How to host a dinner that delights everyone

As I was sitting at home one evening, I noticed I got a direct message via Facebook. It was from a dear, old friend of mine. She said:

“Honestly Fred, I have this dilemma quite often. I’m eating more vegetable-based meals.  And so many relatives and friends are choosing to alter their diets based on their personal attachments.

My niece has pet birds and raises chickens, so won’t eat chicken, turkey, or any bird.

My son-in-law was raised in Iowa so he won’t eat any beef.

I’m gluten- and dairy-free and my son is lactose intolerant.

So, hosting the holidays at my house was very difficult. What do you cook for such disparate eating styles? I had 21 people and I ended up making 4 different meals. I never want to do this again, so any suggestions?”

I took a minute, and I couldn’t come up with an immediate answer… But I knew if she was going through this, chances are good lots of other people are dealing with the same kinds of challenges.

So now that I’ve had the chance to mull it over, allow me share some of my thoughts on this common issue.

Modern food with modern problems

I’ll start by being honest — I’m not sure I really have an ideal solution to this problem.

For many of us, food has become an ongoing, chronic battle, in some form or another. We are so much more aware of how food affects our health and where it comes from — in addition to nutrition and safety concerns.

We never really had to worry about these issues in the past, before Big Business got its greedy hands on our food supply.

And it doesn’t even begin to address the emotional or environmental concerns when it comes to eating animals, which has gotten a lot more lip service in recent years. (I should mention I wholeheartedly disagree with the environmental concerns… but that’s a whole other issue.)

But even I must admit that after 30 years of preaching about the health benefits of a diet based on animal protein, my love for animals sometimes gives me pause. So it’s not as though I’m not sympathetic to the decision to abstain.

The fact is, there’s a case to be made against just about any food choice you could make. You could even argue that plants and trees have “feelings” and “talk” to one another… There’s no shortage of reasons to reconsider our domination of the food chain, and our responsibilities to the planet.

But it’s not like you can serve your guests five courses of distilled rain water. So, in the end, it’s about striking a balance. And ultimately, asking everyone to step up.

When in doubt, make it a pot luck

Here’s my advice to anyone hosting a celebration where there are food issues to contend with: Write down each person’s intolerance, allergy, preference, what-have-you, on a piece of paper.

Most of these will fall into certain categories: gluten, dairy, casein, vegetarian, vegan, etc. And once that’s established, choose a few staple dishes that everyone can eat, and then one special side per person of interest.

Serve it up family style, and you can at least be assured that everyone will have a full plate.

There’s no rule saying that everyone has to leave your house in a food coma. And the truth is, we tend to use these celebrations as an excuse to overindulge unnecessarily, when there are plenty of other ways to make these moments memorable.

But if there are certain dishes that guests simply can’t do without, the solution is simple: Tell them to bring it with them to the party.

Accommodating guests’ dietary restrictions is always the first choice — and with regular dinner parties featuring small groups, this is easier. But sometimes, even then, it’s just not possible. And in those situations, potluck dinners are the perfect solution.

At the very least, trying all those new dishes makes for a lively dinner conversation. And the best part is that no one has to feel left out or insulted in any way. At the dinner table, as in life, when we embrace our differences, we can all learn a little from each other.

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