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 think this is a really good guide. I love to cook, and while I will gladly accommodate religious, ethical, and allergy needs, my feathers get ruffled when I get an “oh, I don’t like cilantro” in response to the food needs question. You’re an adult! Suck it up! Part of what makes cooking for other people fun (and eating at other people’s houses) is trying new foods and having an excuse to be creative and make elaborate dishes. I often find that there *are* ways that I like certain foods that I thought I didn’t like.

  • I like most of these suggestions but would personally find something like: “We love cooking with Quinoa and would be more than happy to suggest some group-friendly recipes if you need any help!” really annoying! In a case like this, offering to bring your own would probably be an opener to discussing what they could make for you.
    I’ve been veggie for years but forced myself to eat meat rather than offend friends when they’ve forgotten – but that’s probably an extreme representation of my terror of upsetting people!!

  • Great post, Grace! For those of us with life-threatening food allergies, please understand if we decline to try something or skip a course (such as dessert). It is standard for doctors to tell food-allergic people to avoid not only the food they are allergic to, but foods that are prepared in proximity to their allergens. I liken it to keeping kosher. We are not criticizing a host’s cooking or cleanliness, but we are simply following doctor’s orders. I know I personally am always happy to contribute a “safe” dish to make hosting easier. Nothing busts up a party like having to call 911!

  • I encountered this situation recently. I invited 10 guests for dinner and asked everyone what their dietary restrictions were. Only 2 out of 10 would/could eat anything. The easy solution was to make small plates, yes, it was more work but then everyone could mix and match according to their desire. I made a vegetarian lentil soup, cheese plate with soy options, bread/gluten free, roasted beets, fresh salad greens, grilled sausages with chocolate cake & sorbet for desert. Of course it was all eaten and everyone was very appreciative that I made the effort. I myself am a picky eater so I know what it takes to be a good host & a good guest.

  • This is such a touchy issue. I have some food restrictions, and so I know to ask about others’ allergies/preferences when inviting them to a group meal, but people who don’t deal with this regularly don’t necessarily think of it. I try to give a heads up about my vegetarian-ness as soon as possible when we get invited somewhere, along with an offer to bring a veggie dish. I think its also a good idea to reassure the host that I routinely make meals out of side dishes, and that there’s no need to make a separate meat-substitute entree.

  • but too much of dealing with invitations has become part of the general culture of entitlement….My needs trump everyone elses….Thanks for the good pointers.

  • My husband is allergic to nuts and shellfish which can be difficult at times. A lot of weddings or other events that we go to have nuts in the salad, entree and dessert! I understand that its not a host’s obligation at a big event to cater to specific allergies but it is surprising to me given how common nut allergies are.

  • This is spot-on. I have two daughters with allergies – one to nuts and the other to milk. Though the nut allergy is more severe, both are entirely avoided.

    In my observation, handling allergies works best when both parties (host and guest) are as considerate and flexible and possible. My three year old has already learned to accept it without fuss when she has to skip a dish.

    My other standby is to carry backup food items for when the options are very limited. I have found that when presented politely, people appreciate it that I can cover our needs without fuss. A common example for us would be desserts. Many desserts have dairy or nuts or both, so I carry organic suckers or dried fruit bars. Hosts tend to be grateful when I can cheerfully say, “Oh, desserts are awfully complicated for us and so I carry some backups to save everyone the trouble!”

    We live in a culture of plenty and few of us know true hunger. I think a positive attitude in the face of a few limitations is the least we should expect of ourselves.

  • As a guest, I’m always so thankful when people accommodate dietary issues. I’ve got a wheat intolerance (it gives me a rash and is a migraine trigger). I can medicate through the rash and the migraine, but, for obvious reasons, I much prefer to not eat wheat!

    I’ve gotten all sorts of “ugh, everyone has dietary issues” comments about it, though, and have absolutely been invited to meals that were based around pasta and cesar salad (croutons already in there and all), and received the comment of “well, you’ve got meds, don’t you?”

    All I can say is that it’s a great way of figuring out which of your friends you’re not particularly close to!

