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December 31, 2017 10:11 AM   Subscribe

How do folks with food intolerances and allergies navigate dinner parties?

For the next month or so I will be on a very restricted diet for reasons diagnosed by my physician. The foods I can't eat appear random (no mint, no garlic, no deli meat, no citrus, no dairy etc.) but I've navigated some core meals that I can eat and enjoy. The problem arises when I go to a friend's for dinner. They very kindly want to provide a meal for me, which I appreciate, but the restrictions are very difficult to navigate. Thus far folks have insisted on feeding me saying that they will follow the food restrictions only for me to show up and they haven't at all, and I've as a result, become quite ill. I've started just saying I'll bring my own dish - which people will have none of.

I know this is not a unique issue - some people live with lifelong debilitating food allergies and intolerances. My issue is transient. How do you navigate these situations respectfully?

Assume eating out isn't an option in these scenarios.
posted by Toddles to Human Relations (22 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
You gotta eat first so you're not hungry (and/or have a Quest bar in your pocket) and then when you get there, assess. There will probably be something that looks like it might work; you can ask for details. If there are one or two things you're satisfied are safe, eat them. If not, put some stuff on your plate and push it around.

Mainly, do not show up hungry.

Good luck. It's weird your friends are making false assurances. People get very strange about food.
posted by fingersandtoes at 10:16 AM on December 31, 2017 [21 favorites]

Here's the thing: they're being disrespectful by refusing to accept your answer. Tell them "I so much want the company, but I cannot eat the food. I have to bring my own."

And then you can help by refusing to discuss the restrictions. I get it, as a cook and host who wants to make people comfortable, and I'm always going to offer once, but I have figured out to let it go after that. Or focus my energy on making sure you have the equipment you need (fridge, microwave, boiling water, whatever) to do what you need to do.

If you start telling me about ingredients, I'm going to start trying to accommodate you again, so just don't say. Say your meals are specially prepared by a dietician in a special kitchen to avoid contamination. Say that deviating from this food will screw up your test results. Say whatever you have to say to force them off the hook. Then bring your food and thank them profusely for understanding.

This form of accommodation should be the norm, honestly. It's not wrong for you to ask for it.
posted by Lyn Never at 10:21 AM on December 31, 2017 [42 favorites]

Friend, my doctor has me on a very restricted diet. It's quite necessary for my health, and it's a royal pain. It will be easier and *less stressful* for me to bring a dish. I'll miss your cooking, but I love seeing you and would hate to miss your party. If they insist, then specify a dish you *can* eat that is the least hassle. And still eat first and/or bring a dish of your own.

I can't eat dairy. No butter milk, cheese, yogurt, etc. It's in everything. People think eggs are dairy, or they mis-remember and think it's gluten I have trouble with, etc. i'm delighted that your brother-in-law doesn't eat dairy but tolerates aged cheese and I wish I did, too, but I don't. All these food issues are such a pain, aren't they? So I'm bringing some turkey and kale curry. No, really. I insist.

Lyn Never is right about discussing the restrictions. Just keep insisting, say what a pain it is and you love their cooking and look forward to having it again in the future. I hope the restrictions are effective and that you feel better.
posted by theora55 at 10:32 AM on December 31, 2017 [5 favorites]

Ugh, people can be so flatly disrespectful about food, and there are so many cultural blind spots. I've had loved ones with restricted diets break into tears because I've "managed" to accommodate them. It shouldn't be something so rife with stress and shame.

I totally agree with fingersandtoes - snack beforehand so you're not hungry, have something in the fridge back home that you can heat up when you get back. That these supposed friends are having "none of" you bringing your own food is a big red flag for me - if the point of a dinner party is the pleasure of another's company then the origin of the food shouldn't matter as long as everyone's enjoying themselves. If they're not because they're making themselves sick, the dinner party is a failure. I would try pushing on that issue some more; maybe they didn't understand how serious you were and would be fine with it once you explained it. If they continue to say no, you can't bring your own food, you should say no to the invitation.

The real thing that works is to proactively invite these dinner party people to join you in activities that aren't about food. Maybe instead have a game night (they'll want to have special snacks and drinks but that's a lot easier to turn down and bring your own) or a day out shopping or something. Then when you're invited for dinner you can say no without feeling like you're no longer spending time with your friends.

