For those of us with food allergies and intolerances, gatherings centered around food – which includes, well, most gatherings – can be awkward, isolating and for those of us with life-threatening allergies, dangerous. I’ve found that the best way to create an environment where everyone can safely indulge is to host. (And/or, share this post with the lovely people in your life who want to make sure you’re safe when you gather at their place).
Hang on a sec though, before you envision running around the kitchen instead of enjoying the party: The other key is to create a menu that you can prepare ahead of time so your main job during the actual gathering, aside from refilling wine glasses and sipping your own, is to enjoy your guests.
In my immediate family, we have varying degrees of food allergies and intolerances to the top 8, plus MSG and some vegans and vegetarians in the mix. We also have family members with zero dietary restrictions, so I try to provide options for everyone. It sounds complicated, and when I first started trying to do it, it was, but after lots of practice I have it down to a science.
First up, General Hosting tips:
- The most important thing I’ve learned: Make sure the main course adheres to all of the dietary restrictions within the group. For example, if you’re having a barbecue and everyone eats meat, you could make pulled pork or herbed skirt steak. Or if you have vegans in the group, choose a meatless recipe to be the star of the show, like the example below.
- Ask people for their dietary restrictions ahead of time before you start planning. Then ask for specifics: for example, if someone has a nut allergy, is it OK to have nuts in the room for other guests, or does the party have to be completely nut-free to be safe for them?
- Provide clearly labeled sides and condiments, safely separating conventional ingredients from allergen-friendly ones.
- Leave as many condiments and sides as possible in their containers so people can check ingredients. It might not be as aesthetically pleasing, but for people with food allergies, it provides an extra layer of comfort to be able to read an ingredient label. For anything you’re prepping that came in packaging that you’d usually toss, like a baking mix or appetizer, hang on to the packaging so guests can take a look before they eat.
- Label allergen-friendly items clearly by adhering labels that read, “top-8-free,” “gluten-free, dairy-free,” “nut-free,” etc. directly to the serving dish or container. (Free-standing labels can get moved around by guests and cause confusion.) I’ve used post-its and “Hello, My Name Is” stickers; it doesn’t have to be fancy, it just has to be clear.
- For larger gatherings, when people offer to bring something, ask guests to provide items that are naturally safe for everyone, like wine, a fruit salad or un-dressed greens for a salad that you can then dress after they arrive.
- For dessert, go simple: Sliced fruit, store-bought or homemade sorbet or dark chocolate are all good options. Or, outsource it by ordering ahead of time from a local bakery you trust. In Pittsburgh, I can recommend Consider the Lily’s, Gluten Free Goat or Naturally Soergel’s, which has a knowledgeable staff and stocks desserts from a number of local allergen-friendly bakers.
- Just for fun, you can create a signature drink that you know is safe for your guests. It’s an unexpected indulgence at a party where people have food allergies. For the dinner party example below, I made Mango Lassis with coconut yogurt and oat milk and provided rum for the adults to mix in if they chose to do so. Which, unsurprisingly given that this is the first time we’ve gathered in over a year, most did.
Indian-Themed Dinner Party for 7-8 people:
Recently, my brother and sister-in-law flew in to visit with us for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic. I wanted to create a memorable, delicious meal that didn’t require a day-long cooking marathon but still felt special and celebratory. I settled on Saag “Paneer” made in the crock pot, stovetop Red Lentil Dal and Dairy-Free Mango Lassis.
Below, I’ll give you all the information you need if you want to take “figure out what to serve” off of your to-do list and replicate exactly what I did.
Shopping List for all Three Recipes and Sides:
- 2 cups vanilla, vegan, soy-free, nut-free yogurt (I used Harmless Harvest vanilla coconut yogurt)
- Large tub of plain vegan, soy-free, nut-free yogurt (I used Harmless Harvest plain coconut yogurt)
- 1 cup gluten-free oat milk (I used Oatly)
- Soy-Free Earth Balance
- Paneer (if you have people in your group who can have cow’s milk dairy)
- Violife Just Like Feta (for people in your group who cannot have dairy)
Veggies and Herbs:
- 3 cups frozen, cubed mango
- 1 large yellow onion
- 14 cloves garlic
- 1 large piece of fresh ginger
- Fresh cilantro
- 1 ½ pounds fresh spinach
- 1 bunch of kale
- 1 large red onion
- 3 plum tomatoes
- 4 tbsp agave nectar
- 2 cups dry red lentils
- 1 tbsp coconut oil
- 1 small can diced green chiles (I get the mild ones, but you can go with medium or hot if you like spice)
- 15 ounces diced tomatoes
- Basmati rice
- Mango chutney
- Siete chickpea tortillas
- Yellow curry powder
- Mustard powder
- Garam masala
- Mint Tea
- Alcohol, if you choose to serve it:
- Dry white wine pairs great with this meal. I served Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay.
- Rum, to stir into the lassis.
Step-by-Step Dinner Party Instructions:
- First, assemble the Saag “Paneer” in your crockpot. You can do this on the morning of the party, or the night before. Just be sure to allow 5 hours before your guests arrive for it to cook on “low.”
- One hour before your guests arrive:
- Begin making the Red Lentil Dal (or make it the night before and reheat it on your stovetop before guests get there).
- Cook rice per package instructions (For seven people, I measured out two cups of dried rice, and it was just the right amount. I like to set it and forget it in a rice cooker, but you can also make it on your stovetop).
- Half an hour before guests arrive, set out all of the accompaniments:
- Naan and Siete Chickpea Tortillas (wash hands after touching Naan and separate the gluten-free ingredients from anything containing gluten.)
- Sliced cucumbers
- Chopped cilantro
- Mango chutney
- Plain vegan, soy-free, nut-free yogurt
- When your guests arrive:
- Make the Mango Lassis (or, like I did, enlist the help of a guest to do so – shoutout to my sister-in-law, Lucy).
- Finish the Saag Paneer by stirring in the Earth Balance and pureeing the mixture. Then, divide the Saag into two separate, clearly labeled serving bowls (label one “Contains dairy” and the other “Vegan”) and stir cubed Paneer into the “Contains dairy” bowl and cubed Violife Just Like Feta into the “Vegan” one.
- Pour yourself a drink and enjoy!
Questions, comments, ideas? Please submit a comment below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.