  • as someone who has a very dietary diverse group of friends and family (vegan, gf, allergic to everything – no really, uncooked vegetables, chicken, tree nuts, onions, tomatoes, sesame…) i’m happy to read this.and actually during large holiday meals i usually make little cards that list the ingredients so i don’t have to keep telling people what they can/can’t eat (i like to make recipe cards too cos a lot of times people will ask for a recipe if they have never had a ‘good’ vegan meal before). as a host i feel better knowing if someone absolutely hates something or can’t eat something due to a restriction cos the worst thing to me is when someone just says “oh i’ll be able to find something” – though they usually mean to be nice, it sucks if i’ve invited them to a meal and they can’t eat anything! on the other hand it kind of drives me crazy when people get all mopey and are just like “i can’t eat that” if other guests offer them something. a polite no thank you is fine, as not everyone is aware that of everyone else’s allergies. umm sorry i ranted but yay for this post!

    • The issue with saying “No, thank you” is that it comes across snobby OR even better: people pester you about trying it until you are forced to say “I can’t eat that, but.. Thank you” which is still offensive for some reason. I shouldn’t have to worry about offending someone on top of not being able to eat their food. And I always just bring my own. Which is still taken offensively. There is no happy medium

  • My husband can’t handle dairy or soy, and we have good friends on no sugar, low cholesterol, paleo and gluten free diets. Interestingly, no vegetarians, maybe because we live in Montana where it seems almost everyone raises or hunts meat. I personally think it’s a fun challenge to try to make a dish everyone can eat AND enjoy, or at least put together a menu with options for each person. Fortunately all of us are kind and accommodating so there’s rarely an etiquette issue, just a logistical one. We often do potlucks and we’re getting good at checking labels and doing substitutions.

  • Love this. Thank you! I remember watching Martha’s TV show years ago, and she addressed this as well. She basically stated that she had absolutely no patience for people with food allergies who do not tell their host in advance. It wasn’t the most sensitive statement…but she’s not really known for her empathy. Being one of those pesky guests myself, I always try to offer to bring something that I know is safe for me to eat :)

  • I’ve heard (and experienced) people trying to trick vegans into eating animal products. It’s a horrifying violation of autonomy and body. Likewise, I don’t try to deceive people that my tofu or TVP is actually meat. Many vegetarians don’t bother with the meat analogs – they’re generally unhealthy, and why would I want to pretend I’m eating ground cow?

    I have been to several dinners where the only option is salad or roasted veggies. Sometimes I attend just for the company, but I also don’t feel any guilt for declining an invitation to a meat-centered restaurant. We can either meet for drinks after dinner, or get together another time for a lighter all-veggie meal.

    It’s great to have a large vegan community in Los Angeles, but we still love sharing meals with our friends with different diets.

  • Great article and well covered. Having someone in my family who has Celiac disease, I appreciate the helpful tips and advice. Thanks!

  • I agree, it’s so important of the guests to realize they are not the only ones being fed at a large function, not everything is going to appeal to everyone, and guests should be gracious and considerate to the host no matter what. It’s only in your own home can you be truly picky. :)

  • I agree with all of your points EXCEPT for number three. I think it is okay to specify one or two foods that you genuinely can’t stand if you GENUINELY can’t stand them.

    I hate chicken. I know it’s a weird thing to hate. But the texture of chicken in my mouth, the smell of it, and the physical appearance (sinews, gizzards, cartilage) really turns my stomach. And no matter how it’s prepared, I hate it (I have tried more than one hundred chicken recipes). That being said, I routinely take some for the team at social gatherings.

    When chicken is prepared at gatherings, I eat it, due to the scarcity of other foods. However, my stomach turns for days, even weeks afterwards, whenever I think about the experience. Recently, a friend invited me over for chili, and it was chicken chili (she knows I don’t like chicken and she didn’t tell me it was chicken chili until I arrived). I ate some and tried to enjoy it and then she started talking about how she had bought an entire (whole) chicken at a farmer’s market and cut it up herself on her kitchen counter to make the chili. I was chewing it during this story. I was completely grossed out and couldn’t keep eating it no matter how much I wanted to show my appreciation for her cooking in the first place. I know my particular aversion isn’t “real” in the same way that a dietary restriction is “real”, but it certainly affects me to a higher level than just someone who is merely picky.

