10 tips on cooking for your gluten-and-dairy-free paleo aunt without pulling your hair out

Guest post by Ange Marsden-Stamp
Cooking Eggs © by kodomut, used under Creative Commons license.

Is this scenario familiar to you? You go out to a restaurant with a bunch of friends and one of them spends half an hour with the waiter trying to work out what they can eat. I’m one of those people! My diet is like a finely tuned orchestra and when I get it wrong I’m hooked up to a morphine drip hallucinating rainbows. It’s not pretty.

Lets face it: most people you meet will have foods they do and don’t eat. For some of us it is really important. Whether it’s a deathly intolerance to nuts or a commitment to not eating dead things, if you’re going to feed friends and family who are offbeat eaters, you need to pay attention or you run the risk of offending their beliefs — or landing them in hospital.

Here’s my survival guide for feeding offbeat eaters:

  1. Ask them to spell out exactly what they eat. My vegan Buddhist nun doesn’t eat meat or animal products like honey, obviously, but I had no idea she doesn’t eat onions or garlic either; according to her beliefs they overstimulate the blood and are considered a no-go for some strict Buddhists.
  2. Ask your friend of family member to e-mail you a list of what’s okay and what’s definitely not. It doesn’t need to be an exhaustive Wikipedia article, just enough for you to make a meal!
  3. If you are mixing Dos and Don’ts, use a separate chopping board and knife! I nearly became an orphan when I cut a slice of bread for dad using the same knife I’d just chopped peanuts with. This goes for frypans, grills, BBQs, and pots too. Some of my friends even have a vegetarian kitchen and a separate meteosaur kitchen to keep everyone in the household happy.
  4. Keep an emergency stash of OK foods. This might mean a packet of dairy-free, gluten-free cookies, or a bag of instant rice or wheat-free noodles. It doesn’t have to be a great selection but if you have something, you don’t run the risk of finding yourself unprepared.
  5. One of the best ways to make an offbeat eater-friendly meal is to ask them for a recipe you can make, to which you can add few side dishes of your food — a vegan rice salad and a green salad with a few chicken nibbles or a wedge of brie on the side.
  6. Try to serve food as deconstructed as possible. You can make a pizza crust — gluten-, dairy-, or animal product-free, as needed — and dish up toppings individually. This also works for nachos, tacos, burritos, salads, and even pasta.
  7. Read the labels on store-bought food. To my annoyance only ONE brand of nachos in New Zealand is gluten-free, even though they’re made from corn.
  8. Sauces and salad dressings can be a big trap. Many contain sneaky doses of wheat, soy, and honey, so they don’t work for many people. Soy sauce obviously contains soy, but did you know many of them contain wheat too! This’ll put a damper on your plans to make gluten-free sushi.
  9. Head down to your whole foods grocer if you need more help! The staff might be able to help you find something that doesn’t have 400 ingredients and can feed your crew.
  10. Going out? Ring in advance. My mum will usually ring in advance and ask if the restaurant can do her a couple plain boiled potatoes and a steak. It saves her having to ask for every ingredient in the meals when she arrives and holding up other hungry diners.

The added challenge of ingredient restricting can bring out your creative side in the kitchen! You might come up with a new recipe you never would have made otherwise.

Comments on 10 tips on cooking for your gluten-and-dairy-free paleo aunt without pulling your hair out

  1. I developed a whole lot of crazy food intolerances a year ago, and have managed to overcome most of them. Sometimes when I was going to a friend’s place I preferred just to take my own food – it seemed so much easier that way, and I knew it would all be ok to eat. Vietnamese spring rolls also work really well in terms of people being able to choose which fillings they want, and they make a lovely social meal! Nice to see a post from NZ xx

  2. I’m totally sharing this article with my dad. My family is a shmorges board of offbeat eating. We’re a mix of lactose intolerant, Celiac disease, vegan, vegetarian, hates all things vegetable, egg allergy and toddlers. Luckily my dad loves the challenge of cooking when we are all together (which is these days only a few times a year). When ever a new person enters the family (new spouse, roommate, etc) he always calls to get a list of “definitely nots.”

  3. “Going out? Ring in advance. My mum will usually ring in advance and ask if the restaurant can do her a couple plain boiled potatoes and a steak. It saves her having to ask for every ingredient in the meals when she arrives and holding up other hungry diners.”

    God I wish more people did this. When I worked in a very traditional sushi restaurant it was exhausting the number of people that would come in and then want a detailed breakdown of every single ingredient in every single dish, meanwhile other customers are pitching a fit because you can’t get to their tables in a timely manner. I used to tell these people your best bet was to just order sashimi and bring in your own gluten-free soy sauce.

