Modern Etiquette: Navigating Food Allergies + Dietary Restrictions

by Grace Bonney

Illustration by Anna Emilia

I’ve been fortunate to eat a lot of truly delicious meals lately and it made me think about all of the things that go into preparing food for someone. Not just the planning and shopping and cooking, but the thought and consideration behind each decision. Any entertaining to dine or drink at someone’s home is an invitation to be cared for and treated like family. So the way we welcome people into our home and prepare food for them should be an extension of that care. But lately I’ve been hearing a lot from readers who are feeling frustrated and confused by the various allergies, restrictions and diets people are dealing with today. From vegans and vegetarians to guests who are gluten free, soy free or paleo-dieting, there is a veritable minefield of things to avoid when cooking for guests. So today I thought I’d tackle this topic, keeping in mind that everyone has the right to eat/cook/host the way they see fit. This post will try to focus on how to make both the guest and host feel comfortable without costing anyone too much time or money. As always, I heartily welcome your input, thoughts and experiences. All of it helps makes each one of us a better informed and more appreciative host and guest.

These are the rules I try to live by (and adjust when necessary) when cooking for and with others.
There’s obviously some wiggle room in each of these based on circumstances and needs, but it’s good to remember that guidelines like these will help both the host and the guest feel comfortable and welcome- which is the goal of any meal spent together.

1. You (host) chose to welcome these guests into your home, making them feel welcome is part of the deal. If you choose to invite a couple that has been vegan for years, providing them with vegan-friendly food should be a given. Does it mean you have to spend an arm an a leg on pricey meat alternatives? Of course not. There are so many vegan-friendly recipes that are delicious, affordable and delicious for everyone. Just choose one and everyone can eat comfortably- and happily.

2. You (guest) are being welcomed into someone’s home, so being polite and helpful is part of the deal. If you have a dietary restriction (either by choice or by birth) you should let your host know well in advance so they can prepare. Please note, dietary restrictions are not licenses to be picky. If someone makes you a delicious gluten-free meal but you would have preferred squash over asparagus, it’s best to keep that to yourself. If someone goes to the trouble of making you a meal from scratch in their home and takes all of your needs and restrictions into place, it’s part of your role as a guest to at least try everything you can safely eat (considering all your allergies, etc.).

3. Preferences are not the same as genuine restrictions. Every now and then I meet someone who genuinely hates a certain food. I can’t think of anything I wouldn’t try at least once (except anything still crawling on a table), but I also can’t think of anything ruder than a fully grown adult who chooses to turn their nose up at several standard staple foods like rice, potatoes, peas, etc. If you don’t like it, give your host the respect of at least trying a bit before you declare you don’t care for it. I think part of being a mature adult is being open to trying new things, so unless you know for a fact that you’ll be in major intestinal distress from eating rice, just east the rice and say thank you. You don’t have to eat it all, but a few bites goes a long way toward not making your host feel bad.

4. Consider the Size. If you’re the only people invited over, serving a meal that suits your needs 100% is completely within reason. However, if you’re 2 of 100 people invited, you should not expect that every aspect of the meal will be 100% suitable for your meals. At a large event where there is a buffet, it’s not always practical to make 100% of the options gluten free, vegan, etc. That said, with more and more people dealing with allergies and restrictions, it’s fair to assume that (when informed ahead of time), hosts will accommodate as much as possible in their planning.

5. When in doubt, offer to bring or suggest a meal. I think it’s incredibly kind and helpful when guests with extreme allergies provide either suggestions or actual food at events. You of course aren’t obligated to, but it’s a nice touch. For example, if you’re gluten free and eating at someone’s home who’s never dealt with that allergy before, it could be helpful to mention something like, “We love cooking with Quinoa and would be more than happy to suggest some group-friendly recipes if you need any help!”. If your hosts are still lost, offering to bring something like a salad or make-ahead dish is incredibly helpful. (It also gives them an idea of something they can cook next time)

6. Be clear about what’s in each dish. Few things bug me more than hearing a picky guest repeatedly asking something like, “Does this have butter in it? Does this? What about this?”. If you know a guest has a specific and genuine allergy or dietary concern, mention that at the start of the meal. For example, you can say, “We made a delicious vegetarian pasta salad, as well as roast chicken and some of our favorite grilled vegetables- all of which were made with just our favorite olive oil.” Or you can let people know simply that all of the vegetables were prepared without animal products, period. I always feel terrible for vegetarians when it turns out that veggie sides have been cooked in bacon, etc. While it’s delicious for some, it renders the dish off limits for them.

7. When in doubt, a simple “We’re sorry” is helpful. If a guest fails to inform you about an allergy or restriction, it’s not the end of the world. Simply apologize for not being able to accommodate them and see what you can do to remedy the situation with what you have. Maybe you can give them a larger portion of the salad being served as a starter or just skip the dairy dessert and give them sorbet you had in the freezer. Either way, a simple “sorry” is all that’s required. A guest should also pass along the same “sorry” if they failed to inform the host they are currently eating, say, an all-meat diet and won’t be trying the delicious bread, pasta and rice dishes you prepared.


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  • I agree that when you are inviting people to your home you should try and make them feel as welcome as possible but I don’t necessarily bend an entire meal to the person with the allergy or food restriction. For example, if I have a mix of vegans and carnivores, I offer meat but also have hearty vegan sides that can stand alone as a meal as well.

