What You Need to Know to Cook a Safe GF Holiday Meal


If you have a family member or close friend with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity that will be coming to your home for Thanksgiving Dinner this year, accommodating them will be a challenge. Even minute amounts of gluten can make them sick for several weeks,[2] so you'll want to educate yourself on how to serve them safely.

How to Cook Thanksgiving Dinner for Gluten-Free Guests
Credit: Courtesy of Pixabay.com

Eating gluten free is not as easy as simply avoiding the stuffing and rolls. However, if your guest isn't new to a gluten-free diet, they are already used to having limited choices. You won't offend them by asking about their particular food issues and preferences. In fact, they'll be grateful and appreciate your efforts if you contact them ahead of time to discuss the recipes, ingredient brands, and safe cooking methods that are so essential for those with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity.

Knowing the menu in advance will enable them to:

  • make realistic suggestions
  • explain cautions you need to take
  • loan you safe cookware and utensils, if necessary
  • plan on bringing what you can't make yourself

Also, keep in mind that providing a safe environment for that gluten-free family member or close friend might also require you to make some changes to your own Thanksgiving menu or in the way the food is served. Traditional Thanksgiving spreads can easily be contaminated with gluten, so how far you're willing to go to accommodate your guest, as well as how seriously the other guests take the necessary precautions to be, will determine how successful you are in giving your guest a memorable and safe holiday meal.

Cooking gluten free does take a lot of mindfulness. There are many precautions you have to take when purchasing ingredients and even more precautions while cooking the meal.[2]

Mistakes are easy to make.

All it takes is a single distraction for your habitual nature to take over. Before you realize what you're doing, you could grab the spoon you already used to toss together the green bean casserole in order to stir the potatoes that aren't quite ready to drain and mash, thus contaminating the potatoes with gluten. Likewise, there might be a batch of rolls you just pulled out of the oven, moved to a platter, but forgot to wash your hands before touching the gluten-free items when the kids started bickering.

You can't become an expert in a single day. No one expects you to, but you don't have to learn everything there is to know about eating gluten free to cook a great Thanksgiving Dinner. All you have to know is how to cook one gluten-free menu safely.

Start with the Menu

The easiest way to accommodate a gluten-free guest is to simply make the entire meal gluten free. That would eliminate the problems with:

  • airborne flour in the kitchen[1]
  • mistakes with recipe ingredients or techniques
  • contaminating the turkey with bread stuffing[3]
  • guests accidentally ruining the food on the table

Lots of good food is already gluten free or can easily be made that way without a lot of fuss. For example, the turkey can be stuffed with a flavorful and aromatic rice dressing instead of the traditional soggy bread. The gravy can be thickened with cornstarch instead of flour. Traditional platters of raw vegetables and fruit, bowls of mixed nuts, a tray of olives and pickles, or deviled eggs are all gluten free. Same goes for the traditional cranberry sauce, sweet corn, lettuce salad, mashed potatoes, and yams.

While cream of mushroom soup -- a must in grandma's green bean casserole -- will have to be exchanged for a gluten-free brand or the casserole eliminated in favor of roasted brussels sprouts or steamed asparagus, minor twists in tradition can bring a much-welcomed change of pace to a menu that's grown stale over the years.

All it takes is a little thought and prior planning to make a gluten-free Thanksgiving meal the best it can be, and no one will ever miss the gluten if you don't tell them it isn't there.

So first decide if you're going to go completely gluten free or just offer a sensible gluten-free dinner for your guest. Write down the menu you'd like to serve, and then do some research online to see if those dishes can be easily adapted. Gluten free cookbooks can be an advantage as they will walk you through the necessary steps that will help keep your gluten-free guest safe.

Discuss the menu with your guest to become acquainted with their personal food sensitivities and what would make Thanksgiving special for them. Ask about their favorite fruits and vegetables and try to use those likes when adapting recipes to fit their needs. While going completely gluten free would be the easiest way to go, it's not the only way.