    • AGREED. I used to work at a high end French restaurant and people would come in and say “I’m vegetarian/lactose intolerant/have Celiac disease AND I want the 7 course tasting menu.” Infuriating. If you call ahead and often smaller places will prep you something special that you can eat.

      Even so, the odds of going to a small place and your soup being made with vegetable stock is very, very rare.

    • Though calling ahead might work in some circumstances, a person with allergies still needs to alert their server to this fact to insure their meal is safe. In some states there are signs going up in restaurants asking people to do this, and I think that is a good idea.

      Also, not everyone with food allergies always knows where they will be having dinner far enough in advance to call ahead. Someone else might have picked the restaurant, they might have decided that they just needed something to eat on the way home from work etc. Taking a few extra minutes may be a bit annoying, but it is important. Having a severe food allergy is an inconvenience (at best) to the person who has it all the time, and everyone deserves to have a good experience at restaurants.

      I have an aunt who has many many allergies. Often, this means that a restaurant will prepare her completely bland food to be safe. Good restaurants take the time to go over exactly what she can and can’t eat, and prepare her something more interesting.

      • Telling the server you’re allergic to A/B/C and to recommend dishes that can accommodate them is perfectly fine. Asking for a full breakdown of every single thing on a multipage menu and then complaining about how said menu doesn’t meet your dietary needs, taking up 10+ minutes of a server’s time when they have five other tables that would also like to enjoy their meal is not fine. There is a big difference between the two.

        What really boggled my mind were people that would say something like, “I’m allergic to wheat, what can you make without wheat?” “I would recommend either dish A or B to avoid any wheat contamination.” “Oh well I don’t like either of those thing, can’t you make this dish where the main ingredient is wheat-based wheat-free? Well why the hell can’t you!?” O_o Restaurants can try their best but sometimes people seem to think there’s magicians working in the kitchen lol.

        • Sometimes the same thing happens the other way around. I drove 2 hours to see my brother off before he made an international move. When the restaurant was booked they confirmed that vegetarian options were available.

          When it came to ordering I discovered that there wasn’t even a vegetarian salad on the menu. When asked about vegetarian options the waiter had to go talk to the chef, who suggested removing the meat from a meal that was named for the chorizo.

      • Even if they can’t call ahead, telling the waitstaff as soon as possible of a simple dish the guest CAN enjoy, and of any allergies, would go a long way to getting what you want/need in a timely manner, without holding a lot of people up. Everyone deserves good service and a good experience in a restaurant, INCLUDING those dining at the same time as the person with special dietary needs.

    • Another good thing to keep in mind is that more and more restaurants have menus online if you take a few minutes to search. As a mostly-vegan, I always try and check the menu before we go out to eat and if I need any sort of tweak or modification I have it pre-planned and ready to go. If I’m not sure if they can do something, I call ahead. I have been amazed at what wait-staff and chefs are willing to do when I ask nicely! If we are going to be hanging out in a certain neighborhood or town for a while, and the chances of going out to eat are high, I’ll pre-plan a few places that have good options for me. It doesn’t always work out perfectly, of course…but it helps to be prepared when you can!

  4. Wonderful article! My boyfriend is gluten intolerant and it’s nice to see this information shared for those that might not be in “the know”. Allergies and such can be VERY serious.

  5. Dude, so true. Right out of high school, I started dating this guy who was not only lactose intolerant but also had celiac disease. I flailed around like an idiot trying to figure out what I could cook without hurting him. Hurray for vegan cook books!

  6. My church is like this. There are a couple of gluten/diary free women and one woman who must keep her sodium intake LOW, which rules out salt, yeast, baking powder, etc. Thankfully no one is allergic to eggs, else my cover-all morning tea gluten, dairy and rising agent free sponge cake is a bust.

    Whenever I make meals at home that doesn’t involve one of these things, I start thinking about whether it’s also other-things free, or if I can easily make them [insert allergen here]-free. That way, I’ve already come with a short list of recipes for when I need to cook for these friends. That’s my tip!

  7. The thing I struggle to remember most is not to use wooden spoons that have been used to make gluteny foods for my coeliac friends and family. I’m usually pretty paranoid and keep everything separate, but the spoons have got me in the past.

    Someone shared this link on twitter this week for vegan & gluten free Christmas cake – http://networkedblogs.com/oVyxM. I’m really looking forward to trying it this Christmas. I make sugar cookies for everyone else, but haven’t found something vegan & coeliac friendly + Christmassy that doesn’t taste crappy for some of my in-laws.

  8. When preparing for guests, I suggest asking if there have been any changes to their diets. My best friend has a laundry list of food sensitivities – some common, some unusual – and seems to develop a new one every couple of years. I always double-check what she can and can’t eat when she visits, since it changes occasionally.