    I also agree in open communication. If a friend keeps kosher, I let them know what I am planning to make just to make sure it will work for that friend.

    I don’t necessarily agree on eating something you know you don’t like as a guest. While I will pretty much eat anything, there are a few foods that I’d rather not eat. I don’t think it is offensive to skip a component of a meal and enjoy the rest of what is being offered and I certainly wouldn’t be hurt if someone opted out of a part of what I prepared.

  • I think it’s important for people without allergies to realize that for them a meal out may just be a casual event, but for someone with severe allergies, their life could be at risk just doing something others do all the time without thinking. That said, it’s both a huge honour for someone to take that risk by eating in your home, and a huge responisibility for you who is hosting them.

    An older relative of mine had a fish allergy and him & his wife went to another couples home for dinner. This was many years ago when allergies were uncommon and unfamiliar. Despite trying to get across an understanding of their severity, many people didn’t believe that they existed and thought they were a figment of the imagination. The hosting wife was of this opinion and she decided that she would “cure” him of his allergy. He double checked and asked if there was any fish in the meal as they sat down and the woman looked him in the eye and told him “no”. She had put fish sauce in the food. He left via ambulance and spent days in the hospital.

    Needless to say, it put a strain on their friendship. I think they kept in touch with the unknowing husband, but never talked to the wife again. An example of what not to do, I suppose. Certainly she was not a good host. But also a reminder that good etiquette really is about respecting people and caring for them. I agree with Emilee’s comment that “nothing endears me to a friend more than one who is willing to nourish [me].” It immediately says something to me about who that person is.

  • !) If I ask you to my house for a meal, it means I want to feed you and spend time with you. I assume that if I don’t already know you well, you will tell me your restrictions. I agree that it’s frustrating to be surprised by dietary restrictions on the day.
    2) If you are worried about cross-contamination, or feel your needs are too complex, by all means, feel free to bring something. If eating out is too stressful and you still want to hang out, suggest some other activity.
    3) Sometimes It’s a little easier to plan meals besides dinner. I have friends who go crazy for the steel-cut oatmeal bar at a local restaurant where they can pick their toppings. It’s not hard to find guaranteed GF oats. If you have people over and do a sandwich bar for lunch, it’s easy to swap out breads and cheeses for things that work for people.
    4) Serious food allergies are a way of life these days. If your host is not as discreet as you would like for them to be, well, maybe they are trying to to be expedient while taking care of everyone’s needs. I know I don’t always have time to write ingredient lists for meals.

  • My husband hates nuts. It’s a texture thing. Recently, we were invited to dinner at my aunt’s house, and I mentioned beforehand that he “does not eat nuts”. She was making a rice + chicken + veggies + raisins + sauce one-dish meal that usually involves nuts, so she placed the nuts on the side. I thought that was simple enough. However, when she found out that he merely didn’t like nuts, and was not genuinely (medically) allergic, she glared at us. Why is it any different whether he’s allergic or hates them if the change is such a simple one as placing them on the side? Isn’t the whole point to enjoy a meal together in a way that makes everyone comfortable?

    • Allergy is a multi-headed beast. I get the hiccups when I eat cucumbers. I do tell folks this ahead of time. Recently though someone said when she picked something up and did not know it had cucumber in it. So I got the hiccups for a few hours. Not an allergy per se, unless you are one with the hiccups.

  • Both of my kids have severe food allergies. Between them, they’re allergic to dairy, wheat, nuts, peanuts, sesame, and a whole host of other foods. They carry EpiPens with them wherever they go. Most people who don’t deal with allergies on a daily basis don’t understand that it’s not enough for those with allergies to not eat the foods to which they’re allergic. Cross-contamination–either from the facility where something was produced or packaged or from where/how a dish was prepared–presents a huge risk. I’ve had family members who truly want to be able to provide something for my kids to eat, yet they don’t understand cross-contamination; if they’re going back and forth between making the pesto and making a nut-free dish, they’ve likely transferred some nut protein to the nut-free dish without knowing it. (This extends to the plates and utensils as well.) And I would never expect someone who doesn’t have to deal with it all the time to read ingredient labels as closely as I have to; many allergens also lurk under hidden labels. (Did you know that “dairy-free” rice and almond cheeses still contain casein, which is a milk protein?)

    For the (small) handful of people who DO get it, and whom I trust to safely prepare something for my kids, I am beyond grateful. For the vast majority, I ask what’s on the menu, and then we bring a safe equivalent for the kids. I always offer to bring a dish, even if it’s not potluck, so we know there’s one safe thing to eat. Generally, I’ll absolve the host of worrying about it because I KNOW how complicated it is.

    As far as having allergies and attending large catered events, I don’t recommend giving a list of allergies to the host. Instead, explain the situation to the host and ask who the caterer is, and their contact person. When my son was going to a lot of bar/bat mitzvah parties, I always contacted the caterer as far in advance as possible. My approach was to ask what they were serving and what was in each dish. My goal was to determine what (if anything) was safe for my son to eat. Only twice was he able to eat anything–and in both cases the chefs went out of their way to prepare something safe. Both involved simple substitutions. I’m sure some of the hosts thought I was being a pain–definitely one event planner did. I don’t care, though. What I was, was an advocate for my son.

