A 3-step guide for hosting Thanksgiving when your guests eat clean, paleo, fat-free, carb-free, vegan, vegetarian, pescatarian, etc.

It’s very likely that your Thanksgiving table will include people following diets like vegetarian, vegan, pescatarian, carb-free, paleo, gluten-free. This adds tremendous stress for hosts at Thanksgiving, because it means everyone needs different food on their plates.

Ten years ago, there might have been someone at your Thanksgiving table who said they were on Weight Watchers. They counted up their points and carefully weighed out your delicious mashed potatoes. But today, you may have ten people at the table, and each one of them has a different food-based dietary restriction.

This means it feels like you can’t justΒ make the “traditional” Thanksgiving feast. Now you need to make sure you have vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, paleo, and many, many other options available.

You can’t just cook a turkey, stuffing, some form of potatoes and a few cooked veggies – you need to have something (or, let’s be honest, at least a few things) for each dietary type. This usually results in at least doubling the work of hosting Thanksgiving. You must have two styles of potatoes, two options for stuffing, and more veggies than ever to provide heavily buttered ones for the paleo dieters and steamed ones for the vegans.

To add to these complications, if our children have eating disorders, if they are in recovery from an eating disorder, or even if we just suspect they may be teetering on the edge of an eating disorder, we need to reduce stress and fear around food, and there is possibly no event that strikes greater food fear than Thanksgiving.

Whether you’re serving people who have limited food choices, disordered eating or eating disorders, you are facing a difficult challenge that involves thinking about exactly what food you can serve to meet everyone’s needs.

What all this means is that we need to make some changes to Thanksgiving, possibly the most heavily food-based holiday on the calendar.

Three reasons to take the focus off food at Thanksgiving

With all the food issues, it makes sense to shift the focus of Thanksgiving away from food. Here are three reasons why it’s important to take the focus off food this Thanksgiving:

1. It’s stressful for people who have eating disorders: being surrounded by food on Thanksgiving creates a great deal of anxiety and stress for anyone who is in recovery for an eating disorder. For us, food = stress, so it makes good sense to remove the focus on food while building a sense of community and belonging.

2. It’s stressful for people who are paleo/vegetarian/vegan/clean/carb-free/gluten-free, etc.: when you have removed entire categories of food from your diet, it is very stressful to be presented with options that you cannot eat. Even someone who is completely committed to their lifestyle can’t ignore the feeling of slight rejection when there is not “safe” food available for them at an event.

3. It’s stressful for the host: hosts have found their Thanksgiving preparations exhausting now that they must accommodate their own tastes as well as those of their guests’ varied preferences. Thinking about a menu that accommodates everyone’s needs is very stressful, more expensive, and more time-consuming than the “traditional” Thanksgiving meal.

However you look at it, a food-based Thanksgiving means that everyone feels more stress, and we can all agree (regardless of our food preferences) that stress is not conducive to a pleasant and meaningful meal.

Three ways to take the focus off food this Thanksgiving

This doesn’t mean that you don’t serve food at Thanksgiving, it just means that you approach the food portion with less anxiety and stress, focusing your energy instead on meaningful connection and belonging.Β  Here are three ways to take the focus off food this Thanksgiving:

1. Ask people to bring a dish

Instead of asking people how you can accommodate their food preferences and planning a menu that meets each person’s individual needs, tell people exactly what you are making, and invite them to bring a dish to share with everyone that meets their unique dietary needs and preferences.

This way you can limit your menu to a reasonable level and still cook your personal favorite dishes for Thanksgiving, and you can encourage people who have special diets to share their recipes with everyone. This may feel impossible, but, really, it is absolutely an option! Remember that the first Thanksgiving was about sharing food, and it is a wonderful idea to have everyone bring their own contribution to the Thanksgiving table.

If you think that you should be solely responsible for cooking the entire Thanksgiving meal (and that you have to meet each person’s unique dietary restrictions), then perhaps you have an unrealistic idea of what it means to be a modern woman.

Come on – we’re not 1950s housewives, and we can stop acting like we are! Food is not how we show our love … we have many, many other ways to share love, and it can have nothing to do with food.

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And, of course, even if you don’t have an image of a 1950s housewife in your head, you may have Martha Stewart in there. Get rid of that image, too! We are way beyond needing to prove our feminine power through perfectly, carefully, painstakingly prepared food. Let it go.

2. Do something together before you eat

Since Thanksgiving is a food-centric holiday, most hosts think primarily about planning the menu for Thanksgiving. But when we take the focus off the food and look instead at building connection and belonging, we need to plan in other ways.

Instead of obsessing over how you can meet everyone’s dietary needs, think about an activity that will bring your guests together in non-food ways. Plan your food preparation based on an arrival time +2 hours before the meal is served.

We strongly recommend asking guests to put their phones in a box when they arrive. This will limit distractions and ensure that they focus on each other instead of their phones. Then, plan on having everyone do something together for 1-2 hours. Here are some ideas:

  • Play board/card games
  • Play a sport like baseball, football, etc.
  • Go for a hike
  • Volunteer for a few hours
  • Visit an elderly neighbor who may be lonely
  • Plant a tree or do some gardening
  • Go to a beach, hiking trail or other state park land and pick up trash
  • Do an art project
  • Learn something new together

Spending time together before sitting down at the table is important to building connection and belonging. It allows the group to loosen up and enjoy each other’s company in a non-food setting. This will make the moment when everyone sits down to eat the meal much less stressful.

3. Take the food off the table

Every magazine and blog shows a table laden with food. Your vision of a good Thanksgiving is probably something like this:

Take the food off the table

Yes, it’s lovely, but having food on the table means that people who have dietary restrictions are faced with many things they cannot eat. At the same time, people who have eating disorders feel much more anxiety and stress when food serving platters are directly in front of them during a meal.

Most importantly, having the food platters on the table literally puts the food “front and center” of the event. Instead, set up a buffet table off to the side so that everyone can serve themselves the food choices they prefer at quantities they desire.

If you are used to a more formal “food on the table” setting, this may feel like a stretch to you, but remember that food preferences are varied, and we don’t live in a society in which everyone eats the same food at a meal. When you allow people to serve themselves from a buffet, you will likely see that each plate has its own unique contents.

And, of course, once everyone has enjoyed food they enjoy, and you have all enjoyed each other’s company, it may be time to turn on football, redistribute everyone’s phones, and chill out while basking in the pleasant glow of belonging and connection.

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