How to (Gracefully) Handle Dietary Restrictions at Thanksgiving
Yes, you can deal with that family member or friend.
I spent Thanksgiving dinner hunkered over a kiddie-sized folding table, gnawing on a cold dinner roll while the grownups feasted across the room. As a college-aged vegetarian dragged to my aunt's friends' home, I didn't expect a tremendous amount of accommodation, but outright culinary hostility wasn't quite what I'd bargained for, either. I'd counted on at least a side or two to carry me through—maybe some top-of-stove dressing if I hit the jackpot—but every single dish except the mashed potatoes had some form of meat in it. (I can't stand mashed potatoes.)
And oh yes, the hosts had been informed of my particular dietary restrictions, but they'd just figured I could "pick around the meat." I'd offered to bring along a dish that I knew was free of flesh, stock, or gelatin, but my aunt forbade me. It would be "rude".
In that moment of giving a whole lot of something that definitely wasn't thanks, I made a promise to myself that I would never make anyone feel anything other than joyfully, warmly fed if they were a guest in my home. Dietary restrictions? Bring 'em on—but you also have to work with me a little. As a host, and now as a person with some medically necessary food no-fly zones, I've developed a few guidelines for making a table where everyone feels safe and welcome. And it's a two-way street.
Hosts and Guests: Communication is Key
Talk early, and if necessary, talk often. A great time to start would be at the time of RSVP, before the menu is set in stone and the groceries purchased. If you're the host, ask people if anything is strictly off the menu for them. As a guest, let the host know that you have some restrictions, and that you're happy to bring a dish you know you can eat.
Also be ready to bow out gracefully if you sense that they're hesitant or put out, and find somewhere else to go. If the host is open to it, it's a huge help to let them know what you can eat in addition to what you cannot, so they have a solid starting point, and there are no mysteries.
Guests: Come Prepared
If you're nervous about being fed, you won't be able to relax and enjoy yourself. Remember that dish you said you'd bring? Make sure it's a pretty big batch so other guests can get a taste, and you still get enough. If you're really worried, eat a light meal beforehand, and tuck a safety snack in your pocket for when you get there. Ideally you'll be so well fed and taken care of, you'll forget it's even there and if not, you'll be glad you did.
Hosts: Show the Signs
Especially in a group where all participants might not (yet) be BFFs, a guest might not want to have their health, beliefs, or preferences be the first topic of conversation. Print or read off a menu listing all the ingredients, or in a buffet situation, make some attractive and informative cards and place them next to each dish. If you feel like especially spelling out potential allergens like nuts, shellfish, gluten, or dairy, you earn extra host karma.
Guests: Protect the assets
It's your body, soul, and holiday and you have every right to keep it happy and safe. If a host isn't making you feel like a delight rather than a burden, you may exercise the right to exclude yourself from the narrative. It's so freeing! Either find somewhere else to have your holiday feast, join forces with a friend who gets it, go to a restaurant, or make your dream meal at home while binging on Netflix. You get all the leftovers, none of the agita.