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Eco Etiquette: Stop Wasting Food! How To Plan A Special Diet Dinner Party

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My fiancé and I love to entertain, but I'm so fed up of trying to deal with everyone's dietary/environmental restrictions! I've tried asking people ahead of time what they do and don't eat, but I always seem to end up with guests who pointedly avoid some dishes. How do I please everyone and stop wasting so much food?

-Kat

If you're only having a couple of people over for dinner, it's not as difficult as you might think to accommodate special requests. I once prepared a gluten-free kosher meal without too much trouble (alright, so I goofed at the end by serving mint chocolate chip gelato after the coq au vin I so cleverly prepared with rice flour for the roux and turkey bacon instead of pork, but other than that, the evening went off without a hitch).

Larger parties, however, present quite the quandary in this day and age. One person is a vegetarian, another can't do dairy, so-and-so only eats sustainable seafood, someone is allergic to soy, you-know-who approves of grass-fed beef but not meadow veal, and before you know it, you're facing a menu of quinoa pasta tossed in olive oil -- not exactly the fare of memorable dinner parties.

While the Lil' Wayne in me would like to say that polite guests should just shut up and swallow, I truly sympathize with those who, for medical reasons, are unable to do just that. Perhaps because of all the damage we've done to the environment, many people have now developed food allergies and sensitivities, and that number is growing: The CDC reports that the number of young people who had a food or digestive allergy increased 18 percent over the last decade.

Regarding guests' particular environmental and ethical philosophies when it comes to diet -- and there do seem to be a lot of very particular ones these days -- you can argue till the cows come home that locally raised, grass-fed beef is less detrimental to the earth than GMO soy (but not actually in front of your vegetarian guests, of course; a polite host never argues with her guests), but those platters of skirt steak aren't going to eat themselves. Wasted food is a sin -- for the planet and your purse.

So in honor of No Impact Week, let me propose a few solutions to keep your guests happy, and ensure that you're not needlessly contributing to the near 300 million tons of food waste that Americans send to the landfills each year.

Give guests the third degree. You mentioned that you've tried asking about dietary restrictions; I've found that this can work, but you have to be very specific. Ask: Are you gluten-free? Vegan? Allergic to nuts? People are often reluctant to seem bothersome (though I have heard everything -- even a celiac vegetarian who was watching his carbs), and sometimes they just plain forget to disclose every nuance of their eating habits: Hence, the time a couple showed up for a lovely scampi dinner my friend had prepared, only to quip, "Oh, when we said we only eat seafood, we meant fish. We don't eat shellfish."

Praise the potluck. Given that we're in the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, I say it's time to unabashedly bring back this time-honored tradition. You supply the booze and a dish or two, then divvy up the course assignments among your friends. That way, everyone prepares something to his or her therapeutic/ecological/ethical liking, and whatever's left over can depart with its owner or be dished out to others in reusable containers (a good green host always keeps a few on hand). Just make sure you pick a culinary theme for the evening so you don't wind up with a meal of lasagna and peanut-braised tofu.

Grill baby, grill. Cooking on a grill (natural gas or propane, not charcoal) is great for finicky guests, because you can prepare a little of everything at once -- veggies, meat, fish, tempeh -- and either freeze what you don't end up cooking, or grill it up the next night for your own dinner. Add a fresh green salad and a rice dish, and you've got a healthy meal that everyone will enjoy. And for those who say you can't grill in the winter, you've clearly never met my husband's family, who can barbecue kebabs in a four-foot Chicago snowstorm.

If all else fails, save your entertaining for the friends whom you know appreciate your cooking. You can dine with everyone else at a restaurant -- or at their house.

Send all your eco-inquiries to Jennifer Grayson at eco.etiquette@gmail.com. Questions may be edited for length and clarity.

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