Second Best: Set Up a Separate Table for Gluten-Free Foods

If your guests won't go along with a 100-percent gluten-free meal or you just can't bring yourself to give up your family traditions, second best would be to set up a separate table where you place the gluten-free foods for your guest away from the main spread.  

Set Up a Separate Table for Your Gluten-Free Guest
Credit: Courtesy of Pixabay.com

This cannot be a community table, though.

In a mixed environment, you'll have to take special precautions to keep the gluten-free food away from any potential contamination. While hot rolls or thick slices of crusty french bread will result in bread crumbs flying all over the table, a single crumb is all it takes to make any particular dish off-limits for those with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity.[2] In the same way, someone who puts a roll on their plate and then touches the fruit platter or deviled eggs on the gluten-safe table will leave just enough gluten behind to make your guest sick.[3]

Have Your Guest Serve Themselves First

While setting up a separate table and keeping a close eye on your other guests to make sure they don't contaminate the food will definitely take a lot of work, the only other safe alternative would be to have your gluten-free guest serve themselves first. That way everything on the table would still be uncontaminated with gluten.

The downside to using this method is that it won't give your guest the opportunity to go back for seconds. Keeping additional safe food in the kitchen might be a way to get around the problem. However, if you're making your own rolls or pumpkin pies a day or two ahead, or if you're putting a flour-based crumb topping on the sweet potatoes, rather than brown sugar and marshmallows, the kitchen will be contaminated with air-borne flour.[1]

Baking or Cooking with Flour Contaminates the Kitchen

When you cook or bake with wheat flour, whether it's from a bag of all-purpose flour or from a simple cake mix, microscopic particles are blown into the air and will stay airborne for several hours.[1] You can see this for yourself when you purchase flour from the grocery store. Since the bags are not air tight, they "poof" flour dust when you pick them up. The same thing happens when you dump the ingredients from a cake or brownie mix into a bowl.

Not only will your guest breathe in that gluten dust if they walk into the kitchen, but once the flour begins to settle and fall, it will land on your kitchen counters, the utensils you're using, and anything in the kitchen left uncovered.[1]

When I first went gluten free, I used to grind my own rice flour and that flour dust stayed in the air for several days afterwards. Granted, it was a lot of dust, more than you'd find in the average kitchen, but it would get all over the counters and everything I had sitting out. As the rice flour settled to the ground, it deposited a thin layer of white dust on the floor and counters that I had to consistently clean up. Although you can't see the flour in the air, on the floor, or on the counters, the dust is still there.

This doesn't mean you have to spring clean your kitchen just to cook a single safe meal, but you will have to designate a counter or large part of a counter for just gluten-free food prep. That counter will have to be thoroughly cleaned and everything on it removed, so that it is only used for gluten-free foods, just as the video below recommends. The same thing with wherever you plan to store the safe ingredients or items you buy from the grocery store. You'll need a thoroughly cleaned shelf in the cupboard and a safe section in the refrigerator. 

How to Prevent Gluten Contamination in the Kitchen

Let's Talk Turkey

Turkey is essentially gluten free, but make sure you read the ingredient list on the package. Since meat in the U.S. falls under the jurisdiction of the USDA, rather than the FDA, the rules are different than for other products. Meat manufacturers cannot hide barley under generic terms like natural flavorings. Any protein grain used, any gluten in the injected broth or saline solution, must be clearly listed on the label,[4] so pay close attention for the words: wheat, barley, or rye. Those are the grains a celiac must always stay away from.

The contamination from turkey often comes from the gravy packet that's tucked inside the plastic covering. Be very careful when you cut the package open because if you accidentally slice into the gravy packet and it gets on the turkey's skin, it will ruin the whole bird.[3] Gluten is a sticky substance and cannot be washed off poultry skin, so stuffing the bird with bread stuffing will also contaminate the whole bird, making it no longer gluten free.[3]

Don't Stuff the Thanksgiving Turkey if the Stuffing Isn't Gluten Free
Credit: Courtesy of Pixabay.com

If bread stuffing is a must, you can either use gluten-free bread or a gluten-free stuffing mix to make the dish. If not, you'll have to bake the stuffing completely covered in a separate casserole dish on a shelf that's below the bird. Anything baked in the oven above the turkey can contaminate it, so you only want to place gluten-free foods on the top shelf. You could use stove-top stuffing instead, but you still don't want to stuff the bird or bake it in the oven above the turkey.

