Hosting 101: The Guest on the Special Diet

Everyone’s got one: The friend who’s gone Paleo. The son-in-law who won’t touch animal products. The co-worker who swore off nightshade vegetables, canola oil, and foods that start with the letter “B.”

Feeding any one of those people can be a challenge—especially when you have no idea what qualifies as a “nightshade vegetable.” Feeding all three of them together, at a dinner party, is enough to make any sane person swear off entertaining for good.

It didn’t use to be this way. Once upon a time—like five years ago—you could invite a gaggle of friends over for dinner and feel reasonably certain they would all eat the spaghetti and meatballs you put before them. Back then, throwing a dinner party in no way resembled an episode of Iron Chef. Now, it does.


To use or not to use? That is the question.

That’s essentially what one reader recently noted when she wrote, asking:

There are people in my family who are trying to follow restrictive diets in order to lose weight, but they are also quite willing to “cheat” if the whim takes them. I find it challenging to figure out how to have them over and what to feed them! Do I make things that fit in their restrictive diet, even if that’s not how we eat or what fits into our budget? Do I make a mix of things?…Do I have a responsibility as a good hostess to try and cater to their diet, even though what I’m serving is good, nourishing food?

Speaking only for my less than saintly self (and setting aside the fact that I’ve got a whole ‘nother post in me about what guests should and should not expect from their hosts), here’s how I handle Guests with Special Dietary Needs (and, if you scroll way down, what I feed them).*

First, I try to remember my primary responsibility as a hostess: to love and honor my guests.

On the one hand, loving and honoring my guests means serving them a tasty meal that doesn’t send them into anaphylactic shock or leave them doubled over in pain for the rest of the night.

On the other hand, it also means being kind, attentive, and calm, something I can’t do if I’ve had to prepare four separate dishes to accommodate four unnecessarily demanding guests (and spent the entire month’s grocery budget in the process).

With that in mind, I next make distinctions, assigning guests’ dietary needs to various categories.

Category One includes people with deathly food allergies. I’m not talking about sensitivities here—like “sugar makes me grumpy.” I’m talking about, “If I eat almonds, smell almonds, or inhale almond dust, I will stop breathing.”

Category Two consists of guests with food allergies or sensitivities that aren’t airborne. This includes people with wheat, dairy, and shellfish allergies. In other words, they’re not going to drop dead from being in the same room as a piece of bread, but ravioli with a lobster cream sauce probably won’t help them feel the love.

Category Three includes people who are on “a diet.” These guests need to lose a few pounds and have concluded that the way to do that is to never eat bread again. Or bacon. Or cream. They don’t have an actual medical problem with any particular food. They just have a problem with temperance.

Category Four is the catch all for any remaining food issues: the vegetarians, the vegans, the Paleos, the Macrobiotic Raw Foodies, and the just plain picky crowd. The common denominator in this category is choice. They may have good reasons for that choice (they’re fighting cancer and hope a vegan diet will help); they may have silly reasons (Gwyneth Paltrow said to do it). But certain death has not forced them into this particular dietary habit.

Once I’ve lumped my guests into their categories, I move on to the next step: meal planning. So, which needs do I accommodate?

Obviously, if there are people coming over to the house who fall into Category One—deadly allergies—they must always be accommodated. Always. There should not be a nut anywhere in sight. Because… well…death. (And I’m not saying this just because I have a peanut allergy. Again, people: Death!)

The second category is also a no brainer. People with Celiac Disease may not drop dead on the spot if there’s bread on the table, but they’re not just inventing this problem either. So, if someone is coming over for dinner with a serious food allergy, I plan a meal that won’t result in them spending the night on the bathroom floor. Cooking polenta instead of pasta is easy enough. And the stress of putting together a menu that doesn’t poison my guests is way less than the stress of sending my guests to the hospital.

Once we get to the third category—dieters—I’m less accommodating. A lot less accommodating. No one single dish, consumed at my table, is going to make a guest gain or lose weight. Food doesn’t work that way. It’s not bread or bacon or cheese that makes you gain weight. It’s too much bread, bacon, and cheese. Accordingly, the only healthy way to lose weight and keep it off is to learn to practice moderation and move your body on a regular basis. If a guest thinks otherwise, they’re wrong, and with all the Celiacs and vegans running around, I don’t have the time or money to indulge their error. They can just take a smaller helping of stew, skip the bread, and share the dessert with their spouse.

And what about the rest? The vegans? The Paleos? The Organic Police? I accommodate them on a case-by-case basis. If it’s them and only them coming over for dinner, I make a meal that meets their needs. And if I’m feeding a crowd and can include gluten-free or vegetarian options, I do. But if for some reason I can’t do that, I’ll just ask the particular guest to bring a dish. Again, a good hostess strives to love all her guests, but not at the expense of her sanity or her bank account. If someone has chosen to make themselves more difficult to feed, they need to be willing to lend a hand in that process from time to time (and for the most part, I’ve found that those who’ve made the choice for a good reason, usually are).

All this, of course, presupposes one’s guests actually announcing before they arrive that, for example, they avoid meat on principle. I’ve made it a habit to ask about food issues before I go shopping, but if I ask and they keep quiet about their issue until dinnertime, uttering a pox on their house seems to me to be a perfectly reasonable response.

If they do tell me beforehand, however, I’ll make one of the recipes/menus below. They meet specific dietary needs, but also have proven tasty enough to please most everyone else at the table…including young children and the men who normally can’t live without meat.




