Good Host, Good Guest: Accommodating Food Allergies and Preferences

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Dinner parties should be fun, for both guests and hosts. But it’s not fun to plan a dinner party only to find that a guest has multiple food allergies and cannot eat anything you prepared. Or to learn for the first time that someone you know no longer eats meat or carbohydrates.

A gracious host wants to make guests feel welcome and cared for. Part of this is learning what foods your guests prefer and what they do not (or must not) eat. This requires a brief discussion, essentially an agreement, or social contract, between host and guest. It’s really common sense. How do you ensure that your guest’s food plan is in harmony with your menu? The easiest way to find out is to ask.

There is a difference between food preferences versus food allergies. Allergies may be to one or more foods (wheat, dairy, nuts, gluten, seafood). People with food allergies may have a mild reaction, such as hives, or a very severe and life-threatening reaction that requires immediate medical care. In contrast, food preferences (vegetarian, vegan, organic, halal, sugar-free) are not necessarily a health issue. But in either case, you want to make sure your guests enjoy their meal.

If you learn that a guest has food allergies, discuss the details. If a food allergy requires that the person carry an EpiPen® at all times, take it very seriously; even a small amount of a food allergen means that a call to 911 may be needed. Dairy allergies mean more than being lactose-intolerant (avoiding milk, cheese and ice cream). You also need to check packaged foods such as salad dressings and candy for ingredients like casein, which is a milk protein. A fish allergy means there can be no anchovies in the Caesar salad dressing, and no fish sauce in the stir-fry.

People who live with severe food allergies have learned to cope with them over time. They realize that it takes great effort to learn what food is safe for them. If a guest with allergies is more comfortable bringing a dish that they have prepared for all to share, please know that this is the safest plan for the guest and the host.

There are plenty of people without food allergies who avoid certain foods because they simply feel better if they don’t consume them. Other people cannot tolerate certain foods, for different reasons, such as flavor or texture. Cilantro is a perfect example. Studies have found that some people may be genetically predisposed to sense that cilantro tastes exactly like soap. Julia Child was one such person; she said of cilantro, “I would pick it out if I saw it and throw it on the floor. However, there are not many hosts who would remain calm if a guest threw food on the floor.

A good host accommodates guests with unique preferences by talking with them about the menu. If you’re unsure what to serve, ask what their favorite dishes are, so you can include some side dishes that will work for them. If you have no clue what foods are paleo or pescatarian, don’t stress; let the Internet filter this information and use your computer to search out recipes.You just might find some new recipes that you can’t live without.

It may be impossible to customize your main dish to please every guest. If that’s the case, offer side dishes that will give everyone an option. Point out dishes you’re serving that are specific to each guest, listing ingredients for dishes when you can. Be honest about ingredients; your vegan guest will appreciate knowing if your mashed potatoes were made using chicken broth.

One option for harried hosts is to serve two different main dishes. For example, if your signature dish is lasagna, create one meatless version for vegetarians; serve side dishes that are meat free to please all your guests. Another option is to skip a sit-down dinner in favor of serving dishes buffet style. You can serve a formal buffet, or have an informal barbecue, self-serve taco bar, or make-it-yourself pizza, allowing guests to choose what they want.

What about the guest who informs you, as they sit down to dinner, “Oh! I hate (fill in the blank: bacon/cilantro/bell peppers/mushrooms)!” What to do?

First, hosts who have done a proper job deserve guests who reciprocate in kind. A good guest finds a way to compliment the host and always says “thank you.” Second, remember chef Ina Garten’s dinner party advice for hosts to relax and have fun. If guests sense that their host is stressed, Garten says, “the fun stops.”

What, then, is the proper response? Relax, smile and say “Oh, sorry!” as you move on. Yes, it’s that simple. You’ve done your job; now it’s time to relax. Have fun! HLM

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