As anyone with special dietary needs can tell you, Christmas comes with an extra special load of food related stress, angst and, often, grief. After 18 months of eating in a way that is mindful of my diabetes (and most of a lifetime of vegetarianism), I have the every day stuff pretty much nailed, but parties, office morning tea shouts, and invitations to restaurants are a whole lot more complex. I loathe having to be that difficult person, and I hate having to draw attention to my chronic (and somewhat stigmatised) condition, and I particularly despise having to exclude myself from social activities, but I do need to prioritise looking after myself. What follows are some things I’ve learned about what does, and does not, help me with social food events. Some of these things are specific to me but, hopefully, many will help no matter what food things your friend is dealing with.
Don’t ask me what I can eat unless you have a lot of time on your hands.
My partner is allergic to eggs, just eggs, so he can answer this question in just a few words. My answer is a lot more complex – there are very few foods that are totally off-limits, often it’s a matter of timing, quantity, and combination with other foods and exercise that determines if I can eat a particular food right now. In practice this means that there are some foods I don’t eat because the way it is usually served isn’t compatible with my other requirements. It also means you may see me eating foods I’ve previously refused because I’ve found a way to make it work for that day.
The best restaurants have their menu online.
Seriously, if I can look at a menu a few days ahead of time, I can figure out what, if anything, I can eat, and plan accordingly. This often means taking a mix and match approach with the menu – can I have the burger without the bun, swap the focaccia for a wholemeal roll, have half the potato and twice the salad? I find most places are really accomodating but, knowing ahead of time that I actually will be able to eat, means I can look forward to your company without panic getting in the way. If I honestly can’t find a way to make a menu work, and it’s a group outing, I’ll probably offer to join you for pre/post- dinner drinks instead. I don’t feel comfortable making a group change plans just for me, on the other hand, if you are regularly choosing places I can’t eat, I might have some questions.
Tell me what you plan to serve.
If you are planning to cook me a meal, please let me know what you’re thinking a few days in advance. Chances are that a few simple changes will turn your familiar recipes into something we can all enjoy – maybe you could use wholemeal flour in place of plain, use a different grain instead of rice or buy a different type of cracker for the cheeseboard. I am always happy to bring a contribution to the meal (and will probably over-cater shockingly).
Let me serve myself.
It’s important that I eat foods in the right proportions, and these might not be the proportions you prefer (they’re certainly not always the ones I’d prefer) and I’d really rather not be the guest who picks distainfully through your lovingly prepared dish. It’s most helpful to me if the carbohydrate portion of the meal is separate so I can see exactly how much I’m eating.
Labels are my friends.
I know the table looks nicer with everything decanted out of its packaging but it’s really helpful if I can take a squizz at the nutritional info of packaged product. Things like crackers, dips, and dressings can vary wildly in the amount of sugar, fat, and sodium they contain.
Likewise, I’d love it if we could get in the habit of labelling our contributions to potlucks and shared meals. I’m sure I pass lots of lovely things by just because I’m not sure what’s in them and, because I sometimes cook with unexpected ingredients (think chickpeas in chocolate cake or cookies made of ground nuts), I don’t want to be the cause of an unexpected reaction in someone else.
Beware the health halo.
Lots of foods are labelled in ways that make them sound super healthy but that doesn’t necessarily make them a great choice for me (or anyone). A label that says gluten free, or natural, or organic, or even refined sugar free paleo goodness, is no guarantee that the food has any benefits.
Don’t be offended if I BYO.
I know that for all everyone’s best intentions, things don’t always work out. I also know that there are times I have to eat Right Now (the side effect of eating just what I need and no more is that I can run out of oomph suddenly and dramatically) so there will always be snacks in my bag. Yes, I will be the lady shamelessly scoffing nuts on the street before going into the pub.
I really want to hang out with you, and I really want for us to be able to share food. Most of all I want this to be as low stress for everyone as possible. The biggest things you can do to help are to give me time and choices.