    When we host parties, we always ask people if they have any dietary restrictions. If I’m preparing all the food, I try to have a wide variety and to include things that are safe for everyone to eat. (Believe me, people with food allergies and other medical dietary restrictions, get really tired of standing out because of their food issues.) To me, it’s a fun challenge. If we’re hosting a potluck, I keep the allergy-friendly food in a safe place and discreetly tell those with allergies what’s available for them (besides what they brought).

    Bottom line: Communication and Education. Those with dietary restrictions (both by choice and not) should let the host know. I think it’s also much nicer to offer to bring something–rather than suggest foods/recipes to the host. If you’re hosting, though, just ask your guests. But don’t assume–especially where true allergies are involved–that by providing what you think are good alternatives that everything will prove to be safe. You can offer gluten-free bread to all your guests, but then find (surprise!) the person with the wheat allergy is also allergic to the cornstarch in the GF bread. It’s hard, and I applaud anyone willing to try. But allergies do not belong in the same category as picky eating.
    For those of us who live with allergies every day, I think we also need to do our best to educate others. At the very least, no host wants their party to end with a call to 911.

  • I like this post! I was brought up to always eat anything prepared by my host and to clear my plate at someone else’s house even if they serve something you hate. I find it horribly rude when people won’t eat things because they are picky (I do not find it at all rude when people are allergic to things and will go out of my way to make something they can eat). I just think, you’re a grown-up – it won’t kill you to eat something different for once. I also don’t mind at all so long as I’m warned in advance, but I am amazed at the number of people who will look at something you’ve spent ages cooking as though it were dog shit and then announce they don’t eat x, y or z even though you asked them in advance if they had any dietary requirements. I had one woman do this and say ‘is this vegetarian?’ while sneering at her plate, and in fact it was veggie because I’d been warned, but I felt she was extremely rude. What’s wrong with saying ‘that looks lovely, but can I just check if it’s vegetarian?’ or similar? I’d never met her before and still remember her as that rude friend of my partner’s!

    • Leila: I think your post is terribly closed-minded. There are reasons other than allergies why some people do not eat certain things, none of which gives you the right to label someone as rude. I, for instance, have multiple sclerosis which affects my ability to safely swallow. Certain food textures and consistencies cause me to choke and I must avoid them. I would hate to be invited into the home of someone who shares your views and feel obligated to either disclose my otherwise private illness or risk my life in order to avoid your harsh judgment.

      • Karen – I think you really read things into Leila’s post that weren’t there. I’m pretty sure she was saying if it’s a medical issue and you tell her before hand – no problem, if you’re just being picky (ie not liking carrots) that’s a bit much. If you simply don’t take certain foods and make no comment about it, I doubt anyone would have a problem with that.

        • Actually no, Kaye, I read it quite literally. The only exception she mentions to her rule is allergies. I believe you were the one to read things that weren’t there by interpreting ‘allergies’ to mean medical issues in general.

          • This is all very interesting. I am a picky eater who watches closely what I eat. This is my choice and I owe no one an explanation or justification. I can usually fill my plate with the 2-3 items that I really want to eat. What’s key is to not draw attention to myself with what I eat and don’t eat and deflect any questions with a genuine thank you for hosting.

            • I work in a location where monthly pot lucks during work hours have become normal. I have both Crohn’s disease (raw veggies with skins, seeds of any kind, and nuts are out as is anything dairy that has not been consistently refrigerated) and Lupus along with a severe sulfite allergy (any dried fruits and wine even used in cooking). An EpiPen solves the breathing issue of the anaphalaxis but not the head to toe hives. I politely address the fact that I don’t do food of unknown origin due to multiple allergies (the Crohn’s is none of their business and I am berated for “being unsocial”. I went once just to shut everyone up and there was nothing I could eat. The other employees were offended. I steer clear of them now and ignore the snide remarks. A new supervisor, after having explained to her the multiple food issues and why I would not take part, brings a dish to a staff meeting and plopped it right in front of me, containing tomatoes (a double whammy for me). I am a very thick skinned person but I found this to be obnoxious and offensive. The simple action of asking me beforehand if there are any ingredients in what she was making that are a health risk would have been awesome. It is a dish that the tomatoes could easily have been left off of a small section, allowing me to at least partake of what I had to look at and smell during a mandatory meeting.

            • “What’s key is to not draw attention to myself with what I eat and don’t eat and deflect any questions with a *genuine* (emphasis added) thank you for hosting.”

              Nothing more said! I tried to say more and realized I was just muddying the waters of your perfectly clear post! If I know about it, it’s too much!!!

  • Everyone’s comments are so fantastic.
    But seriously, this now makes me want to think multiple times before having a dinner party.
    I wrote above about my severe anaphylactic allergies above, and I truly empathize with all of you parents out there advocating and protecting your children with the same affliction.

    I think it is important to remember that those who just don’t get it, simply don’t understand it…

  • I find the number of grown ups who can’t distinguish between genuine allergies & not liking something just silly.

    My mother is allergic to – of all things – garlic & chocolate, so I’m used to meals avoiding these things & if someone has a genuine allergy or belief-based non-eating (veg, vegan, kosher & so on) that’s fine. But the number of people who seem to think “I don’t like broccoli/anchovies/red food” deserves equal respect is just silly. I have eaten out in a group & watched an adult sulk through his vegetarian pasta – apparently it had vegetables – & it was disgusting & embarrassing. I’ve eaten things I dislike when out, and things I love – it’s the thing about eating some one else’s food, but I am a grown up & can cope with politely eating something I dont like, and saying thank you that was nice.

