The Art of the Allergy-Free Dinner Party
How to research your way to a meal everyone can enjoy
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By Mindy Holahan Peters
“I think careful cooking is love, don’t you? The loveliest thing you can cook for someone who’s close to you is about as nice a Valentine as you can give.” — Julia Child
The doorbell rings just as I pull the cornbread out of the oven. My husband pours the wine, and this evening’s guests settle into conversation as I put the final touches on the food for our dinner party.
Dinner parties — they sound so old-fashioned, and yet they are the perfect balance to an overconnected life.
I began throwing dinner parties shortly after I started working remotely. My coworkers are spread across four states. Between video calls and ongoing Slack chats, I am in constant communication — but it doesn’t change the fact that I spend my days alone in my home office. I craved a way to spend time with people, without a screen in between us. Dinner parties are the perfect solution.
Tonight’s dinner is simple — chili, cornbread, salad, blueberry crisp — but it’s special nonetheless. It’s special because with four guests, we’re balancing three different diets: a vegetarian, a low-FODMAP diet (for treating Irritable Bowel Syndrome; Fermentable, Oligo-, Di-, Mono-saccharides And Polyols), and one friend who just really hates onions.
My husband and I have become known among our friends for our ability — and willingness — to accommodate any combination of dietary needs. Throwing a dinner party and balancing food allergies, special diets, and your garden variety “I hate this food” may sound like a nightmare to some hosts, but I love it. To me, it’s a fun puzzle to be solved; but far more importantly, this is the nicest gift I’m able to give my friends who are managing challenging circumstances. It allows them to relax and enjoy themselves without the worry of examining each dish.
The fastest way to level up your hosting abilities is to learn how to build a menu that accommodates your guests. So come with me. You’re about to discover a new superpower.
Why should you care?
I always equated dinner parties with adulthood — an impressive table set with candles, actual courses expertly prepared and served on matching plates. My vision of dinner parties always focused on what I did, never on my guests. I was the perfect hostess, I prepared wonderful food, I was interesting.
After a decade working in the events industry, I learned the key lesson at the heart of hospitality: a party is for the guests, not for the host. When you invite people into your home, you’re offering, for a short while, to care for your guests’ needs. In exchange for their time, attention, and (hopefully) stimulating conversation, you offer food, comfort, and the community of friends.
As much as we throw dinner parties so we can show off — come see my new house, come hear about my promotion, come celebrate my birthday — it’s important to remember that ultimately, a party is about connecting with your guests. And it’s hard for a guest to feel connected to the party when they can’t enjoy the food.
Nutrition in our modern world is rarely as simple as the food pyramid would lead us to believe. Far from being a simple equation of calories in versus calories out, diet is a powerful tool alongside (or in place of) medication, used to treat complicated, chronic conditions such as fibromyalgia, arthritis, and diabetes. Stages of life, such as pregnancy, also place restrictions on what a person can and cannot eat. And then there’s voluntary restrictions of diet, choices made for personal health (the Paleo diet), religion (Kosher, Halal), or moral conviction (vegetarian, vegan).
When you find yourself on a special, restricted diet, whether it’s through voluntary choice or dictated by circumstances of your health, you may end up missing out on a key part of celebrations. It’s a birthday party without the cake, a Super Bowl party with carrots instead of spicy chicken wings, a New Year’s Eve toast without the champagne. As the host of a party, you never want to force your guests to partake in the food you offer (please don’t say, “Surely you can have one small piece of cake,” because some people truly cannot without painful consequences), but it is a kind and generous act to make the effort to adapt your menu to your guests’ needs. This effort to care for your guests is the definition of hospitality.
It seems obvious, but before you can plan your menu, you need to know what you’re working with. Don’t assume you know — even close friends can surprise you. I’d worked with a woman for two years without knowing she was allergic to black pepper. I put black pepper on everything — until she told me her allergy. Accommodating this restriction was easy and took no extra effort; I just put away the pepper.
The best time to ask is when you make your invitation. This gives you plenty of time to plan, and it keeps guests with more severe restrictions from turning down the invitation.
Here’s some sample wording to include:
For email invitations: When you RSVP, please let me know if you have any allergies or dietary restrictions. I’ll do my best to accommodate them, or will let you know in advance if I can’t.
