Dear Imprudence: Food Allergies and Inconsiderate Hosts

A recent Ask Amy column featured a letter from a reader with a problem I suspect at least some FWD readers (and contributors) can sympathise with: Handling food allergies when you’re invited to a friend’s for dinner.

Dear Amy: My neighbor recently hosted a very nice dinner party with food and entertainment. I attended and had a great time. The problem is that the host noticed I was skipping several of the dishes and asked why.

I explained that I have severe food allergies so I took only those foods I can safely eat. I had plenty to eat, and it was delicious.

The hostess became very upset with me because I did not advise her in advance of my allergies.

I felt that rather than have her change her menu it made more sense to simply skip those dishes not suitable for me. Was I wrong? I was trying to be polite. — Baffled Guest

I definitely respect this strategy; sometimes, when you try to tell a host about an issue beforehand, you get heaving sighs and an expression that clearly says ‘oh, dear, I wish I hadn’t invited you.’ And then, your host will assure you that all the food is safe to eat, oh, except for the thing you’re allergic to in the stuffing, but you can just pick it out, right? This person has apparently adopted the ‘checking to see what I can eat and going from there’ approach to handling food allergies, quite possibly after one too many dramas. And evidently, a pleasant time was had by the guest, so what’s the problem here?

As for the hostess, well…yes, by all means, get upset at someone who was trying not to make a fuss. That will definitely encourage the person to want to return the invitation, and to want to bring up said food allergies with other dinner invitations in the future. For sure. Nothing like being lectured to make you feel supergreat!

Here’s what Amy said:

Dear Baffled: You were not impolite. Your hostess, however, wasn’t quite polite.

Generally, depending on the type of party, it is fine to let a host know in advance, “I have some food allergies, but I can usually work around them, so I don’t want you to worry about catering to it.” The host can then decide what, if anything, to try to do about it.

Regardless of the dynamic, it is a real party spoiler when a host lectures a guest after the guest has had a gracious good time.

What Amy missed here was that it’s not that the host ‘wasn’t quite polite.’ It’s that the burden here is still being placed on the person with allergies, not the person doing the entertaining. Maybe I was raised in an odd household, but my father always taught me that Guests Rule, and that I should go to every length to make them comfortable and happy in our home, a habit I keep up in my own home. If a guest specifically has to ask for something, I am doing something wrong.

Which is why, when I invite people over for dinner, I always ask if there are any special food concerns (dietary, religious, or otherwise), and specifically ask if there are any dishes my guests simply don’t like. It only takes a second, and if I’m confused, I simply ask for clarification. It’s really not that difficult. And it lets my guests know that their comfort and enjoyment is paramount in my mind. If I encounter a restriction I’m not familiar with, I take it as an exciting challenge; it means I can hit the recipe books and get experimenting!

Menu planning takes work, and thinking about the needs of your guests should be part of that work. And a hostess who lectures guest is someone who clearly fails at hospitality.

About s.e. smith

s.e. smith is a recalcitrant, grumpy person with disabilities who enjoys riling people up, talking about language, tearing apart poor science reporting, and chasing cats around the house with squeaky mice in hand. Ou personal website can be found at this ain't livin'.

11 thoughts on “Dear Imprudence: Food Allergies and Inconsiderate Hosts

  1. Plus she’s assuming that dietary needs can be communicated. My sensory issues with food are not a case of I can eat why but not x, but depend on how much something is cooked, what it’s combined with, what shape it is, my energy at the time…

    If I was in a situation like the above I’ve probably have said ‘There are some foods I can’t eat’ (the host would probably assume allergies, and I’m cool with that) but if they expected me to explain them in advance I’d have been floored. My closest friends do tend to discuss what they’re cooking with me in advance, but I don’t expect that and know it’s not always feasible. With others I may just nibble at a few things or for an informal gathering eat bread or get takeaway – they’re ways of fitting round things I’m perfectly okay with, so I’d expect them to be too.

