How to Enjoy the Holidays, even when Family & Friends Don’t Understand

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Most of us have been there. The holidays are approaching, and you’ve recently found out that you or a loved one needs to cut out milk, and possibly additional foods. Or maybe, you’ve been free from for a little while, but some friends or family members refuse to acknowledge your special diet needs. Don’t worry, I have a whole bevvy of suggestions to help make your holiday season brighter.

How to Enjoy Dairy-Free Holidays, Even with Family and Friends that Don’t Understand - 18 Real World Tips + Substitution Guides

How to Enjoy Dairy-Free Holidays, even when Family Doesn’t Understand

Some of these are straight up tips, and some are tough love. Trust me, I wish someone would have shared all of this advice with me decades ago! Behind each word is years of experience, driven by many mistakes and even more successes. And these tips aren’t just for people with milk allergies, they are useful for anyone with special diet needs. They also apply if you are taking care of a child with food allergies, since you are usually acting on their behalf.

Don’t Expect Them to Understand

Some hosts are quite compassionate toward dietary needs, and practically jump at the chance to accommodate guests. But this isn’t very common. On their behalf, with so many fad diets it can be hard to discern a passing food phase from a true health concern. And it can be difficult to incorporate a fre-from need that you aren’t very familiar with. But give it time. Eventually, friends and family typically realize your special diet needs are a long-term commitment. Until that happens, we have some other tips …

Remember that it’s Your Need, Not Theirs

You might not have chosen your diet, or it might be a medical necessity. But it’s still your diet, and you are the one responsible for it. Be considerate and understand that resistant people are likely just scared of your diet and how to handle it. This can come out in many different ways. You are breaking their routine, their plan, and possibly messing with some of the recipes they look forward to all year long. So it’s important to make it as easy as possible for them.

Don’t be Afraid to Decline an Invitation

If it feels risky or sounds too uncomfortable, just take a hard pass. For Thanksgiving one year, some close friends insisted that we come to their friend’s house for the big meal. I didn’t know these people, and wasn’t willing to risk such a dairy-laden meal at a strangers house (nor did I wish to put them out with my requests). About two weeks after Thanksgiving we invited the host couple to our own holiday party, and they showed up. When I apologized for declining the invitation and explained the reason, they actually thanked me. They hadn’t realized how serious it was for me, and admitted they would have had no idea how to make their usual Thanksgiving feast dairy free. But, we were still able to meet them and enjoy their presence at our own holiday party, which I could assure was safe. Which brings me to the next idea …

Be the Host

You can make it easy on yourself and host a potluck. Though some dairy dishes might arrive, you will have control over some of the dishes and over where things are located. But if you are ready for it, host the entire family for the big feast. They will be amazed at just how delicious a dairy-free holiday dinner can be! But I realize this isn’t always possible, which is why we have more tips …

Ask if You Can Bring a Couple of Dishes

Even if it isn’t a potluck, most hosts won’t have a problem if you bring a couple of dishes. I always recommend a main or a hefty side dish and a dessert. That way you can partake in the formal portions of the meal with everyone. It’s best to bring enough for everyone, but ask the host to bring out your dishes last, after you have had the chance to plate some. On two separate occasions, I brought two dishes to the party, and both were devoured before I got any! Plating yourself first also helps to prevent cross-contamination with other dishes on the table.

Side Note for Kids: If you’re afraid a dinner might not be safe, bring a fun activity or new toy for your kid along with safe food and treats that they might not get to enjoy regularly. Ask the host if your child can eat their safe food and play in another room during the dinner. This will make the time special for them, so they don’t notice the food they are “missing out” on. Trust me, when I was little, I would have preferred this over the formal (in kid-speak “boring”) Thanksgiving dinner.

Offer to Bring by Alternatives Ahead of Time

Perhaps the host insists on making everything. But they might be okay with using dairy-free substitutes in some dishes. Find out what they are making and ask if dairy-free milk or butter would be okay to use. Figure out what will work and bring some by for the chef. If they are using some boxed options, like stuffing, check to find out which ones are dairy-free and bring those packages over. Make it easy and inexpensive for them.

Eat Ahead of Time

If you really aren’t sure if the food will be safe, don’t leave it up to chance. Eat just enough food before the event to stave off starvation. If it turns out there are a bunch of safe foods that you can enjoy, and you fill up too quickly, ask for a doggie bag. Explain the situation, thank them for having so many unexpected options for you, and ask to take some leftovers home. Most hosts will be honored.

Pack Some Snacks

I always keep some snacks in the car. If we aren’t driving, I’ll put some snacks in my coat or a bag. Just in case all other tips fail, you know you can at least have some munchies to tide you over. I find this tip especially important if you are going to a party where you don’t know the hosts well, and may be a bit too intimidated to make any special requests. It also comes in handy at cocktail style parties with appetizers. Most people won’t even notice when you slip off to grab a bite.

