Tips for Feeding a Crowd of People With Strange Diets, Food Allergies, Lactose Intolerance and Weird Ideas About Food

Yeah, I know that title sounds a little snarky and judgmental. But seriously. I eat what I eat and what you eat might seem strange to me. More likely, what you can't eat might really trouble me. How do I cook for you?

People will be showing up for holiday dinners with newly-trim bodies, health problems, food sensitivities related to their religion, opinions on the morality of certain foods or just plain quirky preferences. Heaven help you if they all show up to the same dinner and you're the host.

The food allergy that does NOT fit these tips is a serious, anaphylaxis-inducing allergy. Some people who are allergic to, say, peanuts, are not just being fussy. Take that seriously.

I am speaking to you from the point of view of both the one with dietary problems AND the hostess. I am lactose-intolerant and I have IBS. (TMI, sorry.) It can be extremely awkward to be a dinner guest of someone who knows these two things because A. They tend to trot that information out for everyone to hear, and B. They fuss over me and my plate. Please don't and Please DON'T!

So here are my tips for feeding someone like me.

  1. Find out before you even plan your menu if anyone has a life-threatening allergy. If you're lucky, you'll get a lot of answers like, "Well, James doesn't care for olives. Is that what you mean?" If someone has an allergy to nuts, peanuts, shellfish, be extra-vigilant to not accidentally kill them. You'll ruin your dinner party, your reputation as a host, and it won't do them any good, either. 
  2. Serve the dinner buffet-style. If you prepare a plate for the guest, you are basically telling them what they will eat. Just let them choose what to eat and how much for themselves.
  3. Try to serve both a raw vegetable, such a salad, and a cooked one. There are a lot of vegans who prefer their veggies raw, and some of us with digestive issues who can't eat the raw stuff.
  4. Don't slather everything in cheese and/or cream sauce. I was once invited to a dinner where I was served a wonderful lasagna, garlic bread with cheese broiled on top, a salad with loads of fresh parmesan curls and then a cheesecake for dessert. Ouch. It was delicious, but ouch.
  5. If the main entree is meat (prime rib, turkey, ham) let that be the star of the show and don't throw ham into the potatoes, and bacon in the green beans and broil pancetta on the garlic bread. Give the vegans a chance. HOWEVER, it's not a bad idea to serve two kinds of meat if you have a big crowd to feed. A small ham beside the turkey, or a roasted capon next to the prime rib can be much appreciated by the people skipping red meat or who have abnormal fears about poultry.
  6. Similarly, don't make everything rich, or sweet. If everything on your table is swimming in butter, glistening with glaze and loaded with fat, the people who are dealing with a blood sugar or cholesterol problems are going to be a mess.
  7. Let your dessert table offer both traditional, scrumptious, sweet desserts, and also a nice little plate of cheese and fruit.
  8. You're the host, but that doesn't mean it's all about you. Let your guests choose from the dishes that appeal to them and fit their needs. This is true for the beverage you serve, too. If a guest refuses the wine, accept it gracefully! They could be a recovering alcoholic or allergic to sulfites or maybe they just don't like wine. Remember that your guest's food choices are not a reflection on you. And honestly, it really isn't your business why they make the choices they do. Don't bully them into trying "just one" or having a little bit more. And while we're at it, when they're full, they're full! It is not an insult to you if there is food left on their plate. As long as your guest is not so rude as to throw a biscuit at your head, screaming that it isn't like momma used to make, what they eat and what they leave should not be considered a comment on your cooking.
  9. Please don't call attention to the dietary restrictions or preferences of your guests. It embarrasses us to have you say in a loud voice, "Oh that's right, you can't eat salad." The exception to that is again with the life-threatening allergies. If you include ground nuts in your innocent-looking fruit dressing, quietly point that out to the one with the allergy. Best plan is to make sure your menu doesn't have anything on it that will kill them.
  10. Serving a wide variety of dishes and having the good grace to let your guests choose without any input from you is the simple key. If you are a vegan hosting a dinner party where omnivores like me are likely to show up, you don't have to break your ethics in order to feed me. Just have a nice menu that includes a hearty, savory dish, too. I promise. I won't draw attention to the absence of meat at your table, and I trust that if you eat at my house, you will not try to embroil me in a conversation about "shooting Bambi" if I serve elk meat. I will have made sure that there were options on my menu for you.
Of course, all this changes for small, intimate dinner parties. If you only have six guests, you need to have a good idea of what to serve that everyone can eat. Even then, my gracious friend, serve the food and be quiet about why you're serving what you're serving. Bob and June don't need to know that you made a fabulous vegetable Minestrone and served it with rustic 7-grain artisan bread, because Trish is lactose-intolerant and Betty is a vegan.