Dealing with Dietary Differences During the Holidays
Five tips for a harmonious gathering
Posted Nov 23, 2016
Traditional holiday dinners used to be so simple. People would gather from near and far, enjoy each other’s company, feast on secret family recipes, rub their bellies with satisfaction, and fall asleep on the couch. That was until your sister became a vegan, dad went paleo, your little brother developed a life-threatening nut allergy, and your uncle who lives off the grid in the woods adopted an insect-based diet for the sake of the planet.
What’s a good-hearted host to do? What’s a guest with a special diet to do?
I hear both of you loud and clear. The good news is that the recent trend towards special diets doesn’t need to be a recipe for disaster. I have many food sensitivities and eat a special diet. Many of my family members and friends eat special diets, some of which are very different from my own. I hope to help you maintain holiday harmony this season by sharing some of the things I’ve learned as a host, guest, psychiatrist, and nutrition consultant. If you have questions, suggestions, or stories of your own, please share them in the comments section!
RULE #1: KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
Hosts: Ask your guests in advance if they have any dietary restrictions. If so, send them the menu ahead of time if you can. Copies of your recipes are EXTREMELY helpful. If you have a guest with a severe or life-threatening food allergy, complete ingredient lists are mandatory for your guest’s safety.
Guests: Ask your host in advance what they plan to serve. Ask for recipes or an ingredient list beforehand so that when you get there you won’t have to constantly ask questions like “does this have dairy in it?” If you’re bringing a dish to share, let your host know what it is and how much you’re bringing so they can plan their table accordingly.
RULE #2: NO EXPECTATIONS
Hosts are not required to accommodate special diets and guests are not required to eat what the host makes.
Hosts: It is hard enough cooking for a slew of people without having to figure out how to modify your favorite recipes. As the hard-working host, you have the right to make everything the way you like to make it. Apologize to your guest and send the menu you plan to serve so they will know what to expect. You can say something like “I’m so sorry that I won’t be able to make anything special for you”, but you’d love it if they could bring a dish they enjoy for everyone to share. Don’t take it personally if your guest can’t eat something you’re serving. If your guest’s feelings are hurt despite your having been kind, polite and clear, that is their issue.
Guests: Eating a special diet is always a challenge, but at least on an ordinary day, you can usually eat the way you want or need to, without hurting anyone else’s feelings. At holidays, feelings run stronger, especially around food, and the host naturally wants everyone to love what he or she has prepared. Let your host know in advance that you have dietary restrictions, but that you don’t expect them to do anything special for you. Ask them what they plan to serve, and if you aren’t able to eat everything on the menu, say something like “that all sounds delicious! I wish I could have that!” Then offer to bring at least one dish large enough for everyone to share that suits your special diet. If your host’s feelings are hurt despite your having been kind, polite and clear, that is their issue.
RULE #3: TAKE DIET DISCUSSIONS OFF THE TABLE
Like religion and politics, food can be a third rail topic for many of us. Feelings about food run deep and it’s easy for people to become angry or defensive. There are pluses and minuses to every special diet and we can all learn from each other, but holidays are not the times to hash out food philosophy. In short: eat and let eat.
Hosts: Respect your guest’s diet without judgment or question, period. What other people eat is completely up to them. If you are curious about their diet and want to learn more about it, or if you are worried about their health, the holiday table is not the place to have that conversation. Relax and let everyone enjoy their dinner in their own way.
Guests: Just as you would like everyone else to respect your diet, return the courtesy. If you choose to eat a special diet for health or environmental reasons, you may feel very strongly that others should also eat the way you do. The holiday table is not the place for that conversation.
If your diet is limited for health reasons rather than by choice, this is not the time to seek sympathy. Appreciate the foods you can eat and let others enjoy the foods you can’t eat without inspiring them to feel guilty.
If you believe your diet is healthier than most, show that through your example instead of by lecturing or judging. If others express genuine interest in your diet and want to know why you think it is so awesome, tell them you would be happy to share more later, outside of holiday time.
