Raw, vegan, gluten-free turkey substitute, anyone? The holiday season is upon us, which means plenty of gatherings that revolve around food. This can create anxiety for hosts and attendees alike, as food sensitivities and special diets seem to be more prevalent than ever.
I’ve seen the stress on both sides. People are probably more particular with me about their food preferences because I’m a dietitian, but even I struggle with where to draw the line. I was recently taken aback when I invited a friend to dinner and asked about any food restrictions. She is sometimes a vegetarian and sometimes not, so it’s tough to keep up.
She replied, “I eat fish, but only if it’s sustainable.” As someone with above-average knowledge of sustainable fishing practices who lives in a city where sustainable fish markets exist, I was still surprised by this request. Should a host be expected not only to accommodate special diets but also to ensure that what’s on the table is local, organic or meets other food preferences?
This got me thinking about what picky eaters many of us have become. I started to wonder what the etiquette is around asking our hosts to accommodate us and how far hosts are expected to go. Are there different rules if it’s a small gathering or a larger dinner party? And does the already stress-inducing holiday season mean we all need to loosen up our food rules?
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I asked one of the top etiquette experts in North America, Julie Blais Comeau, for her advice on how hosts and guests can navigate special diets around the holiday season.
Allergies, sensitivities and preferences
If you have a food allergy, it’s your responsibility to let your host know. This is a safety issue, so don’t be shy about speaking up. Hosts should do everything they can to accommodate allergies.
With food sensitivities, mild intolerances, preferences or personal choices, things get a bit murkier. A good rule of thumb is the closer the relationship and the smaller the gathering, the more appropriate it is to bring up food preferences that aren’t allergies or otherwise essential. A festive dinner for three at your sister’s house? You can mention that you’re trying to avoid red meat. Going to a holiday party for 70 people at your significant other’s boss’ house? Best to keep nonessential special requests to yourself.
Advice for holiday hosts
Blais Comeau suggests hosts ask, “Is there anything I should be aware of to make you comfortable?” You can include “...throughout the meal or in our home?” This opens up the conversation to what the person chooses to tell, and takes it beyond food to things such as pets.
If you don’t want to have to accommodate special diets, it’s best not to ask at all. If you ask about food preferences, you are then expected to make an effort to meet the needs brought up by your guests. You could be opening the floodgates.
If a guest does bring up a diet preference that you feel isn’t essential or is a bit too demanding (like in my sustainable fish example), you can say: “I’ll do my best to accommodate that. I will be serving plenty of vegetables, a large salad and wild rice pilaf.” Letting the person know what other dishes you are planning will help them know what to expect, and they will know they can complement their meal with other options.
A suggestion from Blais Comeau that surprised me is that as the host, it’s perfectly acceptable to ask the person with the allergy or food restriction to bring something, even if they don’t offer. She suggests saying: “I understand you’re avoiding gluten. Is there a side dish you’d like to contribute?”
This makes the guests responsible for their own special requirements. They are experts on their diets, and you aren’t.
Advice for holiday guests
If you have a special diet, religious or other food restrictions, or especially an allergy, you should say to your holiday host: “I’d love to come, but I want you to know I’m allergic to/can’t have ___. I’d like to bring a dish to share with everyone.”
This is a great tactic for vegans and vegetarians to use. As I hear often from vegetarian clients, well-meaning hosts often offer vegetarian options such as vegetables and potatoes, not realizing vegetarians need some protein, too. Take the guesswork and stress out of it for the host and bring your own diet-appropriate side dish for everyone to try.
What if you’re on a juice fast, sugar detox, low-carb diet or other program that you have to admit is short-term? First of all, why are you on this diet at all, especially during the holidays? Second, according to Blais Comeau, it’s rude to share preferences or special diets you are on with your hosts. They were gracious enough to invite you to a meal. Either decline the invitation or suck it up for that one meal. Your host doesn’t need the stress of figuring out which foods are compliant with your diet and which aren’t.
Happy (gluten-free, vegan, paleo, etc.) holidays!