Thursday, November 24, 2016

Tips from the Trenches: Hosting Guests with Food "Issues"

Some people love hosting guests and make it seem effortless. And really, I think that's amazing. Hosting guests is one of our Jewish traditions - we follow in the footsteps of Avraham and Sarah when we invite guests into our home. It's special, and it gives all parties a sense of involvement and satisfaction. And yet, I know that sometimes hosting guests is HARD.

Sometimes we're tired, stretched thin, have tight budgets, and other complications. But I do believe that there is something to be gained when we spend time sharing our homes with friends, neighbors, and relatives.

We try to host guests for meals regularly. We invite neighbors and relatives often, though not all the time, because we believe it enhances our shabbatot and chagim and our lives in general.

Sometimes these guests have food issues that can range from vegetarianism to allergies to celiac disease, and we're almost always able to accommodate. However, lately I have heard from a few people that they're intimidated and therefore, do not invite people over who have special food needs.

As a person with some food related issues, and a family full of people with special food needs, I just wanted to share a little secret with you. Even with our food issues, we feel good when we receive the occasional invitation. Sometimes we'll have to turn it down because of our circumstances, but other times, we'll accept, and being invited makes us just as happy as it makes you when you're invited! (And of course, inviting others and having them accept makes us happy too!)

I always offer to bring food when we are invited out - not only because of special food needs (some of us have allergies to specific foods, one of us is a vegetarian...), but additionally because I know that hosting an extra six people, at least 4 of whom eat like adults, can be a lot of work. And since I like cooking anyway, it makes me happy to help out.

I almost always accept when my guests offer to help cook - certainly if they express a concern about a special food need. I want my guests to feel comfortable in my home, and if bringing along a dish they know they can eat makes them feel comfortable - that is great!
Despite the fact that we accept help when offered, there are some things we regularly do so that our table is accommodating to people with allergies, sensitivities, or strong preferences:

I do not make one-pot meals, and the only food that I make that has meat/chicken in it is the meat/chicken! This way, my side dishes are all vegetarian-friendly and I don't find myself scrambling to make something special for vegetarians. This is also good if you discover that one of your guests can't eat a particular food - let's say, potatoes. This way, the potatoes are confined to the one dish I made with potatoes! It's definitely easier this way.

If you have a guest, like me, who is allergic to nuts, please check with them first if it's safe to have nuts on the table if you are used to serving food with nuts. If it is, go ahead, your guest will just manage by avoiding the particular dish with nuts in it (although I did have one time where the hosts put nuts in all of the dishes, thinking I would be able to just take them out.  That wasn’t safe for me, so I wasn’t able to eat. Everyone felt awkward about that.). If it is not safe for them, please remember that the joy you are giving them in being invited out may be worth the inconvenience of avoiding your favorite dish just that one week, for the sake of their safety.

When your guest has celiac disease, it's a little more complicated. We handle this by trying to make sure that the only food on the table that has gluten in it is the challah and we remove the challah from the table after we've all had some, before we bring out the other foods. So we'll serve simple vegetable dishes and salads, chicken, rice, potato kugel, and fruit for dessert if we have a guest with celiac disease (just a sample menu). It's easy to be accommodating if you know in advance that there are foods to avoid.

If your guest has a soy allergy (or another food allergy like sesame, corn, eggs, etc), things are admittedly complicated (though not as complicated as celiac disease!) - a lot of store bought food has common allergens in them. I recommend you talk to your guest about how to handle this. We handle some allergies by never putting salad dressings into the salad (we'll put the bottle on the side and let everyone choose to take dressing or not). We also make simple chicken that doesn't use fancy store bought sauces. And of course, if something we love to make just won't taste right without soy sauce or another allergen, we warn the person with the allergy that this particular food is not safe for them. It's usually no big deal, as long as it's not the only food on the table.

Finally, if inviting your special foods guest is still intimidating, talk to them. Tell them you'd love to have them over but you don't know how to accommodate their food needs. Most likely they will offer to bring something along, but you can also ask STRAIGHT OUT for their help. I am sure your guest will graciously agree, because ultimately it is nice to be included, especially for people with food allergies (and sensitivities) who often feel left out.

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