In my family, we have a couple of very picky eaters and people with dietary restrictions, like allergies, illnesses and the occasional fad diet. Generally, these relatives choose to eat the majority of their meals at home where they have control over what they are eating.
The holiday season is coming up and my family is planning a couple of celebratory meals at restaurants. We'd love to have all relatives be invited without making it an awkward situation for other diners and the restaurant. In the past, we have run into problems with one relative either bringing her own Tupperware of food to nicer restaurants or asking for extensive changes to dishes on the menu. What are reasonable requests to ask for at a restaurant in terms of alterations to the menu? Is it okay to request "no peanuts" in the event of an allergy? Do we draw the line when someone asks for chicken marsala sans dairy, salt, oil and to have the potatoes traded out for steamed broccoli?
Would it be more appropriate to plan a two-part dinner followed by coffee, tea, and dessert and request that all who will not be able to order off the menu meet us afterward? I would hate to make a relative feel uncomfortable but do not want the meal to be uncomfortable either.
Hungry for Answers
As a general rule, I am not particularly forgiving of picky eating, and some of these things sound beyond the pale. I worked in the service industry for many years, and the "no dairy, salt, oil, broccoli" stuff is an example of a customer we could not and would not accommodate. A good host and a good restaurant needs to be thoughtful and obliging of guests to the best of their respective abilities, but they aren't beholden to bullshit. The burden here is on the person with the unusual request, not you or the restaurant in question. It sounds like your pickier family members know this, which is why they eat at home for the most part.
When you invite your guests, ask up front if they have any dietary restrictions. Make a comprehensive list and call ahead to the restaurant you're hoping to visit. Say, "Hello! I'm calling to make a reservation for ten next Tuesday. We have a few vegetarians in the group, as well as someone who is allergic to avocados. Will you be able to accommodate that?" If they say no, move on. Yelp reviews are often helpful when trying to find somewhere kosher or allergen-aware. Most places can help you out with enough advanced warning, but if you just show up, their prep is already done and it won't be possible to remove salt from the sauce or lay aside some vegetarian entrees at the eleventh hour.
It's totally fine to ask for something without an allergen: if you can't have strawberries for health reasons, no one is upset to accommodate that if they're able to. That said, if you have a serious airborne food allergy or you have religious dietary laws that are very, very strict, it's going to be next to impossible for most establishments to help with that. It is not okay to bring your own food to a restaurant ever, nor is it okay to ask them to reinvent a dish to suit your whims to the degree you specified above. If you truly cannot find something on the menu that will work with your diet, you need to bow out or eat before you come. I think your idea for substituting a big dinner for a nice dessert, coffee, and tea get-together is a good one. Sidestep dinner and have everyone meet for later to avoid hurt feelings. Dieters can skip the sweets, there's no pressure to drink alcohol or caffeine if you choose to abstain, and supplying a vegan option usually negates most allergy or religious restrictions.
Good luck, Hungry! It sounds like you've got your work cut out for you!
We love entertaining, but it's become difficult to do since my husband travels a lot for work. We were delighted to discover the perfect date to throw a get together was finally on a weekend when he was home. We sent invitations out six weeks in advance to a dozen or so close friends and family and only three responded promptly. We had contact the others to get an answer and everyone had something else they had committed to. We suspect they were keeping their options open. Obviously if they had already committed to something else, they would have sent an RSVP. letting us know right away.
I was always taught that you accepted the first invitation you receive and that keeping options open was not good form. Your thoughts on this?
Disappointed Hostess With Not The Mostest
Like so many things, the blame for this is on Facebook. That pesky "maybe" button on event pages has made animals of us all. In this age of FOMO, we're all guilty of keeping our options open and being a little bit flaky. After all, you might get last-second invited to Usher's birthday party and it's good to be liquid in the event that you are. In most cases, though, you are just being rude.
Hostess, it sounds like you were situated to have a very nice party that they would have been lucky to attend. You are completely correct: they were in the wrong, 100%. I'm sorry your feelings were hurt by their poor manners. Continue to ask your guests to reply to your invitations and carry on having nice get-togethers with those who respond in the affirmative.
Gentle readers, if you're invited to a party and your host requests an RSVP, know that they're planning something a bit more organized than an open house and honor that effort with your response. It's difficult to know how much food to buy, what your allergies might be, and if you're going to bring a date if you don't tell them. Even a quick text is fine!
Traditional etiquette dictates that you take the first invitation issued, and I still think that's a good rule to follow. Most parties are fun and most nights aren't populated with multiple, mutually exclusive invitations. Don't want to go? Respond immediately and tell your host you have a prior engagement. Don't make up an elaborate lie, just say you can't attend. If you Instagram something from another party, he or she knows you had already committed and that's why. If your "prior commitment" is you'd rather sit at home and watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer reruns and eat Cheezits, no one is the wiser.
I hope your next party is populated with more thoughtful guests, Hostess! In the meantime, I hope you enjoyed your get-together with the people who made the effort.
Yours in French Loanwords,
Illustration by Sam Woolley.