Dietary needs can live in harmony

Christmas dinner hasn’t been the same at Shannon Reilly’s house since she came across an online PETA video about five years ago.

Julie Daniluk

TORONTO — Christmas dinner hasn’t been the same at Shannon Reilly’s house since she came across an online PETA video about five years ago.

“It was an undercover video from a turkey farm,” says Reilly, now 20. “I haven’t eaten turkey since.”

Her meat-eating parents didn’t follow suit, however.

They still eat turkey, particularly during the holidays, so big feasts now mix family traditions with modern culinary realities.

“My mom makes up a turkey breast for her and my dad,” says Reilly, whose main course on Dec. 25 will likely be cauliflower roasted in mushroom soup.

It’s a simple recipe her mother discovered as part of her ongoing effort to accommodate the one vegetarian in a family of meat eaters.

“My husband and I still eat meat, but not as much as we used to,” says Reilly’s mother Diane, adding that she and husband Pat will likely never go completely vegetarian.

Like the Reillys, families across Canada this Christmas season will gather for their annual feast, a meal steeped in tradition but straining under modern food needs and demands that now come to the table.

Putting out a huge turkey, a massive bowl of mashed potatoes and a slew of mixed veggies might have done the trick not so long ago, but today’s host can expect a vegetarian or two to pull up a chair, maybe a vegan or a diabetic, someone who is lactose intolerant, needs a gluten-free diet or has food allergies.

“At any dinner party today, at least one person is likely to have some sort of special food need,” says Julie Daniluk, nutritionist at the Big Carrot, who is working on a cookbook for people with allergies and food intolerances.

And, it being Christmas, there are those who remain loyal to the traditional turkey and stuffing.

One possible answer might be to cook several different meals for all the different tastes and needs. And it’s tempting, too, to opt for a potluck.

“A lot of people are happy with the potluck model, but I like to do it all myself,” says Heather Evans, a Queen’s University expert on food and culture.

“I just tell people to bring wine.”

Hosting a festive dinner carries huge cultural significance that a potluck has trouble living up to, says Evans. Feast days such as Thanksgiving and Christmas punctuate our year, she says, and their success or failure will be among the markers your guests will use to judge whether they had a good or bad year.

These dinners also carry with them the memories of past feasts as guests trade stories about previous Christmas meals — using the event to gauge what has changed in the family, and what has not.

Young couples mark their ascent into adulthood hosting the feast for the first time.

“It’s a kind of rite of passage to take on the dinner,” Evans says.

As well, it is typically at such meals that children are introduced to — and reminded of — foods and traditions of their cultures.

“One of the things you have to learn as a child is how to behave at the dinner table,” Evans says.

With all that riding on the meal, how you handle it — and the food you serve — is vitally important.

“To invite people to dine with us is to make us responsible for their well-being, for as long as they are under our roofs,” she says.

“You are preparing something that is going to be part of their body, and they trust you.”

Respecting the food choices of those you invite into your home means respecting the choices they’ve made about the people they want to be, says Evans, who was a vegan as a university student.

“It was quite a test of a lot of my friends when I was doing this,” she says, adding most made the effort.

As well, “It affords you an opportunity to experiment and to try new foods and tastes … And, you might find something that you like.”

Besides, cooking something for those with specific dietary needs is a wonderful gesture of love that’s entirely appropriate at this time of year, says Daniluk, at the Big Carrot.

“It’s a way to show that you care about them by saying that their choices matter,” she says. “Acceptance is the greatest gift of all.”

Daniluk suggests keeping the entire meal as simple as possible, especially when taking on a new recipe or two.

One of her favourite recipes for such situations is a wild rice stuffing that doubles as a main course for vegans and vegetarians. It is also gluten free. The idea is to make extra stuffing, then add lentils to what’s left after the turkey is stuffed, and roast it inside acorn squashes.

And, if a few people still want a traditional bread stuffing, Daniluk suggests making a smaller amount of your family’s favourite and cooking it inside the turkey’s neck cavity.

Because mashed potatoes contain milk, which those with a dairy allergy or lactose intolerance cannot eat, Daniluk suggests mashed celery root, or celeriac, as an alternative

“My northern Ontario farmer father-in-law loves them,” says Daniluk. “The first couple of times, he didn’t realize they weren’t mashed potatoes.”

Daniluk admits that, however simple such recipes are, cooking extra dishes makes more work on the day of the feast. So she suggests simplifying how the turkey is prepared by cooking it so the fat on its underside drips down to the breast.

“If you cook it upside down, you don’t have to baste,” Daniluk says.

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