    Indeed, most of the food my parents cook when I eat at their house isnt my style or taste, but they have tried to make something special for me, and have cared enough to make it, so why dont I care enough to eat it & be complimentary?

  • As a child I was taught to eat everything when a guest and never complain about what was served. When older and in the Peace Corps, I often visited in homes where it would have been extremely rude not to eat many of the strange dishes offered to me as an honored guest. My hosts were poor and they were truly being generous by sharing their food with me.

    Now in the United States, I find it strange that, except for food allergies, people feel that their special diet should be accommodated when they are guests. I too, often don’t invite people over to eat because it is just too complicated to cover so many different dietary restrictions. We have such food abundance, but are such a poor society when people feel what they eat is more important than accepting the hospitality of a shared meal.

  • So true, Ashley. Most of the things our family are invited to are casual events held by close friends and family. Some get it, others don’t. Some have offered to prepare “something special” but I know, as well-intentioned as they are, they wouldn’t be able to put something on the table that’s truly safe. So we always take a lot of food–either for our kids, or for everyone. Also, at gatherings where there is “safe” food, we’ve found it helps if we request that our kids be first in line–before there’s any cross-contamination.

    I do think it’s possible to have people for a meal without making it too stressful, but you do have to find your comfort zone. You could always go with a theme or ethnic food. There are great resources on the web and plenty of cookbooks. And certain things work for the majority of people. If you make a vegan dish, you’ve covered the person with a dairy allergy, the friend who keeps kosher, and the vegan. I’d venture a guess that even someone who eats Paleo could work it out for one meal. (maybe?) I know it can be done because we not only host parties large and small, we’ve had 30+ family members for Thanksgiving, and I’ve also prepared the food for a 150-guest luncheon after a bar mitzvah–all of it vegan, gluten-free, allergen free (no wheat, dairy, nuts, peanuts, soy, eggs, sesame, coconut, corn, and on and on). People enjoyed the food. Most–except those who needed to know–had no idea the recipes were different from what they were used to. For me, being a great host means I can tell EVERYONE to go ahead and eat.

  • I don’t think I’ve ever been to a dinner party where the host was, like, hovering, making sure everyone was eating everything. THAT, I think, would be rude. I used to be a quite strict vegetarian (I have loosened up over the years), and I’ve certainly experienced occasions where someone would make something “vegetarian” that was just, like, sausage lasagna with one corner that theoretically didn’t have any actual sausage bits in it. Whenever something like that happens, or if someone serves me something I am seriously nauseated by like sweet potato casserole, I just smile, be gracious, and pretend to eat it while actually eating something else, then discreetly get rid of it when nobody is looking. Obviously this is not an option for the allergic! But for those of us with non-health-threatening food restrictions or preferences, I really think 95% of the time nobody is paying any attention to what you’re eating unless you draw attention to yourself by being obnoxious about it. (It’s like Nigella Lawson says about being on a diet – if you MENTION it then everyone around you will feel compelled to convince you to go off of it, but if you just don’t draw attention to it then nobody will notice that you’re not eating much.)

  • Thank you for such an informative post! I have gluten, soy and dairy intolerances but
    do manage to find something I can eat. However, there have been many times I am left eating plain salad (not even dressing as the main ingredient is usually soy oil). I appreciate whenever someone creates something just for me and doesn’t make a big deal about it. What a friend!

    On a side note, I did bring a dish one time and it was the one and only dish I could actually eat (and it was explained that way to the group) was eaten by other guests so they could ‘try’ it and I ended up getting a spoonful. Yes, it’s happened! Sometimes you just have to laugh.

  • Great, post and a great advice! One comment in response to the second commenter – I happen to be one of those “I don’t like cilantro” types and unfortunately it is actually genetics that makes it inedible to me and many others. Annoying, yes, but to me, it is every bit as important as the fact that I don’t eat meat because if something has even the tiniest bit of cilantro in it, I can’t eat it. Even the smell makes me gag. It’s not just being picky. Belieeeeeve me when I say I wish I could like it as it would make my life much easier.

    So just keep that in mind – I know it’s annoying to have to adjust recipes, but unless you know that the person is just picky about all sorts of foods, there may be a very good reason for them to ask you to avoid certain flavors. If someone served me a dish with cilantro in it at a dinner party when they know I can’t eat it, I would be pretty disappointed. And hungry. :\

  • Which is not to say I’d make a big deal about it if there was cilantro in something (there usually is now-a-days), just saying, don’t dismiss all requests as people just being kind of picky.

  • Seconding Beth, I was just coming down here to say that if you don’t like cilantro, it’s really inedible to you, as if someone had sprinkled soap powder over your food.

    I’ve had an incredibly restricted diet for the last few months (pregnancy-related acid reflux and IBS), and while I haven’t been to any formal dinner parties, getting together with people has been really difficult. I end up just bringing my own food most of the time and then apologizing profusely, because it feels so rude not to share what everyone else is eating but if I dictated what we ate it would pretty much be plain chicken breasts and rice. I didn’t realize how strong the social contract of sharing food with friends was until now.

  • Backing up the cilantro thing. It’s a weird genetic quirk (Julia Child had it!). To me, it tastes like someone poured dish soap all over my food. I dodge it if I can, but people put it in to ALL kinds of things, and restaurants will do it without warning, which is sort of maddening. (Taco Bell started putting it in Mexi-melts, wtf? I hadn’t had one in years, took one bite, and had to pass the rest to the fiance.)