  • I really like this post, being a vegetarian myself. But I feel that hosts wouldn’t like for me to say “I don’t eat meat” beforehand, at least inside my social circles.

    Usually I just have the side dishes.

  • A true hostess cares more for people than food. Cares more about the people she has invited over than what dish is served. As a family with allergies and limitations nothing endears me to a friend more than one who is willing to nourish us.

  • I’m a long time vegetarian and was diagnosed with Celiac a few months ago, so my food restrictions are irritatingly complex. There are a lot of foods I think are going to be ok, and then they turn out to be a gastrointestinal nightmare the next day. So instead of declining every invitation I get, I’m a firm believer in #5 – I offer to bring a dish that I and everyone else can share (and label it with the ingredients). Or I eat something ahead of time so I won’t be annoyingly hungry if it turns out I can’t eat anything there. Often hosts will be incredibly gracious and accommodate me with dishes they’ve prepared, and I’m so appreciative, but I in no way expect someone to go out of their way to cater to me. I’m in it for the company, not the food :)

  • I especially think #6 (be clear about what is in each dish) is really, really helpful.

    I also think you can’t go wrong with vegetables prepared with olive oil, fruits, bread, and fish or chicken. All prepared and served seperately. That way people can find something that works for them – gluten free, meat free, dairy free, whatever.

    But of course, I’m the person who has served chicken to a friend who is allergic to chicken. Yes, there are people who are allergic to chicken. He would have probably preferred pork.

  • I strongly disagree with #3. The “picky eaters” I have known, one who is my husband, would never want to just try the dish, just trying would run the risk of making them nauseous. What they have always preferred is to have their food quirks ignored, if the food is already made. They fill up on something else or eat later, but they do not want to have the host hovering, trying to make it right or haranguing them to try a little. For them, the shared meal is about the social gathering, not the food.

  • Being gluten free and dairy free – I think this is a great list from which to start. Two things I would add.
    1. It’s totally acceptable to ask your guests ahead of time if they have any food allergies (which also includes food restrictions/diets). This puts both of you in the clear and sets the expectations.
    2. If you do have allergies or a special diet and you’re going to a party where you don’t know what is going to be served – eat a snack first so you’re not starving. Or at the very least bring a granola bar/energy bar with you so you won’t bonk if there’s nothing you can eat.

  • Great pints for both the attendee and the host. I like to have fun with the food signage or menu to share what is included. I see your point about being bugged by lots of questions, so why not have fun communicating the details to people. I would add, please do not be offended if a guest has to ask for the ingredients. My loved one with a special diet really needs to know ingredients despite wanting to eat everything. He is asking because he WANTS to eat the food, not in an effort to evade eating the food. We try to frame it as casually as possible and take interest in the cooking, but some hosts get a little anxious.

    I might also add, no need to shout out or alienate the people with a special diet. I have more than once witnessed someone yelling across the buffet: “Sally! You cannot eat this because there is CHEESE in it!”. There are more quaint ways to tell Sally without drawing attention to her or drawing people away from other happenings.

  • When I’m hosting a potluck, I like to ask each person bringing a dish to also bring a card with the ingredients listed to place alongside it or on a skewer stuck into the food. This is also a good way to help guests identify a dish that isn’t easily recognizable, such as a cheese-covered casserole.

  • P.S. Forgot to say what a good addition this is to your other articles on modern etiquette! Thank you.

  • With two kids suffering from multiple food allergies, I agree with everything written above. We’re not often invited because of this, but when we are, I try to make it as easy as possible for my hosts. I send out the complete list of no no’s beforehand and also specify that they eat all kinds of meat and fish, and give a few tips for cooking to show that it is not hard as they imagine. I really appreciate when people make the extra effort to cook something for them, and I usually bring their gluten- free bread and a quick dessert.
    Then I coach my kids so that they try everything that is being offered. Last meal with friends they ate everything and asked for more. My friend was so pleased and indeed she had made a delicious meal suitable for all with minimal adjustments.
    I remember how hard it was for me to adjust at first. Therefore everytime someone makes this extra effort, I treat it as a gift and show gratitude before, during and after with a thank you note.

