‘Tis the season. Doesn’t it feel like we are in the middle of a marathon of food right about now? And we’re only at mile seven or eight, maybe nine. Its starts with the Halloween candy and carries right on through until the final scraps from the fortune bearing pork dishes are scraped off the plates as they begin their first wash of the new year.
There’s an entire diet industry planning their marketing calendars and banking on our over indulgences this season. But this isn’t a post about weight loss, decadence, condemning, condoning or even resolutions. Because food is a special part of this time of the year.
It is both celebration and community. There’s the patience of tending to a harvest as it grows over months. The art of combining different ingredients and techniques to make something flavorful and fulfilling. The act of coming together over laughter and cheer to work collaboratively towards a common goal. And the practice of giving thanks for the bounty of the season.
Food can be comfort and food can be home. The sound of clanging dishes indicates a table being set for not one, but many. The way our mothers wipe their hands on a dish towel feels as familiar as the way our fathers use their hands to carve a turkey. The squealing delight of children pulling a wishbone sets against a delicious scent wafting in the air serving as a reminder that these things are only presented to us once a year, at this special meal.
The sights, sounds and smells of the kitchen can represent family and togetherness and are just as timeless as a handwritten recipe card. Its beauty lies not within the directions themselves, but in the way the ink is smeared from a greasy thumb of yesteryear. These simple instructions are transcending technology, being delivered from hand to hand, skin to skin, generation to generation all while forging a connection from a family’s past to a family’s future.
Yes, this food and these festivities are beautiful indeed. With food at the axis of the season, how would we celebrate without it?
Since I’m the parent of a child with life-threatening food allergies, food poses a paradoxical puzzle because what sustains my child, will also cause him great harm. Between the holiday cookie exchanges, gingerbread parties and chocolate advent calendars there’s only so many creative solutions I can come up with to help make the holidays more allergy friendly and safe before it feels like one big circus act.
A few weeks ago I wrote about how I want my son to approach his food allergies with a can-do attitude. He loves to eat and prides himself on having a big appetite. So while I want him to have a healthy respect for the threat that some foods pose to him, I also want him to have an equally healthy appreciation for food. Its confusing to square away my own feelings about something that is both dangerous and enjoyable, let alone trying to explain those opposite emotions to my son.
So during a season that is often focused on food, we’ve incorporated the below practices into our holiday repertoire as a way to make the holidays not only safer and but more settling for us all:
We keep our family traditions allergy-free. If our son can’t have it, we don’t have it. During the rest of the year we have a few exceptions. But in general and especially on special days like holidays, we’re all in it together! The holidays are about family so what one of us eats, we all eat. We and us! Its how we operate.
We gravitate towards family and friends who get this and do it as well. As our son grew older we didn’t want the conversation with others to always be about what he couldn’t have. He was getting old enough to overhear those conversations and feel it. We don’t want to emphasize his differences so when my extended family members graciously offered to dine on an entirely allergy-free meal themselves, we were so happy! What a nice way to show us how much they value all of us being a part of their holiday and letting us know that they accept us in whatever dietary form we require.
We get creative. After a bit of practice, we’ve all grown to enjoy the challenge of making dairy-free, egg-free and nut-free feasts. Olive oil or soy butter works just as well as dairy-based butter to baste or saute, and there’s plenty of soy and tofu creamers available as well. We make cut-out cookies using applesauce, baking soda and oil to stick since we can’t have eggs to do so. And thanks to Disney’s Prep & Landing, we know that Santa has a nut allergy, so we give the big guy a personalized ingredient alert. We still make treats for our neighbors and special friends, but those tin canisters are filled with homemade oatmeal instead of cookies. One of our favorite traditions is to decorate gingerbread houses. And we’ve designed some really clever ones using gum drops for roof linings, marshmallow shrubs, gummy bears for toys and even added aquariums on the interior with Swedish fish.
We remove the food-focus. The meals are nice, but there’s plenty of other things making the season special. We take the horse and carriage rides, but skip the hot cocoa…its just as cozy. We go caroling, but don’t have the cookies…its just as joyful. We visit with Santa, but skip the candy cane handout at the end…its just as magical. One of the most special things we do is one of the most simple things. This idea was shared with me a few years ago by a dear friend. At some point in December we give the kids baths, and put them in their pajamas just like every other night. But right as they are about to be tucked in we tell them that this is the night and we drive around listening to holiday music on the radio and looking at the lights on houses. We wear Santa hats, giggle and sing and its sheer delightful memory-making, without an ounce of food!
We remind ourselves that food is nourishment and survival. During every holiday season we volunteer at the food packaging charity, Feed My Starving Children. We volunteer here a few times throughout the year, but especially a this time of the year. It is one of my son’s most favorite things to do! He invites friends and together the kids and adults prepare Manna packs to ship to children around the world in need of nourishment. Its collaborative, fast paced, fun and often set to rowdy music. Its right down my nine-year-old son’s alley! The organization does a nice job of explaining how each Manna pack is specifically formulated to feed malnourished children and at the end of a packing session, they tell you exactly how many meals you prepared for how many children in need. My son and his friends enjoy being able to quantify their efforts. I love the cause. I love that he loves it. But I especially love that not only is it a powerful reminder of the real value of food, but is also a way for him to be involved in the tradition and art of preparing a meal for others, despite his food allergies, all while helping others who desperately need it.
And so we’re back to those conflicting feelings I have about food and the holidays. In many ways food is such a big part of the festivities at this time of the year. And I understand that. But when we stop and think, isn’t Thanksgiving really about gratitude, Christmas about giving, Hanukkah about light and New Years about beginnings? With all of it falling under an over-arching theme of family, love, tradition and togetherness? Well that seems to me to be the real reason to celebrate!