    If it ends up in a dish, for politeness’s sake, I will choke down a few bites if I have to, but I’m honestly not being picky. I am a very will-try-almost-any-food-once-unless-it’s-bugs-or-something kinda gal. I wish it didn’t taste like it did to me, and most people don’t really understand it.

  • I guess I am just rude? Why eat something that you don’t like? In a similar vein, I would hate to think that someone would feel like they had to spare my feelings and eat something that I made that tastes bad to them. It seems silly.

    When I entertain, I really do try to accommodate people and I think I usually hit the mark. Maybe not every dish can be enjoyed by everyone (and I certainly wouldn’t serve something that could make one of my guests sick). I make sure there are yummy options for all, though.

    Does anyone agree?

    • Yes Claire, I agree. Being a gracious host used to mean making your guests feel welcomed and comfortable. That trend seems to have moved towards hosts trying to impress people with their own personal tastes and skills regardless of how it makes their guests feel.

  • I love cooking for people, and if they are new people I always ask about their dietary restrictions…it’s just part of the hosting for me and I just want everyone to enjoy the meal! I don’t mind going meatless, gluten-free, paleo, or whatever for small parties. At larger parties, there’s usually a lot of variety anyway so substituting a few dishes that are safe for certain guests is no problem…especially if it is a potluck situation. Clear labeling is also something I think is a nice touch for large gatherings, I don’t like the idea that someone would have to hunt the host down every time they wanted to try a dish and weren’t sure of it’s contents.

  • I disliked picky allergic eaters when I was young. Before I developed allergies to wheat and mangos. Before my kids developed allergies to nuts and salmon. Bottom line: if you care about us, you don’t want us to have rashes or vomiting. Yeah, I know it sucks. We’re sorry.
    I would almost always rather host. It’s easy for me to make a good meal that won’t make us sick. It’s hidden ingredients that kill us. Bread, mixed nuts, salmon fillets — easy to avoid. Sauces have tricked all three of us. Yes, even small amounts make us sick. Hosts that read labels and take us seriously, bless them.

  • I’m meat/dairy/gluten free, the latter two by necessity. Few things make me feel more loved than being invited over to a friend’s house for dinner and actually being able to eat a filling meal, and not just be left with a few tiny nibbles of something, or only having a sad little side salad. I usually offer to bring something (especially if I’m not absolutely certain that what the host is serving is ok), which usually creates peace of mind on both sides – for me, I know I can actually eat, and for the host – they don’t have to have extra stress wondering what the heck I can eat. I also carry snacks with me everywhere, just in case. :)

    I will say though, that one of my pet peeves is when (this most often happens at a restaurant with visiting family, etc.) people try to order for me, or advise me on what is “safe” to order. Gee, thanks everyone, I’ve never eaten “safe” food before, I would starve with out your help! When you’re not around to help me, I cry on the floor because I don’t know what to eat. *end sarcasm* Seriously though, I understand that they’re trying to be helpful, but I’ve been eating like this for YEARS, and I can skillfully find my way around any menu. If I want/need to know about something, I’ll ask.

  • I agree with Clair. If someone doesn’t like something, why would that bother me? When I have people for dinner, I ask about not only allergies, but likes and dislikes.

    Personally, I struggle with an addiction to food. I have lost 170 pounds in 2 years through diet and exercise alone. The most important “rule” I have is if I don’t love something, don’t eat it. The second most important rule is if it is not in my calorie allowance, don’t eat it. One off-plan meal can derail me for weeks and lead to gaining up to 20 pounds in a week! Is eating something to be polite worth me gaining 20 pounds? I think not!

  • What a great article!
    I would add that as a host – it’s TOTALLY OKAY to say that you are ill equipped to handle someone’s food allergy/intolerance. A very well meaning hostess wanted to take on the challenge of feeding me, but never thought about things like condiments and cross contamination. Then we both felt bad because she went through so much effort over something I wasn’t able to eat. (At least everyone else said it was delicious!) I don’t expect anyone to have to learn how to keep gluten out of a meal – it took me over a year. (Cast iron pans…wooden cutting boards and utensils…hidden food additives… Gluten hides everywhere.)

    For many people with food issues, even the tiniest amount can make us ill. PARTS PER MILLION. That means a single crumb can make someone ill for days.

    This post is great. I plan on sending it to future hosts.

  • I am corn-free, which is nearly impossible for other people to cook for. I now bring something specifically for myself when I eat at my parents’ because this is a frequent enough thing that they know me and my restrictions. If I can, I bring a dish to share with them.

    For New Year’s this past year, we had me with corn allergy, a gluten intolerant, a dairy intolerant, and a peanut allergy. Everyone brought a dish to share, and everyone specified what was safe for whom. I made a dairy/gluten/peanut/corn-free pumpkin pie for dessert. For larger neighborhood potlucks, I bring a dish to share and ensure I have taken a portion so that it isn’t snatched up by other guests before I can eat my safe food.

    One note on #6, if you’re going to say “just” a certain ingredient, ensure that it is truly a single ingredient item. Someone once told me their bread dish was “only” lentils, when it truly contained additional ingredients upon further prodding. I asked nicely of the recipe as though of genuine interest; I wasn’t the bugging picky guest you describe.

