Q&A: Navigating A Non-Paleo Holiday

We recently received a question from a reader that we think you might be able to relate with. With the holiday season in full force right now, a lot of you are stressing about how you’re going to navigate Christmas dinner and dessert without offending, confusing, and/or alienating your family…


Hi, I am wondering how you get around being at social functions? Being Italian, big holiday meals are the norm for my family. I get frustrated trying to explain my restrictions to family when I pass on food. If I eat beforehand, I get chastised for being on a diet. I do not want to explain my choices to my entire family. I just need some guidance on how to handle these things.

Thank you.


You have a few choices. First, though, I’ll say that you may actually need to explain your restrictions before your family will let you off the hook. If you’ve grown up in a food-centric family, you can’t just expect that your sudden change of heart about the lasagna will go unnoticed. It’s a tradition among your family to eat those foods, and your relatives often go to a lot of trouble to make those dishes, putting their heart, soul, and time into it. If you tell them no thanks without any reason, they might be personally offended.

Imagine that you had a friend who, for decades, went to play Bingo with you every Tuesday night. Then one day she says, “I’m not coming anymore.” You ask her why and she says, “I just don’t want to.” I don’t know about you, but I’d immediately think I’d offended her somehow, or that she’d been brainwashed by some cult into thinking that bingo was a bad thing. But if your friend told you she had a gambling problem, or that the smoke in the building gave her a headache, you’d understand and try to find another way to spend time with her. Same goes for your family.

Metaphors aside, let’s talk about what you should actually do when the time comes to have a family dinner when you’re Paleo and your family is not.

1. Tell them the gory truth. 

One of my greatest assets and most devastating downfalls is that I’m willing to be belligerently truthful. This characteristic has pissed off more than a few people, but it’s also gotten me a get-out-of-jail-free card at many a family gathering. Here’s how it might go.

“Neely, just eat some ice cream! What’s wrong with you?”

“No, thanks. If I eat that I’ll have a vaginal yeast infection tomorrow.”

“Gross. TMI. Ok, never mind.”

Problem solved forever.

I just tell them how I’ll feel if I eat it and they shut up immediately, and usually ask if they can find me something different to eat. This tool is more effective the larger the audience is. But be prepared for the onslaught of questions afterward.

 2. Tell them you’re trying to lose weight and why. 

“Mom, I can’t have the candy corn casserole this year because I’m 50 pounds overweight and this will not help matters. So please don’t be offended or ask me about it in front of the whole family if you don’t see it on my plate at dinner.”

“But it’s only one night – give yourself a break, honey.”

“I’ve been doing really well and losing weight, Mom, and when I cheat and have food like this I just get cravings afterward and start wanting this kind of food all the time. You should’ve taught me better self control.”

“Oh, you’re doing a low-fat diet?! I am too! I used low fat pasta in the casserole and the candy corns are fat free!”

That’s actually how it will likely go, but telling her your goal and your reasons is a starting point. You can tell your mom that you’ll just be having the meat and salad this year, with fruit salad as dessert, and you’ll be all good. You don’t have to read her a Paleo book to get her to fully understand what you’re doing – now’s probably not the time. Maybe after New Year’s, though… For now, as long as she understands this is important to you, and that it’s working to make you healthier, she might leave you alone about it.

3. Tell them about your diet ahead of time.

At least tell your parents or whoever is hosting the holiday dinner about your diet. It might be an uncomfortable conversation, but it’s better than being scrutinized publicly. Remember that even in the most tradition-steeped Italian household, the point of a celebration is to be together as a family; it’s not actually about the food. You shouldn’t have to skip a family holiday just because you won’t be able to eat the food, however tempting it might be. Having said that, you will need to eat.

So call Grandma or whoever is cooking for Christmas or Kwanza, and apologize profusely, but tell her that you’re trying out a new diet and you’d like to know what she’s serving. If you can’t eat anything but the salad, ask if you can come to her house a little earlier than everyone else so you can make something simple for yourself. The offer to spend a little extra time with her might make her feel less offended by your refusal of her food. And the time in her kitchen might give you an opportunity to explain more about why you’re eating this way. Or if your grandma is a more forgiving type, just let her know you’ll be bringing food for yourself to add to her spread.

If your grandma or mother is anything like mine, they’ll make you whatever you want. They’ll call YOU to find out what you can or can’t have, and they’ll go out and buy you a chicken, make you guacamole, and roast you some sweet potato fries with homemade tallow. If you make your needs known, many hosts will try to meet them.

4. Stretch the truth.

Ok, that sounds really bad, but hear me out. Most people don’t understand concepts like “gluten sensitivity”, “ketogenic” (if you’re that type), “casein”, “lectins”, “raw dairy”, or “pasture raised”. And a lot of people will rightfully get defensive if you start evangelizing at the table about how terrible the food they’re eating is for them. Don’t be rude.

If you arrive at dinner and you haven’t called ahead to alert the host of your dietary desires and you don’t want to eat what they’re serving, tell them you’re allergic to the food. People understand the word “allergic”. They don’t understand, “I’m sensitive to that.” And there is a difference. Allergies and sensitivities both involve your immune system, but you’re probably not actually allergic to wheat: if you have a reaction to it, you’re likely “sensitive” to it. But don’t say you’re sensitive unless you’re ready to give them an explanation of what that means, including the symptom you get upon eating it (see option 1 above).

If you’re overweight and you don’t feel like going into the details of Paleo, tell them you’re on a “low-carb diet”. People know what Atkins is and they’ve seen what it does to people: it makes them lose weight. They’ll get that. You are actually on a low-carb diet if you’re Paleo, but as you know, it’s not all about the carbs over here in Paleo/Primal world…

5. Bring your own food.

If you’re like me and you don’t ever like being uncomfortable (I’m a taurus after all), and you really just don’t want to eat the gluten and dairy, then bring your own meal. I went to my stepdad’s house for Thanksgiving once with an entire Paleo Thanksgiving dinner in tow. My husband and I worked all day on it at my brother’s house and happily enjoyed it while mingling with family at dinner. Yes, we got a lot of questions, and yes, we were chastised a bit by my family for it. But it was delicious and I didn’t feel awful that night or the next day. Plus, my stepdad went Paleo after that, and I don’t doubt that proving to him that we could still eat delicious food had something to do with that decision.

6. Suck it up for a night.

Don’t be inflexible. If you can actually tolerate some grains and dairy once in a while, I actually encourage you to indulge on holidays. It’s twice a year, after all, people. I’m not saying walk straight to the pie and go for it, but if your family is just really sensitive about change, and it’ll make your holiday a nightmare if you put up a fuss about food, then let it go and eat the food.

So there are my suggestions for dealing with the holidays on a Paleo diet. Anyone else have any suggestions?



  1. It is so much easier to say “allergy”. People generally will back off pushing poisonous food. I’m highly sensitive to wheat. Great suggestions! For me, I eat first or bring something with me. Thank you for all you do! It’s very very helpful! :))

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