July 9, 2012
It will be no surprise to anyone reading this that being a gluten free guest in someone else’s home could easily be compared to a minefield. This minefield extends beyond the food to the relationship between the host and guest. A recent article in the New York Times addresses many of the relational issues that come up when hosting a dinner party for guests with food restrictions
In an ideal world, the burden of food restriction would be shared between the host and guest and that would take place through transparent communication prior to the event. Unfortunately, that does not always happen, as can be seen from the NY Times article. Here is my attempt to address the issue, with a letter to all future hostesses of gluten free guests to help them navigate these difficult waters.
As a hostess you want your guests to enjoy themselves, which includes enjoying the food and the conversation with the other guests. You should know that your guests with food restrictions are going to be a bit anxious about coming to your party. They don’t want to create extra work for you, but they also do not want to show up and not be able to eat anything. Even if you’re willing to cook gluten free food for them, they don’t know if they can trust you to get it right. After all, they already know how difficult it is to correctly read labels and keep gluten free food away from stray bread crumbs.
Your guest also don’t want you to feel guilty if they can’t eat your food or if they bring food for themselves. They don’t want to draw attention to themselves. They don’t want their medical issues and diet to be the main conversational attraction. For the most part, they’re not looking to impose their personal choice on you. They just want to be able to enjoy the party without having to pull out an epi-pen, deal with severe stomach upset for days, or suffer with severe pain for weeks.
Here are a few things to consider as you plan your next party.
#1: Can you and do you want to handle food restrictions?
One of the hostesses interviewed for the article said that she asks all of her guests what food restrictions they have, and then plans the meal around them. That is awesome…..if you love to cook and plan and feel up to such a Herculean task. But let’s face it – some people are not up to dealing with food restrictions. If you don’t want to deal with that, then don’t invite guests that you know have food restrictions or let the guests know the menu upfront so that they can plan accordingly (which may mean not coming at all).
If you are up to planning around for food restrictions, don’t wait for the RSVPs to come in. Go ahead and call the invited guests and let them know that you’re trying to plan the menu and just wanted to check and see if they can come and if they have and special dietary needs.
#2: How do you feel about people bringing their own food to the party?
Gluten free blogs, magazines, and books (mine included) often recommend that guests bring their own “safe” food to the party. As a host, how do you feel about this? Do you mind if a guest brings their own meal and eats something completely different than anyone else? Would you be comfortable with a guest providing a portion of the meal, so that they at least know that say, the appetizer, is safe?
If a guest is bringing their own food, give some thought to how you can make this food substitution as invisible as possible. They will appreciate the extra consideration of not having everyone notice that they’re different.
#3: Can You Prepare Food Safely
Finding gluten free (or soy free, corn free, casein free, etc) foods is difficult, especially when you’re not accustomed to it. You can save yourself some grief in the grocery store by letting the guests with dietary restrictions vet the recipes beforehand and suggest specific products or brands that are safe. If you use processed foods, it would be incredibly considerate to tear the labels off of the products that you use and let your guests peruse them before they eat.
You may not realize that keeping the food gluten free (or whatever free) once it is in your kitchen is also important. If you are not gluten free, then there are probably little tiny bits of gluten on your kitchen surfaces and food equipment. Avoid cooking with any equipment that is porous (wooden bowls, spoons) has scratches (cutting boards. non-stick skillets), or small grooves (some loaf pans) that might harbor the offensive foods.
Cooking gluten free (or other-free) foods for guests is hard. But, as John’s aunt said Sunday night when she hosted us for dinner, “Sometimes hard things, are worth doing.”