For group invitations (such as Facebook): Send me a direct message if you have any allergies or dietary restrictions. I’m happy to accommodate them.
Give your guests a private avenue for communicating any health needs to you, rather than asking them to post publicly on a Facebook event page.
A little research goes a long way.
Now you know what restrictions you have to work with. And remember, think about it as working with rather than working around. This is a fun puzzle to solve, not a burden to be carried.
Sometimes your friends will give you clear instructions: no wheat, no nuts, or no dairy (or sometimes all three). Otherwise you might get an unfamiliar term, like a “low-FODMAP” diet. (Google just that: low-FODMAP diet to get your basics.) Find out what’s out (no onions or garlic, wheat, cream cheese, among others) and what’s in (bell peppers, spinach, quinoa and rice, mozzarella and cheddar). Look for and save a “what’s okay/what’s not okay” food list.
Now for the fun part: every diet has its food bloggers. I love food bloggers, especially specialty food bloggers! They are so excited to share recipes that make them feel good. Usually by the time you’ve figured out what restricted diet works best for you, you’ve spent a lot of time eating food that makes you feel lousy, and so when you find food that actually makes you feel good, you want to share it with everyone. These websites are your best friend.
Search for [specialty diet] blog, such as low FODMAP blog, and you’ll find a host of bloggers with delicious recipes. Take a look through to see if any recipes jump out at you.
We’re ready to move on to the next step, but if you want to fast-track your menu planning, here are the magic search terms:
- For sit-down dinners: [specialty diet] dinner party
- For appetizers and finger foods: [specialty diet] Super Bowl party
- For big holiday menus: [specialty diet] Thanksgiving
Each of these will yield dozens of fully planned menus with recipes and cooking instructions. Pinterest can be a good search engine to use. On the upside, you can easily see pictures of recipes from lots of websites at once. On the downside, you’ll find that some blogs don’t adhere strictly to the rules of the diet they claim to belong to. Be sure to cross-check recipes with your “what’s okay/what’s not okay” food list.
How to please everyone (it can be done).
Now, what if you don’t want to yield your entire dinner party to the restrictions of one guest? Or, what if you’re attempting to accommodate multiple (potentially mutually exclusive) diets? We’ve finally arrived at my “secret trick:” combination menus.
Let’s look at my chili dinner from the opening of this article. I love meat chili, and even though we had a vegetarian in attendance, I wasn’t prepared to only serve a vegetarian chili. Instead, I made:
- A tomato-based Paleo beef chili with no onions, garlic, or beans (low FODMAP friendly)
- A tomato-based low FODMAP vegetarian chili
- A bowl of caramelized onions
Because the chili bases were the same, guests could mix the two together if they wanted, with onions, hot sauce, sour cream, and cheese to add on top. It was a little unconventional, but I am happy to report that the guests were not only pleased, but delighted to have choices. Yes, it took a little bit longer to prepare two chilis instead of one, but my friends are worth the extra half hour. I bet yours are worth it too.
Focus on modular meals: tacos are the reigning champion. Here’s how to set up a taco bar to make it friendly to a wide variety of dietary restrictions:
- Keep everything separate. Rather than cooking your meat, vegetables, and cheese together, serve each item separately and allow your guests to build their own plate.
- Garlic and onions are often irritants for various chronic illnesses; cook them separately from peppers.
- If you’re serving a pre-made salsa (more on shopping in the next section), dice up some tomato.
- For a vegetarian option, cook crimini or portobello mushrooms the same way you would steak. They are incredibly hearty and are sure to win over a few carnivores. If soy is allowable, tempeh is another amazing vegetarian substitution for most meat dishes.
- If you have a guest with a wheat allergy, serve corn tortillas instead of flour. Also offer a salad option — salads are a staple for many restricted diets. A chopped pile of spinach leaves makes a good base for taco toppings, and big leaves of butter lettuce make for great tortilla substitutes.
Another strategy that works like a charm: individual substitutions. If you’re serving a dinner of stuffed peppers, it’s easy to make a substitution on one or two of the peppers. Your guest can’t eat a pepper? Make that person a stuffed acorn squash instead. Just be sure to cook the special items in a separate dish to avoid cross-contamination.
