Help! How Do I Navigate Dietary Needs During the Holidays?

“What’s in this?”

“No, thanks. I’ll pass.”

“She’s allergic to that.”

“Actually, I can’t eat that. Makes me break out in hives.”

“No, he won’t eat that either.”

“She’s vegetarian.”

“Can I see the ingredients list?”

“Do you have anything else?”

Ah, so it goes when you are hosting friends or family with selective appetites or special dietary needs. Or worse – both. This year, we are THAT family. (“We’re Heeeeerrre!”) Normally we volunteer to host big events and special meals – partly because we really enjoy it, but mostly because it gives us control over what food is served and how it’s prepared, which has become a legitimate necessity more than just preference. But when we travel to these special events, there’s a lot of anxiety involved around meals, just as there is anxiety about hosting a family like ours. My goal here is to help us navigate these situations with grace and flexibility and understanding, so that we can focus on who is around the table, and not what foods are on it.

If You Are the Guest

Being the guest is tricky. You don’t want to be the high-maintenance one in the group, and yet you know it’s often unavoidable. What I’m learning over time is to be prepared and be gracious. I am still figuring out how to do this well, because it sounds a lot easier than it is. My problem is that my stomach is so incredibly sensitive that I have to be really cautious about what I eat, especially when I’m traveling. What might come across as being persnickety or rude is actually just me feeling very nervous and thinking to myself, “Please don’t let this ruin my stomach!” One poor choice and I know I can expect to be up all night, watching the hours tick by as I putter miserably from the bed to the bathroom with some mix of GI distress, headache, chills, fever, and even vertigo. And then comes the stress of realizing I am expected to be pleasant and light-hearted the next day with friends and family, and perhaps rinse and repeat the same sleepless night scenario again after another unfamiliar meal. This sort of thing has happened so many times and in so many places in the past few years that I’ve finally decided I have to do something differently, no matter what it takes. Here is the routine I am teaching myself to follow.

1 – Be prepared. Ask about the meals well in advance. Know your/your family’s limitations and plan accordingly. Do not expect all your wants and needs to be met by the host, who is already shouldering a lot of responsibility.

2 – Be your own advocate. Oftentimes friends and family do not understand the seriousness of food allergies, intolerances and sensitivities, and assume you’re just a picky eater or an over-zealous parent, denying your kids of fun.  Or they trivialize a dietary protocol that is based on religious belief or moral conviction. You can certainly offer an explanation if you feel it might be beneficial, but at the end of the day – you know better than anyone else what effect problematic foods will have on you and your family, and you will be the one dealing with the aftermath of poor choices. So speak up respectfully. Be consistent. And then own it.

3 – Be gracious. If you know your special food requests will make things more difficult for your host, make every effort to be helpful, grateful, and kind in every way possible. Assist with the dishes, take out the trash, play with the cousins, be punctual, and simply be present. When it comes time for you to leave, you want your hosts to say, “Wow, that was such a great visit! And the food thing really wasn’t such a big deal after all.”


If You Are the Host

The hosts have the difficult, yet very fulfilling role, of creating a welcoming and emotionally generous atmosphere for guests to enjoy. As far as meals are concerned, here are some tips that I’ve learned along the way – both as the host and the hosted.

1 – Rather than panic, be informed. Ask in advance what foods should be avoided, and what degree of care must be taken with food preparation. For example, at one end of the spectrum is a guest who gets a little, um…shall we say – “gaseous” after eating dairy. Unfortunate?  Yes, but not a show-stopper. At the other end of the spectrum is someone with a severe peanut or shellfish allergy, which could result in a life-threatening anaphylactic reaction to something as seemingly insignificant as fumes from cooking or allergenic residue passed from one serving utensil to another (cross-contamination). If you know this information in advance, it’s much easier to take proper precautions. Provide your guests with recipes in advance, so they will know which dishes might be problematic.

2 – Accommodate when you can. You might be able to serve your favorite dishes simply by substituting a few ingredients or altering your recipe in some way. For example, use a non-dairy milk in place of cow’s milk, leave off the Ritz cracker topping on the casserole, or allow guests to add their own sauces, dressings, and condiments. You could also ask your guests if they have a favorite entrée or side dish that you could prepare for them, or conversely – graciously invite them to bring a few dishes of their own choosing to share. Let them know where to find the nearest grocery store, and express interest in the foods they might choose to bring along. This is a great way to make them feel welcome, frees them to supplement the meal as they deem necessary, and also gives everyone an opportunity to try some new things. Win-win!

3 – Don’t take things personally. If you notice your guest chooses not to sample something you’ve prepared, understand their choice is about the food, not about you.

4 – Flip the coin. If all this seems too fussy for you as the host, take a minute to consider the situation from the other perspective. Your guests are often traveling long distances, getting minimal sleep in strange beds and noisy hotels, fighting crowds and traffic, and as in our case – bringing along small children (and a dog), which many of us know adds greatly to the already-difficult challenges of the holidays. Add food issues to this mix, and it’s understandable why families like ours might arrive a little frazzled. I try to keep all these things in mind when I’m hosting. When it comes time for your guests to leave, you want them to say, “Wow, this was such a great visit! We are really looking forward to coming again!”

5 – Relax, and enjoy! Holidays are about celebrating, enjoying friends and family, and taking time to reflect. Consider the tips above and let the food served amplify this experience, not detract from it.

Wishing all of you the merriest of Christmases and a blessed New Year. May this, and every holiday, be filled with joy and laughter and lots of delicious food!