Restrictions not Rejections: Accommodating Dietary Restrictions and Creating a Welcoming Table
It’s Food Allergy Awareness Week 2016, so everyone get excited! Every cook, whether through first-hand experience, loved ones, or research, comes across dietary restrictions as they’re learning to cook and expanding their circle of culinary guests. Growing up, I never really paid any mind to dietary restrictions as I was cooking. I don’t know how I missed them- as a child, I was allergic to soy, eggs, green beans, and was lactose intolerant. I suppose ignorance truly is bliss because as I continued to cook and reintroduce these foods into my diet, I grew out of my allergies. As my community grew, I realized that I was the lucky exception to the rule. Many people are stuck with their restrictions for life. There are also those who choose to restrict their diets for health, ethical, environmental, and/or personal reasons. From about fifth grade onward, I have been cooking regularly for loved ones who have restrictions: there’s the cousin with a gluten-intolerance, a pescatarian sister, an uncle who can’t eat much sugar, my father who shouldn’t eat nuts, my mother who is allergic to the wax used on non-organic fruits, a lactose-intolerant roommate, and, most recently, a long-time friend who is newly vegan (happy 8+ month anniversary, lady!). One of my favorite food nerd moments was when we were planning a 5-day trip together. I created a full menu about six months in advance and then found out she was vegan about five months later. I went back through and had to figure out which dishes could be made vegan, what already-vegan dishes we could add, and what vegan substitutes of classic dishes (for instance, biscuits and gravy) she could make for us so we could all learn a little bit about the vegan lifestyle. I had a blast reformulating the menu, chatting with her, doing a little online sleuthing, and going shopping together.
The Daily Life of Food Allergies
Understand the Struggle
Even if I just can’t accommodate a certain person’s dietary restrictions, it’s so important to create room for them at the table. Restaurants are constantly inundated with special requests, so while their staff are more educated and able than most home cooks, they are also dealing with occasional patrons who are only interested in fads, people who lie about allergies because they dislike the taste of a certain food, and orders that are so convoluted they no longer resemble the original dish. All these isolated incidents add up to slow down kitchens and make for grumpy staff. This tends to trickle down to those patrons who truly need both servers and cooks to be understanding and patient so they can safely enjoy a meal out with friends. Don’t be surprised if friends with dietary restrictions don’t like to eat out a lot or only ever want to go to the same restaurant. If they have a safe go-to joint, odds are that there’s at least one menu item there you can enjoy. When you are cooking at home, always communicate with your guests and read the ingredient lists on EVERYTHING. It’s always easiest to cook dishes that are customizable and made with simple, unprocessed ingredients. My favorite dish when I’m cooking for new people is Pad Thai because it’s delicious, uses fresh ingredients, and is made to order.
Pad Thai for Dietary Restrictions
Some great dishes that work for dietary restrictions across the spectrum may not work for everyone you meet. There are many nuanced diets that people have to or choose to follow, and whatever the cause, restriction, or labor involved, it’s important to honor their needs so they know they’re valued members of your culture. A little research on common dietary restrictions provides an excellent foundation for you to welcome everyone. Specific communication with your guests is a must, but going in at least acquainted with their concerns will make the entire process, from menu-planning to grocery shopping to cooking, exponentially more successful.