    If you are feeding a raw foodist, ask about the maximum temperature they consider acceptable. I know several raw chefs and none of them agree on temperature…some say 105 F, some say 118 F. And check whether they eat honey or not – some don’t.

    And if you have a guest with a life-threatening food allergy, have them show you how to use an Epi-Pen just in case.

  9. I have a few major food allergies and I keep “Kosher-lite.” If going out spur of the moment with friends, I’ll try to look up a menu online, or like last night, asked to see a menu before getting a table at that restaurant. Last month, my family was in Disney World and we were able to get a table at a pretty cool restaurant, only to realize we were allergic to something in every single dish. Whoops!

  10. I am a catering chef with loads of food allergies. Calling ahead is the best thing you can possibly do, for your sake (you get your food on time), and for the sake of the chefs (they don’t have to stress about throwing something together at the last minute). I always feel really bad for those we keep waiting, but every time I go out myself, I let the place know about my every allergy, and keep an extra supply of emergency pills just in case.

  11. Growing up I had a friend who had so many allergies that her list of safe foods was shorter than her list of unsafe foods!

    My mom always dealt with this by having at least one dish that could be eaten and enjoyed by everyone! Her food always looked so bland (after all, your options are extremely limited at that point) and Mom felt terrible seeing her have to eat the same thing whenever she came over. Even if it wasn’t a main dish that she could eat, she always loved being able to eat the same stuff as the rest of us!

  12. Re: the soup.

    One thing I think is kind of terrible is when servers, knowingly or unknowingly, lie to the customer about what stock is used for the soup.

    Traditionally miso soup is made using a fish-based broth. We had some vegans come in one time and they said, “We want the vegan miso soup.” I apologized and told them the soup is made from fish broth and we don’t even have vegetable broth anywhere in the restaurant. They got snide with me and told me the other Japanese place in town ALWAYS special made them vegan miso soup. Turned out my best friend worked at that restaurant and I knew for a fact their restaurant operated the same as ours. There was no way the owner had vegetable broth anywhere in the restaurant and he was just flat out lying to these people. Talked to my friend later and confirmed this to be the case. Wasn’t all that surprising because the owner was a jerk anyway lol. I just hope they never had someone with a fish allergy order this supposedly vegan miso soup!

    • Yep. I stopped eating at PF Changs because they lied to me more than once about shell fish in their food. Thankfully, my allergy isn’t life threatening, but one of these days it’s gonna kill somebody!

  13. I honestly don’t know anyone with food allergies or strict diets, so I found this article really insightful! It’s hard enough for people to wrap their minds around the fact that I don’t eat pork or pork products. I can only imagine how much trouble they would have with anything else!

  14. Good suggestions!

    The other thing I’d add is to please not be offended if your guest would rather fix their own food. I appreciate it when people want to make something for me, but I have a lot of sensitivities and people who don’t have the same issues rarely know all the different ingredient names for things which are, in fact, milk or gluten or sugar cane. I feel better not putting the burden of figuring it all out on someone else.

    Going out to restaurants is the hardest. A few months ago I had to go to a work lunch at a pretty fancy hotel restaurant, and I let them know ahead of time what I couldn’t eat and they assured me they could accommodate me (I gave them a detailed written list, just to be sure) but when my plate arrived, after I’d confirmed with the waiter and the manager that I was the one with the “special needs,” there were two things on it I couldn’t eat and a sauce I was suspicious about. Such a hassle, especially when you’re really trying to keep things smooth and professional and not inconvenience everyone you’re with.

    And, someone from Nelson! I stayed there for awhile a few years ago. Lovely town, lovely people, and many more radio stations than I would expect in a small town, as I recall.

  15. The other issue is that people with food allergies still need protein. my partner is unwillingly a vegan due to digestive problems and works a physical job where he really needs to eat a lot of protien, and so often at restaurants or people’s houses the food doesn’t have any dairy or meat- but it also has no protein at all. No, an onion and green pepper sandwich does not constitute a meal.

    • So hard to find protein sometimes~it’s almost funny how often I hear, “Well, you could have the salad.” Le sigh. My solution? Always pack a snack in your purse. I usually have a LaraBar.

  16. I love to cook for people and have several friends with special and super special diets. It too me several years to not be offended when they would bring their own food or prepare something after I had worked so hard and creatively to meet their dietary needs. After having severe morning sickness in pregnancy I understood better that flavors and oils stick to pans and spoons really well! The “take no offence and raid my fridge yourself” approach seems to be working great, we all get to eat together and no one (me) feels put out or hurt by others dietary needs.

