Last year I moved across the country to complete a seven-month internship program. There wasn’t a lot of time to make friends, but I found that sharing food seemed to foster a sense of camaraderie. I was excited when one day a fellow intern invited me to her home for Friday night dinner. Since I’m gluten-free my initial instinct was to offer to bring a dish so she wouldn’t have to go out of her way but I also knew that my standards of kashrut were not as strict as hers. We compromised and agreed that I would bring fresh vegetables for a salad from the farm I was working on, and she insisted on trying her hand at making gluten-free challah.
Later that week we sat around the Shabbat table and bit into the tough pieces of densely packed bread before bursting out in laughter. It wasn’t very tasty, but I was touched by the kind gesture and it the first of many Shabbatot I spent at her table. So earlier this summer when The New York Times ran a piece called “The Picky Eater Who Came to Dinner”, I was upset at the article’s snarky tone which laments how hard it has become for Americans to break bread together.
Living with food sensitivities, I think about this often. Each invitation is fraught with underlying concern. I love being a guest but hate to be high maintenance, so I worry about mentioning dietary concerns. But the alternative leaves me in the uncomfortable situation of offending my host by declining to eat certain foods. Experience has taught me that it is far better to speak up early and avoid excuses and apologies later on.
Sharing food is such a powerful conduit for building relationships and community and the rise of individuals’ special diets, whether due to religious or ethical concerns, food allergies, sensitivities or other medical conditions, has complicated things. So how can we create a sense of inclusiveness that can allow people to break bread together, whether or not any actual bread is involved?
Tips for Hosts
1) When inviting guests, ask whether there are any special food preferences to note.** This opens the conversation for guests to share any food allergies or intolerances as well as dietary practices. Guests may not choose to share why they avoid certain foods, but they will appreciate being asked. It is also appropriate to ask how severe their reaction to determine whether cross-contamination is an issue.
2) Don’t know what a kosher, gluten-free vegan eats? Ask!** If you are unfamiliar with special dietary needs, seek advice. One easy way is to ask the guest what types of foods they are comfortable eating to get a sense of what to work with. If that’s not an option, go online. There are countless websites that offer recipes for special diets, ways to substitute basic ingredients to accommodate food sensitivities. For example, the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness has a great resource on their website for hosting gluten-free guests. While not every dish served needs to be suitable for each guests’ dietary preference, but it’s nice to have a little something for everyone.
3) Keep it simple. Whittling down the ingredient list and cooking from scratch is an easy way to be certain of what is and what is not in your meal. The Whole Life Nutrition Kitchen is one example of a site devoted entirely to whole foods-based gluten-free recipes, while other sites like Allrecipes.com allow you to include and exclude specific ingredients from the recipe search criteria. Be sure to carefully read the label of any store-bought items to identify common allergens, which the FDA requires manufacturers to list on their packaging. Those with smart phones can also use apps like Fooducate’s Allergy Talk, which identify allergens in scanned food items.
4) Consider a potluck. While in some social circles it may still be déclassé to ask guests to bring a dish, potluck meals are becoming more common and acceptable. They ease the burden of hosting by allowing those with special dietary concerns to bring dishes that meet their own standards. They can also provide opportunities for conversation about food and recipe swapping. I’ve picked up some of my favorite meal ideas at potlucks!
5) Make it fun. Many hosts tell me they enjoy the challenge of finding new recipes. It’s an opportunity to break out of their recipe rut and experiment a little. When in doubt, a “make-your-own” meal (as in make-your-own tacos, wraps, salads or kebabs) is a playful and easy way to cover many bases and offer guests an array of options.
Bottom line: It is certainly not necessary to craft an entire meal around guests’ dietary habits. But hosting is an act of generosity and an opportunity to extend a kindness to others. There is no need to stress as long as you bear in mind that what is shared is far more than the food on the table. It is the mood, the conversation and the company that will make the meal truly memorable.
Rebecca Finkel is a registered dietitian with master’s degrees in nutrition and cinema studies. She is currently gluten-free and dairy-free and lives in Seattle where she enjoys hiking, sunsets and rainbow chard.