Social Minefield: How To Properly Feed Your Guests

Thanksgiving is coming up, and with it the inevitable questions about food: how to accommodate the vegan, gluten-free, or otherwise dietarily restricted person on your guest list? And what if you are that person? Read on for some answers.

I've never been a big fan of Thanksgiving — I never liked turkey even back when I ate it, and the whole holiday has always seemed like a loser middle child sandwiched between way cooler sibs Halloween and Christmas. That said, a big part of my distaste comes from the fact that I have never told my grandparents — who host most of our family Thanksgivings — that I don't eat meat. I think they've figured it out by now, but at the beginning it just seemed too complicated, and the sides are better anyway, and why rock the boat. Keeping it quiet was always sort of stressful, though — what if someone asked me why I wasn't eating turkey? And on a day that's so much about food, it felt strange for me to make food a big secret — a Thing, and not in a good way. The tips below should help both guests and hosts avoid doing that.

Tips For Hosts

First of all, ask! If you're sending out invitations, it's super-easy to include a little note asking guests to let you know about dietary restrictions. Even if you're not — and even if you're having a family gathering with people you've known a long time — it's a good idea to just send around an email asking if there's anything you should take into account. Maybe Grandpa is on a reduced-sodium diet these days, maybe your cousin just found out she has a gluten allergy — you won't know for sure unless you ask, and people are often way more comfortable opening up about this kind of stuff if you initiate. That way they don't feel like demanding assholes, and making sure nobody feels like an asshole will go a long way to a fun party.

Second, listen and respect. You might not agree with your guests' food choices, and you might be annoyed that you have to accommodate a lot of different people. But if everyone at your table is happy and well-fed, everyone — including you — will have a better time. Plus, you might learn some tasty new recipes. And if you're confused about how to feed your guests, read on for some specific tips.

Veganism

Most meat-eaters these days know how to make a reasonable vegetarian entree, but vegan diets can still confuse some people. I talked to Isa Chandra Moskowitz, coauthor of Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World (I recommend the chocolate Guinness ones) and Veganomicon (which my avowedly non-vegan dad now cooks from), who offers these tips for hosting vegan guests:

I think people forget exactly what foods are vegan, and they end up serving salad or bare pasta to vegans. A good rule of thumb is: if it isn't making your mouth water, it probably won't make ours water, either. Of course we appreciate any special effort you put into cooking for us, but you can feed us food that everyone loves, like chili or curry. Just use coconut milk for the creamy component in the curry, instead of whole milk, and use vegetable oil instead of ghee. And for the pasta, there are plenty of vegan pesto recipes out there, and you can use common ingredients. To bring the most flavor out of your pesto, toast the nuts beforehand. Cheese isn't needed if you use great ingredient, trust me!

If you don't want to work with ingredients you're not familiar with (like tofu, seitan or tempeh), how about serving a bean dish? It's probably only the Standard American Diet that's stumped on what to do with beans (besides bake 'em, which is good too!), but even something simple like a slamming hummus or lentil soup is a welcome addition at any table. I've never met an Italian cookbook that didn't have a million ideas on what to do with beans.

And if you ultimately are going to serve salad you can get creative. Add beans and roasted veggies and try out grains, like quinoa (not technically a grain but you get the picture.) You can make amazing vegan dressings that everyone will love using fruit, or tahini, or different kinds of oil and vinegar.

And last but not least, if you have a few vegan options at the table we will love you because you will be sparing that innocent protein bar that we have stowed away in our cruelty-free canvas bag. And we'll probably thank you forever and buy you presents.

Kosher

Ronnie Fein, author of Hip Kosher, reminded me that "people are kosher at different levels. [...] Some will only eat on paper plates, some will eat non-kosher meat but never eat pork, shellfish, etc." So it's worth finding out beforehand what your guest's specific dietary practices are. Fein recommends,

[I]f someone is kosher, be sure to have either fish or vegetarian options available if that person will only eat kosher meat and poultry. If [the host] can't cook something special, they can always bake a potato or sweet potato, serve lots of veggies, nice bread and that will be enough. Most of us can miss an entree and never be the worse for it. But I think it is important for a host not to make a guest's issue an embarrassment, so just serve the stuff without any fanfare or bringing attention to it.

