A few guests around your holiday dinner table are likely to be watching what they eat.
Aunt Mary has diabetes, so you'll be careful not to push the sweets in her direction. Uncle Bob has high blood pressure and has just had heart surgery, so he must avoid high-fat foods and limit salt. Cousin Sara, just home from college, has become a vegetarian, and the youngest guest, 10-year old Cindy, is a picky eater. Into this mix, add all the likes and dislikes of a typical American family as well as an age range from 1 to 85.
The result is the miracle menu — one that is healthy for all those personalities yet has many of those seasonal favorites that everyone finds delicious.
There are ways to help you customize your menus.
“Most recipes can be easily modified for fat, sugar, and salt and still fit the rest of the family's needs,” said Katherine Navarre, registered dietitian at the Wildwood Dialysis Unit. “You don't have to make two items. People who must eat sugar-free or low-fat often have a stigma because the cook says, ‘That's special' about the modified recipe. If you don't say anything, most people don't know the difference.”
Not only do adults with diabetes have to watch sugar intake, they also should not have highly salted food.
“Many people with high blood pressure and diabetes are at risk for cardiovascular heart disease,” said Mrs. Navarre. “They use low-sodium seasonings and spice blends as an alternative to salt.”
However, the home cook should not over-spice in an attempt to cover up the lack of salt. “The mistake people make is that they try to eliminate salt or sodium and replace it completely with spice blends,” said the dietitian. She recommends using reduced-sodium broth in cooking. “A consistent complaint is that foods are over-spiced. Some salt in cooking is OK.”
Cooks can modify recipes for sugar. “You can cut up to one-half of the amount of sugar in a recipe,” she said. “It tastes less sweet. Or use sugar substitutes. Many are available today, and it's personal preference on what you use. Often the sugar can be reduced in the recipe.”
Some cookbooks, such as 1,000 Delicious Recipes for People with Diabetes, by Linda Eugene, Sue Spitler, and Linda R. Yoakam, ($19.95, Surrey Books) use sugar in such dessert recipes as Citrus Poppy Seed Angel Food Cake and Chocolate Crinkles cookies. Other recipes call for Equal, the no-calorie table-top sweetener.
“That's a misconception that people think they cannot have any sugar or salt,” said Mrs. Navarre. “In fact, some may avoid sugar but eat too much of other foods, and their blood sugar goes up.”
Sometimes the hostess offers a piece of fruit for the person with diabetes. “But the guest may be able to have a small serving of dessert,” said the dietitian. “Diabetes is about healthy eating in a controlled amount.”
Kathleen Hooker, who operates Traveling Gourmet Personal Chef Service, has modified recipes for clients after consultation with a dietitian. She uses sugar-free products when possible. One popular item is the festive, layered Strawberry Gelatin Salad made with sugar-free gelatin, fresh strawberries, canned pineapple tidbits in their own juice, chopped pecans, and low-fat sour cream.
Mrs. Navarre recommends using sugar-free gelatin in salads and desserts when possible, and dried fruit in holiday baking. “Avoid candied fruit,” she advised. “Plus, you can only decrease the sugar in a recipe by one-half. Anything more alters texture and browning. Sugar gives a caramelized look to baked goods.”
Then there's the whole issue of low-fat foods, especially when you are trying to make baked goods. “Applesauce [in place of oil] gives a moist product, but you can also use buttermilk,” said Mrs. Navarre. “You need to replace the liquid.”
In low-fat in cooking, she advises that 1 to 2 tablespoons of oil per 1 cup flour is needed. “You have to keep moist ingredients constant, such as water, skim milk, buttermilk, applesauce, and yogurt.”
(In the mid-1990s, prune puree was used as an oil substitute, but in recent years there have been other ingredients that create products that are quite acceptable in flavor, texture, and appearance.)
Ms. Hooker of Traveling Gourmet also can modify her many recipes for those with lactose intolerance. Lactose is the sugar that occurs naturally in milk. It is also used commercially in foods such as baby formulas and candies.
For cheese, “I use tofu or lactose-free cheese,” she said. “I use soy milk or rice milk in place of whole milk. Reading the label and the box directions is so important. A box of pudding may contain milk products.” Processed foods may have whey or casein or other milk derivatives.
She adapts one of her signature recipes, chicken broccoli bundles in phyllo, which has cream cheese in it, by replacing it with soy cream cheese. When she makes mashed potatoes, she uses soy milk; her client can tolerate butter.
When she adapts macaroni and cheese for the diabetic diet, she uses fat-free evaporated milk, reduced-calorie margarine, and Lite Velveeta cheese.
“The majority of my business is for low-fat diets because people are being more careful about healthy eating,” said Ms. Hooker. One service at Traveling Gourmet includes five meals; each meal can serve the number in the family and is priced accordingly. “The client freezes the number of entrees desired. Some clients eat them all in one week. I tell them that each will keep only three days in the refrigerator and to freeze the others.”
For those people with food allergies and gluten intolerance that is called celiac disease, cross-contamination can be an issue, says Mrs. Navarre. She appreciates collaborating with chefs and caterers to develop recipes for healthy situations.
People with gluten intolerance should avoid wheat, rye, oats, and barley. This means that if cookie sheets, grills, and other cooking surfaces are contaminated with wheat, it will trigger a reaction.
Age also can make a difference. “As people age, there is less taste sensation,” said the dietitian. “Spices and herbs may seem bitter. Their taste for salt seems less.”
“With family and friends coming for the holidays you think, ‘What could I serve that would meet the needs of everybody?' Talk to those who are coming to get an idea of what they like,” she advises.
“You'd hate to make a sugar-free apple pie and then find out they don't like pie.”