A Gluten-free Thanksgiving

Stuffing. Gravy. Pie. For those with celiac disease, the holiday feasts this time of year represent special dietary challenges. Celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder affecting approximately 1 out of every 133 Americans, is characterized by the body’s inability to digest gluten. Gluten is a protein found in grains including wheat, barley and rye. Unfortunately, health problems associated with gluten cannot be treated with a prescription. The only solution is a lifelong adherence to a gluten-free diet.


As the standard U.S. diet typically consists of large daily intakes of processed grains (cereal for breakfast, a sandwich for lunch, pasta for dinner), millions more non-celiac Americans have found that they experience some of the same symptoms as those with the disease. More and more studies are showing that even if you don’t have full-blown celiac disease, you can still suffer from gluten intolerance. Or you could have fructose intolerance as there are chains of fructose sugar units called fructans present in wheat. Those with gluten and fructose intolerance experience many of the same symptoms as those with celiac disease after ingesting gluten-containing grains: bloating, gas, headaches and fatigue, to name a few.


At first, a world without gluten, especially around the holidays, can seem daunting. No stuffing? No pie?? Even gravy, often thickened with wheat flour, is off-limits. Thankfully, gluten has gotten a lot of attention in the past few years and new resources for many with these dietary restrictions are becoming increasingly abundant.


When shopping for the holiday feast, many people with gluten-related digestive issues ask, “what can I eat?” The good news is that while “specialty” grocery stores like Whole Foods and local co-ops are wonderful resources for those with dietary restrictions, you can find what you need at any local grocery store. Fruits, vegetables, meat, fish, most dairy products and eggs are naturally gluten-free. People interested in eating healthier and avoiding processed foods may have heard the advice to “shop the perimeter” of the grocery store. The same holds true for those looking to avoid sources of gluten hidden in labels on packaged items shelved in the middle of the store.


Since Thanksgiving is just around the corner, I’d like to take you on a journey to create a delicious and satisfying yet gluten-free meal. First you need to have an appetizer for guests to munch on before the main feast is ready. A lot of suggestions include shrimp cocktail but I don’t particularly like shrimp so I might suggest a fruit and nut “trail mix” which would allow you to mix and match different flavors and textures. Be sure to also set out the ever-reliable cheese and olive tray! If you need crackers, there are some great gluten-free rice crackers available.


Most beverages, including milk, wine, coffee, tea and juice, are gluten-free. If in doubt, check the label on the back. Passed in 2004, the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act requires that the eight most common food allergens (including wheat) are listed at the end of the label. If you see “Contains: Wheat” on the package, you’ll know it’s something you want to avoid.


Turkey. It’s the big daddy, the centerpiece of most Thanksgivings. Lucky for those with digestive issues, it’s naturally gluten-free. Most people use a gravy-based sauce to baste or eat with the bird. Gravies use wheat flour as a thickener so you might want to experiment with cornstarch or arrowroot as an alternative. You could also make a cranberry chutney to use as a relish for eating with the turkey.


Tired of the same old, same old mashed potatoes and gravy? Why not make sweet potatoes? Part of the “root vegetable” family in season in the fall, sweet potatoes are packed with vitamins A and C and are also a good source of B vitamins, iron, calcium and potassium. For a sweet indulgence, you can top them with pure maple syrup and/or whipping cream.


Other side dishes could include a festive winter salad or a wild rice pilaf as a stuffing replacement. Although it’s officially known as “Minnesota’s state grain,” wild rice is technically not a grain at all. It’s a low-glycemic marsh grass that is a better source of vitamins and minerals than other grains. These benefits make it an especially nutritious option for those who can’t have other traditional grains. Here are a couple of great wild rice recipes: Wild Rice Cranberry Pilaf and Wild Rice Pilaf with Mushrooms.


Finally, who can forget about dessert? See below for my fall specialty, homemade apple crisp! Often the topping is made with flour but I developed a yummy, gluten-free version to take advantage of one of the season’s most popular fruits.


If you need some help getting started or don’t like these recipe ideas, the Whole Foods website has an entire section devoted to gluten free holiday recipes from appetizers to dessert and beverages. Local co-ops are also excellent resources for classes on gluten free holiday cooking and baking. You can look in the current issue of Mix, a bi-monthly publication distributed to these 13 Twin Cities area natural food stores, for a full schedule through December. (It can also be found online here.)


Here’s the apple crisp recipe- have a spectacular holiday season experimenting in the kitchen!


Gluten-free apple crisp


5 or 6 Honeycrisp apples, peeled, cored and chopped into cubes

1 cup gluten-free old fashioned rolled oats

½ to 1 cup shredded coconut (depending on how much you like coconut)

1 cup pecan pieces

2 tablespoons butter

1 teaspoon cinnamon


Pre-heat your oven to 250 degrees. Melt butter and mix together with oats, coconut, pecans and cinnamon. Place apple pieces in a round glass baking dish and spread topping over apples. Bake for approximately 1 ½ hours. (If you bake this at a higher temperature the topping gets too brown before the apples get a nice, soft texture.)


Serve with vanilla ice cream or whipped cream, if desired. Enjoy!



Sarah Johnson is a local food enthusiast and volunteer for the Minneapolis-Tours Sister City Association, where she blogs about Slow Food, French cuisine and other topics. To learn more about this group, please visit their website.