Surviving Dinner Parties

This Thanksgiving, we had an unexpected additional guest at the table, someone we didn’t know. No problem. I generally cook enough to feed a small army, and one more person at the table is always welcome.

During the last-minute rush to get everything prepared to put on the table, this particular guest walked up to me and quietly mentioned he had an allergy to nuts, so if I could point out what he couldn’t eat, it was appreciated.

Granted, his timing could have been better — racing through the ingredients list of every dish while I fried fritters and stirred gravy and wondered where I’d hidden the last of the butter was a challenge. But I managed, noting only the green been casserole had any type of nut in it. And I cursed my last-second decision to add a bit of hazelnut to that dish, because, frankly, the gluten-free mushroom soup/sauce I made was absolutely delicious!

And there, my friends, is what I believe is the key to surviving any kind of dinner party: communication with the host. I cannot overemphasize how important it is to let your host know, as far in advance as possible, that you cannot consume gluten.

I’ll note that gluten isn’t the only dietary restriction your host might encounter. Nut allergies, like those suffered by my guest, are common. I always make sure I have something for the vegetarians I know (though sometimes I fail the vegans). More than a few people I know follow the Paleo diet. Others don’t eat red meat. Diabetes is common in our society. As is just plain, old-fashioned picky eating.

Yes, some of these are choices. When I’m hosting a party, I do try my best to make sure my guests can enjoy themselves. It’s easier when I know the dietary challenges I’ll face in advance.

Whenever you eat at someone else’s home, the chances of encountering gluten is high. Very high. The truth is, even if your friends know conceptually what being gluten-free means, they don’t necessarily know how to translate that knowledge to their menu. If you’re going to the home of a baker, there will be trace flour everywhere, no matter how spotless the kitchen. Crumbs, gluten clinging to cracks in cutting boards, spoons dipped in one dish, then another creating cross-contamination.

I don’t mean to scare you. We face challenges like this every time we eat a meal outside our own homes (and for some, within their homes). During dinner parties, you have to be alert and flexible. It’s your job to make sure you don’t go hungry while still respecting the work being done by your host.

Or, do not expect the world to accommodate you. If you can’t deal with the situation (read on for suggestions), for whatever reason, politely decline the invitation. Nothing ruins a party like a guest who isn’t having a good time.

Good Friends

Most of my friends know I’m gluten-free, so mentioning this in advance of a dinner party is a comfortable thing for me to do. We can quickly parse out the menu, and I can decide if I need to eat in advance or bring something along to share with the other guests. Friends, generally, are happy when something is contributed to the menu, as long as it fits the theme.

At a dinner recently, a friend made what looked like delicious cod. I noted what appeared to be breading on the fish, and asked her if it was gluten-free (being fairly certain it wasn’t). She practically slapped herself on the forehead, saying, “I totally forgot about that.”

“Not a problem,” I assured her. “I’m fine.”

And I was! This was a potluck kind of event. There was a fantastic kale salad on the menu plus a delicious butternut squash risotto. The early arrivals had devoured my gluten-free Frito pie (which had the bonus of being vegetarian, so another friend was accommodated). Everything worked out fine. It was easy enough to avoid the fish and still have a great meal.

One strategy you can follow is putting yourself first in line for serving (or if the host is serving, asking that your plate be filled first). This allows you to avoid chances of cross-contamination as others serve themselves. You may feel pushy, but if you (feel the need to) explain the situation, many people will find this a clever solution to a problem they didn’t realize existed.

When appropriate, I also offer to help with the prep work. This allows me to create “safe” foods while enjoying time in the kitchen with a friend.

People You Don’t Know Well

This type of situation can be tricky. It’s one thing to bring a dish to a party hosted by your best friend. It’s another to quiz someone you barely know on their menu and how it fits into your diet. In fact, that’s a conversation that becomes awkward very quickly.

Still, if it’s appropriate, make sure to mention in advance that you’re gluten-free and offer to bring something you can eat. If it’s appropriate. Nobody wants to make their guests ill, but sometimes menus and other circumstances mean an additional dish will be awkward, and there still may be challenges related to cross-contamination. Think positive — there’s a very good chance there will be one or more items you can consume safely.

Sometimes, getting advance intel isn’t feasible. You don’t know the host well enough to make this kind of contact. It’s dinner at your boss’s house, and that’s often weird enough as it is. You’re attending as a guest of someone else.

You’re just going to have to go with the flow. My gluten-free motto is “Be flexible. Always.”

I am going to be honest here. If I don’t know what’s in the food I’m eating, I generally smile politely and avoid, well, just about everything. Again, if the situation allows, I’ll have a quiet word with the host to help me plan my eating strategy.

And there are coping strategies. I can eat in advance, slip something into my purse to eat discreetly during the event (Lara bars are a lifesaver!), or eat when I get home. I may engage in a combination of tactics, adjusting my strategy on the fly. Is that a salad dressed with a simple vinaigrette without croutons? I can make a meal of that!

Again, I’ll be honest. The first time I read this kind of dinner party advice, I thought it was extreme. It seemed wrong, the antithesis of everything I’d been taught about being a good guest. But as I’ve been healthy and happy on my gluten-free diet, I realize I need to remain in control of every item I put in my mouth.

People are generally very understanding about this. Lots and lots of people have dietary restrictions, and they, like us, have to navigate these challenges. The person who is responsible for your health is you. Plus, and I cannot over-emphasize this, you are not alone in dietary challenges.

Another thing I cannot over-emphasize is that we are not gluten-free because it’s fun. We don’t get days off from being gluten-free. There’s no such thing as a gluten-filled cheat day (at least not without repercussions). Gluten-free is our life. Always make your decisions with the goal of remaining healthy. It’s essential!

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