As merry of a time as the holiday season is, it’s also just as stressful. Besides presents and decorations and games, there’s food. (And food should always come first because, well, food.) If you’re reading this and are vegan, vegetarian, celiac, lactose intolerant or any combination of the above, keep reading because this is for you. Even if you eat anything and everything, if you’ll be celebrating with someone with food restrictions, this will be a helpful primer on how to handle the situation.

Being a Good Host

Let’s start with being a host of a holiday event where a guest has food restrictions. If you plan on cooking the majority of the meal, or if your kitchen will be responsible for everyone’s stomachs, please take into consideration that people with allergies or lifestyle diets love food just as much as the next guy.

A lot of people have different diets because of allergies or out of respect for animals’ lives — not because of a health or weight choice. I want to eat junk food and desserts, too, just ones that won’t make me sick. The best thing you can do is screenshot the recipes or menu and send it out to anyone you know who may need to plan ahead before coming over. Shout-out to my cousin who did this for me and my boyfriend when we came for a visit. She made a delicious quinoa salad for us to have whenever we were hungry and couldn’t eat what everyone else was having. Not only did I choose the salad over a lot of things in the first place because it was so good, but it made me feel so relaxed and respected knowing I didn’t have to live off of PowerBars to get through a family trip.

If you’re currently reading this with a bead of sweat on your brow thinking about recipes that will accommodate your vegan cousin, click here.

With the quinoa salad, it was great to receive a text with all the ingredients to make sure both of us were able to eat it. Most importantly, it didn’t put either party in an awkward position. You, as the guest, never want to feel like you have to eat something because someone made it especially for you, when in reality it will make you very sick (emotionally or physically). And you, as the host, never want to feel blindsided by a guest who shows up with all these restrictions out of nowhere. It’s super awkward for a host to have to rummage through the kitchen and put together something mildly presentable for someone who didn’t say anything beforehand. Everyone will always be happier when both parties’ feelings are considered equally.

Being a Good Guest

If you have food restrictions, there's plenty you can do to make it easier on the host of a holiday party. Photo:
If you have food restrictions, there’s plenty you can do to make it easier on the host of a holiday party. Photo:

If you have food restrictions and you’re going to a party where food will be served at someone’s house, please let the host know a week or more in advance. It puts a lot less pressure on your chef if he or she can plan a menu either based around you, or set aside a different portion/plate for you ahead of time. It makes you, as the guest, look very rude to show up and expect someone to accommodate you without notice.

Education is also very important. There are so many people who have no idea certain allergies exist or what kind of restrictions accompany certain lifestyle choices. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat down at someone’s table, the host’s face glowing with pride, to see a special meal that’s been prepared according to my allergies. Then I look down and know I can’t eat it, but I have to anyway. In that moment, you can’t say anything or you look ungrateful, but if you eat it, you’ll be down for the count. There’s no real win there, but it is avoidable.

There are a lot of silent ingredients with food allergies and restrictions. Your host may not know that a certain sauce has a thickening agent of flour, so as someone with celiac, you can’t have it. Or that a lot of marshmallows are made with gelatin, so you as a vegan can’t have that sweet potato casserole. These small moments of making sure your host knows to what extent your food restrictions go can make all the difference.

That’s why I think asking for a list of the ingredients is such an efficient way of communicating. If you are presented with a recipe and you see something you can’t have but know of an easy alternative, let your host know. Even better, if you can pick up the replacement ingredient, go that route. Help out your host and/or chef as much as possible because we all know how difficult it is to cook around certain rules. If you’ve been doing it for years, take that burden on yourself to alleviate more stress from someone who is cooking for a large group of people.

Sharing Is Caring

If you’re worried more about the reception of your lifestyle over the actual food, I understand. The most important way to survive your time with family and friends is to be prepared. Bring snacks with you, or ask if you can do the grocery haul for that week. It’s a lot easier for people to empathetic if it’s right under their nose, so I like to involve my family and friends as much as possible. I love to cook meals for them all based on my food restrictions and invite them into a day in my life. Since they know me well, they will most likely assume it will be an “Audrey-approved meal,” but if you don’t constantly point out that it’s vegan or vegetarian or whatever, people are more likely to sit and enjoy the meal rather than comment on what it’s missing.

As I said earlier, many people are uneducated in diets other than their own. If you bring them into your kitchen and show them why you live the way you do, and why you like these certain foods, they’re more likely to understand you.

Eating Out with Food Restrictions

Eating out with dietary restrictions can be tricky, but there are techniques you can use to find something that will work for you. Photo:
Eating out with dietary restrictions can be tricky, but there are techniques you can use to find something that will work for you. Photo:

Lastly, I want to go over eating outside your family and friends’ houses. Whether you’re having Chinese food on Christmas or going out to Denny’s because someone burned the bird, you should be prepared. I like to google the restaurant and look up the menu. If I have any questions, I call the restaurant and get everything sorted out before I actually arrive. If you’re new to the vegetarian world, this article is super helpful when it comes to ordering.

If you look up the menu and you can’t eat anything on it, try finding another restaurant that is similar to the one chosen that you would be able to eat at and bring that up to the group. Worst-case scenario if you won’t be able to eat anything at your destination is to look up restaurants in the area that work for you and go there early before everyone meets for dinner, or order something to-go on your way out. Or, my personal go-to solution is to eat beforehand, bring snacks in my purse, and order a fun cocktail or other beverage so I don’t feel like I can’t participate.

I know this can seem daunting, but in the long run, it will be worth it to be able to just relax once the actual holiday comes around. Sometimes it’s more exhausting dealing with the people than the food —don’t worry, we’ve all been there. The more you are around the same people who know your diet, the easier it will be. Sometimes the nagging will never end, but they will start to accommodate you. Sometimes they’ll bake you a whole separate pie for dessert. Believe me, it gets easier, and most times, it gets tastier. I hope you have an amazing holiday season and that your stomach is just as happy as your heart!

By Audrey Holmes

Based in San Diego, Audrey Holmes is on a personal journey toward zero waste. She admits to watching otter videos on YouTube way too much and having an unhealthy obsession with matcha. Speaking of green, read all about her zero-waste journey on her blog, Green Blue Marble.