  • I think that there are times when it is appropriate to try something new and unfamiliar, and there are times when it is perfectly acceptable to say “No thank you” to a dish. I hate the taste of pineapple with a fiery passion, and have taken to telling people that I am allergic because the past two times I’ve eaten it (to be polite) have resulted in me being sick to my stomach for at least a day afterward. I don’t want to have to say I have an allergy to a food; I don’t know why I have the physical reaction that I do, but I’m really not interested in having it again! And just like Beth and K (regarding cilantro), I really wish I liked pineapple!

    The truth is, my stomach is not the same as yours and yours is not the same as mine. While we should be polite and try new dishes when a host cooks for us, if an ingredient really makes us feel badly (even if it isn’t a full-blown allergy) it should be okay for us to decline the dish. My grandmother used to pass on avocado, saying “it just doesn’t agree with me;” her reaction to avocados was very similar to my reaction to pineapple. As (hopefully) gracious hosts, you should also try to understand when someone tells you that they would love to try a dish, but that a particular ingredient doesn’t agree with them. Why would you want someone to go through physical discomfort if only to be polite (and not actually enjoy your food)?

  • I completely agree with the majority of this. I love throwing dinner parties and try to accommodate to all sorts of dietary restrictions. My cousin has Celiac, my husband is lactose intolerance, and two of my best friends are vegetarians. I also have two friends that hate mushrooms and I know this just because we’ve eaten so many meals together. I really don’t mind editing a menu for these people. However…
    I have one friend that, while I love her, I hate having her over to eat.
    She is “allergic” to everything. I add the quotes because she self diagnosis. She has never been medically tested for any of her “allergies”. Her only symptom is that she gets headaches if she eats/drinks certain things.
    So she can’t have beer, wheat, wine, pesto, eggs, potatoes, certain nuts, certain sodas but not caffeine… the list goes on and on. If she eats something and has a headache within the next few hours she blames it on the food. She keeps adding to the list. This is becoming increasing frustrating to the point that I just don’t invite her over anymore.

    • Its interesting that this makes you so frustrated? I wonder why? I find some people get very angry at me about my oral allergy, allergy to raw fruit and veg and some nuts. They act like I made it up. I’m fine to eat them as long as they are cooked. I wonder why they want to invite people over at all if their allergies make them so angry?I also have intolerances to preservatives in wine, plus other foods, its the 200 group of food additives. Feeling intense nausea, headache and dizziness for hours after eating them is not fun, so your friend who you love so much, may have this same intolerance. If people are looking for constant lavish praise from their guests and harbouring resetment towards them, maybe dont invite them? As an allergy sufferer it just makes you feel miserable…

  • Great Guide! Thank you for this! As a vegetarian (pescetarian at unaccomodating restaurants and when I am eating at someone’s house who are ‘meat people’) this outlines a lot of things I try to adhere to. And with a roommate that can’t have gluten and several vegetarian and vegan friends, I’ve found that the appreciation you get as a host for being accommodating is always worth forgoing dairy or whatever else it is. I love food, but you are getting together for a meal for the people, the food should follow suit.

  • This is a lovely guide :) So many times I find myself accommodating others when it comes to their dietary restrictions and then it’s their turn to host a dinner party and all they care is their food preferences. Of course, it depends on people, so it might be my fault that I associate with them.
    What I don’t like is that vegans/vegetarians seem to be accepted without any “You are an adult and you won’t die from it, so eat it” nonsense while other dietary restrictions are not this welcome. The author notes how she feels bad when vegans find out that veggies were fried in bacon fat. However, when it comes to gluten/grains sensitivity, the author feels as if nobody could have a good reason to not eat them unless it’s a serious medical condition. Well, vegan/vegetarian diet is about what other person believes, it’s about preferences and not restrictions, so I don’t see why people who believe that rice, quinoa or potatoes are not okay for them, should eat those products.

  • This article is great. I knew nothing of food allergies until about 6 years ago when I met my husband. He is severely allergic to dairy and eggs. The surprising thing to me is that I have a degree in health science and food allergies were barely even discussed.

    For my husband he prefers to bring a dish or even help cook at the friends house who is hosting the party. There are so many items that have whey or casein in them that will cause my husband to have an immediate reaction. Even products marked vegan will be processed in the same facility as dairy and its a no go. Thankfully most packaging does offer this information. Buffets are even tricky. If the cheese is behind the meat, usually some has fallen in and no more meat option.

    It has been such an eye opening experience to me. I have always been a picky eater, Cilantro tastes like the dish has been peppered with dirt, cantelope & beets cause an automatic gag reflex. But I’m so fortunate that these are not items that could potentially kill me. One day I could wake up and love eating them. My husband cannot do that with dairy or eggs.

    We are always so thankful to friends that are understanding of his allergy and sometimes we run into situations that are not allergy friendly and we do our best to make it work. I find that being as flexible, open, helpful and informative as you can be is the best way to handle the allergy and dietary restriction topic.

  • I always appreciate when a friend with severe food allergies brings some food of their own when they are spending a few days at our home. For example, I have a friend with celiac that always brings her own snacks and some sort of breakfast food. (She also bought me a stainless steel pan for a wedding gift since all mine are non-stick, which was really helpful.) It takes some of the pressure off me to come up with 3 GF meals a day that avoid cross-contamination and makes unplanned/spontaneous snacking easier.