*Note: For the above recipes, make sure to double-check the ingredients lists, especially on the chicken broth. The makers of the cheaper stuff get sneaky about making their products with flour.

Gluten-Free & Dairy Free/Paleo Friendly


**This post deals only with adults. For the most part, though, the same rules apply to children with  allergies. Keep the nuts out of site and, if you have time, make or buy a small treat that your child’s gluten/egg/sugar intolerant friend can enjoy at your house or child’s birthday party. If you don’t have time, ask the child’s mom to help. She may find that annoying, but just tell yourself it’s less annoying for her than spending the evening at the hospital.

8 thoughts on “Hosting 101: The Guest on the Special Diet

  1. Jennifer Gregory Miller says:

    Emily, I love how you think. I was just talking about this with my husband. I have one son with food allergies, so it’s a real pain to ask ahead of time or bring food to make sure he’s taken care of. But it’s necessary, and when I’m a hostess I’m very aware of finding out if there are medical needs.

    But it’s medical that I’m concerned about. I don’t cater to vegans or vegetarians or Paleo. I personally try to avoid wheat and nightshades but I’m not going to ask a hostess to accomodate that. It’s not dire, it’s just uncomfortable. I can pick what works for me.

    My husband and I were watching a Hallmark movie (yes, we do that for unwinding because they are just easy) and it had a girl make a fuss about the meal because she was vegan. I also had a friend who was vegetarian for life as a personal penance, but she always made the hostess bend over especially for her.

    I had another example when I had a guest over and she said she followed Nourishing Traditions. I tried serving anything organic, but it wasn’t perfect, and she really stuck up her nose at my options.

    I think if it’s a personal choice, especially if it’s about morality or sacrifice, the sacrifice is to not say anything. That is what the Orthodox do, they eat what they are served.

    While the hostess is being an example of charity to serve others, as guests we should return the charity and be gracious guests.

  2. Leigh Anne Focareta says:

    This is more than fair/reasonable. Incidentally, it’s good vegan etiquette to contact a host/ess beforehand and say, “By the way, I’m vegan – would you like me to bring something?” So if you DON’T get that heads-up, and somebody drops the bomb on you at dinner, feel free to never invite them again. 😉

  3. Ali Aguilar says:

    I love this!
    As a family with a Category 1, two complex Category 2’s, and the occasional Category 3 (me – although I’ve never actually mentioned this to a hostess) I never go anywhere without bringing enough food for my kids.
    Sometimes, depending on the circumstances (e.g., larger functions), it is easier not to say anything and then eat what we can from what is served and supplement with what we’ve brought. It makes me feel so bad when someone makes a huge effort to accommodate our dietary needs and misses the mark and we can’t eat it.

    I also have to laugh about the recent rise in food limitations. Personally it has been quite humbling. Before having kids, I had a huge pet peeve with parents who put their children on special diets without blatant medical evidence necessitating the diet. My children have extremely complex GI issues and we have gone through more “special diets” than I can count (at the instruction of their gastroenterologist) including prescription formula only diet. I’ve learned how to cook dairy, soy, egg, wheat/gluten, peanut, treenut, shellfish, onion, garlic, fructose, apple, pear, mango, legume, etc. free.

  4. charmainetd says:

    This is an excellent post in topic and content. You are so right that as a hostess we commonly have guests who eat very differently, including family members. Your way of dividing these special diet people into groups is spot on and realistic. The menu items you recommend serving each group is very thoughtful. As a dietitian and cooking instructor with a Catholic spirit, I applaud you and your blog. I look forward to your post on how to be a gracious guest.
    Blessings, Charmainetd

  5. tia says:

    I feel like this general guideline is good, but there are so many gray areas — the person who, like my dad, has diabetes and really shouldn’t eat things with sugar or high calories, but maybe isn’t cognitively able to figure that out just sitting at the table. The person who self-diagnoses with a gluten intolerance — but they haven’ thad a gliadin antibody test done. The vegetarian or food restricted person who is so because of religious belief (kashrut or Jainism, for instance). The boy I went to camp with, whose parents refused to let him eat wheat, sugar, or dairy except on his birthdays. When he ate those things he would become physically ill and vomit and have diarrhea for days. I feel like it’s presumptuous to create a hierarchy in your head and decide how important it is to accommodate someone’s food issues. At the same time, I totally get that people can’t always be accommodated, especially in a large group. But instead of deciding what is a worthy issue, I think it’s always best to make sure you ask people about their dietary issues and then if it’s too much to handle, to state that upfront– not because their food issue is unimportant, but because of your own limitations.

  6. Eva Lyons says:

    Emily, I have just finished listening to your recording of The Catholic Table and it is magnificent. I love it and have already ordered a hard copy to give as a gift. Through the book, I found your blog. It’s also wonderful. I have been praying about whether to make the following comment, and know that I have to. Please, please be careful with the “category rating.” I have a shellfish allergy – if someone cooks shellfish and then uses the same unwashed knife or cutting board or pan to cook something that I eat, my tongue and throat swell up and I stop breathing. Hopefully there is time to use the epi pen and call 911. Otherwise, it’s like you and the peanuts. Someone dying at your dinner party has got to be the worst possible outcome. So if you love your friends, please take all food allergies seriously.

    • Emily says:

      Glad you liked the book. And sorry if I wasn’t clear enough in the original post. If someone comes over with a serious allergy of any sort, I don’t serve that ingredient at all. Both Category 1 and 2 get special treatment. And any deadly allergy, nut or not, is category 1! I tried to stress that. Anyhow, fear not: if I ever feed you dinner, shrimp and scallops will be off the menu!

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