But of course you're going to encounter these situations no matter how much you try to step to the side of them. I think the best way to handle it is with confidence and self-assuredness. It can be hard, especially when enduring health problems, but you can work on it and get better at saying things like "I can't eat that" or "that will make me sick" without making it sound like you're angry or especially pitiful or somehow lying to folks for no reason. When someone tries to make you feel bad for making them feel bad about what they've offered to feed you, tell them "it's not your fault" (even if it is), a phrase which goes a long way toward smoothing ruffled feathers.

Your friends want to see you happy and enjoying the pleasures of life. For a lot of us that's mostly food. If you can present a positive attitude while enjoying other pleasures, like music or funny stories or getting to pet a cute dog or whatever other stuff happens at a dinner party that isn't food, it can help to keep your friends from feeling like they need to push more food on you that you can't eat.
posted by Mizu at 10:43 AM on December 31, 2017 [1 favorite]

I just don't do it for the most part.
People just don't know enough, shouldn't have to, aren't that careful, make mistakes, and I don't expect them to be perfect and don't want to cause bad feeling when there's a problem.
Like fingersandtoes said mostly.
posted by bongo_x at 10:45 AM on December 31, 2017 [2 favorites]

Bring a dish for yourself that works as a side and also as a meal, regardless of what the host wants. Obviously not sure of all of your restrictions, but we used to bring risotto in a similar situation.
posted by cnc at 10:53 AM on December 31, 2017 [4 favorites]

Eat ahead of time and bring your own food and just go about doing your own thing cheerfully and without compromise. If anyone asks just say, “oh my doctor has me on this thing, it’s so was your holiday?”

Personally, as a host, I would love you for managing your own food issues and while I would also try to extend to you and include you, I would most appreciate your company. Frankly, it’s reflexive and compulsive to say, “let me extend myself specially for you!” People not only truly mean well but there’s no common script for the alternative.

Good luck! It’s usually only a moment of discomfort and then everyone moves on.
posted by amanda at 10:53 AM on December 31, 2017 [6 favorites]

I recently cooked for a friend who has some dietary issues, and when she started listing off everything couldn't eat I eventually (politely) cut in with a couple of suggestions, and she picked one that she could eat and that sounded good to her, and it went fine. I am comfortable with cooking from scratch and using whole foods so for me this was not a big deal. However in general it's really easy for me to slip up. I once served pizza with cheese to a friend who can't eat dairy - I knew that, I was just overwhelmed and made a dumb mistake.

The easier thing is just to decline dinner invites for the next month and make counter-offers instead. Or be the first one to invite and just book up your month with activities that don't involve cooking, or which are dinner parties which you host and thus have control over. Make a list of all the museum exhibits, sporting events, game nights, and other things you might like to do that don't involve food, and invite people to do those things with you. Thus you will have a month of socializing and cooking your own food. If anyone invites you over for dinner after you do all of that, you can honestly say "Love to, this month is booked up, how about next month?"

Another thing you can do is the FaceBook announcement "hey friends, I need to cook all my own food for the next month. This is super important for my health and I know that you kind and loving people want to support me by cooking for me. I'd like to ask that instead you support me by allowing me to bring my own food with minimum fuss. I really appreciate your understanding and I'm lucky to have such wonderful friends."
posted by bunderful at 11:04 AM on December 31, 2017 [3 favorites]

Before my GERD was diagnosed, it triggered severe gastritis, so I had to be on a very restricted diet (maybe the same one as you) for nearly a year--very low acid, very low fat, no mint, no caffeine, nothing spicy, blah blah blah. It was very frustrating to navigate. The list of things I could eat and drink was shorter than what I couldn't, and it seemed random. Many people have no idea how acidic individual ingredients are; I remember I posted here asking for suggestions of non-acidic beverages, and someone recommended tomato juice.

People want to be nice, so when I was invited out they'd ask how to alter their cooking to support me, but my diet was so restricted I knew a) it would be frustrating for them to actually follow--my partner was the only person who knew how to put together an entire meal that wouldn't make me sick, and that was only because he literally spent hours researching and planning when I was first diagnosed; b) they'd probably get it wrong anyway; and c) I didn't think everyone else should have to eat a blander meal than normal just for my sake, even if the cook could get it right. So I'd just say, "Oh that's so nice of you! But it's such a complicated thing and really, my food problems aren't everyone else's responsibility. I'll bring something I can eat and share if anyone else wants some." And so that's what I'd do.

