If you love to cook, you probably also want nothing more than to share your love of cooking with those around you. Unfortunately, in a time when almost everyone is on a special diet or has allergies, it can be frustrating trying to plan a dinner party or even casual affair when something as inconspicuous as peanuts can cause a hospital visit or worse.
Luckily, with a bit of planning and creativity, you can still host an enjoyable party or gathering. Knowing which foods are common allergens, as well as communicating with guests can be the easiest way to provide food for everyone while also not stressing out too much.
Don’t leave the menu planning to the last minute if you’re hosting people with various special diets or allergies. In addition to asking guests to RSVP, you should also ask that anyone with special dietary needs let you know by a certain date. This way, your guests have no reason to be surprised by a menu full of dishes they can’t eat, and you don’t have to feel bad because you have friends or relatives that go home hungry. By simply asking the question beforehand, you’re giving everyone a chance to let you know what he or she can and can’t eat.
If someone tells you they are vegan or gluten-free, don’t just pretend you know what this means when you have no idea. Ask. Not only does it show that you are concerned with their needs, but it will also help you be clear on what you should serve. Even within strict diets, there are some minor variations, so you should never assume that a certain food is okay or off the table.
Communication is the key to making your guests happy with your choices, and for having a stress free gathering. By asking questions, you can avoid having unexpected hassles on the day of the event.
Keep it Simple
Don’t try to serve a dozen different dishes to accommodate every single guest. You’ll stress yourself out, and find that you still probably won’t please every person on your list.
Instead, look for a common denominator and choose foods that will appeal to the widest group. Fresh foods, such as those from your local farmer’s market, are going to be much more friendly than processed foods. Foods like plain roasted meats, salads, fruits, and vegetables are usually okay for most groups, and you can serve sauces and dressings on the side to make it easier for everyone to customize their plates. Even having small dishes of ingredients like cheese, bacon bits, or nuts for salads can make the difference between someone being able to eat or go hungry.
Keep the Guest List Down
The more people you have, the more likely you are to have a huge number of dietary restrictions to worry about. If you’re having something like a backyard barbecue, maybe you don’t need to invite everyone you know. If you’re having an event that requires you to invite a large number of people, make a few dishes covering the most common diets or allergies, but realize that you probably won’t be able to please every single person on your list. Another option is to host at a restaurant where even if you provide food, guests are able to order something else if they wish.
Consider Changing the Theme
While you don’t want to host a gathering with no food at all, if you’re hosting too large a group, or have too many different diet types that simply don’t mesh, it may be best to only offer small bites or appetizers and drinks. This way, no one will expect to leave with a full belly.
If you go this route, make sure it’s clear beforehand that you won’t be offering a full meal, especially if the party is during prime time eating hours. You don’t want your guests to show up starving only to find a plate of crudités and a bowl of chips. And, it’s very rude to change the menu after you’ve promised a full menu on the invitation. If you aren’t willing to be somewhat accommodating, you should reconsider hosting.
Host a Potluck
If your goal is simply to get people together for a family reunion or something similar, consider asking guests to bring a dish. You can provide a main course or two (one meat and one vegetarian friendly), but then ask everyone to bring a side dish. Most everyone will bring something that meets his or her needs, ensuring no one goes home starving, and the pressure is off of you to try and please everyone. This won’t always work. If you’re inviting people over to celebrate a birthday or graduation, you don’t want to ask that guests also bring food.
Make Sure You Understand the Severity of Allergies
People that are simply on special diets will often use parties to splurge, but those that have allergies don’t have that option. While most allergies aren’t terribly harmful, there are a few that can be dangerous and even downright deadly if not taken seriously. If someone tells you they have a life threatening peanut allergy, the best course of action is to not serve anything with peanuts in it, even if it is clearly marked. In some cases, even breathing in the allergen can cause a reaction, which can make an otherwise fun occasion turn sour.
Be Clear About Ingredients
It’s always best to prepare dishes with as few ingredients as possible. This not only makes it easier on the chef, but it also makes it easier to remember if a certain ingredient is in a dish if asked. While you probably don’t have to go as far as labeling each and every dish (although guests with dietary restrictions would greatly appreciate it, no doubt), you should be absolutely transparent about the ingredients in a particular menu item if asked.
Offer Sympathy Instead of Criticism
While some dietary needs are chosen (going vegan or Paleo, for example), many others are done out of necessity and health reasons. People don’t choose to have allergies, and while it may seem silly to you that someone needs to avoid even the slightest speck of flour, to them it is very real. Do not make light of the allergy, and do not ever “sneak” an ingredient into a dish because you think it’s not harmful. Doing so can be dangerous, not to mention insensitive.
Don’t Take Things Personally
While you might take great care to prepare the best meal in the world for your guests, you have to remember that you probably won’t please everyone, no matter the reason. Try your best to be accommodating, but don’t take it personally if you have a guest or two that goes home without eating much. Most people with severe dietary restrictions are used to it, and unless they are new to the dietary changes, they are likely not going to be upset if you don’t meet their exact needs.
Hosting a party is stressful enough without everyone on your invite list having special dietary needs that you are expected to meet. While you can’t please everyone, at least trying to be accommodating can go a long way. Instead of criticizing someone’s dietary choices, be as accepting as possible and do what you can to make sure they don’t leave hungry. While you won’t be able to please everyone, following these tips can ensure all will have a good time.