How to Feed the People You Host


I’ve spent some holiday dinners eating dry bread and salad.

In front of me on the table were platters piled high with other food, but because of a combination of my vegetarianism and allergies, only the bread and salad were real options for me. In those moments, I harbored no ill will toward my hosts; having hosted holidays before, I knew that it took a lot of work to accommodate the preferences and allergies of a complicated group of guests. It’s not a job for an inexperienced or inexact home chef. I knew all this as I sat and ate my undressed salad, nibbling on my plain bread, and I wasn’t bitter.

Still, I’ve tried never to do that to a guest in my own home unless I had no other choice. Over the years, I’ve had guests for Jewish holiday meals who ate no carbohydrates, no grains, no gluten, no dairy, no beans, no soy, no tomatoes, no nuts, no broccoli, no cinnamon — not to mention the years when my own child was on the six-food-elimination-diet or the chylothorax diet. I’ve managed, in most cases, to offer at least two tasty options to each person — even options that others at the table would enjoy, too. It takes planning, but it’s not impossible.

Here’s how I’ve done it:

Ask the person how much of the food they’re avoiding they can tolerate.

When someone has an outright allergy, the answer is likely “none,” but even that varies. The person in my family with a dairy allergy doesn’t need me to pour boiling water over the food processor in case of micro-particles, but my friends with Celiac disease are so sensitive to potential cross-contamination that they wouldn’t risk anything made in a food processor or chopped on a cutting board that once handled gluten. The only way to know how careful you need to be is to ask.

Make things that would be delicious to everyone.

There’s nothing more isolating than sitting on the end of a table full of mounds of beautifully prepared and plated dishes, eating out of a bunch of “special” food in mismatched dishes, all with big post-it notes on it with your name on them. There are some delicious dishes I’ve made that accommodate a wide variety of food allergies.

Many soups can be easily made allergy-friendly, including my old-standby Chickpea Soup. Of course, big beautiful salads with dried fruit and pumpkin seeds on the side are always a hit, and quinoa or rice dishes with lots of roasted vegetables are seldom an issue for anyone. Hummus or other bean dips and spreads usually work, too (but be careful of that food processor).

For main dishes, don’t be afraid to use your grill. Covering it well with tinfoil creates an instantly clean surface, and simple grilled chicken or vegetables are almost always appreciated. If you’re not sure about the condiments you’d normally use to season them, simple salt and pepper is fine — just offer a variety of condiments when they get to the table. The Safe Eats® web site has a lot of great recipes for allergy-free sauces.

There are even desserts that can work for everyone, like fruit salad with optional whipped cream (or whipped coconut cream for dairy-avoiding guests), or a tray of fancy dark chocolate.

Call your allergic or food-avoidant guests beforehand and tell them the menu you’re planning.

No one knows your guest’s allergies and other food-triggers better than they do. While you may think you’ve double-checked everything, your guest may notice something dangerous to them that you missed. For example, most commercial soy sauces contain gluten, and soy sauce goes into everything from marinades to salad dressings to some soup recipes. Before you shop — and especially before you cook — make sure you’re not making efforts that will end up to have been in vain. You and your guest will both feel terrible.

Be prepared to tell them all the ingredients in your recipe and, wherever they included prepared or packaged items like spice mixes or pre-made broth, to read the ingredients of those ingredients too. You may even want to take a picture of the packaging and send it to your guest, just to be sure. If they seem comfortable, that’s great – but if they are checking and double-checking, please just be understanding. It’s not that they don’t trust you. They’re trying to avoid an uncomfortable or even fatal reaction, not trying to hurt your feelings.

Let your guests bring food even if you don’t need it.

Shared meals are stressful for people with food allergies or intolerances. If they feel better and safer bringing their own food, please let them. If they bring enough to share, and if it doesn’t interfere with your own dietary needs, taste and be open to really enjoying what they’ve brought, even if you’d normally make the same thing with the food they avoid. You never know – you might really like their version!

In addition, don’t be insulted if — despite your hard work — they’re nervous and especially careful about what you made. Experience has taught them to be this careful, and for good reason!

An example of a meal for everyone

At my Rosh Hashanah table this year will be a family that keeps kosher (avoiding the combination of meat and dairy); a guest with celiac disease who avoids soy; a vegetarian with lactose intolerance; and a guest who avoids many beans and cruciferous vegetables (like broccoli and cauliflower). Here’s what I’m making for everyone:

  1. Chickpea Soup
  2. Quinoa with dried apricots and pistachios, modified from this recipe which uses couscous (and you could use pumpkin or sunflower seeds if you had a nut-allergic guest)
  3. Dried fruit and gluten-free, dairy-free chocolate

Gluten-free Challah

And here’s what others are bringing that could be for everyone:

  1. Gluten-free challah, brought by my guest with celiac disease
  2. Salad, brought by a guest who can accommodate food prep for allergies
  3. Apples and honey, brought by a guest who can accommodate food prep for allergies

Here’s what I’m serving that not everyone can eat:

  1. Chicken, brought by my guest with celiac disease
  2. Blood-Orange Glazed Tofu
  3. My very special challah recipe (listen to me talk about it here!)
  4. My mom’s secret mandelbrot recipe (contains gluten – not for my guest with celiac!)

It’s possible to make a delicious meal that makes all your guests feel loved and important. It really is. The key components are communication, flexibility, and imagination.

If you have ideas for other allergy-friendly holiday dishes, please leave them in the comments below!

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5 thoughts on “How to Feed the People You Host

  1. You are so thoughtful and loving. Thank you for sharing this, I will surely be referring to it in the future!

  2. I really appreciated the suggestions about Jewish High Holidays like Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur – both of which are soon – this sunset?

  3. Thank you, Adelaide! Rosh Hashanah begins tomorrow at sunset and ends at sunset on Friday. Yom Kippur is eight days later. It’s a beautiful, introspective and life-affirming time of year!

  4. Hi, Debi. I just read your article about your Grandmother Dorothy’s kugel, which I found heartwarming. But Oy Gevalt! You’ve got me drooling to try this kugel, and there’s not a recipe (or link to one) in sight! Any possibility you might add a link to your article??? I’m sure it would be much appreciated by thousands of us.

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