  • I have been missing your etiquette posts and was happy to see this one up today.

    I am one of the many unfortunate people who have severe anaphylactic allergies. I am anaphylactic to all nuts, buckwheat, salmon & shellfish. This is something that is EXTREMELY serious. I carry an epipen with me wherever I go. Even cross contamination can be a problem for me.
    Going out to dinner parties can be a nightmare, especially if I do not know the hosts well. I do not like causing a fuss, but things such as mixed nuts out in a bowl that others eat, then up end with nut oils on their hands, so I shake their hand and am given a kiss on the cheek and my life is suddenly at risk are a HUGE issue. I know this can sound ridiculous to those who do not understand severe, life-threatenig allergies, but it’s the truth. I cannot go to any sporting events where they serve peanuts in the shell as the proteins I am allergic to get airborne, I inhale them and end up in severe distress.

    I am SO grateful for those who at least try to understand and accommodate. I always offer to bring something that is safe for me, but I still have to request that things such as mixed nuts are not served to the group, and that nothing is cooked in peanut oil, as even the smell is dangerous for me.

    In turn, I always do my best to respect and accommodate other peoples’ dietary restrictions. But I do have to say, those who are simply picky and say they are “allergic” to something to get out of eating it, give us with serious concerns a bad name.

    Like most things in life good communication and common sense help the most in these situations, as well as respecting the efforts and feelings of others.

    Thanks for the post Grace!

  • I don’t mind at all working around food allergies/intolerances, medical needs, or “I hate XX”. If you’re on some strange program by choice “only eat organic” or paleo or something of that order, and I would have to buy all sorts of things I don’t use… then I don’t fool with it. We’ll do something to socialize besides eating.

  • Hi! Interesting topic, one close to my heart. As a low fat, gluten free vegan (I say ‘plant based) I am so grateful when hosts rise to the occasion and produce not only something that ticks all the boxes but is a brand new dish that I have not tried before. On occasions when usually people get the vegan bit right but have lots of oil I accept and get on with nibbles of the meal. I want to be a guest who get asked back and is not defined by a her diet or being difficult to friends and family. I find all my hosts have been amazing with it. (I do it for health reasons). Guest ettiquette should also be as mindful esp if you follow a restrictive diet. It can be tough sometimes for a host to accomodate different diets as they do not have heaps of time to research recipes or the ‘rules’. To anyone hosting a vegan, especially a low fat vegan then engine2 or happy herbivore offer great and dollar friendly recipes :-)

  • As someone with a lot of allergies, I try to inform people right up front what they’re getting themselves into trying to cook for me. I give them a list of things I can’t eat and I’ve recently tried to tag on the end a quick idea of meals or easy ingredients I can have. Given that, if I provide a list far in advance for some well-planned event like a wedding I expect to eat more than salad. I expect to have alternatives that I can eat, not just a well compiled list of the things I must avoid. And I’m always very appreciative of peoples efforts, even if it’s a flop. I know I’m a pain to cook for, and I’m usually surprised by people’s generosity.

    I love these etiquette posts!

  • As an event planner, I often utilize buffet items that meet everyone’s requirements with add ins for specific preferences. It’s so much more pleasant for people to add what they like than remove what they don’t. I do this at home, too!

    I think it’s also important that if you prepare a special meal for people with restrictions that it is at least similar to the majority meal. Guests can feel excluded if, for example, the vegan meal is a salad and everyone else is getting something more elaborate.

  • I love that this is being addressed here. I’d say that number 5 is the biggest one for me- I have some severe intolerances and allergies to the point where a crumb or a nibble of something can be all it takes. When I bring a dish, I am guaranteed to have at least one thing that I can eat without worrying about getting sick in the middle of a party. Also, little things like putting out a tray of fresh fruits and veggies goes a long way- there are very few people who can’t eat raw veggies and sometimes nibbling on a carrot stick is all it takes to get the “why aren’t you eating anything?” people off your back.

  • I really enjoy these Modern Etiquette posts you create. It is always good to be reminded of good manners, plus you help us see the issue from a neutral perspective.

  • These are great tips! As someone with dietary restrictions, I try to be as considerate as possible of those nice enough to serve me food, and I try to remember that coming up with meal ideas for special diets can be hard.

