The rise of food allergies and other dietary restrictions have made planning a dinner party menu more complicated than ever.
The rise of food allergies and other dietary restrictions have made planning a dinner party menu more complicated than ever. (shironosov / Getty Images/iStockphoto)

It wasn't until after they seated their party at a paella birthday dinner that Kevin and Lou Ann McCaughey realized their guest of honor was allergic to shellfish — and they didn't have a back-up plan.

"She may have had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich," Lou Ann McCaughey said.

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That was 25 years ago. Today, food allergies, intolerances and self-imposed dietary restrictions are far more common, making it tricky to cater to guests with varied needs. As the holidays approach and families ready to feed guests with a range of palates and preferences, etiquette experts say there are strategies hosts can take to accommodate themwhile avoiding food faux pas.

The McCaugheys, who recently moved to Lancaster, Pa., from Sparks, learned their lesson.

"Ever after that, when we are hosting somebody we always ask not only for allergies but also for aversions that they might have," Kevin McCaughey said.

He takes notes on a spreadsheet listing the dietary restrictions and preferences of family and friends he's hosted. Some aversions are more prevalent than others, he said.

"We tend to stay away from organ meat," he said.

As the holidays approach, Diane Cookson, president of Manners for Life, Etiquette for Success, and Cathleen Hanson, director of The International School of Protocol, give suggestions for hosting a dinner party when a guest or guests have dietary restrictions. (Algerina Perna & Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun video)

The McCaugheys' strategy of asking guests about dietary restrictions in advance is one approach etiquette coach Cathy Hanson suggests to avoid menu conflicts.

"Put that question out there. People are really used to dealing with that. In other words, it's not unusual now, on both ends," said Hanson, director of the Towson-based International School of Protocol. "As a guest, it's important to say that, and as a host it's also really nice to ask that question."

Diane Cookson, president of Manners for Life, Etiquette for Success in Annapolis, said a good time to ask about dietary concerns is when guests respond to an invitation.

"If the guest comes and hasn't prepared the host for the limitations, then the host feels awkward and the guest feels awkward," which can make other guests feel awkward, Cookson said.

The McCaugheys host dinner parties about every other month, and Kevin starts planning two or three months in advance with spreadsheets that include the menu, timing, guests' needs and more. By the time of the party, he has the night planned down to the minute.

But even after planning for special food needs, some may emerge unexpectedly. Baltimore caterer Charles Levine said at any event his company caters, he can't set the menu for more than the first two tables without coming across a guest with a special request. If someone is hosting a party of 50 and the host informs him of six people with restrictions, he always comes prepared with enough alternatives for at least 10.

Shady Spring Elementary School offers an after school etiquette class to any fourth and fifth grade student who would like to attend. The program is called Guys with Ties and Girls with Pearls. (Algerina Perna, Baltimore Sun video)

Levine suggests always planning for at least one vegetarian.

The more formal an event, the more care must be taken for each menu item. Seated dinners are the hardest.

"Especially at a seated dinner party with service, each course needs to be able to be eaten by each guest," Cookson said. "There's nothing worse than sitting at a table with a dozen other people being served a course that you can't eat."

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Hosts should avoid ingredients that could cause life-threatening reactions, but they should not trivialize personal food preferences made for ethical, religious or other reasons, Hanson said.

"When someone doesn't like to eat peanuts, that person has a reason," she said. "Just realize that people come all kinds of ways and then we bring them to our table, and let's just share the love."

By the same token, guests should also be flexible and gracious.

"Unless a person is a little bit unreasonable, I think most people have learned that their preferences — especially if they don't talk to the host ahead of time — they can work with," Cookson said. "If they make a scene, they're not a good guest."

While the conversation ahead of the party might be tough, the food should be easy, Hanson said. She and other experts said hosts should make cooking for a party as easy on themselves as possible.

Parents to deal with food allergies

Many parents worry about whether their children will develop food allergies. Doctors once recommended keeping kids away from peanuts and other foods commonly linked to allergic reaction. Dr. Natalia Vernon of Kaiser Permanente explains why that has changed.

Levine recommends limiting the number of courses and trying to make something universal for the first course — butternut squash soup, for example, instead of shrimp bisque. Add garnishes to dress up the dish and consider the serving vessel.

"Don't go into extras because it's too much work for yourself; it's not fluid."

If needed, a host can make a special plate for a guest with extreme needs — emphasizing it's no trouble — rather than having multiple options for everyone. "You want to please them, and that part takes time, and you don't want it to deter from the pacing of the rest of the food," Levine said.

If other guests ask why another person isn't eating certain items, it's up to the host to redirect the conversation, Cookson said.

"Try to change the subject," she said. "You don't want the person who's not eating something to all of a sudden feel guilty or defensive."

Buffets or family-style dining are another option to make informal gatherings more comfortable for everyone. Hosts can incorporate hearty vegetables like eggplant or squashes along with other entrees, or ask each guest to bring a dish they like to share.

"No one will know why it's there other than it goes with the rest of the menu, but it is now sort of a second entree or a third entree for someone who doesn't eat meat or fish," Levine said.

As food intolerances become more common, that also means more ingredients have become available to make modifying dishes fairly painless, too. If a guest doesn't eat gluten, hors d'oeuvres can be served on a cherry tomato, in a spoon or on gluten-free crackers instead of bread.

"There are so many options now that are gluten-free," Lou Ann McCaughey said. "Sometimes I'll get gluten-free crackers just because."

And if all else fails, there's one fix hosts can count on if their plans go awry: "In any case," Levine said, "just give them a great glass of wine."

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