THE BLOG
11/09/2015 04:16 pm ET Updated Nov 09, 2016

Food Allergies and Dietary Restrictions at the Holiday Table

Special memories are made when friends and family gather together for a festive meal. When food allergies are involved, the host and the guest have an important role to play when it comes to breaking bread (or not) at the table.

Here are ten dining etiquette tips for safely navigating food allergies and dietary restrictions this holiday season.

The Duty of the Holiday Host:

  1. Inquire about your guests' needs. Ideally, the host will have the opportunity to ask if there are potential food issues. The information will be a valuable tool when designing the menu. Begin the dialogue by providing a general idea of what you plan to serve, which will open the conversation to possible health hazards.
  2. Offer a variety. Include several food options, so guests have an alternative in the event they must skip a particular dish on the buffet table. For serious allergies, separate foods across the table to ensure there is no cross-contamination.
  3. Be mindful of seasonings and hidden ingredients. Avoid bacon when preparing a bean dish for vegetarians, or fish sauce for someone with a seafood allergy. This WebMD list of hidden sources of gluten can be a good starting point when shopping for ingredients.
  4. Set realistic goals. Most guests understand the difficulty of catering to a group of lactose-intolerant, gluten-free, vegan, paleo, shellfish and peanut allergic visitors. Ask invitees if they might bring a dish to share with the group.
  5. Be honest. If you do not feel confident that you can keep your guests safe from possible allergens, be upfront and let them know. Suggest getting together on another night when you can spend the time and attention required to prepare and serve a special dinner that you are certain won't cause your guest potential harm.
The Duty of the Invited Guest:
  1. Hosts are not mind readers. If you are gluten intolerant or have a severe allergy, it is your responsibility to let your host know in advance.
  2. Offer to provide a dish. Bring enough for everyone to enjoy rather than just one serving for yourself. Example: "I am a vegetarian so will have to pass on the turkey, but I would like to bring a favorite entrée that other guests can try."
  3. Take the host's menu into consideration. Be aware that your host may go to considerable time and expense to create a specific menu, complete with carefully selected wines for different courses. Unless it is a potluck, ask for guidance on what you can bring. If you are attending an Italian-themed event, avoid showing up with an enchilada casserole.
  4. Do not presume the meal will revolve around you. While you can reasonably expect a host to take allergies seriously, do not be offended if your host does not cater to every preference, especially if it is a lifestyle choice as opposed to a medical condition.
  5. Be thankful. Inviting guests to a home-cooked meal is a gesture of generosity. The point of sharing a holiday meal is enjoying each other's company and making memories. If you are on a dietary plan that is restrictive, eat before you go. Serve yourself something that is safe and skip the rest.
Communication between the host and guest is a key element to a successful meal. For more of my dining etiquette tips, you may also find my Holiday Dinner Party Checklist helpful.

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