I was raised to never turn down any food offered to me as a guest, so this made me very uncomfortable at first, but the consequences were dire enough that but I simply had to get comfortable doing it. I had to practice being very firm and I could not downplay my condition (which is my tendency, but as I discovered doesn't work when you have serious dietary restrictions). Honestly, people just felt bad enough for me that they didn't press it. The most they'd do is ask genuinely interested questions about my condition--I was really open about it and happy to elaborate, but YMMV of course.

Good luck--this is a maddening situation! I hope it's resolved soon for you.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 11:20 AM on December 31, 2017 [4 favorites]

I have a small core of people that I trust to eat whatever they cook for me - very small - and everyone else, it's "no, really, what can I bring?" Potlucks, I bring enough that even if I only eat what I bring, I've got enough (which means I over contribute to the potluck, but I'm lucky to be one of my more financially stable friends, so I'm okay with that). It sucks, and I am conflict avoidant too, but if folks are going to insist on trying and getting it wrong, you have to become comfortable with No, really, I appreciate that you cooked but I'm going to be ill and it's going to be unpleasant, no, please, I don't want to share details, that's going to be unpleasant, let's visit while you eat. They're going to have to let you bring something - which people who don't have food allergies often have trouble getting their heads around (and as pointed out upthread, so many people with food allergies or intolerances cheat and make the rest of us look bad...)

The suggestion about decentering food for this portion of your life is good too, if your friends will listen. "I'll bring a snack and a drink later in the evening and we can play cards and board games" "Let's go for a walk" "Used bookstore trip!" "Ice skating!" Etc. There's a lot of activities that don't involve food, but food is an easy social exercise, so we all fall back on it.
posted by joycehealy at 11:22 AM on December 31, 2017 [2 favorites]

Adding to joycehealy's comment, my friends and I also got used to visiting and enjoying each other's company while I only participated symbolically in food sharing. Really it's about the act of communal bread breaking, so to speak, so we would still eat or drink together--it's just that I'd be eating or drinking something different. We all got used to it, honest!
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 11:26 AM on December 31, 2017 [1 favorite]

Snacks beforehand, if at a restaurant, calling a head of time to clarify what I can eat(if anything), and if heading to someone’s home bringing an appetizer I can eat. I do avoid it though, and generally tend to either suggest restaurants or hosting dinner parties myself where I know things are safe/contaminat free for Me to eat.

Also, after your friends see you go into anaphylactic shock once at a restaurant they’ll never forget how severe food allergies are again, but I don’t recommend that approach.

I have given up on fucks to give though, and explicitly tell people what will happen if I have even trace amounts of fish sauce or oyster sauce or bonito flakes if they insist that there's not enough to hurt me. Yes you will get a glory blow by blow and no I won't eat your cooking ever again.
posted by larthegreat at 11:38 AM on December 31, 2017 [2 favorites]

Eat before you go and then say no as many times as you have to.

I am not polite about it at all. I am very, very blunt. "Look, I won't be eating anything you cook, no matter what."

I don't say why, I don't tell them more about my medical condition, I don't explain.

I don't say sorry, I don't say thank you, I don't show any sign of feeling bad about it or being accommodating.

When you communicate it like this, people get the picture (or they're too shocked by your rudeness or afraid of offending you further to keep asking --- either way).

You then change the subject or walk away. Later, you soothe any potential hurt feelings by telling them how nice it was to see them, how good their house looked, etc. This is when you can explain about your medical condition if you want to.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 11:53 AM on December 31, 2017 [2 favorites]

One more thing: instead of suggesting you bring your own food, which I think will trip up many hosts, say "may I bring a side dish [of a thing you like and want to eat] to share? It works for my regimen and it's tasty!" They'd have to be pretty ungracious to refuse if you phrase it that way.
posted by fingersandtoes at 11:57 AM on December 31, 2017 [6 favorites]

