friend: Everyone can choose whatever they like. And make sure everyone knows what you’re offering, so they can make informed decisions. You can make a little announcement (“Hey, everyone! I just want to run through what we have!”) or cute little signs (a great task to assign to a teenager). Whatever works.
For dessert, keep in mind the mix-and-match. Gingery pears filling a roasting dish are flavorful and smell like autumn and are also gluten-free, sugar-free and vegan. They can be served with ice cream for a decadent dessert (try drizzling with maple syrup and topping with candied nuts), or with unsweetened whipped cream for a low-carb decadent dessert, or with vegan ice cream and toasted nuts for a completely vegan dessert, or just on their own for something festive and comforting without any consequences. (For ultimate flexibility, set out all of the above components in separate bowls and let your guests customize.) The pears are also great cold in the morning with yogurt or folded into oatmeal or mashed into sauce. Best of all, they can be made ahead of time and warmed in the oven just before you eat them — or on the grill or over low heat on the stovetop if you run out of oven space.
One last piece of advice. If someone you’re inviting over has a serious restriction, don’t be shy to ask for their help. This year, Thanksgiving falls on the same day as my darling niece’s first birthday. We’re not exactly sure yet what kind of cake she likes, but her parents are vegan, and my sister-in-law is gluten-free and has a few other food allergies. When they kindly asked what they could bring this year, I told them “a birthday cake that everyone will enjoy.” I am not sure what that might be, but I cannot wait to see it.
Turshen is the author of “Small Victories” (Chronicle Books, 2016). She will join the second hour of Wednesday’s special two-hour pre-Thanksgiving Free Range chat, which starts at noon at live.washingtonpost.com.