Most of us delight in a dinner invitation to a friend’s house or an offer to check out a new restaurant together. Yet, when you are living with dietary restrictions, both of these simple offers can become minefields. What your friends and family perceive to be a relaxing night suddenly becomes fraught with tension for someone trying to navigate an unfamiliar menu.
People can have a wide variety of reasons they live with dietary restrictions. Religious beliefs, allergies, food sensitivities, sensory issues, and ethical considerations are all reasons someone may be discriminating with their food choices. Sadly, some of these receive more respect than others. Many people take a shellfish allergy more seriously than veganism, yet even allergies are often met with skepticism and doubt.
Food restrictions can be especially tough to deal with during the holidays. When we are in our own kitchen or other familiar places, we feel a certain sense of control and safety. You know what is going in the dish because either you cooked it, or it was cooked by someone you have learned to trust.
During the holidays we may be invited to places we have never been. It may be the first time meeting future in-laws, or you could be making new friends while living in a new city. Either way, you aren’t entirely sure how either you or your food restrictions will be received. It can be a nerve-wracking and uncomfortable experience.
Of course, sometimes you know exactly how you will be received because you have been here before. Great Aunt Jane has made it clear that she doesn’t understand why you must be vegan every day of the year, or maybe your cousin twice removed doesn’t think nut allergies are real. For whatever reason, there is often someone who takes offense to the idea that you won’t be able to eat the strawberry salad just because you are allergic to strawberries. The general sense is that you should put up with a few hives as long as it won’t kill you. Your private medical issues, religious beliefs, or ethical considerations have now become a matter of offense.
To be fair, most people are less extreme. They do not want you to break out in hives at the dinner table and suffer needlessly. They understand an allergy or intolerance is something you can’t control. Some do become less understanding if they feel it’s about a choice you’ve made rather than one your body has made for you. After all, you’ve only been vegan for two years. Does it matter that much if there’s a little bacon in the green beans or if all of the bread is covered with butter? Surely you can make an exception this one time.
In some cases, you may find yourself with little to nothing to eat in spite of the best intentions. Your new partner could have forgotten to tell their family that you don’t eat gluten. Distant family may not realize all that your particular restrictions entail. If you don’t see them often, it may have never occurred to them that gravy and green bean casserole would have hidden gluten or that the wine may not be vegan.
The truth is that most people do want you to be comfortable in their home and are most likely eager to be gracious hosts. They are simply uninformed of your needs and often don’t know what to look for or how to accommodate you. They are more likely to be unaware than unwilling. Unfortunately, this does not make it any less awkward when you quietly try to fill up on asparagus and little else.
Just as they are trying to be good hosts, you are trying to be a good guest. Does anyone wake up Christmas morning with a burning desire to be labeled as difficult by the end of the day? Most of us do not want to offend either those we have newly met or those we have known all our lives. As such, we will frequently keep quiet and make do with what we can. It’s a practical game plan, though, one that sometimes leaves us feeling a little bit left out.
I’m afraid I do not have any easy answers for you. I will say that I believe you should hold your boundaries where you need to and graciously communicate where you can. Don’t be afraid to offer to bring a dish that you can eat. Most of all, I hope you take comfort in the fact that you are not alone. Millions of us are learning how to navigate this together, and every year we learn a little more.