    Also, PLEASE offer to bring a dish you can eat if you are at a get together with people with multiple allergies. As someone without allergies who is not a good cook, I am totally overwhelmed trying to plan a meal for a group with competing allergies (vegetarians, GF, paleo, lactose-intolerant, etc.). If you bring your own dish, you also ensure that you can eat something at the meal in the event that your host makes an ingredient blunder (a la wheat in soy sauce–why?!). And, whether it’s fair/logical or not, I would totally bristle if a guest (with or without allergies) gave me a recipe to make for them that I hadn’t solicited.

  • Interesting article. I don’t understand why if you don’t like something you have to eat it?! I would be horrified if I’d made something with a particular food in it that someone wasn’t allergic to but that made them feel ill and they ate it anyway!!! I am this way with cheese. No I won’t “just try it” I have tried it multiple times and every time it makes me need to throw up. I’m also a vegetarian (pescetarian actually but no one seems to understand that word) which complicates things because every vegetarian meal seems to have cheese on it!! No I am not a “picky eater” I don’t eat meat or cheese or tomatoes. Which apparently means I’m picky because they’re staple foods. Reiterating my point, if I made something for someone that they didn’t like I would be horrified if they ate it! It’s just plain crazy to be honest!

  • Thank you for writing this article! I recently was invited to my father’s 70th Birthday Party but was told that there would be several things there that I have Airborne Anaphylactic Allergies to served. Therefore, making it unsafe for me to attend. It truly hurt my feelings because I was invited and then un-invited all in the same breath!

  • It’s funny, since becoming vegetarian and then finding out I’m dairy and wheat intolerant (doh!) I’ve discovered so many different ingredients and dishes that I would never have bothered to try before like polenta, quinoa, mushrooms, asparagus, etc. Sometimes it’s simply a case of stating my intolerance’s and asking ‘what food here can I eat’ and then I just roll with whatever it is! :o)

    • hi chrissie

      i’m happy to find some more recipes in our archives if you need any. do you eat eggs and/or fish? or are you essentially eating a vegan diet as well as gluten-free?

      grace :)

  • I am having friends and family over for Christmas dinner. They all know that I have gluten allergy and get very sick when exposed. My daughter has Celiacs Disease which could lead to cancer down the road if she consumes gluten. She has no will power to say no when something is put out that looks delicious. She’s 18. Here’s the problem…. our friends are bringing food with gluten. Is it ridiculous of me to feel hurt by this? Should I just accept that I’ve invited them as guests in my home and just not eat the food they bring? My daughter will most definitely eat it. Which makes me very upset considering I told all my friends and family that she wouldn’t honor her disease restrictions. I can’t help but feel hurt that they would knowingly bring something that actually hurts me and causes my daughter actual physical harm.
    Am I being too sensitive?

    • Tammy

      It’s your house- you have every right to demand that any food brought in to your house be safe for everyone inside. If your daughter has Celiac Disease then you can 100% say “No Gluten in Our House”. Guests that can’t abide by that should stay home for their own dinner or eat elsewhere.


  • Right on with #3! When my husband and I had been married for about 5 years, we took the scary step of hosting Christmas Day lunch. Up to that point, my mother and my sister in law had hosted and did a great job. We decided to serve something really scrumptious: paella. We had it ordered in from a popular local Spanish restaurant. Everyone loved it…except my sister in law. She sat at the Christmas table with absolutely nothing on her plate.

    She announced she hated paella and ate nothing, not a grain of rice, not a pea. She just sat there blathering on and on. The other guests were enjoying their food but puzzled at her empty dish.

    I was furious with her for being so ungracious. I realized at that point that if she wasn’t in control of the festivities, she would not allow anyone else to enjoy it. I won’t say she ruined my Christmas but she kind of rained on my attempt to host it.

  • I don’t see my question. I brought my new neighbor a gift of something from my garden. She told me she is allergic to it and didn’t accept the dish. I stood there like a dummy. I waited a few seconds then said I was sorry and left. I would have taken the plate, said thank you, and thrown it out or given it away before I would embarrass someone like that. I felt so uncomfortable. Am I being too sensitive?

    • Jenna

      I wouldn’t take it personally. Allergies can be a serious condition and so is food waste- perhaps she was just trying to help you not let the food go to waste?


  • Almost every weekend we get together with my inlaws for lunch…usually at my MIL’s house. My niece was diagnosed with Juvenile diabetes and Celiac disease when she was a baby. On top of this, that side of the family is vegitarian. I’m not a great cook and I tend to cook a lot of comfort style foods. If I had to describe my cooking style…think Paula Dean. And although I read labels, I’m fearful that I will accidentally use an ingredient that has something in it she shouldn’t eat. She is 21 now and has recently decided to go vegan as well. She says she thinks she feels better on a vegan diet. I’m at a loss now on what I can make that tastes good to everyone and accommodates her diet (other than vegetables and rice). She is always gracious and never makes us feel bad when she can’t eat some of the foods we bring, but it still makes me feel bad.

    • Miss T

      As someone with Type 1 Diabetes and a secondary auto-immune disease, I can speak from experience when I say that food is a big part of our health care. That said, I always travel with food I can eat to anything, so people don’t feel too burdened. With vegans and Type 1 (assuming no other allergy), low-carb leafy greens are always good. So I’d make a huge green salad, some grilled/roasted/steamed veggies without sauce and have those as options. Then ask them to bring something else they can eat to help out. I don’t think it’s too much to ask for them to help out but it’s also not too much to ask to shift your cooking style slightly (away from Paula Deen carb-heavy recipes) to accommodate family with serious health concerns.


