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Special diets call for special holiday etiquette

The size and makeup of a Thanksgiving gathering

The size and makeup of a Thanksgiving gathering will affect how guests' food preferences can be managed by the host. Credit: Dreamstime

Raw, vegan, gluten-free holiday dinner anyone? Plenty of gatherings between now and the new year revolve around food. This can create anxiety for hosts and attendees alike, as food sensitivities and special diets seem to be more prevalent than ever.

So what is the etiquette of asking hosts to accommodate dietary preferences, and how far are hosts expected to go? Are there different rules when it’s a small gathering or a larger dinner party? And does the already stress-inducing holiday season mean we all need to loosen up our food rules?

Etiquette expert Julie Blais Comeau gives this advice:

Allergies, sensitivities and preferences

If you have a food allergy, it’s your responsibility to let your host know. This is a safety issue, so don’t be shy about speaking up. Hosts should do everything they can to accommodate allergies.

With food sensitivities, mild intolerances, preferences or personal choices, things get a bit murkier. A good rule of thumb: The closer the relationship and the smaller the gathering, the more appropriate it is to bring up food preferences that aren’t allergies or otherwise essential. A festive dinner for three at your sister’s house? You can mention that you’re trying to avoid red meat. Going to a holiday party for 70 people at your significant other’s boss’ house? Best to keep nonessential special requests to yourself.

Advice for holiday hosts

Blais Comeau suggests that hosts ask, “Is there anything I should be aware of to make you comfortable?” The host can add “throughout the meal” or “in our home.” This opens up the conversation to what the person chooses to tell, and takes it beyond food to things such as pets.

If you don’t want to accommodate special diets, it’s best not to ask at all. If you ask about food preferences, you are then expected to make an effort to meet the needs brought up by your guests. You could be opening the floodgates.

If a guest does bring up a diet preference that you feel isn’t essential or is a bit too demanding, like only eating “sustainable’’ fish, you can say: “I’ll do my best to accommodate that. I will be serving plenty of vegetables, a large salad and wild rice pilaf.” Telling a guest what other dishes you are planning will help that person know what to expect and that the meal can be complemented with other options.

It’s perfectly acceptable to ask a guest with an allergy or food restriction to bring something, even if that person doesn’t offer. Blais Comeau suggests saying: “I understand you’re avoiding gluten. Is there a side dish you’d like to contribute?”

This makes the guests responsible for their own special requirements. They are experts on their diets, and you aren’t.

Advice for holiday guests

If you have a special diet, religious or other food restrictions, or especially an allergy, you should say to your holiday host: “I’d love to come, but I want you to know I’m allergic to/can’t have —— . I’d like to bring a dish to share with everyone.”

This is a great tactic for vegans and vegetarians to use. Well-meaning hosts often offer vegetarian options such as vegetables and potatoes, not realizing that vegetarians need some protein, too. Take away the guesswork and stress for the host and bring your own diet-appropriate side dish for everyone to try.

What if you’re on a juice fast, sugar detox, low-carb diet or other program that you have to admit is short-term?

According to Blais Comeau, it’s rude to share with your hosts any preferences or special diets you are on. They were gracious enough to invite you to a meal; either decline the invitation or suck it up for that one occasion. Your host doesn’t need the stress of figuring out which foods are compliant with your diet and which aren’t.