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How to survive the holidays when you’re gluten-free

When you’re gluten-free, the holiday season can be rough. So many of our traditions are centred around food.

Written by
Robyn Harrison
Published on
December 18, 2022
Time to read

When you're gluten-free, the holiday season can be rough. So many of our traditions are centred around food.

Example? Thanksgiving or Christmas dinners where the turkey is stuffed with bread and you're served a dinner roll on the side. Pretty much every dessert you can imagine. Cookie decorating parties.

Heck, we even leave cookies out for Santa! We're just all assuming he doesn't have celiac disease. Maybe he's just been feeding those cookies to his reindeer. Or taking them home to Mrs. Claus. Just sayin'.

Being gluten-free around the holidays was especially hard the first few years after my celiac diagnosis. It’s gotten easier, but I’ve come to realize it will always be a challenge.

Just a quick heads up: the tips on this blog are helpful for any holiday, no matter what you celebrate. For the sake of this blog, I'll be speaking to my personal experience, which is mainly Christmas.

Here are my 6 tips for surviving the holidays when you're gluten-free:

(Pssst—hate reading? Watch my YouTube video instead. ⬇️)

Tip #1: Take Charge

If you can be in charge of any holiday events with food—do it! Offer to host a party or your family’s Christmas dinner.

Yes, it’s more work, but it is the easiest way to be able to enjoy the meal without worrying that you’ll be “glutened”.

For true peace of mind, you can make everything gluten-free. I made my French bread for our New Years charcuterie board a few years ago. Friends of friends—who had no clue I have celiac disease—were shocked that it was gluten-free. For Christmas, my herb-and-garlic dinner rolls are a crowd favourite. When hosting, I also rely heavily on naturally safe foods, like fruits, veggies, and cheeses. Gluten-free crackers and dips are easy to find in most grocery stores.

If you want to give people the option to bring a gluten-containing dish, then at least you can control where it’s placed. Keep it in a separate area from the gluten-free items to ensure there’s no cross-contact. (I’m sure we’ve all seen Uncle Bill plunging his dinner roll in the previously-safe bowl of spinach dip…) Double-dipping, wandering spoons, and flying crumbs are hazardous for us celiac folk! Taking charge of the holiday events allows you to reduce these risks.

If hosting is not an option for you and you're unsure if the food will be safe—well, that’s where tip #2 comes in.

Tip #2: Chat with the host

If you know there are events you will not be hosting and someone else will be making your dinner, it’s best to have a conversation with the host ahead of time.

This can go a couple of ways.

If it makes sense for you, ask if you can get involved with the actual making of the dinner. This makes most sense if it’s a family event—and if you actually like cooking.

If this is not an option, then ask what they’re planning on making, explain that you’re gluten-free and need to avoid all gluten (including products stating “may contain”). This means checking labels on everything—including soup stock and spices—and using separate utensils and cutting boards.

If the host is overwhelmed by all of this, it may be easier to offer that you’ll bring your own food. If they still insist that they want to cook something for you, kindly ask that they keep the packaging for whatever they use so you can double-check that it’s safe.

It may seem like a lot to ask, but both your short-term comfort and long-term health are at stake.

At the end of the day, do what you’re most comfortable with. Neither you or the host is going to enjoy the night if you end up feeling unwell!

Tip #3: Speak up

It can be challenging to speak up for yourself at a social event, but you’re going to have to get used to doing it. While you may not want to direct more attention to the fact you have dietary restrictions, it’s better than staying quiet and being anxious about cross-contact.

Here are a couple of examples where you might want to speak up:

When the host has prepared several dips or a cheese board, watch out for regular bread or crackers. If they’re being served alongside, there’s a good chance those dips will get crumbs in them. Even if you’re dipping your gluten-free crackers, the dip itself may not be safe.

The easiest thing to do is ask if you can have a separate plate to put dips and cheese on before everyone else starts digging in. Be sure to take as much as you think you will need, as you likely won’t be able to go back for seconds.

The same applies if the event is a buffet or family style meal. Even though it feels rude, ask if it it’s okay to scoop your food first to prevent cross-contact.

If you’re wondering how cross-contact could be possible at a buffet-style meal, think about someone who has a dinner roll on their plate. If they use a utensil to scoop food, it might touch the dinner roll and then go back into the dish. If dozens of people do that before you get there, there’s a chance you could get glutened.

I promise you that speaking up for yourself gets easier the longer you’ve been gluten-free.

