"Whether it's for health reasons, ethical beliefs, or religion, it seems to be getting harder and harder to please everyone's palate for dinner," says Sebastien Centner, director of Eatertainment Special Events and Catering in Toronto. "Just like a hot new décor trend, it seems every year brings a new type of 'tarian to the table'."
Centner, who hosts high profile events for clients like Hugo Boss, President Bill Clinton and The Toronto International Film Festival, says that he is seeing a growing number of special dietary requests. "There is no doubt that this trend continues to pick up speed," he says. "With the influx of pescetarians, vegans, and flexitarians, cooking must not only be done with a recipe book nowadays, but a dictionary!"
So what do you serve when you're expecting a group of gluten-free pescetarians and macrobiotic vegans around the table, if you don't even know what these terms mean?
We asked some of Canada's top entertaining, nutrition and etiquette experts for advice on how to deal with this increasingly common culinary conundrum.
1. Be prepared
There's nothing worse than whipping up an elaborate cream-based pasta dish, only to find out when your guests arrive that one of them is lactose intolerant and another has celiac disease. Don't wait until your party is seated to ask about dietary restrictions. "When you make the invite is when you should ask the guests if there are any restrictions or preferences," says Amy Casson, an etiquette and communication advisor from London, Ontario. "As a host, you want to make your guests feel as welcome as possible. You want to be able to prepare something that wows them."
2. Be sensitive
Prodding a diner with questions about why he or she chooses to eat the way they do could lead the conversation into uncomfortable or even heated territory. "It's just not polite dinnertime conversation," explains Toronto-based etiquette expert Linda Allan. "The way they eat may seem strange to you, but poking fun could be highly offensive to someone who eats a certain way for religious or cultural reasons."
3. Be discreet
Making a fuss over the fact that someone is eating a "special meal" will only make them feel singled out and embarrassed. Try not to call attention to the fact that your guest is eating something different and make sure to plan your cooking time wisely to ensure that all meals are ready to be served together.
"The last thing you want as a diner is to have your meal delayed because somebody's fixing you something special," notes Allan.
4. Ask for advice
If you're having a hard time figuring out what to cook, don't be afraid to ask for a recipe or suggestion. Your guest will appreciate the effort and may even offer to bring something along with them. "The thoughtful guest might say ‘I am a vegan, but don't worry – I'll bring my tofu chicken to pop in the microwave and any vegetables you serve will be fine for me'," says etiquette coach Louise Fox, of Toronto's 'The Etiquette Ladies.
5. K.I.S.S. (keep it simple, Sweetheart!)
"If I'm cooking a chicken with sauce, I'll serve the sauce on the side and I'll serve vegetable salads with toppings in bowls on the table," says Allan. By keeping foods separate, you let your guests have more control over their meal and increase the likelihood that they'll be able to enjoy something you've prepared. Simple, wholesome foods with a short list of ingredients are not only more likely to satisfy a large group of diners, they take less time to prepare and are less stressful for the host.
Page 1 of 2 – On page 2, learn how to ask your guests for food suggestions to make event planning a breeze.
6. Go with the flow
If you've prepared something that your guest can't eat, don't get flustered. You will both feel embarrassed if you draw attention to the situation. Offer to prepare something else if you can but, according to Fox, a gracious guest will ask you not to go to any extra trouble.
7. Know where to draw the line
It's perfectly reasonable for a guest to mention specific dietary restrictions, but if a host asks all of her diners for their preferences, things can get confusing. "It can just keep going and going, especially if you're entertaining a larger group," says Casson. "If you ask for restrictions, that can be managed - but if you ask for preferences, it opens the door wide for people to say all kinds of things." The rule of thumb, she says, is to ask for restrictions and requirements first, and preferences only if you choose. You have no obligation to provide a sugar-free dessert to someone on a diet, but you would be ill advised to serve quiche to a guest who's allergic to eggs.
8. Be careful
Read the ingredient list of any prepared foods to ensure they're consistent with your guest's restrictions. Many "vegetable" soups, for instance, are prepared with beef stock, and some frozen chicken breasts contain soy additives. There is no reason to abstain from serving any type of food to the group if there will be a tricky diner at the table, as long as your guest is made aware of what foods contain the ingredients she cannot eat. In the case of a potentially fatal anaphylactic allergy, however, it's advisable to stay away from serving the problem food in case of cross contamination.
9. Have fun!
Don't look at hosting a guest who has dietary restrictions as a challenge – see it as an opportunity to try something new. The last thing your guest would want is for you to be stressed out over his or her presence. Do the best you can and don't be afraid to experiment. Your guest will be grateful that you took the effort to make their experience enjoyable, and may even ask you for a recipe to take home!
So go ahead and invite your vegan neighbours over for meal. With a splash of creativity, a little bit of consideration and a good old dose of common sense, you might just discover that entertaining the ‘tarians can be a whole lot of fun!
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