The New Holiday Table

Time was, the holiday host only had to worry about seating conservative Uncle Joe near liberal cousin Sue. These days, gluten-free, vegan, lactose-intolerant and Type-2 diabetic relatives make planning the meal a real challenge.

Missy Saul, who’s cooked for all dietetic types as chef at the Roanoke Natural Foods Co-op, offers some advice for trying to please everyone. Step one: ask all guests what they can and can’t, will and won’t eat. In the case of food allergies, remind them that your kitchen may contain some cross contamination and suggest they bring their own food if they are concerned. The Food and Drug Administration identifies eight allergens: milk, eggs, fish (bass, flounder, cod), crustacean shellfish (crab, lobster, shrimp), tree nuts (almonds, walnuts, pecans), peanuts, wheat, and soybeans. Saul added celery to her list after a scary incident.

As the head cook for many a large dinner of family and friends, Saul suggests offering plenty of choices. She also makes point of asking new people if there is a particular dish that is special to them.

Lactose-intolerant and vegan diets pose similar quandaries. Saul recommends using cocoanut or almond milk, instead of the traditional milk. The vegan butter substitute Earth Balance “tastes better in baked goods than butter,” she says. “It cooks well and bakes well.”

She acknowledges a lack of choice with cheese substitutes. She has used almond cheese or Daiya cheese (which contains no soy or nuts). She says it melts like real cheese, but isn’t quite the same. There also are vegan cream cheese and sour cream products on the market. She recommends experimenting and tasting before serving.

Saul loves soups this time of year. Soups with winter squash, apples and sage translate well to the vegan palate, she says, especially when using Better than Bouillon, which comes in vegan and organic versions. It’s available at the co-op and national grocery chains.

For the gluten-free guest, there are many options, she says. Companies like Udi’s make a variety of breads. Gluten-free pie crusts also are available, but, she cautions, the pre-made crusts burn easily. For those who like to bake from scratch, Saul recommends Bob’s Red Mill gluten-free flour. She says it doesn’t have the “bean taste” that similar products might have.

With the growing Type-2 diabetes, “epidemic,” chances are many holiday tables will include someone who is diabetic or pre-diabetic. Saul suggests using agave as a sweetener, and staying away from sugar and honey. Stevia plant sweeteners also are a good substitute. Broccoli, cauliflower and beans are good, she says. Potatoes, carrots and corn are not. Despite the name, sweet potatoes are better for the diabetic diet than the white ones. Instead of that holiday favorite, mashed potatoes, Saul suggests using cauliflower – with Earth Balance butter.

Saul’s recipe for a holiday table that accommodates many food preferences and requirements: plan ahead, offer choices, be creative and ask the guests. And stay away from politics and religion!

Check out some of Missy Saul’s recipes at