December 19, 2018
Cutting Turkey Thanksgiving Celebration Concept

Alternative Thanksgiving Meals

by Densie Webb Ph.d., R.d.

Think Thanksgiving, and a golden brown turkey probably comes to mind. But what if you’re vegetarian? Or what about stuffing (or dressing as it’s called in the South) if you’re going gluten-free? And what about pecan or pumpkin pie with a scoop of vanilla ice cream? Hold on—not if you’re lactose-intolerant.

How can you navigate dietary restrictions and still celebrate this holiday? With a little advance planning and a carefully crafted grocery list, you can offer up an alternative Thanksgiving feast that’s just as festive and delicious as traditional fare. (We provide some sample menus and recipes below, but you can also find a treasure trove of recipes online for each of these menus, along with other ideas. Feel free to swap out items on one menu for another where suitable, since many of the recipes are good for all types of eaters here.)

A vegetarian/vegan feast

The centerpiece of the traditional Thanksgiving meal is notably absent from the vegetarian table. However, if you are vegetarian or vegan and still want the appearance of a traditional meal, there are alternatives made from soy and wheat. One brand (the famous or infamous Tofurky depending on your outlook) is even shaped like the real thing—a turkey. The brownable “bird” comes complete with stuffing that can be placed inside. Also available are soy-based “turkey” rolls and roasts. You can still make your own stuffing—just use vegetable broth instead of chicken broth in your recipe.

The rest is easy: Cook up some vegetables (if you want to get closer to the original Thanksgiving feast held in 1621, opt for Jerusalem artichokes, beets, parsnips, acorn squash, and rutabagas) and whole grains (anything from brown rice or wheatberries to farro or teff) to round out the meal; vegans can finish with a dairy- and egg-free dessert.

A sample vegetarian menu

A pescatarian feast

A pescatarian diet is basically vegetarian with one exception—seafood is still on the menu. Switch out that soy turkey for fish or shellfish, and not only have you got a healthy Thanksgiving meal fit for celebrating the holiday, you’ll actually be eating more like the Pilgrims did. Being that the celebration was held on the East Coast, lobster, clams, and mussels were on the menu (along with venison and waterfowl). Despite turkey now being the traditional Thanksgiving symbol, this bird was not even on the table 400 years ago.

If you don’t have access to fresh shellfish, as the Pilgrims did, check the freezer section of your supermarket. You can also opt for healthy fish, fresh or frozen, such as omega-3-rich salmon or rainbow trout.

A sample pescatarian menu

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This Thanksgiving, if you're concerned about where your food comes from and how it’s grown or raised, make “sustainability” and “humaneness” the centerpiece of your table. Here are eight tips.

A gluten-free feast

Before you decide to make your menu gluten-free, be sure there’s a good reason to go that restrictive dietary route. About 1 percent of the U.S. population has celiac disease, a condition in which digestion of gluten, the protein in many grains (most notably wheat), damages the small intestine. It’s estimated that an additional 5 percent of people have non-celiac gluten sensitivity, where symptoms like bloating occur after consuming gluten, but no damage is identified in the intestinal tract. (For more, see Should You Go Gluten-Free? and Celiac Disease: When to Avoid Wheat.)

If you fall into one of these groups, here are some ideas for a gluten-free Thanksgiving feast. In some ways, you’ll (again) be eating more like the Pilgrims, since, according to an article in Smithsonian.com, if the birds were stuffed (and that’s an “if”), it’s likely they were stuffed with onions and herbs, not bread. And the bread that accompanied the meal was likely made from corn, not wheat, which is safe for people who need to avoid gluten.

A Sample Gluten-Free Menu

A lactose-free feast

If dairy products cause bloating and cramps within a few hours of eating or drinking them, you may have lactose intolerance. Over half of adults in the U.S. are deficient in the enzyme lactase, which is needed to digest lactose, the sugar in milk. But you can still be thankful with a lactose-free Thanksgiving, which, for example, uses dairy-free spreads and vegetable oils in place of butter, and substitutes soy and other nondairy milks for cow’s milk (in pumpkin pie recipes, for example). There are also plenty of nondairy frozen desserts available to top that lactose-free pie with. Following any vegan recipes automatically makes your meal lactose-free as well. Note, however, that some people with lactose intolerance can tolerate small amounts of dairy, especially plain yogurt.

A Sample Lactose-Free Menu

  • Paprika roasted turkey
  • Sausage, chestnut, & plum stuffing
  • Creamy mashed potatoes made with unsweetened soy milk
  • Green beans with garlic and olive oil, topped with almond slivers
  • Vegan potato rolls
  • Pumpkin pie (this recipe uses rice milk); top with a nondairy whipped topping or a nondairy frozen dessert, if desired