You've invited a dozen guests to a holiday dinner party, and you have the delicious menu all planned out — a huge roasted turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes with gravy, rolls, a tossed green salad, a fresh fruit salad, green beans, cranberry sauce and assorted pies and cookies for dessert. Perfect — until the phone calls start coming in the day before your soiree.
One guest tells you she's lactose intolerant. No problem, you think. She can have everything but the mashed potatoes and desserts. Another guest calls to remind you he's a vegetarian. Fine — no turkey for him. A third guest lets you know that she needs to eat gluten-free foods. OK — no stuffing, rolls or desserts for her. The fourth guest who calls has a serious health issue. He's highly allergic to nuts, he explains, but no need to worry because he'll have his EpiPen ready if he needs it. Throw out the pecan pie!
Maciag suggests there are also other options for gluten-free appetizers besides salads. "At Dragonfly, we have our lettuce wraps that usually have teriyaki sauce on the chicken, which has soy, and we can substitute a gluten-free Latin sauce, which consists of balsamic vinaigrette and Worcestershire," Maciag says. "We also have a plate of roasted seasonal vegetables and shoestring plantains and just a simple bowl of salted edamame to offer."
And just because someone prefers vegan or gluten-free foods doesn't mean they don't like dessert. "We currently only have a berry sorbet as a dairy-free dessert, but all of our menu desserts are gluten-free," the chef says. "We offer a flourless chocolate cake and a coconut flan and also flamed bananas in a caramel sauce, which are all gluten-free."
In the past, most people had dietary restrictions because of severe allergies to foods such as peanuts or shellfish and because of medical conditions such as diabetes, which kept them from eating foods that were high in sugar. Today, many people limit their cuisine choices not because the food will cause immediate danger to their health but because of personal preferences and lifestyle changes. Conscientious hosts can accommodate many dietary restrictions if they ask their guests in advance and have time to plan and prepare options so nobody leaves the table hungry.
Laurie Gibbs, co-owner of the Winchester Inn in Ashland, has been hosting parties for 30 years. She admits that asking guests who are invited to your private dinner party about their dietary restrictions can pose some menu-planning headaches.
"It's a Pandora's box," she says. "Working in the hospitality industry, you have to be ready for contingencies." But a person's home is not a restaurant, she notes, and a host doesn't have to be as accommodating. She suggests writing on your invitations: Advance notice regarding dietary restrictions is much appreciated. "Then be prepared!" she warns.
Options and substitutions
The most common dietary issue that has come up recently at the Dragonfly Café and Gardens in Ashland has been sensitivity to gluten, according to Carsen Maciag, the restaurant's chef. "Whether it is just intolerance or celiac disease, we usually get a handful of requests every day to make a dish gluten-free," he says.
Hosts can offer some choices such as fresh fruits, fresh salads and fresh vegetables that will satisfy a guest with an unexpected dietary restriction. "You can give some options," Gibbs says.
What about foods that many people are highly allergic to such as nuts and shellfish? Should they be avoided at dinner parties or holiday get-togethers? Not necessarily, Gibbs believes, but it's not a bad idea to keep them separated from other dishes. She's found in her business that people will speak up if they have food allergies.
Even if guests haven't given a host a preference, offering some vegetarian and gluten-free choices and labeling them on the buffet table is a nice gesture. "I think that can be a gracious amenity," Gibbs confirms, adding that she identifies special dishes on her buffet table with notes.
Maciag notes that in the last few years it seems like more people are having special dietary needs. "With that in mind, I believe that for a private party there should be at least a vegan, dairy-free and a gluten-free option for those with special needs," he said. "It's nice when you have particular dietary needs to still have an option for food and not feel alienated and go hungry. With that in mind, it is also very helpful when a guest is proactive and informs the host prior to the event of their dietary needs, so that an option can be made available without sacrificing flavor."
How far a host should go to accommodate guests' diet restrictions depends on the format, Gibbs notes. If it's a buffet, the host can offer enough selections that a guest can have plenty to eat. For a sit-down dinner, the guest will just have to make the best of it. "If you're being invited to someone's home," Gibbs says, "I don't think you can dictate the menu."
And although a host can't please all of the people all of the time, Gibbs believes that guests appreciate a host who tries.