Some people eat everything. I call them eaters. Some others may restrict their diets by choice, choosing to eliminate meat for ethical reasons or choosing to follow a new diet. I call them choice-restricted eaters. Still others restrict their diets as required for their health. These include conditions like Crohn's disease, Celiac disease, diabetes and food allergies, as well as others. I call them health-restricted eaters.
I fall in the last category: I am a health-restricted eater as required by my food allergies. If I eat hot peppers or tree nuts, the reaction can range from uncomfortable at best to life-threatening at worst.
Having been both hostess and guest in this situation, I can offer some advice to those who are considering welcoming a restricted eater to their meal or their food-related event. Here are some questions to consider when hosting a choice-restricted or health-restricted eater:
1. What are the restrictions of your guest?
First, before you do anything else, find out what your guest's restrictions are and what they require in the kitchen. All restrictions deserve respect, whether for choice or for health. And it's important to know what the consequences might be. Would you need to make a separate dish that's vegetarian? Or would you need to prepare something that doesn't come in contact with even a drop of peanut oil, with the consequence being a trip to the ER for your guest?
2. What are the preferences of your guest?
There are situations where I would prefer not to eat. At the office holiday party or a new friend's summer cookout, I may choose to focus on enjoying the company rather than spending the evening stressing out about whether the food is actually safe for me to eat. Your guest may prefer not to eat, or may prefer to bring his or her own dish. If you can collaborate with your guest, you can reduce the stress of the situation.
3. Can you accommodate the food restrictions?
Just as you want to know your guest's restrictions, you want to be honest about how well you can accommodate them. If you're not sure you can provide the requirements they have, say so! It doesn't make you a bad person if you're unable to feed someone with a complicated food restriction. If you really want to try to accommodate, let your guest know that, too.
4. What are alternative solutions?
We all have our own preferences in the kitchen, and our own ways of hosting. That being said, if you are hosting a guest with a food restriction, you don't have to reinvent the wheel. Your guest has likely lived with this for a little while, and it does not make you a failure of a host to ask your guest how to get around the hurdle of food restrictions in the kitchen. They may be able to suggest a brand they trust or a technique they've found that makes cooking easier for them.
5. How can you collaborate?
My sister-in-law texts me pictures of food labels when she is preparing a meal I'm attending. It is a fairly simple exchange that saves us both a world of stress, and because she shops differently than I do, this often leads to new foods and brands that I can trust in my own kitchen. I've also been invited to a dinner where we all cooked together in order to make sure it was safe. If you can collaborate with your guest, you offer so much more than a meal to him or her. Collaboration shows that you care and you may both walk away from the meal with something more than a full belly.
6. What do you need to do in the kitchen?
Because of the risk of cross-contamination, I grill my meat with a sheet of aluminum foil underneath. If I'm going to a cookout, I'll throw my own burger, free of spices, and an extra container of aluminum foil (just in case the host doesn't have any), in the back of my car. I've found many people are willing to put a sheet of aluminum foil on the grill in order to allow me to enjoy a burger with the rest of the crowd. Knowing the steps that enable a safe meal can put everyone's mind at ease and turn the focus back to where it should be: a barbeque on the Fourth of July, or a dinner party in the backyard with fireflies lighting up the evening.
7. What do you do if you mess up while cooking?
Tell your guest! If it is a choice-restricted eater, he or she may decide whether the "oops" is acceptable. If it is a health-restricted eater, he or she can let you know whether or not it's safe to eat. Either way, that should be up to your guest. Different conditions allow for different degrees of "oops" -- but better you allow your guest to make that decision than let it slip by and risk an uncomfortable or life-threatening reaction later on.
8. How can you make your guest feel comfortable?
Chances are, if you've been going through the questions above, your guest will already be comfortable. But it doesn't hurt to ask them directly. Personally, I tend to hover in the kitchen to make sure that a spicy spoon isn't accidentally dipped into my "safe" pasta salad. I don't want to sound like a drill sergeant, requesting this safety measure of every person that walks past, so instead I station myself near my "safe" foods and watch like a hawk. If someone were to ask what makes me comfortable, it would give me the opportunity to explain what I do and why.
9. What can your guest do for you?
First, by doing all of these things, your guest can attend and participate in the meal. But many people with choice- and health-restricted diets are aware that their requirements are more difficult to cook for than regular eaters. And many of us are more than happy to help where we can to make up for the high-maintenance hosting we induce, either by bringing a dish to pass or helping extra with the clean-up.
10. What do you do to celebrate your success?
Enjoy that meal you cooked and the presence of friends or family around you! Take in the appreciation of your guest and walk away from the experience with pride and a full stomach.
Johanna Bond is a mental health counselor with a limited permit in New York, and a writer. She hosts a blog at startingfromscratch.me and is currently writing her first book about rising to the challenge of a severe food allergy diagnosis.