I remember my first holiday season when I was vegan. You see, I’m from a very southern family. So if it’s not meat, it’s a vegetable flavored with meat or packed with dairy. But when you’re on a diet that doesn’t include animal products, it can be hard to find something to eat in that situation. And instead of telling my very southern grandmother about my diet change, I lied. I didn’t expect that my family would accommodate my different diets. Instead for that day I said I wasn’t hungry and ate snacks throughout the day moving from place to place. Not my finest moment or my healthiest.
I’m grateful that over the last few years I’ve had friends who understand my eating requirements. They always make sure to include me or what I might prefer in dinner plans. But they also know that I’ll speak up if the menu isn’t worth it or I’ll just figure it out. Not everyone is this way. And when you’re the chef, it can be difficult to accommodate every whim or diet people are on. So instead of leaving you stressed this holiday season, here are my tips for accommodating different diets when cooking.
Understand the dietary requirements
It’s easy to assume that everyone knows what a vegan or gluten free diet entails. But more often than not, if it doesn’t affect you or someone close to you, then you don’t have a clue. For example, one of my best friend has celiacs. It’s an autoimmune disease. And if she eats anything with gluten or anything cross-contaminated with gluten, it’s not good. Think of it in the same way you would a peanut allergy. She has to be extra careful about getting accidentally dosed with gluten. But gluten is a word that’s tossed around so easily with loads of things being labeled gluten-free people don’t even know what gluten is half the time. If you’re hosting someone who’s diet is specific, get to know what that diet is actually all about. The more you understand the requirements, the easier it will be to accommodate it.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions
If someone is living a specific dietary lifestyle, questions come with the territory. And if it affects your health, you tend to be even more vigilant about making good choices. If you aren’t sure if a guest can eat something, ask them. I know from personal experience I’m more flattered that someone would think to ask. And some people may not be so strict about certain things. It’s much easier on you to ask if someone can eat this side or that protein than it is to stress about it.
How it’s cooked can be as important as what you’re cooking
For my birthday a few years ago, I want to dinner with a friend and her mom. We were at one of the hibachi places outside of Atlanta. I ordered the veggie hibachi cooked in oil. I watched as the chef cooked my veggies step by step. He then brought out the chicken my friend ordered, flipped the chicken and proceeded to use the spatula to toss my veggies. Very quickly, I couldn’t eat my ordered meal. This is where cross contamination comes in. If you haven’t eat something like meat in a while or it contains something that will make you sick like gluten, sharing utensils can quickly cause a problem without you realizing. Making sure you’re keeping things separate or using different utensils can be the easiest way to make sure you’re safely accommodating different diets.
Labels are your friend
If I’m honest, I go to more parties where I don’t have many food options than I do with loads of choices. And I have no problem with it. There’s no reason every dish you serve has to be an option for people. If you have a famous casserole you know half your guests love but maybe one won’t enjoy, go ahead and make it. Just be sure you label the dishes you have out and note if they are gluten-free (gf) or vegan (v) if necessary. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve accidentally eaten something that I would regret the next day because I didn’t realize it wasn’t safe. You show just as much love and respect to your friends by warning them ahead of time if they can’t eat it.
Keep it simple
Now that you understand what your friends can or cannot eat, know that simple is easiest. Instead of stressing about making tons of options for different diets, go down to basics with things everyone can enjoy. If you’re thinking of having 5 options that include sides and protein, make 3 things that accommodate everyone and 2 that may work for less. And if you can make a dessert that works, even better! Having some kind of food options to eat is definitely better than only eating rolls at dinner. And if you’re really worried, ask if your friend would like to bring a dish to share that they love. Sharing food with friends is a time of joy. Don’t worry about being so fancy that you stress yourself out. Simple is perfectly okay.
I hope that wherever you are and whatever you’re cooking these tips help you this holiday season. And if you’re taking the time to read this and consider your friends with special dietary requirements, I know that they will appreciate any effort you make. Happy almost Thanksgiving friends!