Diet restrictions? How to handle holiday meals without losing friends

Tips for both guest and host for staying healthy while breaking bread together

The holidays sure can be awkward. Bringing up a certain topic, even while using your best manners and least-demanding voice, might make it even more so.

Nope, we’re not talking not politics. It’s dietary restrictions. Do you make demands? Bring your own food? Pick around that meaty, gluten-laden, allergy-aggravating dish that cost the host $50 per plate and hope no one notices?

The whole situation can devolve into what “Hi, Anxiety: Life With a Bad Case of Nerves” author Kat Kinsman once called “outright culinary hostility” in an essay for Cooking Light.

Here’s how to avoid that fate and soothe the situation without compromising your health or enjoyment of a shared meal.

Don’t spring restrictions on your host

Resist the urge to halt predinner chatter with a pronouncement of your established —or, worse yet, new — food and drink limitations.

Whether your restrictions are allergy-based or otherwise, consultant and author Jodi R.R. Smith of Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting told Huffpost guests should disclose them in advance.

“It is completely unreasonable to wait until the host serves a meal to announce that you do not eat meat,” Smith said. “Be sure to communicate clearly when you accept the invitation, or at least a week prior.”

The lead time gives the host a chance to reconsider the menu or — and this might happen — choose not to alter ingredients that would allow you to partake.

If the restriction involves allergies

When the restriction is more of a food preference and less of a life-threatening reaction that will have you racing to the ER, you can let the host know about it when you RSVP. When you could potentially suffer a life-threatening anaphylactic reaction, though, take the dual approach of both a written expression of your need and a follow-up phone call.

Smith suggested this gentle-but-clear type of wording, practiced until it’s smooth: “‘You may not know, as I try not to discuss it, but I have a severe allergy to sesame oil. Even something cooked in the same pan can trigger an attack.’”

These people might not know you

“There’s a reason there are so many advice columns for how to get through holiday gatherings, and it’s not because we are all socially inept knuckleheads,” said blogger Karen Lenz, who is an office manager for People Bloom Counseling and writes from the perspective of being a therapy client herself. “We need special guidance during the holidays because it’s the season for spending quality time with family but also a mixed bag of acquaintances we don’t know well. In daily life, our friends know us, including our quirky dietary restrictions, and they accept us for who we are. … During the holidays you’re trapped around a table with your disapproving in-laws, your boss’s wife, or your Uncle Waylon, and they quickly remind you that your food preferences are, for a lack of a better word, weird.”

Bring your own if it’s OK

While it may seem like a gracious, helpful gesture on your part, show up with a dish that accommodates your dietary needs only after you’ve discussed it with your host. Some people aren’t going to like the idea, even if your intentions are pure and you’re not secretly trying to avoid eating Aunt Martha’s cooking.

Don’t offer lots of answers

“I avoid certain foods because of autoimmune disease,” Lenz said. “But you could have diabetes, you could be trying to have a healthier relationship with food, or you may have allergies. Maybe you’re just keto-curious or you just want to detox. … You know why you eat a certain way. … Before sitting down to dinner, remember this mantra: My diet is my business, it’s important to me, and I don’t have to answer to everyone.”

Don’t dominate the conversation

To keep the peace, also do your fellow guests the favor of not describing your food values in great detail. “People can be set in their ways, and the hour you have around the dinner table is likely not going to change anyone’s mind,” Lenz said.

Feed yourself

Your goal is to be able to relax about the food so you can enjoy yourself. Kinsman said it might help to bring big batch of a dish you can eat and others can share, and to eat at least a light repast ahead of the gathering. “And tuck a safety snack in your pocket for when you get there,” she said. “Ideally, you’ll be so well fed and taken care of you’ll forget it’s even there and, if not, you’ll be glad you did.”

Eat again when you get home

“You already know that when you leave your house, many foods might become off-limits,” Lenz said. “Expect to put in your time with mixed company and eat the items you can eat, knowing that you may still be hungry when you get home. Be prepared to go home to enjoy your second dinner in your comfy pants later.”

Skip the event if you need to

Not all parties or sit-down meals will work for you if you’re following a restricted diet. It might lead to the end of a friendship with that host, but you should stick up for yourself, holiday or not, according to Kinsman.

“Be ready to bow out gracefully if you sense that they’re hesitant or put out and find somewhere else to go,” she said. “It’s your body, soul, and holiday and you have every right to keep it happy and safe. If a host isn’t making you feel like a delight rather than a burden, you may exercise the right to exclude yourself from the narrative. It’s so freeing.”

Tips to be a better host

When you’re the cook or host, there are a few ways to earn the eternal gratitude of guests with special food needs. The essential advice is common sense: Don’t be insensitive to people you’ve invited into your home for a celebratory meal.

Aside from that, you can also follow these tips from Kinsman and registered dietitian Sarah Klemm, who shared her ideas on the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetic Eat Right blog.

Read labels to spot dairy, gluten, nuts and nonvegetarian ingredients, like chicken broth. “If you are not sure if an ingredient is safe for your party guests, ask the person you’re accommodating or skip it,” Klemm said.

Write out labels. “Especially in a group where all participants might not be BFFs, a guest might not want to have their health, beliefs, or preferences be the first topic of conversation,” Kinsman said. “Print or read off a menu listing all the ingredients, or in a buffet situation, make some attractive and informative cards and place them next to each dish. If you feel like especially spelling out potential allergens like nuts, shellfish, gluten or dairy, you earn extra host karma.”

Serve toppings on the side. Leave it up to the guests to serve themselves delicious tidbits that could wreck a dish for the abstainers, Klemm said. This could cover any add-ons, from grated cheese to ground walnuts and the ever-tempting bacon bits.

Cook without cross-contaminating. You can expend so much effort and get so close to accommodating guests and then blow it at the end with inconsiderate straining or a few swipes of the spatula. For example, make every effort to spare vegetarians from meat juice on the grill, Klemm said, and “don’t bake a nut-free cookie on the same tray you just roasted almonds. Thoroughly wash the strainer in between draining wheat spaghetti noodles and gluten-free ones.”

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