It turns out I’m going to miss the first annual gingerbread house decorating party at my office. That still means I have to attend a bunch of other parties, large and small, at my workplace. These parties will range from a company-wide event where my inability to eat just about everything will go unnoticed to potlucks where it won’t.
Let’s face it: this time of year abounds with holidays centered around foods. Thanksgiving. Christmas. Hanukkah. So many of the foods traditional to these holidays contain gluten. If you’re one who has trouble resisting temptation, it can be a challenge.
Still, as you might guess, I love parties, and I food. I’m also gluten-free. This means I’ve learned to cope with situations where I may not have as much control over my diet as I’d like. Events at the office fall squarely into that category, so here are some suggestions for navigating the season while still enjoying work events.
If you’ve been gluten-free for more than a day, you know that eating at restaurants is challenging. The rules that apply to any new restaurant also apply to work-related meals. One bonus with an office party is that they’re generally planned far enough in advance that you have time to do your research or, as noted in my first suggestion, help find a safe place to eat.
- Choose the Restaurant: This is my number one tip for eating safely at an office outing. I’ve discovered a handful of safe places close to my office. If you’re in the position to make this choice or offer suggestions, do so.
- Note There’s a Gluten-Free Diner When Making the Reservation: As part of my (and my husband’s) process, we make it clear there’s a gluten-free diner when we make reservations. That way, if there is a special menu or something we need to know in advance of ordering, the restaurant is aware. I’m always excited when this is acknowledged by staff. I feel better about the restaurant when this happens.
- Study the Menu Ahead of Time: Many restaurants post their menus online, so you can identify potentially safe dishes. Chain restaurants are increasingly offering dietary information, assisting all guests with dietary restrictions. If the menu isn’t available online, ask if it can be emailed or even faxed (yes, in this day and age!) to you.
- Call the Restaurant: Pick up the phone and ask about gluten-free menu items. I’m constantly surprised by how well-informed some restaurant staff are about their menus. Of course, I’m sometimes shocked by how uninformed some staff are as well. If you encounter any hesitation from the person who answers the phone, ask to speak with the manager or chef. This is a common request, and they will be able to guide you through the menu.
- Ask for the Gluten-Free Menu: For those restaurants that do offer a gluten-free menu, be sure to ask for it. That helps reinforce things in the minds of the restaurant staff.
- MentionYou’re Gluten-Free to Your Server: If there isn’t a gluten-free menu or other way to identify gluten-free items, I talk to my server. If I’m ordering a gluten-free item, I make it clear while placing my order. There may be a difference between the regular menu and the gluten-free version. Good restaurants make it very clear they’re serving you the correct item when you food is delivered.
- Verify, Verify, Verify: Even if you’ve eaten at a place before, make sure no ingredients have changed. This happens in the restaurant world all the time. Asking a few questions takes just a moment.
Office potlucks are always challenges. Some people take time and make things from scratch. Others pick up something from the local grocery store or deli on their way in. Some pop by the local bakery. You don’t know what you’re getting…and often your co-workers don’t know the ingredients in the item they’ve brought for the party.
When it comes to office potlucks, I always bring a main course type of dish. Something filling enough to make an entire meal if I can’t eat anything else. Macaroni and cheese. Lasagna. Chili in a crockpot.
Sometimes you’ll get lucky. I have a Peruvian co-worker who makes an incredible and gluten-free quinoa salad. At a recent gathering, we pitched in for Honeybaked ham and turkey, both of which were gluten-free. That made it easier to ignore the pastries and pies.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, some parties are stress-free because nobody will notice if you’re eating or not. At my company, and hopefully yours, the timing of these events is such that you don’t get home too late for a good, gluten-free meal. It’s easy to have a glass of wine, socialize with co-workers, and leave at a reasonable time.
Sometimes though, the parties require a bit more finessing. Our big department party, a gathering that included various groups in our division, takes place in an environment where I need to say “No, thank you” quite a bit. Food platters are passed around, and the temptation to try a delicious-looking hors d’oeuvre is strong.
Still, no gluten. Ever. A lot of my co-workers already know I’m gluten free, so it’s easy enough to remind them why I’m not eating. For those that don’t, I just smile, decline the food, and hope for no questions. Usually there aren’t, but when someone does push, I tell them I’m gluten-free.
This tends to lead to lots of questions, of course, but I don’t mind answering them. Once people understand what it means to be gluten-free, they grasp the challenges we face every day.
It’s hard to avoid work events. We want to be part of the team, and it makes a difference in our day-to-day interactions when we spend time with out co-workers that doesn’t involve big projects or spreadsheets. Socializing builds business relationships.
When you’re gluten-free, a new set of challenges arises, but with a bit of planning and communication, you can survive holiday parties at the office without a problem.