Oftentimes, a simple substitution is all that’s necessary to adapt your menu. Switch to gluten-free pasta, or use spaghetti squash in place of angel-hair pasta. Smashed potatoes make an excellent wheat-free substitution for quiche crusts. I am a devoted fan of meat-and-cheese lasagna, and yet the best lasagna I have ever had was Thug Kitchen’s Vegan Lasagna with tofu ricotta as the cheese substitute.
And that is the hidden benefit you will find while you navigate the waters of your friends’ diets: new favorite recipes you never would have found otherwise.
Use care when shopping.
It’s important that we discuss grocery shopping, because this is where you truly win or lose the battle when it comes to food allergies. Allergens — especially wheat, nuts, and dairy — lurk in items you’d never expect. For example, many bags of dried beans will be labeled as containing wheat. If you have a guest with a food allergy, it’s imperative that you read every label. Never assume you know what is in a pre-packaged food.
The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act requires all food labels in the United States to list allergens, including milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soybeans. The food labels will read, “Contains [allergen].”
Sauces and salad dressings are some of the biggest culprits for hidden allergens. They often contain thickeners made of wheat, or less commonly, peanut butter, and often have added sugar. If you are uncertain, ask your guests for a little guidance — they will likely be happy to give you the names of brands that they enjoy.
How to handle the menu once guests arrive.
I adhere to a trust but verify system, so I save the packages of any premade foods that I use, just in case my guest wants to see the packaging before eating. I do my research, but I am not at all offended if anyone wants to check my work. After all, they have to deal with the unpleasant consequences of my mistake.
When your guests arrive, give them a brief run-down of the menu and let them know to ask questions. If you are unsure whether or not your guest is comfortable discussing their food needs, do your best to be discreet. Health conditions are very personal; err on the side of protecting your guests’ privacy.
Use the food blogs I’ve provided in the sidebar as a jumping-off point for planning and adapting your own party menus. Have fun and experiment, both by adapting recipes you already love and by playing with new combinations.
As Julia Child says, you’ll find that careful cooking is one of the loveliest gifts you can give to your friends.
Favorite Specialty Food Blogs and Recipe Indexes
Index of diabetes-friendly recipes from James Beard-award winning cookbook authors.
Food blogger with celiac disease; offers recipes for a wide range of specialty diets, including dairy-free, nut-free, gluten-free, and advice for multiple sclerosis.
Huge bank of vegetarian takes on classic recipes (many gluten-free); also a large catalog of drink recipes.
Incredibly helpful list of low vs high FODMAP foods.
James Beard-nominated, deep catalog of paleo and Whole30 recipes.
Paleo-focused recipes, with helpful indexing for autoimmune protocol, low FODMAP, sugar-free, and Whole30.
Recipes for celiac disease and other digestive issues.
Highly profane but incredibly delicious vegan recipes that will win over any carnivore.
Favorite Recipe and Grocery Apps
A deep database of user-reviewed recipes. Easily send the recipe’s list of ingredients to app’s shopping list, which organizes items by type (produce, meat, baking, etc).
Paprika Recipe Manager (Paid, $4.99)
An amazing feature set that has truly considered the needs of an active cook. Beside saving your favorite recipes from any website and adding ingredients to a shopping list, the app will scale recipes up for more servings, allow you to keep your screen on, set multiple cooking timers, and save your personal rating of the recipe.
This recipe discovery engine lets you set your dietary preference and allergies. After you favorite five recipes, it starts suggesting others you might like that fall within your preferences. Also includes a shopping list manager.
Important Note: Severe Allergies
If your guest informs you of a food allergy, it’s important to ask how severe the allergy is. Severe allergies that cause anaphylaxis need to be treated with the utmost care — and indeed, the level of care needed may be more than you’re able to provide. If your friend has a severe peanut allergy and you eat peanut butter on a regular basis, your kitchen may be too contaminated for you to safely prepare a meal. Talk with your friend and be honest about whether or not you can accommodate their needs. To learn more about food allergies, visit the website of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology.
Important Note: Cross-contamination
Cross-contamination happens when an item that is intended to be allergy-free accidentally picks up an allergen. Kitchens get messy when you’re cooking, and it’s easy to carelessly stir a pot with a contaminated spoon or to forget to clean a cutting board between use. If you’re making two versions of an item — such as some stuffed peppers with onions and others without — the easiest way to avoid contamination is to make the special item first. Be sure to mark the allergy-free item and always use separate dishes and serving utensils when handling it.
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