I’m a really lucky lady. Because of the way I’ve designed my career, my “office” fits in a backpack. Most days, I can work wherever I have wifi, headphones, and the privacy of a door during client sessions. Last month, I was a road warrior ending with nearly 2 weeks in the Jersey shore “office.”
At the beach, we were lucky enough to have some friends of ours, their children and their food allergies join us for a few days. Since being diagnosed with Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis nearly 2 years ago, I’m no stranger to tackling food allergies, sensitivities and intolerances. (I’m also no stranger to how much dietary intervention can mitigate or eliminate some gnarly physical symptoms.) Among us 7 beach-goers, we netted a list of dietary restrictions including gluten, dairy, peanuts, multiple tree nuts, onion, fermented foods, eggs and red meat. That more restrictions than people!
It wasn’t until Craig (my husband) and I were driving home that we realized how adept I’ve become at hosting around a myriad of dietary restrictions. With gut dysfunction and autoimmune conditions on the rise, allergies, sensitivities and intolerances are becoming increasingly common. Some hosts might see it as stressful, but I see it as a fun culinary challenge. Having also been an unprepared guest making polite excuses over my near-empty plate, I understand how stressful the choice between social isolation and spending the next day(s) in bed or in the bathroom can be.
If you’re hosting and want all of your guests to feel relaxed and comfortable, here are some tips to consider:
Ask your guests about any food allergies, sensitivities and intolerances in advance.
Like the 80s television PSA etched into my brain, knowing is half the battle. When you’re inviting people or collecting RSVPs, ask if there are any allergies or dietary restrictions to consider while planning the menu. Ask any clarifying questions, especially about possible anaphylaxis. It’s so much easier to accommodate a request before everyone’s ringing your doorbell.
Allow guests with dietary restrictions to bring a safe dish.
Guests with dietary restrictions know what a total pain in the ass it is to restrict foods from their diet. They do it every single day. Most folks, especially women, don’t enjoy being a burden. If your guest offers to bring something, indulge them. They’ll feel safer; and you’ll have one less thing to prepare. If you as a host want something specific, ask for what you want. Communicate it clearly. For example: If you’re planning an atomic 50s luau-themed party and baking isn’t your thing, ask them to bring a dessert that fits with your theme and number of guests. Everyone wins.
Focus on what everyone can eat.
Instead of getting overwhelmed when you’re planning the menu, make a list of all the ingredients everyone can eat. Taking my last beach trip as an example, I could've stressed about coming up with multiple meals free of gluten, dairy, all nuts, fermented foods, onion, eggs and red meat. But why do that? Instead, I opted to ask: What can I make with fresh fruits, vegetables (except for onions), non-gluten grains (like rice, quinoa and oats), corn, fresh fish, poultry, coconut milk, olive oil, chia seeds, beans/legumes and every herb or spice I can think of? Turns out, you can make a lot of delicious and satisfying things. Pinterest and food blogs are great sources for recipe ideas. Your guest may be able to recommend some of their favorite cookbooks. From my experience, if you add flavor with herbs, spices and healthy fats, your other guests won’t even notice they’re eating something “allergy-friendly.”
Keep things separate and marked.
If you’ve prepared a lowest common denominator meal, a meal free of all your guests’ dietary restrictions, subtly let them know when they arrive. This is most important when you’re plating everything. I say subtly because I find a big reveal to my non-dietary-restricted crowd post-dinner is a total blast. They're usually surprised to learn the delicious meal they just ate was free of gluten, dairy, eggs, soy, corn, peanuts and refined sugar. (Side note: When I’m cooking for a group I don’t know well, these are the common foods I typically will omit or, at least, separate.) If you’re serving buffet-style, create labels with the name of each dish and what potentially problematic ingredients are in it.
For your guests with dietary restrictions, knowing they’ll have an option other than potentially awkward conversation over an empty plate can be a huge relief. As for you, you’ll be known for throwing great events and probably have a bunch of kind things said about you after the fact.