    An additional tip from my experience: respect others’ dietary choices by not pressuring them to eat foods they cannot or choose not to eat. There is nothing more infuriating than the phrase “oh come on, one bite won’t hurt you, live a little!” to someone struggling to stick to a diet for whatever reason.

  • Thanks for this post. I am dairy/gluten/ fish and seafood free but not by choice. I always feel awful when I have to break the news to someone who has been kind enough to invite me to their home for a meal. Usually I ask what they intended to make and just suggest what to leave off my plate or how to make something with olive oil instead of butter, etc. The best scenario for me as a guest is when my food allergies aren’t announced to the whole party at each course. I am really happy to thank the host publically for adapting to accommodate my needs, but feel uncomfortable when my health issues become the centre of conversation, especially when it is a party I don’t know well.

  • I hosted a Mexican theme party for my birthday with yummy 5 hour pork belly tacos. My friend called that morning and let me know his girlfriend who is Muslim was coming, so i quickly whipped up some shredded chicken filling, and as the party started my other friend came with his vegetarian girlfriend – luckily Mexican food allows for lots of salad. Lesson for me – ask people BEFORE the party for their food preferences!

  • Thank you for posting a practical guide! As a mom of a 7 year old with severe allergies to milk products, tree nuts, and MANY fruits and vegetables, it becomes incredibly frustrating when people don’t take her allergies seriously and brush it off as her food preference. We bring our own foods to events because we feel that we shouldn’t put that burden on our hosts to accommodate. Thanks for posting this!

  • Oh, the food issue! I hate to be the person that asks what’s in everything, but some of my relatives consider something vegetarian if it doesn’t have actual meat in it. When I ask about lard or broth, I feel like I’m annoying them :|

  • this is one of the things that stresses me out about throwing dinner parties, enough to (gulp) just not do it. I grew up in a family where you ate everything on your plate and said thank you. consequently I feel some tension around folks who strictly follow particular diets by choice – I feel like I’m judging them for being too picky, and I also feel like they’re judging me for not being as ethically- or environmentally-minded as they are, or hurt that they don’t appreciate my hospitality.

    thanks for starting the conversation!

  • Oh how very timely! I just cooked lunch today for my husband’s colleagues: vegetarian, which is standard for this group and not a problem at all. However one colleague declines to eat pesto, lamb, risotto or zucchini. One person (on medical advice) is only able to eat a primarily vegan diet of steamed vegetables and fruit, without any cooked oils and the occasional egg.

    As it’s high summer here zucchini and tomatoes were hard to resist. In the end I made eggs poached in a zucchini, bell pepper, tomato and chickpea stew. The person with a medical condition received an oil free dish of steamed peppers and tomatoes with a poached egg. The person with the preferences had to pick the zucchini out and give it to their spouse!

  • My 2 year old has a severe dairy allergy, and several other doctor-mandated restrictions. Because of the severity of his allergy, we were instructed not to introduce, ie feed him, eggs, nuts, fish and shellfish until he’s four. So we function like he’s allergic to all of those, because it’s not a preference or an option. Eating out is complicated, and going to people’s homes, even family and close friends, is also complicated. I ask LOTS of questions, because dairy is in so many things, and hidden in a lot of foods. Some brands of graham crackers are ok, some aren’t. Ditto hot dogs, bread, on and on. And of course this doesn’t have milk in it, except for the pat of butter or the whey in a component’s ingredient list.

    I have to really trust the cook who made it, in order to feed it to my child, because he trusts that what I feed him is safe for him to eat. I don’t ask questions to be annoying, but because I have to. We bring snacks and alternatives, and we bring things we know are safe to potlucks, and offer help.

    If someone has a severe allergy — which to me means that they carry an epipen in case of emergency — then they’ll make sure their host knows about it. {Nothing ruins a good time with friends or family like an anaphylactic reaction and a call to 911.} Anyone who isn’t courteous of their host has to deal with the consequences with good grace, like not having lots of options or preferred choices. I always assume my host is doing their best– keeping track of what is ok and what isn’t is (a) really complicated and (b) principally my job.

