The holidays are around the corner and many of us are probably already in full party planning mode. If you are hosting a holiday event this year, the foremost thought that is probably running through your head is “what am I going to serve?”
Not to put too much pressure on you, but a truly excellent host always does his or her best to accommodate the uniqueness of the guests present at an event. Understanding and accommodating special diets and food needs or preferences is, in my opinion, the hallmark of a great host.
There are a number of physiological, personal and religious factors that may shape your guests food choices, and it is important for you to be aware of those needs.
With that in mind, today`s article will discuss some of the more common food restrictions that you are likely to encounter in your guests and provide you with feedback and strategies to help accommodate them should the need arise.
Let`s take a look at the different categories of special diet requirements:
There appears to be an increasing movement, especially among young people, away from the consumption of products of animal origin (meat, milk, eggs, fish, poultry etc.) as a response to concerns over the ethical implications of animal agriculture and animal welfare. Although vegetarians tend to be more flexible with their consumption of certain foods, a true vegan will not consume anything of animal origin (including honey & gelatin).There are also some foods that you might think are vegan, but are not.
Here are two quick tips to help accommodate vegan and vegetarian guests:
- Offer a non-animal source of protein: Depending on what else you plan to serve, accommodating a vegan or vegetarian may be as simple as ensuring a non-animal source of protein is available. Your best bets are tofu, lentils, chickpeas or some variety of bean (ie: navy beans, lima beans etc.).
- Separate animal and non-animal foods: Do not combine dairy or meat based sauces with foods of plant-origin such as grains or veggies, as this will mean they are no longer edible by vegans and certain vegetarians.
A food allergy is a very serious consideration. If you know one of your guests to be allergic to a certain type of food (milk, eggs, shellfish, fish, peanuts, tree nuts, soy, and wheat are the most common) great precautions must be taken to ensure that that food ( or items containing it) do not come in contact with that individual’s meal. Have a look at this Health Canada resource to learn more and be thoroughly review the ingredients of any packaged product used in preparation of the guests meal.
A food intolerance (the most common being lactose intolerance) is not as severe as a food allergy because it involves a gastrointestinal rather than an immune response. In order words, a food intolerance is not life threatening but may cause stomach pain or other digestive issues.
Celiac Disease/ Gluten Intolerance:
Guests with either of these conditions will need to avoid gluten for different reasons, celiac disease being the more severe. Although there are a whole host of primarily starch-containing foods that contain gluten (including anything with wheat, barley, rye) there are two tips you will certainly need to follow:
- Offer a gluten-free starch option: This could simply mean offering rice, quinoa or potatoes as a side dish over pasta or bread, or even serving gluten-free varieties of bread or pasta. It is very important that gluten-free foods do not come in contact with any gluten containing foods, especially if your guest(s) have celiac disease.
- Familiarize yourself with hidden sources of gluten: Gluten is also found in an incredible amount of places you might not suspect. Licorice, soy sauce, vinegar and salad dressings may all contain gluten. Any processed/packaged good with a long list of ingredients may contain some gluten, so stick to simple whole foods that you know to be gluten-free and ask your guest for his or her insights if need be.
You can learn more about avoiding gluten here.
Diabetes is a group of conditions (primarily Type 1/Type 2) characterized by poor physiological blood sugar control. In people with diabetes, the amount of carbohydrates a person eats at a single meal will likely need be self-regulated. There are two steps you can follow as a host that will help individuals with diabetes:
- Serve carbohydrate-rich foods simply: Rely on herbs/spices rather than rich sauces to season common carbohydrate containing foods such as pasta, potatoes, rice, quinoa etc. This will help your guests to better estimate the amount of carbohydrates they are consuming. If you serve packaged desserts or snacks, keep the food labels so your guests can assess the amount of carbohydrates in the foods being served.
- Serve specific types of carbohydrates: Certain types of carbohydrate containing foods ( such as quinoa, brown rice, whole grain pasta/bread, sweet potatoes, lentils) are considered to be particularly strong choices for people living with diabetes, and just about anyone else for that matter.
Other than that, individuals living with diabetes benefit from many of the same healthful foods that anyone else does, especially vegetables!
Guests with lactose intolerance have trouble with the digestion of lactose, one of the sugars found in milk products. Your best bet in accommodating people with lactose intolerance is avoiding milk-based products and sauces and offering some non-dairy variety of dessert. Avoid using items such as butter, cheese, cream or milk powder in your food preparation and selection and opt instead for rice /soy/almond milk or tofu if need be.
It is common for practicing Muslims to avoid the consumption of pork (and its by-products) and any meat that is not Halal. Serving Halal meat, which is available at many grocery chains, is an important consideration for Muslim guests. It is also important that separate utensils be used such that there is no cross contamination between Halal and non Halal meats. Practicing Muslim’s will also avoid alcohol. If you are not confident that your meal is prepared appropriately for your Muslim guest(s), do not hesitate to confer with them prior to the event.
Strict Hindus are vegetarians and even those who may not be strict will likely avoid eating beef due to the cow’s sacredness in their religion. Much like a vegan/vegetarian, non-animal sourced food options will be important to offer to accommodate Hindu guests.
There are different extents to which Jewish individuals will practice kosher eating habits. Some will practice them fully and formally while others may eat without any restriction at all. It will be important to understand the precise restrictions your guest(s) abide by.
Here are some examples of Kosher practices:
- No meat/dairy at the same meal ( one or the other)
- All meat must be designated as kosher
- No pork or shellfish
- Kosher wine only
The list above is not exhaustive, but represents some of the more common and pertinent dietary restrictions.
Be the host with the most!
No one said that being a great host was easy, but believe me when I say your guests will be beyond appreciative of the consideration you provide them. In most cases, special diets stem from intense personal beliefs or physiological needs and are almost always non-negotiable.
I applaud you as an intrepid host for taking the time to read today’s article and I wish you and your party guests a happy and healthy holiday season!
Andy De Santis RD MPH
Andy is a Toronto-based registered dietitian and nutrition writer who holds a master’s degree in public health nutrition. You can learn more about Andy and his services at AndyTheRD.com.