She adds,

I think most people who are not kosher are aware that pork and pork products as well as shellfish are not kosher. They may not be aware that meat and dairy are prohibited in the same meal. So something like veal parmigiana would not be kosher because it includes meat and cheese. It's always safest, when entertaining kosher folk who will eat off "nonkosher" plates and from "nonkosher" utensils, to have vegetarian options. Some good ones are mujadarah, which is a bulgur wheat and lentil casserole topped with loads of caramelized onions. A real winner for kosher and nonkosher alike. Everyone always wants the recipe when they taste it at my house.


Gluten-free diets

Gluten-free cooking can be a challenge for those who aren't familiar — luckily, Karina Allrich of Gluten-Free Goddess has this handy cheat sheet. She also told me hosts should "remember that gluten is present in the grains wheat, spelt, rye, barley and commercial oats. That includes all forms of wheat — from pasta and cous cous to whole wheat bran and beer. Do check labels, as wheat often hides in the ingredient list." For feeding guests who go gluten-free, she says,

My advice is to keep it simple. Make naturally gluten-free food for guests. Hummus with crisp veggie sticks. Guacamole with plain corn chips (check labels for wheat seasoning). Olives. Fresh salads (no croutons!) and fruit. Roasted fresh vegetables. Rice and quinoa are safe grains. Baked potatoes. Fresh fish or meat, and plain tofu for vegans. Eggs. Whole dairy products are gluten-free but check labels on low fat versions (look for wheat starch or thickeners added) and avoid those with added herbs or seasonings.

Be aware that seasonings and broths, salad dressings and gravies can all contain wheat flour. Even soy sauce. So keep seasonings straightforward. Use fresh herbs. Olive oil and vinegar dressing (no malted vinegar!). Lemon juice. If you're cooking Asian food, there is a wheat-free tamari sauce you can find in most stores. And coconut milk is safe.

Luckily, wine is gluten-free!

As for dessert, the easiest thing is to offer a naturally gluten-free recipe. Flourless chocolate cake which relies on dark chocolate, butter and eggs is a good choice. Ice cream (without cookies or brownie bits) and sorbet with fresh berries. It doesn't have to be fancy (though flourless chocolate cake is pretty impressive!).

She also reminds cooks to avoid wooden cutting boards and spoons, as they can harbor old gluten residues.

Eating disorders

Guests in recovery from eating disorders may or may not choose to disclose this fact to you. But if they do, there are ways you can make your party more welcoming to them. Tiptoe of Between Living and Existing gave me these tips:

Try not to make food the sole focus of the occasion. This can be hard at holiday meal times, but the real focus should be celebrating with family, friends, and loved ones. [...]

Be supportive of your guest who is in recovery for an ED. Ask them if there is something they can do to make them feel more comfortable. Maybe there is a dish they can have that is non-threatening/scary to the guest.

Let the guest know that if at any point they do feel uncomfortable, they can feel free to do what they need to do to take care of themselves, ie get a breath of fresh air, go to a safer place/room, etc.

For guests

As much as as it's kind for hosts to do everything they can to make everyone feel comfortable, guests can also take some steps to make their own lives easier.

Tell the host.

If the host doesn't explicitly ask about dietary issues, it can be smart to initiate the conversation. Both Moskowitz and Allrich advocate a phone call. Says Moskowitz,

Usually, a phone call is best. If a person can hear your voice (unless you're talking in a really snotty way) then they are less likely to feel put out or defensive. Let them know that you're vegan and that you want to make it easy for them. If you are really bad at communicating via phone, then an email is next best.

If you're in recovery, you may not feel like disclosing your ED history to your host. But if you decide to, Tiptoe has some suggestions: "If you feel comfortable, ask the host ahead of time foods that may be there. For some people with EDs, it can lessen the anxiety, for others it has the opposite effect. Just depends on how you react to that type of thing." Also,

If you feel comfortable, let the host know you are in recovery from an eating disorder and that though you are trying, food gatherings are still tough occasions. They may already know this, but sometimes they need to be gently reminded.

Let the host know you are appreciative of their help to support you.


Know that you might get shit from other guests, but you don't have to take it.

If you're vegan or gluten-free, or potentially if you have other dietary restrictions, you'll probably at some point encounter that person who wants you to eat "just a little bit" of chicken or bread or whatever. Here's Moskowitz's response to that situation:

It's simple, a polite "No thanks, I'm vegan!" and if they persist, well, all bets are off. Don't be anyone's punching bag. If you are being polite and respectful there is absolutely no reason in the world why everyone else shouldn't show you the same consideration. People need to respect boundaries, and you should be able to tell the difference between playful joking and harassment. I have shut people up with a "Have I done something to offend you?" Usually their answer is something like "No, I'm just an ignorant bullying asshole." Only they don't say that. Unless they are my Aunt Hortence, she has a real gutter mouth.