    That said, if you know you’re hosting some one with serious or multiple allergies, it helps to have one or two items that are simple in terms of ingredients, because the more components there are, the harder it is to know what’s in it. Sauces and dressing separate if possible, and cheese and toppings on the side, also help. If a salad is already tossed with blue cheese and walnuts, for instance, it can’t be undone so a plain portion can be served.

  • My son has the dreaded peanut allergy, and we have to carry an Epipen because of it. You can darn well bet that even if a host specifies at the beginning that there is no peanuts, I will continue to ask it. (My cousin knows of my son’s peanut allergies and still served peanut M&Ms to other children at a recent birthday party–I wished I hadn’t attended). If my own parents and in-laws don’t “get” the seriousness of his food allergies, I do not trust that friends will. (Son is also allergic to eggs, soy, and dairy, but mostly just ends up with a nasty rash from those, as opposed to risking anaphylaxis like with peanuts–although he did end up in the ER following a flu shot grown on eggs).

    I think the addressing food PREFERENCES is the same breath with dangerous food ALLERGIES is a huge problem. It perpetuates that those with allergies have a choice or are just being dramatic, when the fact is the lives of those with food allergies could be in danger with the smallest exposure. If a host interprets vigilance as pickiness and chooses to be insulted, that’s their problem.

  • Thanks for the tips! It really feels awkward to prepare a food for guests and suddenly knowing they’re allergic or don’t eat that food. Better to be always prepared.

  • I think this goes for attending an event where prepared meals will be served. Either find out ahead if your particular food restriction can and will be accommodated, or plan to bring food you can eat. Event planners want to keep everyone happy and well-fed!

  • Thanks for bringing up this topic. About 6 years ago (as an adult) I suddenly developed a pretty bad allergy to nuts. If I’m invited to a gathering, I can almost never eat anything because if there’s one thing containing nuts on the whole buffet, I can’t eat anything on the whole table for fear that a bit of nut protein (and believe me, a teeny tiny bit is all it takes) could cause an anaphylactic reaction.

    Not knowing exactly what ingredients went into preparing a dish is also a problem. Many breads, most chocolate and pretty much anything made at a bakery is off-limits to me because of cross-contact. I can’t eat about 1/2 the frozen food from Trader Joes. I have had the hardest time explaining this, even to family members. It seems they just don’t get it.

    One thing I would add to your list is that if someone with severe food allergies doesn’t eat your food or brings their own snack over to a party, try not to be offended. Unless you went over every single dish including the brand and ingredient label of every single ingredient (and that’s hard to do if it’s potluck) with the allergic person beforehand, chances are they might have some concerns. They’re just trying to be safe.

  • I was raised vegan, we even only ate raw until I was five and never did include sugar. So I grew up developing manners around all those limitations that now, as an adult, let me be at ease with being a polite guest. On a practical level, I have a handful of habits for being a guest at occasions beside small dinner parties (where I just make sure the host knows I don’t eat meat or fish ahead of time).

    For large gatherings I feed my family a peanut butter sandwich beforehand and have a bag of nuts in the car for after so nobody will be hungry if there aren’t options, but I do not bring food to the event and I keep what we ate boring so my kids aren’t looking forward to eating the GOOD food after we leave.

    I accept what was barbecued for me, without focusing on whether the grill was scoured between meat items.

    If I learn after the fact something was cooked with chicken bouillon, I don’t say anything or if the host is mortified I say, ‘Don’t worry about it, I’m having a great time’.

    If the veggie options are not my favorite, I fill a plate anyway and eat some and discreetly part from the plate when the host has moved on to other activities. Most hosts want to be sure you have plenty to eat and will stop worrying once they see a full plate.

    I often ask for a recipe for a particular dish when I leave, it helps the host feel like I LOVED what I ate. Especially when I know they tried hard.

    I feel that gathering is for connection; the food is secondary. I once read how Ramakrishna sat eating some poorly cooked questionable fritters at a feast and his devotees asked why he didn’t eat the GOOD food like them, and he explained a poor old woman had made them for him and the food itself did not matter because the love she expressed with them was so pure.

    So I guess that is the grace I try to keep around my everyday food choices when a festivity appears. I don’t make my food choices a guest at the party. I will not die (unlike allergies) and the love in the food is perfect.

