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SALT LAKE CITY — As the holiday season gets into full swing there are plenty of occasions to share food with family and friends, as well as others at work, community gatherings and beyond.
During events where food is served, individual food preferences and any dietary restrictions of guests can make planning meals trickier for hosts. In addition to offering enough food options to meet the needs of everyone, discussions around the dinner table can be made more inclusive when a nonjudgmental approach to dietary practices is taken.
Many individuals follow dietary restrictions or special diets for personal reasons such as religious traditions, because of food allergies, intolerances, or other medical conditions, or even strongly held personal health preferences. It can seem like the food environment is not supportive of these differences.
The trials of trying to find foods that can be eaten with special diets while traveling or eating out at restaurants are examples of challenging food environments for those with dietary restrictions.
During the holidays there are also likely to be more frequent occasions of eating away from home that present challenges for hosts and guests alike. Here are tips for navigating dietary restrictions around the holiday table this season.
Top tips for hosts
1. Learn from the experts, especially your guests
Often guests will be the most knowledgeable about their dietary needs and what foods they can and can’t eat. It can be helpful to contact guests with enough advance notice before an event to gather a list of dietary needs.
If a host is not familiar with a given dietary restriction, it’s always a good idea to do some additional research. Hosts could discuss food options with someone they know that has similar dietary requirements as their planned guest. Reading about special diets on evidence-based health websites is also helpful.
There are many groups that specialize in nutrition information for those with food allergies, intolerances such as with a gluten-free diet, or those that choose to exclude some or all animal foods such as meat, fish, eggs, and dairy products.
2. Make foods that can be adapted easily
When considering main dishes and sides, think about foods that can be easily adapted based on the needs of guests. For example, keep dishes simple by steaming or roasting vegetables and offer guests toppings, seasonings, and sauces to serve themselves. Another simple swap is to use vegetable stock in dishes rather than chicken or beef stock in order to easily accommodate guests that are vegans or vegetarians. There are a variety of ways to adapt recipes so that more guests can enjoy them.
3. Raise awareness while handling food
An increasing number of people are aware of the ingredients in foods and are consistently reading food labels. Food labels are a great starting point for avoiding specific ingredients, however, it may not be enough to ensure foods served will be safe for some guests. Other things to be aware of include “hidden” sources of ingredients like gluten, as well as the importance of avoiding cross-contact with foods containing allergens during preparation.
As a host, it’s also important to practice safe food handling, regardless of the dietary needs of guests, by storing, preparing and cooking foods properly.
Ultimately full disclosure of ingredients by listing food ingredients used for each dish served may help guests feel comfortable in selecting foods that meet their needs and encourage them to ask questions as needed.
Top tips for guests
1. Bring your favorite dishes
Individuals following a special diet or dietary restrictions have hopefully found creative and flavorful ways to make dishes that include foods that can be eaten. Offer to bring these dishes to holiday events and consider sharing the recipes so that others can learn from directly from the efforts and knowledge of those food special dietary needs.
Often foods that are prepared to meet special dietary needs are healthy options that can be enjoyable for the masses.
2. Practice flexibility when possible
In some cases being flexible with eating is an option, such as when excluding foods for personal preference rather than food allergies or health conditions. Occasions to eat foods not typically consumed can provide a chance to relax and enjoy more variety during holiday meals.
In the long run, having flexible eating habits may help individuals make healthy eating more sustainable. Having a plan before the event for what types of foods will be included can help make food choices more comfortable when the time comes.
3. Share experiences
Those following special diets or dietary restrictions regardless of the reason can open up great discussions with hosts and other guests by sharing their eating approach and why it’s important in their lives.
Often others that may have initially misunderstood eating habits may begin to have more acceptance and comfort with different eating approaches as experiences are shared.
This can open up more understanding and awareness and bring everyone together at the dinner table this holiday season one conversation at a time.
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