  17. When going to a restaurant, my friend will often bring a package of gluten-free pasta, and ask for them to make her XYZ dish using that pasta and no wheat products. It made things pretty simple, and she’s never been refused.

  18. Restaurants are easy for me, but it makes it feel ashamed to eat at someone’s house. They’re so sweet and always want to accommodate everyone but I feel like a selfish ass for requesting my meal be different. I try to bring my own food but they feel bad so I’ve just learned to make as little requests as possible…

    • This is the worst feeling ever. My husband and I stayed at his grandma’s house for a couple days, and the evening we arrived she would not stop raving about these awesome “wheat free muffins” she labored all weekend to perfect for me (I am allergic to wheat, among other similar things such as oats, rye, and barley; along with not-similar things such as tree nuts, peanuts, sesame, and soy. The list is extensive). The next morning as I was eagerly awaiting these muffins-on-a-pedestal, she says “I found these awesome gluten-free oats at the store. Did you know they made those? You can eat those!” Erm, no. Gluten-free=/=oat allergy. She felt horrible and I felt horrible because she had labored all weekend to accommodate me. It was awkwardly horrible, there was no food in the house I could eat, and it made for an all-around unpleasant experience. I honestly don’t know how to approach those situations so I avoid them as much as possible.

      I HATE when people insist on accommodating me because 9 times out of 10 they get it wrong. I even had someone “accommodate” me at my wedding because god knows I was too busy to feed myself, and this person handed me a plate with HUMMUS which is made from SESAME. People with allergies know best, and I wish other people wouldn’t try so hard to take care of the allergic people because most of the time they are sadly just too ignorant/misinformed about ingredients.

      So this is a PSA to all people who’s love language is baked goods: know there is a serious risk of your feelings getting hurt.

  19. Also, when I say, “Just let me have a look at the packaging and I’ll be able to see if I can eat it,” this does not mean you should do it. Honestly! I have been a vegetarian for over two decades, and not one single person lets me check the packaging for myself. I had someone tell me I wouldn’t be able to have the cake they’d just brought because it had ‘gluten’ in it, which I think they’d mixed up with gelatine.

    • Oh, man! I get that all the time! I can’t even get people to articulate WHY they do it. I think it is a need to take care of me, or to express that my well-being is important, but I am quite accustomed to picking out which ingredients are unacceptable. Too often, I have been assured some product is safe, and I try it, and later finally get access to the ingredients and discover I have consumed something highly objectionable. 😐

  20. Tamari is gluten-free soy sauce, which I was ecstatic to learn about because my sibling is extreeeemely gluten-intolerant (to the point at which it triggers epilepsy-like seizures). Additionally, soy sauce AND tamari are made with soy that has been fermented, which is actually the ONLY kind of soy that is healthful for human consumption (and it is VERY healthful). Such a shame that the prevalence of soy and wheat in processed food has created this epidemic of intolerance. :c

    • Although gluten-free tamari is available, some tamari is made with a small amount of wheat. You still need to check your labels carefully on this.

  21. Such a helpful article! I second( or third or fourth) calling ahead or checking a restaurants menu before arriving. I have been a server at places that could accommodate and could not accommodate most of the allergies and special diets that people had. One such difficult place was a well known wings bar. Basically nothing there was vegan, gluten free, hadn’t touched nuts etc. People would come in with special diets and we just couldn’t accommodate them with our food. Bringing their own food for such a time was fine with our managers though. They would get so upset that we didn’t have anything for them. and there wasn’t anything we could do about it. We even had customers ask if we could go next door to a supermarket to get something for them, which of course we couldn’t. Other places were perfectly fine with making special accommodations, and as I server, I didn’t mind helping them out, especially when they were nice about it.

  22. I’ve worked for several years in food service and, most recently, in events catering and a banquet hall. I can’t stress enough how important it is to be pro-active (as the person with dietary restrictions) when attending an event with a catered meal. The kitchen only has what they need for that particular meal and if it’s an off-site catering event, we don’t even have the benefit of “maybe we have something for tomorrow’s event in here….” as an alternative dish. Even if whoever is throwing the event doesn’t ask about dietary restrictions, feel free to point those restrictions out. If you think they are ignoring them or not taking them seriously, most caterers or banquet halls would rather you call and let them know a few days in advance (so, maybe your cousin thinks your gluten intolerance is just you being trendy and wanting to lose weight and won’t tell the caterer at her wedding reception about it). I’ve had the unfortunate position of having to help the kitchen scrape together a sad looking entree for wedding guests because nobody communicated an allergy/intolerance/dietary restriction to the kitchen staff earlier than cocktail hour.

    Any chef/caterer worth their salt WANTS you to enjoy your meal and have an excellent time at their establishment. Promise.

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