  • I second Teri’s comment. Beyond happy to accommodate allergies, but diets seem different. If we invite just one couple over, I’ll try to make it friendly for their diet. But if 2/20 guests are doing Paleo, maybe they can just try to figure out what they can eat and skip the rest. Also, I’m currently pregnant and do not expect folks to cater to my off-limits foods. But it is SUPER sweet and appreciated when people offer something baby friendly, and a good reminder to do the same for others because it makes them feel welcome.

  • These are great! I’m gluten free, and have found that if we have people over for dinner first so they can see how we cook, eating at their house is much easier the next time around. They have a chance to see that they don’t have to spend hours cooking expensive things from the health food store, when tacos would do the job.

    Also, I’d add another rule on here: If you’re the one with the food allergy/intolerance or dietary restriction, plan ahead! Even if you’ve told someone ahead of time, they still may have no idea that pasta has gluten in it. I take a page out of a family friend’s book, who brings an avocado to dinner parties in her purse, and always have a backup snack, just in case.

  • 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?

    • I agree with your ending sentiment, veggie burger or hamburger, eat it and 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.


  • I have food restrictions. I have been very open about it, but I don’t ask or expect anyone to make special accommodations for me. When it comes to Holiday get togethers with family, I know what to expect some meals I know I’ll have plenty of safe options others I know it will be slim pickings. I bring a safe dish and sometimes eat before I leave my house. It’s pretty much the same when we attend gatherings with friends.

    The struggle I’ve been having lately, and I’ve heard from friends that they too are dealing with it, is some of the attitudes people show toward those with restrictions. I’m routinely mocked by one particular family member and when I informed her that it was upsetting to me, she told me I was looking for reasons to be offended. I’ve heard others complain about the inconvenience of the food dislikes. I have a friend with celiacs which she’s been dealing with for well over 10 years, yet her mother in law routinely invites her over to dine and every single dish has gluten in it.

    I hope people who are lucky enough to be able to eat any food of their choice can be a little more kind to those of us who have had to give up some of our favorite foods in order to feel well or avoid an ER visit.

    • Kallie

      I’m sorry that’s happening. I live with similar issues and know how you feel. Honestly, life is too short to have friends who don’t respect medical or religious food restrictions. I think personal distastes are one thing, but assuming your restrictions are due to religion or medicine, it’s fair to assume people should accomidate them the best they can, especially if you bring your own thing (great idea!). But if they mock you for those? I think it’s time to move on to friends who respect and appreciate your needs.


  • I have a gluten, corn & sugar -free diet restriction (Dr. approved). I do not have an allergic reaction as such but when I eat anything with gluten, corn products (other than -non GMO) I do have an arthritic reaction. Usually in my hands but it will migrate to other parts of my body as well. I find if I’m very careful with what I eat I can be pain free most of the time. I also have Hashimoto’s which is a thyroid problem – a reaction to anything with wheat products in it. (the body begins to attack the thyroid gland because of a similar protein to wheat that is part of the thyroid.). I am also recovering from Lyme disease which makes it important for me to eat as healthy as possible to build up my immune system and the reason why my Dr. wants me to not eat sugar. One family member (my son and his wife) insist that gluten free is bad for you. When we went to their home for Christmas this year we provided them with $200.00 to buy what they wanted in groceries and then bought and additional $300.00 in groceries to insure that there were things in the house I could eat and be enough that anyone else could have if they wanted and because they have a very restricted budget because of job losses. (they eat a lot of pasta type dishes, pancakes etc. my DIL is so offended by my dietary restrictions she starts saying things like we don’t eat salad or frozen vegatables in this house (mocking my restrictions because in fact they do eat those things). When they made pancakes (non-gluten free) for breakfast I asked if it would be ok if I fixed some eggs and GF toast. I didn’t want them to have to do any extra work for me. It was so miserable for my husband and I because my DIL kept taking pot shots at me the whole time we were there and lectured me while we were eating meals. After we flew back home my DIL also sent me an article on how GF can be bad for you if you don’t have Celiac disease. I would love to, with all my heart just eat what everyone else is eating but if I do I will be in pain and also begin to gain weight very quickly because of my thyroid issues. The only way I know to handle this is we will no longer go to their home for holidays. The subject is not open for discussion. There is no effort on their part to try and understand what I’m dealing with. Our Christmas was probably the most miserable Christmas we have had in years. (we’ve been married for 49 years). I really don’t think there is any good way of handling this situation other than not visiting them for holidays.

