Not everyone is on the same page when it comes to food allergies and intolerances, and dietary restrictions and preferences, and that’s never more evident than at a holiday meal. While your immediate family may know you’re vegan or lactose intolerant, that’s not necessarily the case with extended family, friends, or your partner’s family.
So what do you do? Choke down food that will probably make you sick, or goes against your beliefs? Or have a super awkward conversation where you potentially hurt someone’s feelings? Neither of the above. In an article for the Huffington Post, Alexandra Emanuelli explains how to let your holiday hosts know about your dietary restrictions and preferences in a respectful, polite, and (most importantly) effective way. Here’s what to know.
Go in knowing this is tough
As guests, we don’t want to be a burden on our hosts, so we often do whatever we can to minimize conflict and creating extra work for hosts. We also don’t want to offend anyone. “People often see the reluctance to eat something as personally offensive,” registered dietitian Abby Langer told the Huffington Post. But, Emanuelli points out, participating in what should be a celebratory family meal shouldn’t mean sacrificing our health or morals.
Bring it up as early as possible
The experts Emanuelli interviewed all agree that telling the host about your dietary requirements as far ahead of time as possible is the best way to go. If you can take that route, by all means, go ahead.
But, for a variety of reasons, it’s not always possible to give the host a heads-up before the day of the meal. Either way, this is a one-on-one conversation—not something that should be discussed in front of a group of people.
Avoid lectures and inquisitions
If it comes up in a group setting—like at the dinner table—it is possible to casually mention that you’re vegetarian or vegan without launching into an unsolicited lecture on the reasons why. At the same time, you shouldn’t be faced with an inquisition, and the expectation that you provide arguments and evidence for your food-consumption decisions.
Answering basic questions (like, “Can vegans eat honey?”) is one thing (if you’re up for it), but those can quickly escalate into what can feel like a cross-examination. If something along those lines starts, politely shut it down. Change the subject, tell people you’d be happy to discuss what prompted you to become vegan after dinner, or mention a book or article that they can read to get some more background on the issue, and then move on.
(Note: This part wasn’t in Emanuelli’s article, but we thought it might be helpful to throw it in.)
Be prepared for a reaction
When told about a guest’s dietary restrictions, some hosts will simply thank the person for letting them know, and then move on. But not everyone. “Remember that if a person gets offended that you don’t want to eat something, that’s about them, not you,” Langer told the Huffington Post.
Follow these prompts
Sometimes it’s hard to find the right words to address a topic like this, but fortunately, Emanuelli has included a set of prompts for these difficult food conversations in her article, courtesy of the experts she interviewed:
- “I just want to let you know that I can’t eat X. I hope that’s OK.”
- “I’ve been doing a lot of work with my doctor and I have found that eating bread or eating gluten really bothers my stomach. I’m wondering if this year there are some alternatives that we can come up with together?”
- “I’m really looking forward to holiday dinner next month. I wanted to let you know that I’m eating vegan, so we have time to plan. I can share some recipes to add to the menu or bring my food.”
If none of this works and your cousin is still trying to talk you into just one bite of a dish that’ll put you on the toilet for the rest of the day, (politely) hold your ground. You did what you could to make this encounter as painless as possible.