I read an article in the New York Post, titled Your Worst Nightmare about the issues caterers and party hosts face when dealing with people who have special dietary needs.
First I was miffed at the title. Really? People with special diets are your Worst nightmare? And then I was even more miffed after I finished reading. Calling people with special diets “hard to please” is unfair and unjustified. If you have severe allergies, strong moral convictions or serious health conditions, your diet is not about being “fussy”.
But some hosts and guests really do have bad manners, regardless of what’s on the menu. And while it blames diets as the scapegoat, this article does give some good examples of ways we shouldn’t behave towards one another in this time of sharing.
A little common courtesy and kind communication go a long way. Here are a few helpful suggestions, especially during this “whining” and dining season, in hopes we can all enjoy some holiday cheer.
Holiday Party Tips for Vegans, Celiacs, People with Allergies, etc…
1. Discuss your needs with the host/caterer/restaurant ahead of time and as early as possible. It’s rude to drop information about special dietary needs on your arrival and then expect to be accommodated. Also, it doesn’t hurt to follow up with the restaurant/caterer the day of or day before the event to avoid the server’s deer in the headlights look because somebody forgot to communicate to the chef.
2. If you’re heading for a home-hosted event, offer to bring something to share that you are able to eat. Don’t be like the Tupperware guy in the article. It’s rude to bring food only for yourself, so bring enough for everyone, even if you end up being the only one who eats it.
3. If the host insists on preparing all the food, this gets a little trickier, but you can offer some recipe ideas and resources for them. Might be a good idea to eat a little something before you go just in case the veggies are drenched in butter and the beans are mixed with bacon and bread crumbs. Or you’re stuck eating only carrot sticks and celery for dinner. Control what you can.
4. The dinner table is not the place to lecture on the evils of factory farming, the gore of slaughter or the details of what gluten does to your intestines. Even if you’re asked by someone who’s genuinely interested in why you make your food choices, keep your answer succinct, suggest some movies, books or meet-ups for them to learn more and save the gruesome details for another time.
5. You have a right to know what you’re putting into your body and it’s OK to have a special diet. Don’t let others make you feel guilty about something very important to you. If you really feel uncomfortable, but need to make an appearance, consider coming early for appetizers and leaving before dinner or joining the party late for dessert. It’s easy to stick to beverages while you socialize. Often the sit down dinner is the most obvious place to notice dietary issues and your diet is less conspicuous before and after the meal when everyone is chatting and moving around the room. Just be sure to let the host know you can’t be there for the meal because of another engagement. No need to share any more specifics than that.
Tips for Holiday Hosts
1. Please be understanding of people’s dietary choices and don’t take it personally. People make choices for a variety of reasons, many of which are medically necessary – even life threatening if ignored.
2a. No, we can’t pick out the cheese, bacon, croutons, etc… If you put something in the dish that’s not in our diet, we are not able to eat it. Don’t expect us to. Some people have serious reactions to ingredients and the hospital is no place to spend the holiday.
2b. Don’t interchange serving utensils. Cross contamination stinks. Some gluten-free eaters or those with severe allergies are so sensitive, using a spoon in one dish with gluten or the allergen, and then another that should be safe, can cause them to have a reaction. Remember the poor girl who kissed her boyfriend long after he at a PBJ and she died? It can be really serious for some of us. And a vegan dish can quickly contain animal products if utensils get mixed. Sometimes it’s hard to control what guests do when dishing up, but if possible, have a serving utensil for each dish.
3. Please don’t be offended if you are asked if something contains certain ingredients. Sometimes it isn’t obvious to us whether or not a dish is vegan, gluten or allergen-free and we have to ask you so we know whether or not we can eat it. We know best when it comes to our diet and you may inadvertently include something that isn’t good for us, even if you have the kindest intentions to fix it on our behalf. Refer to #2 above about the hospital – really don’t make us go there.
4. If we offer to bring something, take us up on it! It’s easier for you not to worry about what we’ll eat and it’s easier for us not having to worry about what we’ll eat.
5. Consider a flexible dinner plan where salad is served salad bar style and sauces and spreads are offered on the side. Include a plate of raw veggies with the appetizers, a steamed, plain veggie option with dinner and some unadorned fruit for those who prefer a lighter dessert.
We live in a society that’s heavily focused on food as part of the socialization process. Know one knows this better than those of us who don’t eat the standard American diet. People take pride in preparing a meal and sharing their culinary talents. Food tends to take the starring role at many events, especially during the holidays. But if we focus more on why we have gatherings in the first place – sharing each other’s company – rather than what we are or are not eating, we might just have a little more peace on earth and goodwill towards all this holiday season.