How Tuesday! Entertaining those pain-in-the-butt dinner guests who are allergic to everything.

Sometimes food is scary

Hi! It’s me again, pretending to write regularly. This week, I want to talk to you about those people: the ones with food allergies and intolerances, or “special dietary needs,” who inevitably end up on your guest list because they’re someone’s plus-one or happen to be inconveniently related to you by blood, and are out to ruin all of your careful holiday menu plans with their pitiful cries of “I can’t eat this,” or “I can’t eat that,” and warnings of severe gastrointestinal distress and/or anaphylactic shock.

Maybe you’ve noticed that they’ve been popping up all over the place lately, attempting to infiltrate dinner parties everywhere and ruin the cooking experience for all of us normal people who can eat whatever the heck we want.

In fact, I ended up marrying one of those people, which really throws a wrench into things. And then there’s the possibility that I produced another one: she came home from daycare a few weeks ago with most of her face, neck, and hands red and inflamed after eating bananas earlier in the day. This cousin can’t have tree nuts, strawberries, or eggs. That friend can’t have dairy or apples. Auntie can’t have gluten. Et cetera. So I consider myself to be something of an expert on the matter.

Fear not, friends. I can say from experience that these people aren’t trying to add to your holiday stress load; they just don’t want to make you feel bad by dying at your dinner table. And with a little bit of planning and a lot of communication, accommodating guests with special dietary needs can actually be a great experience for everyone.

The Sunday Severed Strawberry Massacre

Ask up front.
Some people will let you know about their allergies right away. Others are more reluctant. So check with your guests well before the big day. How? When I don’t know about a guest’s diet, I’ll call or e-mail to say something like, “I’m really looking forward to seeing you next Saturday! Oh, and just so I can make sure everyone can enjoy dinner, I wanted to double check with you about whether [Guest in Question] has any dietary restrictions or allergies that I should know about.”

Please note: It’s easy, when faced with a list of allergies — common or uncommon — to blurt out something along the lines of, “Well, what can you eat?!” He or she has heard this dozens of times, and it falls into that category of fairly tactless things to say, right next to asking, “How much longer NOW?” of a pregnant woman at the end of her third trimester. Try to remember that he or she feels worse about the whole thing than you do.

Get details.
When you have a confirmed case of Special Dietary Needs among your guests, don’t be afraid to ask as many questions as it takes for you to understand how to accommodate them. You’ll probably need to ask questions such as,

  • What foods or ingredients do you avoid?
  • What kinds of foods or ingredients do you normally use instead?
  • I was planning to make [Delicious Menu Item]. Does that sound safe?

Avoid cross-contamination.
Just because one guest is allergic to dairy doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to completely strike dairy products from your menu. (But check. Sometimes allergies really are that severe.) Just keep from contaminating “safe” food with “unsafe” ingredients by following basic cross-contamination avoidance practices: Wash your hands. Keep knives, utensils, cutting boards, and other cooking implements separate.

Nom nom nom

Keep ingredient lists.
You don’t have to divulge every recipe, but keep a list of the ingredients you use for each dish. When you’re using premade items (sauces, condiments, pasta, bread, butter/margarine, etc.) — basically anything that has been packaged or processed in some way — save the labels with their ingredient lists, even if it looks okay to you. Sometimes allergens are hidden under foreign-sounding terms. And sometimes things that sound dangerous are really okay. Giving your guest the opportunity to read the labels for him or herself is a really thoughtful way to offer peace of mind about what he or she is about to eat. It also avoids that slightly awkward but polite as possible moment where he or she declines to eat the food you’ve worked so hard on, because hunger is better than the hospital. 

A batch of heart cookies

Relax, slow down, and think clearly.
It’s cooking, not brain surgery. You may not be used to it, but allergies and other food needs aren’t really that hard to deal with, as long as you know what your guests’ needs are and have ample time to plan for how to accommodate them. You might have to change the way you do things, and it might take longer than normal as a result. But you’ll learn a lot, too.

The fact is this: eating away from home can be a worrisome experience for some people. And because the world just doesn’t quite get it yet, it’s easy to feel like the odd man out, like an enormous culinary burden. So trust me when I say that it’s a proud feeling of accomplishment to watch one (or two, or three!) of those people sit at your table and smile and laugh and stuff themselves silly, and totally worth the effort. Sometimes, as it turns out, food really is love.