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.