  • Sorry, but it would have to be an unusual circumstance where I would eat something I know I don’t like. I get in trouble for this every year at Christmas; my Polish in laws make fish and try to have us eat it. I hate fish. I haven’t found a type of fish that I enjoy and at this point I have no desire to eat something I know I won’t enjoy and that the hosts know I don’t enjoy. I don’t make a production out of my dislike for fish, I can fill up on the pierogies and soup just fine, but someone almost always mentions my lack of fish. And don’t even get me started on the pigs feet!

    As a host, I try to provide food that everyone can enjoy. Everyone has different needs and tastes, but I don’t want anyone to feel like they have to be at something they dislike just because I made it. I have no problem with leftovers!

  • What about if you get invited to a house where the hosts are on strict diets? By choice, not by allergy? We have already been informed that they will host a Christmas dinner. There will be no dairy, sugar, alcohol, grains. There are several families that are going without dietary restrictions. I really want to have a pie and some wine at least. Is it tacky for me to bring our own? I have heard other families raise the same question. Do we have to be on restricted diet if the host is?

    • Danielle

      I think the simplest answer is yes, it’s not ok to just show up with things that hosts have asked to not have in their home, for whatever reason.

      You can always consider asking (I wouldn’t just show up with things they’ve asked you not to) if you can bring something you’d like to eat. But you don’t know if someone isn’t drinking because they’re struggling with sobriety or if someone isn’t eating dairy because they’re struggling with IBS or another condition they may not feel comfortable discussing with other people. So, it comes down to just how important the pie and wine are to you. My hunch is that if those foods are more important than being with these friends, they’re not friends that are super close. So in that case, perhaps a polite pass on the invitation?



  • I have to disagree about whether it is rude to not want to eat what is prepared by another person. I currently have the dilemma that tomorrow I will go to my Grandfather’s with my two young children. I like a variety of food but there are some styles of cooking that I do not like – I’ll eat stir-fried vegetables but will not eat boiled ones. I’ll only eat beef prepared in certain ways and yes, I’m picky about my chicken too. Yes, I’m 34 and I am an adult. I would like to think that as an adult I have a right to say what I do and do no like and what I will and will not eat. I am more than happy to bring myself a meal and backup in case my kids don’t like the food. It is not about being rude – it is about being able to make your own decisions about your own body. My family are well aware I am a selective eater and as far as I am concerned if they don’t want me to bring my own meal when they are knowingly cooking in a style I will not eat (in the case of tomorrow it is baked, starchy food that is heavy on the potatoes) then they shouldn’t invite me. Simple.

  • I was just diagnosed with a life-threatening propylene glycol allergy, which is in a TON of foods. My future mother-in-law’s friends want to throw a bridal shower, but they refuse to let me work with them on the menu. This could result in anaphylaxis, and they do not seem to understand. It was recommended that I bring a doggie bag to my own bridal shower… which is a sit-down meal. I think the problem is that no one has heard of PG, and thus, they don’t treat it like a peanut allergy.
    I am offended, sad, ashamed, you name it. Is it ok to refuse the shower?

    • Lisa

      You have every right to ask to be involved in the food choice- or to be in a place where you know what you’re eating. If they can’t respect your desire to be 100% sure what you’re eating won’t kill you, then it might be time for new people to plan your party.

      Sorry you’re dealing with this. While it’s different, when I was diagnosed with Type 1 and had a hard time managing my blood sugar, I had a few people in my life who didn’t respect my desire to be careful about what I ate at first. Those people aren’t in my life anymore in the same way and it became clear who respected my comfort levels and who didn’t. I hope these people can support you in the way you need :)


  • Worst experience ever as a gluten-intolerant person was a friend of mine had a dinner party. She told me ahead of time that she only had a few recipes she knew how to make so I had to bring my own food. I literally had to bring my own meal to her house and then had to sit there and answer questions from the other guests on why I was eating different food (and amusingly fend the, off of taking some of it when mine seemed good). It was really embarrassing.

    On the flip side, we’re about to host a dinner and with just 8 people, there are 4 separate food needs: nothing remotely spicy, not even a drop of alcohol (recovering alcoholic), gluten-intolerant, and zero carbs. It’s frustrating because I’m feeling less like a hostess and more like a short order cook. My husband and I carefully planned out the menu and have just been informed my aunt is now eating zero carbs and can’t eat most of what we planned. That kind of pushy food preference is very frustrating and makes me want to not host at all in the future.

    • Rachel

      I live in a family with a lot of serious (medically required) food issues and our go to is:

      A Big salad with a basic dressing (low carb, pleases vegans, vegetarians, gluten free, etc.)
      Grilled protein (tofu and/or meat)

      Then we ask everyone else to bring one thing they can eat and would enjoy (ie: a gluten free dessert or a vegan side).

      Then we add things in based on what everyone else can eat. We find that as long as everyone has salad and a protein they’re happy.

      For dessert we always have fruit and fresh whipped cream as options. I eat VERY low carb because of my Type 1 Diabetes and I can say that it’s pretty impossible to eat zero carb, unless you’re only eating meat and cheese. Even salad greens have carbs (as do veggies, fruits, etc.). So I’d try to get more info from those people.


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