Everyone’s got one: The friend who’s gone Paleo. The son-in-law who won’t touch animal products. The co-worker who swore off nightshade vegetables, canola oil, and foods that start with the letter “B.”
Feeding any one of those people can be a challenge—especially when you have no idea what qualifies as a “nightshade vegetable.” Feeding all three of them together, at a dinner party, is enough to make any sane person swear off entertaining for good.
It didn’t use to be this way. Once upon a time—like five years ago—you could invite a gaggle of friends over for dinner and feel reasonably certain they would all eat the spaghetti and meatballs you put before them. Back then, throwing a dinner party in no way resembled an episode of Iron Chef. Now, it does.
That’s essentially what one reader recently noted when she wrote, asking:
There are people in my family who are trying to follow restrictive diets in order to lose weight, but they are also quite willing to “cheat” if the whim takes them. I find it challenging to figure out how to have them over and what to feed them! Do I make things that fit in their restrictive diet, even if that’s not how we eat or what fits into our budget? Do I make a mix of things?…Do I have a responsibility as a good hostess to try and cater to their diet, even though what I’m serving is good, nourishing food?
Speaking only for my less than saintly self (and setting aside the fact that I’ve got a whole ‘nother post in me about what guests should and should not expect from their hosts), here’s how I handle Guests with Special Dietary Needs (and, if you scroll way down, what I feed them).*
First, I try to remember my primary responsibility as a hostess: to love and honor my guests.
On the one hand, loving and honoring my guests means serving them a tasty meal that doesn’t send them into anaphylactic shock or leave them doubled over in pain for the rest of the night.
On the other hand, it also means being kind, attentive, and calm, something I can’t do if I’ve had to prepare four separate dishes to accommodate four unnecessarily demanding guests (and spent the entire month’s grocery budget in the process).
With that in mind, I next make distinctions, assigning guests’ dietary needs to various categories.
Category One includes people with deathly food allergies. I’m not talking about sensitivities here—like “sugar makes me grumpy.” I’m talking about, “If I eat almonds, smell almonds, or inhale almond dust, I will stop breathing.”
Category Two consists of guests with food allergies or sensitivities that aren’t airborne. This includes people with wheat, dairy, and shellfish allergies. In other words, they’re not going to drop dead from being in the same room as a piece of bread, but ravioli with a lobster cream sauce probably won’t help them feel the love.
Category Three includes people who are on “a diet.” These guests need to lose a few pounds and have concluded that the way to do that is to never eat bread again. Or bacon. Or cream. They don’t have an actual medical problem with any particular food. They just have a problem with temperance.
Category Four is the catch all for any remaining food issues: the vegetarians, the vegans, the Paleos, the Macrobiotic Raw Foodies, and the just plain picky crowd. The common denominator in this category is choice. They may have good reasons for that choice (they’re fighting cancer and hope a vegan diet will help); they may have silly reasons (Gwyneth Paltrow said to do it). But certain death has not forced them into this particular dietary habit.
Once I’ve lumped my guests into their categories, I move on to the next step: meal planning. So, which needs do I accommodate?
Obviously, if there are people coming over to the house who fall into Category One—deadly allergies—they must always be accommodated. Always. There should not be a nut anywhere in sight. Because… well…death. (And I’m not saying this just because I have a peanut allergy. Again, people: Death!)
The second category is also a no brainer. People with Celiac Disease may not drop dead on the spot if there’s bread on the table, but they’re not just inventing this problem either. So, if someone is coming over for dinner with a serious food allergy, I plan a meal that won’t result in them spending the night on the bathroom floor. Cooking polenta instead of pasta is easy enough. And the stress of putting together a menu that doesn’t poison my guests is way less than the stress of sending my guests to the hospital.
Once we get to the third category—dieters—I’m less accommodating. A lot less accommodating. No one single dish, consumed at my table, is going to make a guest gain or lose weight. Food doesn’t work that way. It’s not bread or bacon or cheese that makes you gain weight. It’s too much bread, bacon, and cheese. Accordingly, the only healthy way to lose weight and keep it off is to learn to practice moderation and move your body on a regular basis. If a guest thinks otherwise, they’re wrong, and with all the Celiacs and vegans running around, I don’t have the time or money to indulge their error. They can just take a smaller helping of stew, skip the bread, and share the dessert with their spouse.
And what about the rest? The vegans? The Paleos? The Organic Police? I accommodate them on a case-by-case basis. If it’s them and only them coming over for dinner, I make a meal that meets their needs. And if I’m feeding a crowd and can include gluten-free or vegetarian options, I do. But if for some reason I can’t do that, I’ll just ask the particular guest to bring a dish. Again, a good hostess strives to love all her guests, but not at the expense of her sanity or her bank account. If someone has chosen to make themselves more difficult to feed, they need to be willing to lend a hand in that process from time to time (and for the most part, I’ve found that those who’ve made the choice for a good reason, usually are).
All this, of course, presupposes one’s guests actually announcing before they arrive that, for example, they avoid meat on principle. I’ve made it a habit to ask about food issues before I go shopping, but if I ask and they keep quiet about their issue until dinnertime, uttering a pox on their house seems to me to be a perfectly reasonable response.
If they do tell me beforehand, however, I’ll make one of the recipes/menus below. They meet specific dietary needs, but also have proven tasty enough to please most everyone else at the table…including young children and the men who normally can’t live without meat.
- Lentil Dal (served with rice and a side of roasted cauliflower);
- Vegan Burritos (If a gluten-free friend is joining you, just serve the veggies on top of rice);
- Sweet Potato and Quinoa Chili (with the avocado cream sauce from the recipe above and salad);
- Bacon & Sage Risotto (with roasted brussel sprouts or salad);
- Polenta with just about anything—pork tenderloin, a basic red sauce; or even just sautéed greens;
- Grilled Avocado Salmon (with quinoa and fried plantains);
*Note: For the above recipes, make sure to double-check the ingredients lists, especially on the chicken broth. The makers of the cheaper stuff get sneaky about making their products with flour.
Gluten-Free & Dairy Free/Paleo Friendly
- Coconut Lime Chicken (with brussel sprouts and some changes that I’ll get around to writing about one day);
- Lamb and Sweet Potato Stew;
- Grilled Lamb chops (with braised greens and sweet potatoes);
- Almond Butter Cups;
- Gluten Free Chocolate Cake (just don’t use the baking spray they recommend);
- Strawberry Rhubarb Crisp (made with almond flour instead of wheat flour).
**This post deals only with adults. For the most part, though, the same rules apply to children with allergies. Keep the nuts out of site and, if you have time, make or buy a small treat that your child’s gluten/egg/sugar intolerant friend can enjoy at your house or child’s birthday party. If you don’t have time, ask the child’s mom to help. She may find that annoying, but just tell yourself it’s less annoying for her than spending the evening at the hospital.