The Thanksgiving holiday can present unique dilemmas for the gluten-free because its primary activities center around food. Many of you will soon be a guest at the table of a friend, relative, co-worker, or in-law who you may not know well and who is not aware of your gluten-free lifestyle. Some of you will be asked to attend a gathering in the home of a close relative who believes you are simply following a fad.
If you are feeling uneasy about the possibilities, you may be wondering: Should I politely decline and stay home? Should I not worry about eating gluten just for this one day? Should I suggest everyone change their plans and come to my house? Should I just eat in advance and pretend to eat along with everyone else? Is there a way to be a gracious guest and avoid eating gluten?
While each situation is unique, following these five guidelines will allow you to remain gluten-free and help make the day go smoothly:
1)Before agreeing to any invitations, take time to sit still and make a list of things for which you are grateful. The list doesn’t have to be lengthy – 5-10 things would be ideal. This will set the stage for you to let your best self step forward. Having trouble getting started? Perhaps an example from my list will help…Today, I am grateful for: Really good coffee; the unseasonably warm weather we’re having that means my utility bills will be lower; spicy foods that make my nose run; the generosity of a friend who is providing me a free airplane ticket for a visit next week; my son for removing my security door to rescue the keys I couldn’t get to so that I can use my front door again (yes, I managed to lock the keys in between the inner and outer door and then jam the lock so that I couldn’t get to them from the inside or the outside without removing the door); I am safe and my neighbors are safe even though we heard a gun battle outside Monday night; the one remaining teeny tiny tomato on my vine that I can’t wait to eat. Your list can include anything and you can add to it all day long if you feel so inspired.
2)Once you have set the stage, think about your boundaries and intentions for this holiday. One of your boundaries can be to avoid all gluten. One can be to remove yourself from the room if you feel you are being treated with disrespect. One of your intentions can be to receive with joy. One intention may be to give your children an opportunity to spend time with extended family. One can be to attend your grandmother’s dinner because you appreciate the affection she shows you. One of your intentions can be to be respectful of the host and other guests. Another intention might be to stay present in the moment and feel how you feel without attaching meaning from the past or from how you felt at another occasion with the same participants.
Setting clear boundaries first will allow you a safe space in which to stand as you follow your intentions. Good boundaries allow us to begin to release ourselves from the confines of our defense mechanisms and old patterns of behavior. Good boundaries are especially important when we relate to family since many of our defenses originate during time spent with family. As we begin to trust and feel safe in the space good boundaries create, we will increasingly be able to feel our emotions in a clear manner. Starting from this point allows us the best opportunity to remain true to our intentions.
If you come from a difficult family that does not respect boundaries, it is perfectly okay to politely, without blame and without a false excuse, decline an invitation. Before you choose to do so, please make sure you are prepared to accept responsibility for any unintended consequences. This does not mean you have to join in any resulting drama or feel responsible for other’s hurt feelings or bad behavior. I am simply reminding you that it will not be a gracious act to decline an invitation and then throw blame back in the host’s face if they happen to take offense even if the words you’re saying may feel true. It is okay to calmly, quietly, and confidently honor yourself, your boundaries, and your health.
Keeping your boundaries intact and your intentions in mind will help you feel more confident and centered which in turn will allow you to be your most kind and loving self. You do not have to pretend. You do not have to be perfect. You do not have to fit someone else’s picture of how you should be or what you should do.
3)Communicate directly with the host as soon as you accept an invitation. Let them know you appreciate being included and cannot wait to spend time with them, then mention that you must follow a gluten-free lifestyle which means consuming even a tiny amount of gluten is harmful to your health. If you can have this conversation in person or on the phone, it will be easiest to express this firmly, but softly. Once you have communicated this information, listen carefully to the response because this will be your best guide as to what to do next. Keep your boundaries intact, your intentions in mind, and your guard down as much as possible. The rest of the conversation can be a friendly negotiation of the details. Listening carefully to your host will give you clues on what to offer and how best to accommodate both of your needs.
4)As you negotiate the details, let go of any unspoken expectations you may have regarding the holiday. For instance, you may secretly expect your host to offer to fix you gluten-free alternatives. If they do not offer to do so, you may be tempted to believe that they do not love you. Whether this person does or does not love you cannot be determined by whether they feel able to provide such an alternative for you when they have already taken on the work involved in hosting the event. For this moment, see if you can allow for the possibility that they are doing all they can do.
If the host shares with you that they have no idea what gluten-free means, and that they don’t really feel like they can add anything to their to-do list, do not immediately assume that they mean this as a personal affront. If you feel tempted to boycott the event because of such a statement, please take a moment to consider that there are other options. As you consider these options, ask yourself if it is possible that your host is simply sharing their truth. Is it possible that they may even feel badly that they cannot provide what you need while still taking care of themselves? Review your boundaries and intentions to see if you are responding in a manner consistent with your intentions while maintaining your boundaries. If not, explore the ways to shift your position in the negotiation to better align your choices with your intentions.
5)When you are shifting your thinking or behavior, do not expect yourself to be perfect. This process can feel very messy. Think of it like a child experimenting with finger paints – messy is a creative expression and that is good! Allow yourself to experience new insight, awareness, and emotion without judging or automatically accepting other’s judgment of what you should do or how you should do it. Understand that you are valuable, lovable, worthy, wanted and deserve to hold your space in the world. From this position, be kind to yourself. Resist the temptation to compare yourself to others, and allow compassion to guide you.
Now that you have set the stage, it is time to explore some specific options you may want to address during your negotiation.
6)Graciously furnish your host with all the information they request regarding the preparation of gluten-free food. This may require quite a bit of time and investment, but it is time and investment that will pay off for you in the long run. If in the process you notice they are overwhelmed, it may be time to let them off the hook by letting them know how much you appreciate the consideration and how you will not feel left-out in the least if they do not prepare anything special for you. Ask if they would mind you bringing a few things to supplement your meal.
7)Instead of just offering to bring food for you, ask if your host would prefer for you to bring a gluten-free side dish or dessert to share with everyone. You can make this yourself, purchase it from the frozen section of a local health food store, or purchase it from a local gluten-free bakery.
8)If the conversation leads you to believe that much of the menu will be safe for you, ask your host if they would mind keeping the packages from any food they’re going to serve in a separate trash bag so that you can read the labels before dinner? Tell them you’d also like to take a peak at any recipes they’re using so you can choose items that are safe. You can do the review on Thanksgiving Day. Just make sure you have some sort of back-up food handy if there are no gluten-free options. If this is a problem for your host, then let them know that’s okay and revise your plan.
9)If your host is a confident cook and wants to make the whole meal gluten-free just for fun, you can offer your gluten-free recipes for family favorites. You may want to offer to provide come over a day or two in advance help bake. You can bring along any hard-to-find ingredients that you have in pantry and offer tips on adapting favorite family recipes. Time in the kitchen before a crowd arrives can be a great time to connect and share about anything that’s going on in your lives.
10)When dealing with a difficult host, use your best judgment. If you feel the best option is to eat in advance and only eat salad, then do that with the least fanfare possible.
Throughout these transactions, please keep in mind that the thing of overriding importance for the holiday is not the food itself but the opportunity to honor each other’s needs and leave the door open for connection. It is, after all, the connection that we crave most from our families.
Have a wonderful Thanksgiving!