RULE #4: LOOK BEFORE YOU LEAP: Minimizing Menu Mishaps
Hosts: Because you are not required to go out of your way to modify your menu, any special effort you decide to make is dairy-free icing on the gluten-free cake, and is likely to earn you extra love and appreciation from your guest. If you go this route, you will need to understand perfectly which ingredients your guest doesn’t eat so that you won’t accidentally include a dash of something forbidden and be disappointed when they have to turn it down. It is amazing how many times well-intentioned friends ask me for my food list because they want to cook for me, and then toss in an ingredient that’s not on the list without realizing it.
Also important is to ask not just what your guest CAN'T eat, but also what they DON'T LIKE to eat. People with special diets are just like everyone else—they have preferences, too. You don’t want to go to the trouble of making a glorious egg-free lemon custard only to find out your guest hates lemon desserts. If it feels stressful coming up with menu ideas yourself, you may want to ask your guest if there is something you can make for them that they already know they enjoy—maybe they have a beloved recipe, favorite cookbook or website they like to use.
A few practical tips for the accommodating host:
- Some dishes can be easily modified by keeping an ingredient or two on the side. If you usually sprinkle crushed nuts on your frosted brownies, put them in a little bowl alongside the platter. If you usually add butter to your squash or mashed potatoes, leave it out and have butter and olive oil on the table.
- Most special diets allow non-starchy vegetables, so steamed vegetables with butter and olive oil on the side are usually a safe bet. Olives make an excellent appetizer for almost every diet.
- For your gluten-free or paleo guests, if you’re making a meat or poultry dish, consider saving them some of the plain pan drippings to use as an au jus before you add flour and other ingredients to make gravy for the rest of your guests.
- For your vegetarian or vegan guests, take care to use vegetable broth where broth is called for. If you usually add crumbled bacon to your brussels sprouts or other special vegetable dish, keep it on the side. Cook and serve portions of side dishes separately from your main meat dish.
- For your low-carb guests, some easy options include things that the rest of your guests might also enjoy, like spiced nuts or cheese cubes for appetizers, and fresh berries and unsweetened whipped cream as a dessert alternative.
Guests: If your host has gone out of their way to make you something special, of course you will feel very grateful and touched, and compliment the cook! But what if they unintentionally added something to the recipe that you can’t have, like a dash of soy sauce, a pinch of flour, or a little chicken broth? Unfortunately, you may then have to turn it down. This is awkward and painful for both of you, so just be as nice as you can. “Thank you so much for making this for me, Grandma, it looks delicious, but I’m sorry it actually has something in it that I can’t eat, so I’m afraid I can’t have it after all.” Disappointment happens in life and feelings get hurt sometimes. Being gentle and honest is the best you can do.
RULE #5: WE'RE ONLY HUMAN
Whether you are the host or a guest, you may be trying to eat carefully over the holidays and stay true to your personal healthy eating ideals by limiting portion sizes, sugar, or alcohol, for example. However, holidays often mean breaking the rules and treating oneself, and it is difficult, if not impossible, to be surrounded by mountains of delicious food and not succumb to temptation. If you’re a host, don’t be surprised if you have bent over backwards to make a sugar-free dessert for your low-carb guest and then catch her sneaking a piece of regular old pumpkin pie!
If you are hoping to stick to some healthier goals this holiday season, here’s a suggestion: decide now what your goal will be. Will your goal be to splurge only on Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day? Or only at the Hanukkah party? Only on New Year’s Eve with your sweetie? Or are you planning to go the distance and stay on your special diet throughout the whole season? And if you do decide to take a holiday from your healthy diet, what will your definition of splurge be? You may want to set your heart on very specific indulgences that will really be worth it, as opposed to having a free-for-all. If you establish very clear goals you’re more likely to stick to them than if you try to wing it. Then, once you’ve decided on your goals, tell other people about them so they can support you. For those of you trying to stay on a low-carb diet this joyous season, please see my post 20 Tips for Staying Low-Carb Healthy Over the Holidays.
For hosts and guests who are not eating a special diet, resist the urge to try to persuade your special diet guest to taste or indulge in something they are trying not to eat. It is hard enough for people who are trying to stay true to their health goals to resist scrumptious foods that aren't on their plan without you egging them on.
TIME FOR DINNER!
Holidays are not just about food; they are about people coming together to share a special occasion. Focus on the good company, the warm atmosphere, and the things you have in common with others at the table. Relax, have fun, and enjoy. Happy holidays to all!