For many families, falling temperatures signal the approach of treasured holiday celebrations, often involving important food traditions. Thanksgiving is about family, origins, and gratitude for sure. But often it’s just as much about roast turkey and stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy, and pumpkin pie. Even for those who don’t celebrate Christmas, it’s hard not to associate the aroma of freshly baked cookies with warm, festive feelings. But just as a vegetarian niece may take issue with your Thanksgiving turkey, or an atheist uncle with your Christmas tree, a guest with celiac disease might unwittingly offend Grandma with the unprecedented decline of her famous pecan logs. Then, just when everyone has finally learned to coexist, a new species of selective reveler arrives: the modern day caveman. Eschewing not just one problem food, this rare breed says he doesn’t eat grains, dairy, legumes, refined sugar or starch, or anything artificial. What the heck is this “paleo” diet he follows, and what on earth does that leave for you to feed him?
Paleo eating (sometimes called the caveman diet) is about eating more like our hunter-gatherer ancestors, on the theory that these are the foods best suited to our biology and good health. Pre-agricultural humans ate wild animals and seafood, organic vegetables (there were no other kind), some fruits and nuts. They did not eat significant quantities of grains, dairy or legumes, all of which contain known gut irritants and digestive inhibitors. They didn’t use refined sugars (perhaps occasional honey), starches, salt, or artificial colors, flavors, preservatives, etc. Much has been written about this by others, so I’ll refer you to their books if you want to learn more about the “why.” Paleo isn’t “one size fits all.” There are different flavors and interpretations, and even the experts don’t all agree. At it’s core, paleo means no grains/legumes/dairy/artificial or refined ingredients, and instead: lots of healthy fats, animal proteins and non-starchy vegetables. There is disagreement, though, about how much fruit, how many nuts, or the inclusion of select dairy products. Most plans exclude starchy tubers, especially white potatoes, but some do not. Significantly, some promoters actually encourage up to 15% “cheating”, and exceptions for coffee or occasional alcohol are common.
So if there are all these rules, and even the rule-makers can’t agree, what do you serve to make these people happy? Does it require a whole new menu, or could minimal tweaks suffice? Will other guests revolt if you remove all the “good stuff”? Relax. With a little communication and flexibility, you can probably make everyone happy without adding a lot of extra work to your holiday routine, and you might find that this “ultra-traditional” way of eating isn’t as crazy as it sounds.
First, you must determine what your goal is: Are you creating a 100% paleo meal or just providing options so nobody starves? A good place to start might be to get a feel for which “flavor” of the diet your paleo guest/s follow. If you explain that you’re feeding a diverse crowd and ask what’s really off limits vs. what’s generally avoided but acceptable for a holiday cheat, you may find that the challenge isn’t as great as you thought. In my own case, I’m not going to knowingly eat wheat or anything with gluten. I generally avoid other grains, dairy, white potatoes, legumes, refined sugars, starches, and seed oils (except olive & coconut) but I’ll make some exceptions for something like a holiday dinner. Likewise, I’ll overlook a few (otherwise paleo) foods that I’ve cut down on for possible benefit to a thyroid condition: nightshades like tomatoes and peppers, eggs, and nuts. These guidelines might be completely different for someone else, either more or less restrictive for one or more food groups.
What if this dialogue is impossible or uncomfortable; Is there an “easy” button? Some of the most basic holiday foods are already paleo-friendly, or require only a slight tweak. A centerpiece hunk of animal flesh (turkey, lamb, prime rib, wooly mammoth…) will please stone age diners along with other omnivores – so long as it’s free of any deal breakers. I’d say avoid gluten for sure (check turkey labels) and serve sauces on the side if possible. Basting with butter or sweet sauces is an acceptable cheat for many, but best to ask. Any non-starchy vegetables will be appreciated, preferably plain or cooked in olive or coconut oil. Herbs and spices are generally fine. Sweet potatoes are adored by some; and at least tolerated by most – even ultra low-carbers will often make a holiday exception. Most salads are good to go if you omit croutons & cheese or make optional. Though technically legumes, green beans are generally accepted as vegetables since the seed makes up such a small part.
If you’re feeling adventurous, or you’re cooking for someone who can’t/won’t stray from hardcore paleo, there are a couple ways to proceed. You could build your menu from the bottom up, using simple and obviously paleo foods. This will likely be delicious, but could leave certain holiday expectations unmet for some. If your goal is to come as close to your traditional fare as possible, your best bet is probably to get a basic paleo cookbook like Sarah Fragoso’s Everyday Paleo Family Cookbook which will teach you why certain ingredients are a problem, and demonstrate alternatives with recipes like paleo pumpkin pie.
What about… “functional beverages”? strictly speaking, alcohol isn’t paleo. Here again many make exceptions, usually within certain guidelines. Finding out your “cave person’s” preferences ahead of time will probably make everyone more comfortable. If they truly don’t drink any alcohol, offer club soda. Many however, will drink a bit of wine (especially red) or a simple tequila drink – as the real stuff is made from 100% agave nectar and not grains like most other options. Paleo pioneer Robb Wolf has created what many consider the ultimate paleo-ish mixed drink, the Nor-Cal Margarita. Beer is generally out because it’s made from wheat, though there are gluten free beers made of sorghum or other grains. If you’re more concerned with perking them up than loosening them up, you’ll be happy to know that coffee is a common cheat as well. If not then tea is almost always ok, especially green or herbal. Either way, many will skip the cream and sugar. (I like canned coconut milk in mine, but I don’t expect others to have that on hand.)
“Ok,” I can hear you saying, “stop beating around the bush. This is really all about the dessert. What do I do about the pumpkin pie?” There are several options. Most paleo folks are used to passing on desserts. However, if you want to go to the extra trouble there are numerous alternative recipes out there, many of which are quite delicious – everything from paleo pumpkin pies made with almond flour and coconut milk to custards and more. Increasingly there are commercial options as well. Your guest might have a favorite recipe they’d like to make and bring to share with others who are curious. And of course, some will simply make an exception and eat the damn pie because it’s once a year and that’s how they roll.
Editor’s note: Due to circumstances, this article is being published much later than originally intended, and should be considered a work in progress. You will most likely see an expanded version again in the future. Happy Holidays, whatever yours may be…