  2. As someone with quite a few food sensitivities (not actual allergies, though) AND as someone who cooks a lot, I don’t like telling people about these sensitivities because they may try to provide food I can eat but even still I have to double check that every single ingredient is safe for consumption, and THEN you have to make sure you actually *enjoy* said food. Like, when I started cooking gluten-free for my friends, I thought it was all about replacing the actual base of the meal (be it flour or grains or something), not even thinking that gluten contamination was in spices and other additives. I attempted to be nice and made a dish for a friend with Celiac, but didn’t even think of soy sauce as having gluten in it, so she was unfortunately able to eat it. So, when people question why I don’t tell them about all the fun little things I choose not to eat (and/or can’t eat), I just tell them that it’s *easier* (FOR ME) to not mention it. I get that hosts want to make everyone happy, and I respect that, but if I’m going out to dinner to a place I’m unsure of or if I’m at a party, I just make sure to eat beforehand and hope I can scoop up a few safe things to eat.

    However, I do the same thing that you do, and ask my future guests what their food allergies/intolerances/sensitivites are, and what kind of foods they like/dislike. Some will say “oh, you don’t have to do anything special for me!” and I don’t want to harass them about it and make them even more uncomfortable, but I do try to make sure that nobody gets left out. As someone who has done every kind of ‘special diet’ imaginable (to eliminate allergies, and also as a vegan for some time), I know how sad it can be to be able to absolutely nothing at a party.

  3. Oh, how lovely to read a post by someone else who was raised with the dictum of “Guests Rule”! The last thing I’d want to do is to make a guest feel unwelcome or uncomfortable in my house.

    Like you, I always ask my guests whether there are foods I should not serve–and also whether there are foods that I should.There are so many reasons to ask the question. Some people have food allergies. Some people are vegetarian or vegan. Some people keep kosher. And some people actually want to bring their own food, just in case, and that’s fine with me, too. I think it’s polite to ask.

  4. I have to admit, I don’t have any food allergies myself. As a host, I’m one of the “do you have any allergies or preferences?” type – I ask my guests beforehand, and figure out what I can cook for them from there. So far in my roster of friends I have one person with both insulin-requiring diabetes and coeliac problems, and another who is allergic to onions. Both issue some interesting challenges for me as a cook, but hey, it’s a learning experience.

  5. I love cooking, and I’ve got a lot of experience with adapting recipes and menus (I’m vegan, my mother has been on probably a hundred different diets with different restrictions over the years, my sister has several food issues, several relatives keep kosher, and several friends have various allergies), and I usually think that trying to figure out a menu that will work for whatever combination of people will be at a particular party is kind of fun. It’s like a logic puzzle. (Yes, I know I’m weird.) But I always ask, and always try to do my best to follow whatever my guests say. (Well, with one exception, but that’s someone who has a history of being a pain about stuff — several times, she wouldn’t eat the stuff I’d specially prepared with no gluten and no dairy, because she wouldn’t believe me that there was no gluten or dairy, but then she would eat some other dishes that had a ton of gluten and dairy. So I don’t bother with making things specially for her anymore — I just tell her what’s in each thing.)

  6. I have a rather severe food allergy, and I have gotten so used to asking people whether or not something has the allergen in it that for the most part I don’t even think about telling them before hand, because, as “Baffled” stated, it’s simpler to avoid the food that I can’t have instead of making someone change their menu.

    But I can understand the hostess’ response.
    I more believe she was upset because she felt she had endangered one of her friends not any other reason.

    I know I would feel terrible if I made or ordered something, hoping it would be enjoyed by everyone, only to find out someone couldn’t have it because of an allergy.

    It raises the questions of, how allergic are they? Did I use that spoon/fork in any of the other dishes? What if someone else mixed the serving utensils around?

    Making the hostess out to have been rude or demanding to their guest when “Baffled” only said upset, a word that could be taken to mean anything from angry to in-tears, is misleading and doesn’t consider that their friend the hostess probably just wanted everything to be alright.

