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How to navigate Thanksgiving when you have food allergies


Bochkarev Photography | Shutterstock

Fr. Michael Rennier - published on 11/22/20 - updated on 11/24/22

There are ways to take care of yourself and make sure traditions are still honored.

Recently, after about a decade of intensifying health issues, I had myself tested for food allergies. The results were eye-opening.

It turns out that I’ve been poisoning myself. I’m allergic to corn – which is in almost all food in some form or another – and rice – which is in almost every other form of food. I have almost certainly eaten something I’m allergic to every single day of my adult life. My allergy isn’t the type that causes an immediate, visible reaction. I don’t go into anaphylactic shock or break out into hives. I have a much slower, systemic reaction. As it sets in, my throat tightens ever-so-subtly, and my sinuses become inflamed and highly susceptible to infections. I thought I had allergy problems with mold and pollen and accepted these issues as just as part of my life — but food was the problem all along. 

The challenge of allergies and sensitivities at Thanksgiving

But enough  fun news about me, let’s talk about Thanksgiving. How does a person with food allergies – a growing segment of the population – deal with eating a traditional Thanksgiving meal?

I worry particularly about all the gluten-intolerant folks. No rolls? No stuffing? No apple pie? Or what if you have a shellfish allergy and the stuffing in the turkey is oyster stuffing and now the central part of the meal is spoiled?

It can be a touchy subject to broach with people who don’t have allergies or sensitivities or dietary restrictions. You wouldn’t think so, but it really is. People who don’t have conflicts with food don’t quite know how to cater to someone who does. Allergies aside, people who eat meat don’t really understand vegetarians either. They don’t understand the motivations and might not think it’s very important. It’s difficult to convince a non-vegetarian that it’s a serious commitment.

For a while, this puzzled me, but it has become clear that it’s a question of perspective and tradition. Food has a nostalgic value. A specific meal brings to mind past family dinners, the neighborhood restaurant everybody loves, and those secret, long-held family recipes. Everyone has a delicious Thanksgiving dish they’ve been making for years. It wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without it. Maybe it’s from great-grandma’s cookbook. Not making great-grandma’s dish feels like a betrayal, and well-intentioned relatives don’t understand why you can’t eat it. Trying to be nice, they continue to offer you the dish, forcing you to decline over and over again. 

Even those with the best of intentions don’t always grasp how drastically a food allergy can affect a person’s diet. My corn and rice allergies, for instance, get mixed up with a lot more food than you might guess. Corn starch and corn syrup are in almost everything. Rice flour is in everything else. It’s a lot for people to deal with and I think it would be unreasonable to hold others to my narrow requirements, so I don’t expect special treatment. I don’t need to make a fuss or feel overlooked because people are unable to cater to my specific needs.

There are positive solutions

What I’ve done instead of complaining is begin to apply positive solutions. I don’t hesitate to ask ahead about what’s being served. (When it comes to Thanksgiving, I pretty much know.) That way I know what I’ll be able to eat and what I won’t. Then I bring food to contribute to the meal that I know I can eat. The larger and more generous the contribution I can make, the better. If that’s not possible, I might eat a meal ahead of time so I don’t feel pressure to eat food that will make me sick later. I’m also not above stashing a few emergency snacks in my car.

What has become increasingly important to me is to make the meal as pleasant as possible — for everyone. Lack of accommodation to my personal restrictions isn’t something I want to take personally. I don’t need to make a scene about it. I don’t need to make passive-aggressive comments. I don’t need to draw attention to myself in any way.

When it comes to a traditional family meal like Thanksgiving, we have to ask ourselves what truly matters. It isn’t how much food we eat, it’s the people we eat with and the time we spend together. Food we’re allergic or sensitive to might poison our bodies, but it shouldn’t be allowed to poison our family time with recriminations and hurt feelings. A family meal isn’t food – it’s a feast. One to which I am particularly grateful to be invited.

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