Cooking a family meal for people with different diets need not be a reason to a panic. Chefs explain to Sophie Morris how to keep everyone happy


(c) Pixabay

In the Nineties, my mum was embarrassed to be taking me - her vegetarian daughter - to eat Christmas dinner with friends. I had said I would be fine with eating just the sides, but she insisted on bringing along an M&S nut roast for me. In the end I was grateful; it turned out that being properly considered and catered for like this, rather than settling for just the veg, was lovely.

These days, I am long done with giving up food groups - but now my poor mum is wondering how to feed vegan grandchildren. And like us, many more families face the challenge of learning how to cook for people with different diets, especially at Christmas.

Twenty per cent of Britons have been eating fewer animal products since the start of the pandemic, according to the Vegan Society. And at the last count in 2018, there were estimated to be around 600,000 vegans in the UK.

A quarter of us will have given up meat by 2025, a report by Sainsbury’s predicts. Many others are gluten-free for health reasons, or have allergies that restrict how they eat.

For anyone wondering how they can help guests who are veggie, vegan or gluten-free - no matter whether their choices or requirements are fads or for ever - to enjoy big events as much as everyone else, you can avoid being overwhelmed with the help of these inspiring tips.

Prep, prep, prep “There is always going to be a lot of pressure on the big feast and the first thing I would say is to prepare ahead,” says chef Selin Kiazim, whose restaurant Oklava in Shoreditch, east London, puts a modern spin on her Turkish Cypriot heritage.

In her new book Three, she outlines elements which can be made in advance, such as a vegetable glaze which will make your carrots taste as if they came out of a restaurant kitchen.

No need to restrict everyone If you are able to put aside the view that Christmas dinner is just one massive roast and think a little more creatively, you can cater for everyone without cooking 10 different meals.

And while you may have one vegan guest and another who is gluten-free, that does not mean that you have to restrict the many to the diets of the few. You can still make everyone feel special without giving up your own favourite traditions, whether they are pigs in blankets or brandy sauce.

“It is becoming more and more common for families to be separated by different diets, but I firmly believe everybody should be able to sit down round a table together,” says Donna Crous, a food writer and photographer whose upcoming book A Healthier Family For Life explains how to accommodate different needs and wants at dinner time.

Thinking about her own family, she says: “We are all sugar-free, dairy-free and mostly grainfree. We will usually have a traditional roast, such as chicken or my family recipe for Madeiran spiced pork - which is dairy- and gluten-free - but my daughter is now vegan.

“I developed a walnut, kale and cranberry-stuffed butternut squash for her. She loves slicing it and pouring over the gravy, having her own centrepiece. Don’t just give vegans a bowl of sprouts!”

If you are not judging another person’s diet, why assume they are judging yours? Go the full hog, turkey or three-bird roast for the main event, but try out alternatives that everyone can eat on other days.

How to be inclusive “Don’t put all the pressure on one plate of food for that one person,”

advises Kiazim. “They can feel left out and it can be nerve-wracking for the cook. Perhaps choose a part of the world you are going to pick flavours from and do a sharing feast of interesting salads and gluten-free things - not just one little plate of food for the vegan.”

In her recent book Celebrate, plantbased cook Bettina Campolucci Bordi devotes a section to Christmas and New Year. She says its ethos “is for people to be able to sit around a table regardless of food label or allergy or dietary requirements”.

Her lentil pâté is a dead ringer for chicken liver - and with the onion, garlic and thyme, Campolucci Bordi promises that it even smells meaty as it cooks.

She recommends a filo pie as easy to make and a real crowdpleaser - hers is packed with broccoli, leeks, spinach and chickpeas. “You chuck a load of things in the pan, layer it up and stick it in the oven. It’s easy, filling, interesting and nourishing.”

Focus on flavour Kiazim has subtitled Three after the things she believes matter most in cooking: acid, texture and contrast. Her book is packed with exciting takes on festive veg - red cabbage with citrus and red onion, kale with caramelised celeriac, and a stack of ideas for livening up potato salads.

“Miso and soy will bring you different levels of umami,” she explains. “Acidity is the key in making you go back for more and more. Finish gravy with a really nice vinegar such as sherry vinegar to balance the richness. Hopefully, your roast potatoes will be crunchy and bring texture and contrast.”

“Not convinced? Her recipe for sherry caramel, equally at home on veg andfish as ice cream, should swing it.

Campolucci Bordi swears by her approach of “a drizzle, a dollop and a crunch”. The drizzle might be a good quality or flavoured oil; the dollop something creamy like yoghurt, pesto or hummus; the crunch roasted nuts, seeds or breadcrumbs.

Ask for help and don’t panic The wonderful thing about Christmas 2021, unless Omicron really wreaks havoc, is that it looks like we will be celebrating together - and while that means there are more mouths to feed, there are also more hands to help.

It is normal for most of us to draft in potato-peeling assistance, so there is no need to feel as if it is rude to ask guests with particular diets to lend a hand. If it means they will have a good meal, they will surely be happy to bring their own mince pies or the obscure brand of non-dairy milk that they cannot do without.

“Whether you are hosting or a guest, don’t overwhelm yourself and don’t overthink it,” says Crous. “You don’t have to go out and buy special products or protein powders.

“Most of my friends know that I have very stringent dietary regulations. I don’t want to put them under any added pressure, so I will offer to bring something with me. You can offer to take along a pudding or a starter, just try to fill in the gaps which you know are difficult to navigate.”

Remember it’s not always about lifestyle choice While we want all of our guests to be happy and abide by any dietary sensitivities, clearly there is a difference when we are cooking for someone who has chosen to be vegan compared to someone who needs to avoid foods that will probably make them ill - or even give them anaphylactic shock.

For some, being gluten-free is a choice and for others it is essential for their health. Be aware of these boundaries and your obligations, so you are clear about how careful you need to be in the kitchen.

The sweet spot If you have been doing Christmas in the same way for 30 years, this is a chance to shake things up a bit.

You might not realise that a certain pudding you already enjoy every winter is gluten-free or dairy-free. Equally, you might discover that you much prefer the curry of turkey leftovers in a tomato-based sauce over the creamy version you’ve always done.

“Restrictive diets don’t need to be bland or boring,” says Crous. Nor do they need to give the host a headache before any corks have popped.

‘Three: Acid, Texture, Contrast - The Essential Foundations to Redefine Everyday Cooking’ by Selin Kiazim (Quadrille £25) and ‘Celebrate: Plant-Based Recipes for Every Occasion’ by Bettina Campolucci Bordi’ (Hardie Grant, £20) are both out now. ‘A Healthier Family For Life: Stress-Free Feasts for a Multidiet Family’ by Donna Crous will be released on 16 December (Little, Brown Book Group, £20)