Navigating Diet Restrictions with Grace

Walking through the grocery store these days, there are a myriad of labels on food that wouldn’t have been there twenty years ago. Gluten free, dairy free, low carb, paleo, vegan… these are just a few of the many designations I’ve seen while shopping. Many restaurants are also becoming more accommodating, either having separate menus for those with special diets, or willing to alter standard menu items for their customers. It’s a huge blessing really, considering how many people are getting diagnosed with food sensitives and allergies. It seems to be easier than ever to avoid problematic ingredients whether you are cooking at home or eating at a restaurant.
But how does one handle dinner invitations from friends and family? I’ve thought about this a lot this summer, as I decided to become a vegetarian about six months ago. Since then I’ve attended a fundraiser, wedding, family reunion, and quite a few dinner gatherings. Here are some ideas for gracefully dealing with social situations without compromising your dietary needs.
Note: If you have a severe allergy or a serious restriction, some of these suggestions may not apply. Never compromise your safety for the sake of politeness!
Eat before you go. If you are in a situation where there are no menu options (such as a wedding or graduation party), arriving to the dinner with some food in your belly already may be helpful. That way you won’t be starving if most of the meal is off limits! Combine this strategy with simply eating what you can. Most meals have several dishes – you may have to pick around problematic items, but if you can help yourself to extra helpings of the things you can eat, and hopefully your host won’t be offended.
Offer to bring something. If you receive a dinner invite, offering to bring a dish is not only a great way to help your friends, but also an easy way to let them know of your diet restriction. Try something like, “Thanks I’d love to come! By the way, I can’t eat dairy – but I’d be happy to bring a dish to pass!
Be honest. People are becoming more and more conscious of dietary restrictions so it may not be surprising if your host asks you directly if you have any menu preferences. Do use this opportunity to share honestly about what you can’t eat. I personally struggle with not wanting to appear fussy or high maintenance, so I’m often tempted not to say anything. But your host wants to put on a lovely, enjoyable meal for you, and if they ask, graciously acknowledge the food(s) you need to avoid.
You don’t have to explain. Remember, you don’t owe anyone an explanation as to why you are avoiding a particular food or ingredient. Maybe you do have an allergy, maybe it’s an intolerance, maybe it’s an ethical choice or perhaps you are simply trying to lose some weight. Whatever it is, if you don’t feel comfortable explaining, you certainly don’t have to. You and your decisions are worthy of respect. If a well meaning friend pushes, “Well you can have it just this once, right? How allergic are you? You gotta let loose every once in a while!”, gently but firmly push back. “No, this is really best for me and my body. I know you want me to have a great meal, and I’m really happy with my choice.” And you could follow that up with offering to bring a dish (or even hosting the meal yourself!)
Try not to let rude comments get to you; they are probably made out of ignorance rather than ill will. If you can respond kindly while still holding your ground, you may be educating them and enabling them to be more understanding in the future. Diet is such and personal and individualized choice and you’re the only one who can decide what you eat.
What about you? What are your experiences?

Rebecca Menning

Rebecca Menning

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