Holiday dinners for family and friends who have food allergies and food sensitivities need not be difficult to prepare. Cooks should read labels and cook from scratch as much as possible to stay clear of any offending ingredients. They can also take advice from cooks who prepare allergy-free foods daily.
Katherine Navarre cooks a gluten-free turkey at the holidays because her two daughters have celiac disease and cannot have foods with gluten or wheat.
"It's usually a fresh turkey," says the mother of four. "Many fresh and frozen turkeys are injected with self-basting tenderizers that could contain gluten."
For stuffing, she uses frozen gluten-free bread that she has thawed, dried and toasted.
Gluten-free and wheat-free foods include no wheat, rye, oats, barley, spelt and more. Navarre is involved in cooking the meal even if the family travels for the holidays to visit other relatives.
"You can help modify a menu by changing a brand such as chicken broth for gravy - some brands have gluten. There are easy substitutions," says the registered dietitian.
A safe menu includes turkey, gluten-free stuffing, mashed potatoes, fresh vegetables and cranberry sauce. "The dessert varies," she says, noting there are gluten-free pie crusts. But she often makes apple crisp with brown rice flour.
Her kitchen has an assortment of alternative flours such as white rice flour, brown rice flour, potato starch flour, plain potato flour, cornstarch and tapioca flour. "Some breads call for a combination of flours. There are also garbanzo bean flours and fava bean flours, which give breads a spongy texture."
For chocolate chip cookies, she uses brown rice flour and potato flour.
Gelatin desserts are an option. She also gets creative with gluten-free products that are sold in supermarkets and specialty stores.
"I don't buy a lot online because shipping is expensive," she says. "The girls may not like the gluten-free crackers, but I grind them up and use these as a coating for chicken."
Connie Moore of Toledo, Ohio, has a severe allergic reaction to tree nuts (almonds, walnuts, pecans). Last Valentine's Day, she had her first box of assorted chocolates. Her husband bought tree nut-free and peanut-free chocolates from the Vermont Nut-Free Company (www.vermontnutfree.com).
"It was the best chocolate I've ever had," she says. "Even people who aren't allergic to nuts would love this chocolate."
She reads labels carefully when buying foods. She bakes cookies, cakes, desserts and breads, but always without tree nuts or any derivatives such as nut oils, nut pastes or nut meal. She buys baking chocolate if it says it is processed in a nut-free facility.
She can have nutmeg, the aromatic seed of an evergreen tree (not a tree nut). "Peanuts are technically a vegetable because they grow in the ground, and I have no problem with that," she says.
The Vermont Nut Free Chocolate Co. was founded by Gail Elvidge, whose son, Tanner, has a peanut allergy.
"We use ingredients from nut-free and peanut-free facilities," says her husband and company vice president, Mark Elvidge. "My wife started making things - truffles and caramels - for Tanner at home. It evolved into a business. Now we ship all over the world."
The company checks with manufacturers regarding any cross-contamination with tree nuts before using the ingredients. "We offer baking chocolate and baking chocolate chips: butterscotch, semisweet, milk and white chocolate," says Gail Elvidge.
Luke Mills, 9, son of Darlene and Ron Mills of Ottawa Lake, Mich., has had food allergies from birth.
From the Food Allergy Network, she has a list of names under which milk can be listed on product ingredient labels. "I take that with me when I shop," Mills says. "I improvise. If a recipe calls for 2 tablespoons milk, I use 2 tablespoons soy milk. You never know the difference (in flavor)."
"Pumpkin cake goes over well," she says. Instead of butter, she uses Fleischman's unsalted and lactose-free spread. In place of ice cream, she buys tofu dairy-free ice cream.
When a food comes into contact with another food, trace amounts of each can mix with the other. This is cross-contamination.
"I ask people to make sure if you are going to cook with an item that you are allergic to, keep it separate. I could get sick even from a shared spoon," Moore says.
Navarre also is careful about cross-contamination. "I make the girls' lunches first," she says. "I wash the counter down and then make their sandwiches on a clean plate or paper napkins."
When making spaghetti for the family, "I make a separate gluten-free spaghetti for them. I use separate utensils," says Navarre, who uses a stand mixer for wheat-free foods and a hand mixer for other foods.
"There's a lot of items that don't pose a threat such as meat, vegetables and fruits," says Elvidge of Vermont Nut Free Chocolates, recommending caution for processed items. "Make homemade for a safer choice. It's tempting to buy premade, but generally that's the riskiest."