    I understand the confusion felt, but think that rather than writing to Ask Amy, this person should have had a long talk with their neighbor about what was so upsetting and why, so that it can be managed in the future.

  7. I’m not going to suggest anything one way or another with regards to the original post asking for advice. I don’t know the precise situation or the people.

    However, in my personal life, what I mind is when people decide for me what exposure to whatever I am comfortable with. Amongst my sensitivities, for example, is lactose intolerance. And I have had people go on the warpath on my behalf to insist that I be served food with no traces of lactose whatsoever. If my tummy is having a bad day, and I’ve indicated that it would be welcome, I’m OK with people going out to bat for me in this fashion. But if I’ve got my pills, am having a good day, and have stated that I am FINE, then the presumption of my lack of agency and lack of self-knowledge enrages me.

  8. But I can understand the hostess’ response.
    I more believe she was upset because she felt she had endangered one of her friends not any other reason.

    I agree – I would be pretty distressed if I found out I had unwittingly endangered someone’s life. It’s possible this wasn’t an issue at all – she says her allergies are “severe” but maybe she knows cross-contamination isn’t a real risk for her – but we don’t know how it was presented to the host and what impression the host got from it. And while everyone has a right to take whatever risks they want, that doesn’t make it non-upsetting for someone who suddenly believes that they could have been a direct causal link in a friend’s death.

  9. Food is such a frustrating/tough thing to be on the “not normative” side of. My partner doesn’t have allergies but ze is *incredibly* picky. Ze hates being picky (why would someone purposefully choose to not be able to eat the majority of what other folks in zir cohort eat, unless there were a real damn good reason??), but there’s nothing to be done, maybe one day some of the pickiness will mellow, probably not. And people always take it upon themselves to police why ze isn’t eating such and such. There’s always the “is ze allergic?” question, with its attendent judgment when it turns out that no, ze isn’t. And there are also always friends or family who say “oh well, I know ze doesn’t like such and such but I made sure to cut it up soooo small” (thanks, now ze won’t even be able to pick around it). Obviously this isn’t directly analogous, since ze does have the option (sometimes) of just picking around stuff (so long as the pieces are identifiable and big enough). But I can’t help but notice how much more shaming around food I notice now, how often I just want to say “what does it matter why someone doesn’t want something?” (in relation to my partner and just about anyone else), etc. Sorry if this wasn’t appropriate (not on topic). I also (try to, since we don’t do have guests non-spontaneously very frequently) ask guests if there are any specific restrictions to keep in mind, even if I think I remember what theirs are/might be (sometimes new allergies form, sometimes other things change).

  10. Thanks, TheDeviantE. Picky eaters get quite a bit of bad treatment from hosts as well, and if we imply we are allergic (often the only way to get people to take our requests for ingredient lists seriously), then people with real allergies jump all over us because we seem to encourage those inconsiderate people who think it’s funny to endanger people’s lives because “oh but some people pretend to have allergies, so I hid allergens in your food and didn’t tell you.” If I ask you what is in a dish don’t just tell me “chicken” and then leave me to buy food with mushrooms in as well arrgh.

    “I more believe she was upset because she felt she had endangered one of her friends not any other reason.” I’m not sure about this; surely if someone had an allergy that was serious enough to be dangerous from cross-contamination only, they wouldn’t be able to take the risk and not tell the hostess in advance.

  11. I have migraines and I’m always afraid of looking rude if I don’t accept food that may trigger a headache. I feel very awkward making special request or asking what is in a dish so I normally eat a little before I go anywhere and then eat the things that are definitely safe.

    My boyfriend and I hosted a poker night this past summer and we made a lot of food so no one would have to worry about eating dinner before hand. I made sure to make lots of different things so that everyone’s dietary needs and preferences were met. I tried my best to make sure that everyone, regardless of their needs, had multiple things to choose from to eat. It ended up working out really well and everyone had a good time.

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