When you host a group dinner in these modern times, you're likely to be working with a slew of dietary needs. It's always a little nervewracking; I'm a vegetarian and I'm married to a slightly stricter vegetarian and we have friends with peanut allergies, vegan diets, and biological grudges against wheat. When we share food, I always worry a little… even though I know "the rules."
It's basic party planning: "What can I serve?" Let's talk about Offbeat Eaters.
The basics: What are these Offbeat Eaters all about?
- Vegetarians are tricky, but usually follow plant-based diets and exclude meats. Vegetarians on the strictest end of the spectrum don't eat cheeses containing rennet or foods that use gelatin. Butter, cheese, and milk are generally fine.
- Vegans don't eat anything animal-based — and again, their strictness can vary. This means you need to watch out for butter, milk, lard, whey, and grease, among other things.
- Raw foodists are usually vegans, and usually have leeway in their diet; raw foodists eat ALL vegan food, but may only eat raw 3/4 of the time. The raw diet consists of food not cooked above 115 degrees Fahrenheit/46 degree Celsius.
- Paleos follow a diet similar to that of Paleolithic humans: food that can be hunted or gathered. Paleo diets are meat-heavy and usually exclude foods which weren't available to our ancestors, like cheese and milk, refined sugar, processed foods and cultivated vegetables like corn.
- Keeping kosher is more complicated, and adherents can fall on different parts of the spectrum. Because this is a faith-based diet, my advice is: don't fuck around. Here's a good article on the basics of keeping kosher.
Beyond the starter rules, these are broader, philosophical-y guidelines:
If you're hosting a large group and don't know everyone's diet:
Don't sweat it unless there will be a LOAD of us Offbeat Eaters. We can almost always inconspicuously eat what's available. Most of us are up-front enough to speak to the host quietly if there is a problem with which you can help. If you discover a covert Offbeat Eater you were unaware of, it's GREAT to offer acknowledgement and a, "Oh, rats. Are you okay here?" But keep it low key. There is nothing worse than being the only weird eater in a group and having a sad, apologetic host look at you and fuss over what you can eat. It's okay! It's one meal! You couldn't have known AND I'll be happy with whatever IS in my diet: veggies, a casserole, drinking lots and lots of soda.
When you can plan ahead for diets:
Feel free to ask questions. Keep it cool (and stay calm! You'd be surprised how often people telegraph anxiety about a party through their concerns over what Offbeat Eaters want). Drop us a line that says, "Hey, I want to make sure you have a great dinner. What are the ins-and-outs to raw eating/peanut allergies/paleo/keeping kosher?"
Check for hidden ingredients. One thing many people don't think about for Offbeat Eaters, mainly vegans and vegetarians, is what might be in that soup or this cereal or even in packaged cupcakes. Your buddy might not eat a Campbell's Vegetable Soup or your granny's Pho because it's got a chicken or fish base. Some cheeses use rennet, an enzyme from cows' stomachs, and others won't eat gelatin. Even Hostess cupcakes contain lard.
If you are comfortable asking, do! If you can't get the information my general rule is do your best. I have had soups MANY times at friends' homes which were probably chicken-based, but I wasn't about to make them feel uncomfortable by asking and then turning down their food. This won't work for all Offbeat Eaters, but many times "don't ask, don't tell" is in effect.
If it's going to be an issue, it's the Offbeat Eater's responsibility to inform the host of dietary needs. Offbeat Eaters, where possible, usually try to strike a balance between what they normally eat and what they aren't going to encumber a once-in-a-great-while host with. Of course this isn't true for everyone — people with allergies and faith-based diets in particular — but many Offbeat Eaters will bend their normal rules in order to not make an unaccustomed host feel anxious. I usually only tell hosts that I don't eat meat, including fish. I make it clear that I do eat eggs and dairy. Unless this has become a regular meal we share, I make no mention of checking ingredients. If they were a big deal, I'd have to make sure my host knew that I won't eat these things. Period. And thank you for accommodating! My friend, on the other hand, has a child with a peanut allergy. She is very clear about what he can and cannot eat on a visit — she HAS to be!
When you, the host, is an offbeat feeding an onbeat:
Try not to be too gleeful. Or nervous. Or defensive. Depending on your guests' personal philosophies and level of familiarity with your menu items, you could get any response from eagerness to silent reluctance, from innocent questioning to disgust. Keep patient and remember a time when you didn't understand another family's lifestyle.
It's a start. Offbeat Eaters are all just a smidge different so your mileage with this advice may vary. Being an informed, caring and responsive host goes a lonnnnng way in making your differently-dieted guests feel welcome and acknowledged.
I bet it's a lot different to invite outer circle friends to dinner in Seattle than it is here in Des Moines. Bet anything there are WAY more Offbeat Eaters. There may be ideas I'm missing that just don't happen often in my sphere. So, what's your go-to party plan rule set when you entertain Offbeat Eaters?