Q. We have several extended family members staying with us over Thanksgiving, and they all follow special diets. Some of them are vegetarian of different types (some eat eggs, some eat fish and some are vegan). Some of them are gluten-free. Some just don’t like certain foods, such as onions or mayonnaise. Some have religious restrictions. How can we serve meals that satisfy all our guests and not overwork my husband and I or lose the spirit of the holiday for ourselves and our children?

A. Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Plan ahead. Correspond with your guests in advance of their visit, and ask them to share their likes and dislikes and special needs. Advise them that not everything you prepare will be something they all want to eat, but some of what you prepare will be. If you can, plan the menus ahead of time and let your guests know what you will be serving.
  2.  Get your children involved. Help them prepare a favorite dish a few days before the guests arrive and freeze it. (One idea would be to make cookies.)
  3. Recruit your guests to help. Ask each guest to expect to bring or prepare at your home at least one dish that they especially like to eat, and let them know that they will be sharing it with others. For those who don’t bring a dish, plan a grocery store outing as a group, or send them off with directions to the nearest store.
  4. Make some of the meals “build your own” affairs. For example, have a spaghetti night in which you cook both traditional and gluten-free pastas and serve at least two different sauces: one meat sauce and one tomato-based vegetarian sauce. You could put out a large bowl of salad greens along with smaller bowls containing the other ingredients, such as tomatoes, sunflower seeds and chicken. Another idea would be to have a grill out and ask everyone to buy something for the grill that they will eat. This could include vegetarian patties made from beans or grains, as well as hamburger patties or other meats and vegetables. Dessert could include a bowl of mixed fruit to which guests can add optional whipped topping.
  5. Keep your holiday traditions. You might be one of those people who has to have a slice of pumpkin pie, or it doesn’t feel like Thanksgiving. Go ahead and enjoy those dishes that mean the most to you. If only a few people will be eating something that you really want to prepare (such as dressing or turkey), consider making a half recipe (or just a turkey breast or a very small turkey).
  6. Go easy on yourself. Pick up some store-bought entrees, such as a variety of lasagnas (one vegan, one regular and one gluten-free). All you have to do is heat and serve. Take care of yourself as well as you would take care of your guests.
  7. Keep the holiday spirit alive. Help your children decorate the house for the holiday. Ask the children to read aloud about the first Thanksgiving before or during the Thanksgiving meal. Ask each guest to talk about what they are thankful for.

With careful planning and simpler dishes—as well as having each guest bring something—you will experience fewer “I can’t eat that” comments, and your guests with special dietary needs will be happier. By involving your children in the preparations and meal, you can ensure that the spirit of Thanksgiving is alive for them.

Betty Richardson, Ph.D., R.N.C., L.P.C., L.M.F.T., is an Austin-based psychotherapist who specializes in dealing with the problems of children, adolescents and parents.

Got a question for Betty Richardson? Email us here and you just might see the answer in an upcoming issue!

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