Or, you might have an uncle/cousin/acquaintance who really wants to get into a discussion about your meal. Moskowitz advocates engagement — if the person's actually interested and doesn't just want to piss you off:

It's always important to know if someone has a genuine interest in your choice. If you feel that they do, well, hate to say it but get in the mood to discuss it. Even just a few short words. For me it would be "I treat all animals with the same love I have for my cats." For you maybe it's something different, but if it can go from debate to discussion and kept brief then that would be ideal for everyone involved. If they're really just looking to argue, and doing tired old groaners like "If god didn't want us to eat animals why did he make them out of meat? Snort snort guffaw" then pity them and walk away. If you really really don't feel like it, offer to send them info about it via email or something.

Allrich notes that those who eat gluten-free also face criticism:

Ironically, it is family members who are often the toughest to deal with. Those who "knew you when" will sometimes resent your changes. Or refuse to believe the seriousness of your diet. I've had a close family member actually say to me, Here — just scrape the pie filling off the crust. And the classic, A little bit won't hurt you. Denial ain't just a river in Egypt.

Here's her response:

Celiac disease is not something you can ignore. It's not a headache or a rash that will go away tomorrow. It is an autoimmune disease that attacks your digestive system. And even a crumb of bread can trigger your autoimmune response.

In all situations, remember that while it can sometimes be interesting and productive to talk about your food choices with people, you're never under obligation to defend these choices.

Offer to bring something.

Not every host will take you up on it, but bringing something you know you can eat can be a good way to relieve any worries you might have about going hungry — as well as a chance to share recipes with other people. Allrich offers these gluten-free favorites:

Enchiladas are always my go-to pot luck dish. I make a big pan of Sweet Potato Black Bean Enchiladas, and Sour Cream Chicken Enchiladas for meat eaters. No one knows they are "gluten-free". Quinoa Taco Salad is another delicious choice. Also — there are fabulous gluten-free brown rice lasagna noodles now, so I often bring a pan of lasagna. No one can tell it is gluten-free. In fact, the brown rice lasagna noodles are so light and delicious, gluten eaters ask for the recipe.

Says Moskowitz,

I cook for anything. Everyone's like "Isa why did you bring enchiladas to your mani-pedi?" So I really try to mix it up. I'll tell you the last couple of things I've made for different occasions to give you some idea. Sunday night I brought lasagna to my friend's house for a Walking Dead party, Saturday night I brought a Cashew Korma to a Diwali party (where they were serving pizza, vegan pizza included!), I had a taco bar for Halloween and made a big vegan ice cream cake, and last month I brought Chili Verde to a chili potluck.

In addition to mujadarah, Fein recommends the delicious-sounding and kosher Pumpkin and Parsnip Soup and Cranberry-Maple-Cashew Pie. This year, I'll probably be bringing wild rice stuffing to my grandparents'. I'm the kind of cook who doesn't really measure stuff (this is why I no longer really bake), but here's a "recipe" of sorts:

Cook a whole bunch of wild rice in vegetable broth.

When that's getting close, saute some chopped onions, celery, bell peppers, and garlic in a pan. Like, a lot of all those things.

Also mushrooms. I like to use a combination of fresh criminis and dried wild mushrooms (soaked beforehand, of course), but use what you've got. It will be tasty.

Mix the rice and veggies. Stir. Now add a bunch of chopped walnuts, and grated parmesan (you can eliminate the parmesan to make the dish vegan — in this case I'd turn up the other seasonings). Really like a lot of parmesan. Add some Tapatio hot sauce and soy sauce (this makes it extra-delicious; you can use gluten-free soy sauce to make it gluten-free) to taste.

Put the whole thing in a lightly greased baking dish and grate more parmesan over the top. Bake at 350 F for about 30 minutes — this is just to make things meld and get more delicious.

This is really good for the next, like, week after Thanksgiving also. I like to liven it up by adding more soy sauce and Tapatio after the fact.

Unfortunately I couldn't include every dietary restriction in the tips above, so feel free to share your own experiences — and recipes! — in the comments.


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Gluten-Free Goddess [Official Site]
Kitchen Vignettes, By Ronnie Fein [Official Site]
Between Living And Existing [Official Site]
Post Punk Kitchen [Official Site]

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