“My doctor recommends I cook my own food while I’m on this diet and I’ve been doing this long enough now to get her point. There are so many restrictions it isn’t reasonable to expect anyone else to take them all into account. Don’t worry— in a few months I’m be back to eating your wonderful Bundt cake again! When I’m clear, I’ll hold a special pot luck so I can get all the home cooking I’m going to miss now! Thanks so much for understanding...”
posted by frumiousb at 12:17 PM on December 31, 2017 [1 favorite]

Honestly, it's awkward, and I'm still not used to it even though I'm an adult and have had serious allergies since childhood. And people understand my nut allergy, but most people will tell me that seeds aren't nuts, so I can't be allergic to seeds, but trust me, I know that and I'm still allergic. Accept that it's embarrassing, and insist on your own food. If you go out to restaurants, it's weird but ok to have the manager come over and run through the menu with you. (But for a month? Stay out of restaurants). And if you're off dairy, be aware that many people don't consider butter to be dairy.
posted by Valancy Rachel at 1:24 PM on December 31, 2017 [3 favorites]

I've had celiac for over 10 years and the best way to deal with this is to tell friends, "I so want to see you and since I can't take any chances with this diet, is it okay if I being a side dish to share? How about risotto/polenta/ratatouille?"*

If anyone refuses this offer, then I'd say that I'd love to see them soon, but I'm afraid I can't make dinner.

*After they've had my polenta cakes with ratatouille, they ask me to bring it every time.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 1:42 PM on December 31, 2017 [3 favorites]

My husband has severe, vast, and complicated food allergies, and I love to host dinner parties (often for people who have various food issues). I’ve been on both sides of this issue, and I think that the hosts who insist they can manage your food intolerances are just trying their darndest to be accommodating and hospitable. They’re not intentionally trying to hurt you, and just don’t understand the severity of the situation. BUT I totally get that you don’t want to risk your health on someone else’s recipe. So, eat before you arrive, say (don’t ask) that you’ll bring your delicious doohickey sidedish to share, and toss in an extra loaf of bread or something similar that you know you can eat. If they still insist, just say, ”Doctor’s orders! I’m looking forward to seeing everyone!”, and still bring the things you can eat to the party. At the actual event, it makes more people uncomfortable to see you not eating anything than to have a little something on your plate. I know it sucks, but try to relax and have fun! Having too many dinner invites, is a lovely problem to have.
posted by defreckled at 2:11 PM on December 31, 2017 [4 favorites]

After they've had my polenta cakes with ratatouille, they ask me to bring it every time.

May we please have a recipe detour?
posted by jointhedance at 2:11 PM on December 31, 2017 [2 favorites]

I agree that bringing your own food is key here, but, for some hosts, having something available for people to eat is a crucial part of courtesy. Depending upon the culture your hosts have been raised with (and the age of your hosts), many people may consider unimaginable to not be able to provide you with anything to eat or drink.

If there is anything simple that you are *certain* you could eat (baked potatoes, plain rice, etc.), you might try suggesting that and then mentioning that you will bring the rest of your meal. Barring that (assuming you don't trust their kitchen at all), is there a packaged food item that they could provide for you? Having a pre-packaged granola bar available might not be the same as a meal, but it will still allow them to feel like they haven't left you to fend for themselves.
posted by steady-state strawberry at 3:10 PM on December 31, 2017 [3 favorites]

I eat before I go. And I tell people quite bluntly “No, you won’t be able to feed me, it’s too difficult, trust me! Don’t even try, I’ll just eat before I come over.” Then I smile but stand firm about it, and I simply don’t eat what they’ve made. Because most people won’t take no for an answer, but I tried, and I’m not going to be sick for a week because of it. Because in 20+ years, no one who’s tried has EVER gotten it right. And I’m not willing to develop cancer for them, sorry.
posted by MexicanYenta at 8:10 PM on December 31, 2017 [3 favorites]

Yeah, I am the hostess who would move heaven and earth to have SOMETHING you could eat. It is an important part of hospitality for me to have something for everyone to eat or drink. But that thing could be like: non-citrus table fruit. Or a bowl of nuts. Or a special juice.. If there is one thing that you know you can eat, I’d tell your host: it makes offering to bring your own main dish go so much more smoothly.
posted by corb at 8:44 AM on January 1, 2018 [3 favorites]

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