Request a Favorite Dish

This is a little trick I played on my mother-in-law before she really understood the whole dairy-free thing. I figured out the dishes she made that were naturally dairy-free and made sure to tell her how much I loved them. Then I would special request them at family get-togethers. It worked like a charm.

Don’t be Too Picky

At home, you might shun certain ingredients by choice. Perhaps you don’t like the taste or you think they’re simply bad for health. But at parties, it’s polite to be a little less choosy, particularly if people have gone out of their way to make or buy “safe” dishes for your needs. I’m really not a fan of cake, but when someone says “I made sure the cake and frosting were dairy-free” and even shows me the packaging or recipe with pride, I say, “thank you so much, I would love a slice!” And honestly, knowing that they cared enough to accommodate my needs makes that cake taste so delicious.

But Don’t Give in to Bullies

We’ve all come across that guest, or even family member, who insists that you can have a little. Even going so far as to say it would be “rude” to say no. But it’s your health, and it isn’t worth it. And there is one other big reason to avoid caving …

Don’t Cheat, Period

Some of you might not have severe symptoms after you eat dairy, so you might think it’s easier just to have a little. But it isn’t if you want others to respect your diet. The more times you cave, the less people will take you seriously when you request free-from food. And that extends beyond bullies. If your beloved aunt Betty went to great lengths to makes some dishes free-from for you, and then spots you trying aunt Martha’s cheesecake, she’ll feel slighted and won’t be very motivated to accommodate you in the future. Even other guests (a.k.a. future hosts!) will assume your dietary requests aren’t really necessary. If you want people to take your dietary needs seriously, you have to lead by example.

Respect Other Diets

I frequently read comments like “I’m dealing with a severe food allergy, and they’re just eating that way by choice!” Stop comparing. If you show respect toward the dietary needs and choices of others, they, and the other people around them, will be more likely to show you the same respect. Even if your sister-in-law has a new diet every holiday season, don’t flippantly downgrade it. Show her the exact same seriousness that you want to receive.

Be Appreciative

When someone makes an effort to accommodate your allergy or intolerance, even if you didn’t particularly love what they prepared, show them your gratitude. It isn’t easy for people to know how to prepare food for a special diet that they don’t follow themselves. So make sure you thank them for every effort they do make. They will be more likely to repeat, and even amplify, the gesture.

Remember, Holidays are about More than Food

Yes, seriously. Holidays are about family, friends, and even meeting new people. Enjoy the company and conversation and fret a little less about the food you might be “missing out” on. You can eat just about any food on any day, but you might not be able to see those people as often.

Reward Yourself Later

If it pained you to pass up some holiday favorites, plan some time over the weekend to buy or make safe versions of those same dishes for yourself. If it really is about the food, then it will taste just as delicious when you make it another time. You can get comfy with some movies and your feast favorites, or invite some friends or loved ones over to enjoy a Thanksgiving encore with you. Even if they’re leery about dairy-free foods, not many people will pass up a prepared meal!

Give it Time

If you are new to a free-from diet, this holiday season could be particularly frustrating. But with each passing year, as your friends and family grow to understand your needs and how to work with you, it will get better. And if your family never comes on board, that’s okay, too. You’ll gradually learn which holiday tools work best for your sanity. Happy holidays!!

Quick Dairy Substitute Ideas for Holiday Dinner Favorites

To help out hosts who might not be sure how to accommodate dairy-free guests, here are some very simple swaps.

  • Stuffing: Most recipes use butter, but dairy-free buttery spread is a seamless substitution. You can even use olive oil in a pinch. And did you know, most types of Stove Top Stuffing are dairy-free (prepared with buttery spread)? Make the holidays easier on yourself!
  • Mashed Potatoes: Substituting dairy-free unsweetened milk beverage and buttery spread for your classic recipe is a no brainer. But you could also use broth or stock in place of the milk and olive oil (with salt to taste) in place of the butter. For added richness, roast and puree a head of garlic.
  • Gravy: Pan dripping gravy is typically naturally dairy-free. If you prefer more of a roux, oil and broth works just as well.
  • Green Bean Casserole: This might seem trickier, but my Dairy-Free Condensed Cream of Mushroom Soup Recipe takes just 10 minutes, uses pantry ingredients I’m sure most of you have on hand, and works seamlessly.
  • Turkey or Other Meat: Skip the butter brush. Use olive oil instead and season with flavorful spices.

Dairy-Free Holiday Recipe Guides

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About Author

Alisa is the founder of GoDairyFree.org, Food Editor for Allergic Living magazine, and author of the best-selling dairy-free book, Go Dairy Free: The Guide and Cookbook for Milk Allergies, Lactose Intolerance, and Casein-Free Living, and the new cookbook, Eat Dairy Free: Your Essential Cookbook for Everyday Meals, Snacks, and Sweets. Alisa is also a professional recipe creator and product ambassador for the natural food industry.

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