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The holiday dilemma: meeting the dietary needs of guests

people at a table
As the host, start with the idea of being inclusive. When you invite people, ask if they have any specific food needs.

Keep your mind open to having new and interesting dishes on your table.

Sound Consumer | December 2007

by Marie Donadio

(December 2007) — Your brother and his wife are coming for dinner with their two children who are gluten intolerant. Your cousin and her new partner have become raw foodists — although you’re not really sure what that means.

Your neighbor is vegan and her son is allergic to peanuts. Oh, and your best friend can’t eat dairy. Do I dare mention your own spouse who is eating low-carb and your child who is just plain picky?

These situations can be challenging for even the most versatile host. What are our responsibilities in meeting the dietary needs of our guests? Of equal importance, what are a guest’s responsibilities? What are reasonable expectations to accommodate others and have our own needs met in either role?

According to Mrs. Dawn DeGroot, owner of Wallingford Charm, an etiquette school for children and adults, the most important thing to remember is that we are there for the company and fellowship. As much as a foodie like me imagines it to be so, festive gatherings aren’t about the food.

As the host, start with the idea of being inclusive. When you invite people, ask if they have any specific food needs. Keep your mind open to having new and interesting dishes on your table.

Allow yourself to differentiate between wants and needs. A peanut allergy is critical, maybe even life-threatening, while your husband’s dislike for mushrooms isn’t; he can simply eat around them. Like everything in life, the key is good communication.

As a guest, call your hostess and share your needs. If he or she is planning a sit-down dinner where no one brings a dish, ask if you can drop off something suitable that can be plated with the rest of the food. Ask yourself, “Why am I going to Sally’s party? Is it for her parmesan cheese straws or the company?” The worst-case scenario is you eat before going and then nibble a few crudités and sip some sparkling water while socializing.

I chatted with Heather Anderson, chef at Chaco Canyon Café, a raw food restaurant. Many people who have chosen to eat a raw food diet have found themselves excluded, viewed as too far afield. It hurts to be left out. Heather shared that she would prefer to be invited and not participate in a meal than not be included at all.

Her observation is many raw foodists are excited about their diet choices and eager to share a signature dish. When hosting, the simplest thing to have available is a salad with some cut raw vegetables, a fresh lemon and cold-pressed extra-virgin olive oil.

When trying to meet needs such as wheat- and dairy-free diets, build dishes with component parts so people can choose additions based on suitability. I often start with a vegan soup, such as Potato Leek or Velvet Black Bean. To these, guests can add cheese, sour cream, or garlic croutons.

People generally like to control their condiments; having options helps. The PCC Web site is set up so you can search recipes with specified criteria; there are numerous inspired recipes available there.

Guests don’t want to come empty-handed. Rather than another bottle of wine or box of candy, let them bring a non-dairy pumpkin pie, a raw fruit tart, or a vegan entrée. Prioritize needs with dishes; give the person dealing with a severe allergy first choice on his or her contribution.

When bringing a dish, mention to your host what you are planning to prepare and be open to making adjustments according to the needs of other guests as well. Often this is as simple as leaving the whipped cream on the side.

Remember, simple food simply prepared always is appreciated. Serve meat on its own plate. Prepare rice or potatoes with herbs, salt and olive oil; or squash with a touch of maple syrup. Serve steamed or roasted vegetables with a bit of oil and salt. The beautiful flavors of fresh food will come through without butter, cream and flour.

The dark and dreary wetness of our emerald city is much more bearable in the company of friends and family. If you find yourself longing for the familiar menus of days gone by, remember that Aunt Rose’s green gelatin ambrosia salad really gave most of us indigestion anyway.

Marie Donadio is a PCC Cooks instructor who teaches adults and children. The soups mentioned above plus more of her recipes and articles can be found in our recipes area.

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