    • Priscilla

      First and foremost, I’m so sorry you’re dealing with this. All of those health issues (I share some of the same ones) are a lot to handle. And having a family that isn’t at least respectful of your choices is very difficult. I’m sorry. Please know you’re not alone and not everyone feels this way about people’s dietary needs, especially when chronic health issues are behind them.

      I agree that the only way to truly avoid this is to not visit for Christmas. But I think it sounds like it’s time for a sit down and a real talk with your son and DIL.

      To make a long story short, most conflict resolution experts and therapists suggest that in difficult situations you lead with “I feel…” sentences. So instead of saying “You make me feel awful when you say…”, you would sit down and say:

      “I value our time together as a family and being with you all means so much to me. But when I hear you say things like, ‘Gluten Free is bad for you’, I feel like my health concerns are being disrespected. I’m not asking you to change the way you eat or believe, but I would appreciate if you respect my decisions. I understand and respect that you feel differently, but my restrictions are medically advised and help me feel my best. So I would appreciate it if you respect my needs and refrain from making comments about them. When I hear those comments I feel unwelcome and disrespected.”

      There’s no way to prevent people from feeling defensive, but when you focus on how YOU feel and not how people “make” you feel, it helps lessen the sting a bit. It may take a while, but hopefully if you focus on how sad you’re feeling and how much they mean to you, they can respect your feelings and take them seriously. You’re going above and beyond to make your health choices easy for them to accomidate (providing your own groceries, money for theirs and cooking your own food), so on the surface I’m not sure what their issue is.

      It might be helpful to give them a chance to have the floor to discuss what might be bothering them (or just your DIL) so much about your choices. Is this triggering something else she’s concerned about or worried about? Usually when people have strong reactions like that, there’s something else under them. Maybe if they are given the chance to talk openly they can explain if/how this is connected to a bigger issue they’d like to discuss? If not, hopefully they can hear your hurt feelings and work harder to make sure everyone feels welcome.

      Sending good energy and good luck for this talk your way!


  • I have a severe onion allergy. I can trust almost no one to prepare meals for me, so dining out isn’t possible. Even if ingredients are listed (say, at a buffet or potluck), I can’t assume that onion isn’t present in sauces, condiments, etc., or that cross-contamination hasn’t occurred. Travel is not worth the risk unless there are fresh food markets. I am very fortunate in that my daughters, excellent cooks, do all holiday and special meals, which is a real treat for me.

    I don’t believe most people have the ability to understand severe dietary restrictions, and I don’t expect them to. It’s my problem and since it’s usually too hard to explain, I just don’t. I can’t assume food safety, but I try hard not to make it an issue. Many times when I’ve been asked to dinner, I just enjoy what I can–even if it’s just a couple of raw veggies (and no, being left hungry is NOT a catastrophe, especially if I’m in the company of people I love).

  • I recently hosted a graduation open house for my daughter. One of her very dear friends is gluten intolerant, another is Hindu (& so vegetarian). I carefully planned a meal that would be easy for them, yet ‘normal’ for the others. I wanted our guests to be able to enjoy themselves without worrying about ‘what’ they can eat! It’s not that difficult. “R” has thanked me dozens of times – she’s never had anyone be so considerate before. “B” was shocked that she could eat anything from the buffet (other than the meat, of course).

    The menu (in case anyone is curious):
    Smoked beef brisket & chicken
    BBQ sauce on the side (gluten free)
    Buns (regular & Udi’s gluten free)
    Calico beans (baked beans, kidney beans, butter beans, gluten free ketchup, brown sugar, vinegar, etc)
    Potato salad with vinaigrette instead of mayo (so dairy free & no need to keep chilled)
    Fruit tray
    Veggie tray
    Cookies for dessert (regular & I found a gluten free bakery)
    Iced tea & lemonade