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Wednesday, August 16, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Non appetit: Dietary restrictions can complicate social dining

Seattle Times staff reporter

Diet diplomacy


If you're the host, ask your guests if they have dietary restrictions. It's better to know ahead of time than discover in the middle of dinner that your favorite neighbor is allergic to peanuts, wheat and shellfish and literally can't eat anything you prepared.

If you're the guest, consider telling your host your situation. Offer to bring a dish you can eat to save them the trouble. And at least they won't wonder why you're avoiding the meatloaf/veggie platter/chocolate mousse pie.

Don't be a pusher. Live and let live. Guests could have a valid and very personal reason why they're not partaking in the wedding cake, sauvignon blanc or meat-lovers' pizza.

Going to a catered event? If you're in the rare situation where there is nothing you can eat on the menu without breaking out in hives or enduring gastronomic agony, ask for the host's blessing to bring your own meal. Then get it to the caterers early so it can be served unobtrusively with the other meals. "You don't want to open your lunchbox at the dinner table and empty out all your Tupperware," said Mary Mitchell, a Seattle-based etiquette consultant.

You know it's a 21st-century party when there are more dietary restrictions among the group of friends and family attending your barbecue/wedding/housewarming/
tailgate/luau than the number of ingredients in your mom's top-secret short ribs marinade.

And with so many palates and digestive systems to please, our social gatherings are becoming exercises in diplomacy and compromise for hosts and guests alike.

Shannon Tipple-Leen, a pesco-vegetarian, laughed at the memory of a summer barbecue she attended with her two sons, who also eat fish but no meat or chicken, and her husband, Kevin Leen, who is wheat and gluten intolerant and avoids tomatoes and all citrus.

Her family was in good company. One girlfriend was lactose intolerant and the woman's husband didn't eat red meat. One of the kids couldn't eat eggs. Another couldn't eat dairy. They ended up bonding over turkey and veggie burgers, salads with dressing on the side and ice cream made without eggs.

"There was just a lot of label reading," she said.

Such laundry lists of eating restrictions are growing more commonplace in our rapidly diversifying world. Where once religion seemed the major reason to limit one's intake of certain foods, what we eat has increasingly become governed by medical issues, as well as political and personal choices.

While a single menu used to suffice, some folks say they're now stretching their culinary skills to make their gatherings as food-friendly as as possible, or just throwing in the dish towel in favor of going out to dinner to let someone else figure it out.

Just the list of possible eating restrictions can be overwhelming.

• "I'm allergic to shellfish."

• "Sorry, I'm on South Beach."

• "If I eat those carrots I'll be home sick tomorrow."

• "I don't eat anything with a face."

• "Does that have tree nuts?"

• "My doc said I have to lower my cholesterol."

"Between the lactose intolerant and meat intolerant and the different kinds of vegetarians it's gotten to be a very stratified system," said Mary Mitchell, a Seattle-based etiquette consultant who avoids cheese, butter and dairy to keep her cholesterol in check.

"Overall, I think it's a good thing that people are conscious about what people are putting into their bodies. Really, the challenge becomes one of communication."

The key to a successful gathering, said Mitchell, is to discuss dietary restrictions ahead of time.

If you're a host, ask guests if they have any special needs. While you shouldn't feel obligated to overhaul your entire menu, it's gracious to have at least one option (a veggie platter, hummus, fresh fruit, sorbet, veggie hot dogs) that could appeal to them.

She recalled some friends she recently entertained at home who shared their dietary restrictions with her before accepting the invitation.

"What these people did that was right was they very graciously said, 'We would love to accept, we just need you to know that we have some food issues,' " she said. "And they gave me an option. They said, 'We know this can be tedious and we're happy to make another plan to make it a different night and go out, or we're happy to come by for dessert.' They didn't make it all about them."

If you're a guest, you have several choices: Eat before the party so you're not standing around hungry in a sea of inedibles; eat what you can at the party and don't complain (after all, someone has gone out of their way to host this gathering!); or let the host know of your particular issues and ask if it's OK to bring a dish to share.

Heidi Stockman tries to eat only sustainably raised and grown foods. Sometimes she and her husband find themselves dipping into their 1-½-year-old son's trove of snacks when the going gets rough.

"I usually don't make a big fuss. If I'm hungry, I'll eat the vegetables if the meat and cheese is of unknown origin," Stockman said.

Having dietary issues herself, she also goes out of her way to help others blend in.

"We have this one cousin who's vegan, and when we go to Christmas dinner or Easter dinner we will bring vegan food for him so he doesn't feel left out by the other people who don't think about it," she said.

Chris Adams, who has Crohn's disease, sees social gatherings as an opportunity to raise awareness about his affliction — an autoimmune disease in which the immune system attacks the lining of the intestine. He tries to eat before parties and is very selective about what he eats once he's there (salads and popcorn are red flags) to avoid flare-ups that can leave him sick for days.

"It's an embarrassing disease because it's a bathroom issue," Adams said. "I would tell 95 percent of the people I come across. If it's a cute girl I just met, I might not bring it up right away. But otherwise I have no problem saying I've had diarrhea all my life."

"I think it comes down to just a frame of mind. You can't let it drag you down."

A smart move for hosts is to avoid pushing food, especially when the guest declines. They could be saying no because they're following a specific diet or could have inflammatory bowel disease and would prefer not to announce it before a crowd. They could be vegan and want to avoid a political debate. They could — gasp! — simply not like your food. Do you really need to find out?

"Because what if they say, 'I don't eat dead animals.' Then you feel rude, but you pushed them to a point where they're at their wit's end," Mitchell said. "If someone is not making an issue of the food and they're doing well with it, it's really bad for a host to take your plate away and then say 'but you barely touched it, didn't you like it?' "

Take-out may seem an easy solution. But it still can save heartache to ask before you order.

"Pizza is really the enemy for my husband — wheat and tomato," Tipple-Leen said. "People say, 'Come over! We'll order a pizza!' I have to say, 'Oh, would you be offended if Kevin brought something for himself to eat? We'd be happy to do pizza, but he can't."

"If you just show up and you say, 'Oh yeah, we don't eat that," people are just mortified because they want you to feel comfortable in their home."

Ultimately, Mitchell said, social gatherings aren't really about the food. They're about the people, the relationships around the buffet, grill, poker table or lazy Susan.

"If we can all talk about it without whining and talk about it without sounding judgmental and accusatory, it just goes such a long way to opening the lines of communication, and that's what we're supposed to all be about."

"What's important is to look at the big picture and stay positive," she said. "It's also how you'll get invited back."

Karen Gaudette: 206-515-5618 or kgaudette@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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