Tip #4: Learn to bake your favourite holiday treats

Chances are, there’s going to be a favourite gluten-filled holiday treat you can’t find anywhere to buy. Or—let’s be honest—maybe you can find it but the store-bought version isn’t very good.

That’s when it’s helpful to learn how to make it yourself.

If you’re going to start testing out a new recipe (including converting a regular recipe to gluten-free), I’d recommend giving it a couple of tries before the “big day”. That way, you have time to perfect it.

You don’t want to be stuck serving something that didn’t turn out quite right to your guests—they may make an even bigger fuss about gluten-free food.

You also don’t want to have to deal with the disappointment of crumbly cookies while you’re cozied up on Christmas Eve. (Like that alliteration? 😉)

Learning to bake means you’re guaranteed a delicious treat that’s safe to eat, usually for half the cost of a store-bought product.

If you want to learn how to make all your holiday favourites gluten-free without spending time testing or searching for recipes, check out The Holidays Course.

This course is perfect for those utterly new to baking and expert bakers alike. In the course, I walk you through how to make:

  • Cranberry Orange Pistachio Scones
  • Herb & Garlic Pull-Apart Rolls
  • Maple Syrup Pumpkin Pie
  • Classic Shortbread Cookies
  • Ginger Sparklers
  • Gingerbread Men
  • Chocolate Swiss Roll with Candy-Cane Cream

Learn more about (or sign up for) The Holidays Course.

Tip #5: Bring your thick skin

This one requires more mental preparation than anything else. It is helpful to be ready for ignorant or rude comments about your diet. We all have an Uncle Bill* who might make a comment about you eating gluten-free. If you’re expecting it, it’s less likely to ruin your day.

(* I just picked a name, I don’t have an actual Uncle named Bill…)

If you’re going to a lot of social events or family gatherings, at some point, you’re bound to come across someone who makes a comment like:

  • “Gluten-free? Yuck—no way, give me all the gluten!”
  • Or, someone pressuring you with “a little bit won’t hurt!”
  • Or, someone who tries to give you the “I knew someone with that but they grew out of it”

Now, if you’re a little more confrontational (like me) you can try to enlighten them about celiac disease or why you’re on a gluten-free diet. It’s possible they just don't know (which is totally understandable). Generally, though, I doubt one little conversation will change their mind.

It’s best to be ready with a response that doesn’t escalate the situation but also doesn’t let others walk all over you.

  • “Gluten-free? Yuck—no way, give me all the gluten!”
  • Yeah, unfortunately, it's for medical reasons—I don't have a choice.
  • “A little bit won’t hurt!”
  • Actually it will.
  • “I knew someone with that but they grew out of it and now they’re cured!”
  • There is no cure for celiac disease, so either they didn’t actually have it or they’re still causing damage and don’t realize it.

You can also just say nothing. 👀

I hope that none of you get flak for having to eat gluten-free—but if you do, now you’re prepared!

Tip #6: It's not all about food

I know—I'm shocked I'm saying that too!

While many holiday events are based around food, there are lots of fun things you can plan that don't involve food at all. This means an outing where you're not going to have to ask a bunch of questions, call ahead to ask about the menu, or deal with awkward food situations. Win!

A few ideas?

  • Go see a show
  • Go shopping
  • Skating
  • Sleigh rides
  • Visit a Christmas Tree farm
  • Make decorations
  • Go for a hike
  • Watch a movie

All of these are super fun and get you in the holiday spirit without having to worry about the menu.

Now, while planning these types of activities help with the sting of not being able to eat gluten, I still wouldn't cope well without having at least a day where I could eat all the things I wanted.

So if you're not hosting any of your holiday events, be sure to plan a special day or meal just for yourself where you know you will get to enjoy all the food.

For me, half of the enjoyment of food is enjoying it with others. So pick someone special to enjoy the day with you who gets it and isn't going to make a fuss about things being gluten-free.

Happy Holidays!

I hope these tips help you feel more confident going to social events around the holidays, and ensure you don't feel like you're missing out.

It may be an adjustment for the first couple years after going gluten-free, but I promise it will get easier.

Merry Christmas, and happy baking!


Robyn Harrison

Robyn is a baker based just outside of Toronto, Canada. She comes from several generations of award-winning bakers. After her celiac diagnosis in 2016, and her doctor's advice to “Say good-bye to bread!”, her gluten-free journey began. She is the founder of Robyn's Gluten-free Baking Courses and Robyn's Gluten-free Living. Her mission is to raise the bar for gluten-free baking; “good enough” is no longer good enough.