Many people who are on gluten-free diets use brown rice instead of bread cubes to make their stuffing. Others simply bake the turkey with no stuffing at all. Stuffing a turkey breast with a homemade gluten-free stuffing made from gluten-free bread crumbs is another alternative.

Whichever way you go, you'll also have to decide what to roast the bird in. If you have a turkey roaster, but have stuffed your turkey before, the pan might not be safe, especially if the stuffing fell out of the neck or you've made flour-thickened gravy in the pan before. Since cookware is not always gluten free and it isn't worth making a mistake, it's best to use a disposable aluminum roasting pan for baking the turkey instead. That disposable pan will also make clean-up a breeze.

Gravy can be made from the turkey drippings, but you will have to use corn starch or potato flour to thicken the gravy. Some gluten-free websites will tell you to use sweet rice flour, but sweet rice flour is extra gritty and it won't come out well at all. Gravy cannot be thickened with all-purpose flour unless your gluten-free guest isn't going to eat the gravy.

The Ugly Side of Cooking Gluten Free

When first diagnosed with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, a celiac has to not only clean their whole kitchen, but they also have to replace a lot of kitchen utensils, gadgets, small appliances, and bakeware.[2] While that isn't practical for someone who just wants to cook a single gluten-free meal, you do have to consider those types of cross contamination and take the steps to avoid them.

For example, if you have a breadmaker that you make homemade bread in, you can't clean out the bread chamber, purchase a gluten-free bread mix, and then whip up a nice loaf of bread for the holiday. That bread won't be gluten free. The bread chamber contains seams, cracks, and crevices where gluten can hide, so it will contaminate the dough.

Likewise, sharing the toaster is out, as well as your cutting board, serrated knives, the colander you drain the potatoes in before you mash them, and any serving spoons that are made of wood or vinyl. Slotted spoons are also difficult to clean well enough. Plastic storage containers will be contaminated if you've ever used the microwave to heat something up in them. Large plastic bowls could have gluten embedded into the plastic, and the electric mixer is likely to be contaminated with flour dust.

Non-stick cookware is also problematic as gluten can become embedded in any scratches. The safest pans that can be cleaned easily are stainless steel or glazed enamel. Glass or enamel baking dishes also clean up well, but there cannot be even a single spec of leftover grease on them. Gluten will embed itself into those stains.

How to Make Gluten and Gluten-Free Foods at the Same Time

The list of possibilities is long, so creating a menu before hand will help a lot. If you know the recipes you're going to make and what spices, utensils, pots, bakeware, and appliances you'll need to make those recipes, you can plan ahead by discussing things with your guest, so you can borrow what you need from your gluten-free friend or family member.

Most cookie sheets or cake pans can be covered with foil to create a protective barrier. The same thing can be done on a grill. If this is a person you're likely to cook for again, you could also drop by your local dollar store for cheap utensils, pans, and safe serving dishes, labeling them and storing them for future occasions.

If you have a dishwasher, you won't have to worry about glasses, plates, and bowls, as the dishwasher will be able to clean the dishes well enough. However, decorative paper plates and cups would make clean up much easier, especially since you'll have several extra chores to do.

Ask Your Guest To Bring Something They Can Eat

Don't feel timid about asking your gluten-free guest to bring something they can eat. Many people on gluten-free diets would rather bring a couple of safe dishes with them, such as a favorite side dish and a nice holiday dessert, then have to sit around watching everyone else eat because you made a mistake or another guest contaminated the food.

Set them up with a separate table of their own, take special care with the turkey, mashed potatoes, and steamed veggies, and most gluten-free individuals will be thrilled at your thoughtfulness and won't be afraid to come back.