Friends at a party sharing a meal

5 Tips for Gathering for a Meal When You Have Dietary Restrictions

By Jene Luciani Sena
November 24, 2021

Gathering with family and friends for events and holidays can be full of merriment. But what about the food? Attending a party or meal with a shared menu may be exciting and fun for omnivores, but such experiences can be downright troubling and stressful for people who can’t (or don’t) eat certain foods.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, 17 percent of Americans are on a restricted or “special” diet. The reasons vary: Some people are working to manage their weight, blood pressure, or cholesterol, for example. People who live with a chronic illness, such as multiple sclerosis (MS) or psoriatic disease, may find that a healthy eating plan helps them manage their symptoms. Pregnant people should avoid certain foods and drinks, including alcohol, unpasterized dairy and juice, and raw or undercooked meats, seafood, and eggs.

Whatever the reason for your dietary restrictions, there are ways for you to attend and enjoy celebrations and dinners without awkwardness or guilt.

1. BYO Food

Preparing and sharing food with others at a gathering is what works for 43-year-old Cindy Alavi, a café owner in Edmond, Oklahoma. Cindy has been living with MS since 2007 and says that following a plant-based diet that’s low in refined sugars has helped her manage her symptoms.

“When I’m attending a party, I offer to bring something for everyone, like a hummus-and-veggie appetizer or a unique vegan protein,” Cindy says. “I never ask the host to make something special for me. I always prefer to be the one who introduces others to healthy and nutritious options, and it’s always fun to see people’s reactions when they don’t expect something vegan to taste so good and be so satisfying.”

2. Eat Before You Go

If your food restrictions are strict, and you’re worried you won’t find anything that fits your diet at the party, it might be better not to eat there at all. And that’s much easier if you’re already full and satisfied.

“Don’t show up hungry to the dinner or event,” says Leyla Muedin, a registered dietitian in New York City. “At the very least, eat a small snack. That way, when you’re served foods you can’t eat, you can push them around your plate [rather than eat them].”

If that seems awkward or causes people to ask questions about why you’re not eating, you might want to simply let them know that you ate a large meal before the event and you’re not hungry yet. But don’t feel that you owe them an explanation.

“You don’t have to share your reason for avoiding certain foods, because your medical situation is private,” Muedin says. You can simply say, “No, thank you” and change the subject.

3. Allow Yourself Indulgences If They Work with Your Diet

If you have a food allergy or intolerance, or your doctor told you to stick to a strict eating plan, you shouldn’t stray. But if you’re just “watching what you eat”—limiting certain foods to stay healthy—you can likely loosen up a bit during special events.

Such is the case for Karen Kapnick, a New York City media company owner who lives with psoriasis. “I try to limit the amount of sugar, dairy, and gluten I eat, which is harder during the holidays, since there are so many extra treats around,” says Karen. She says she’ll just pick one category to indulge in at special events. For example, if she eats a sweet treat, she’ll avoid dairy and gluten altogether.

Elizabeth DeRobertis, a registered dietitian for the Scarsdale Medical Group, in Scarsdale, New York, suggests making healthy swaps for those people who are reducing their intake of certain foods but don’t have strict food restrictions.

“If someone is limiting carbohydrates, for example, they may want to avoid carbs in their side dishes and have veggie sides instead. So, now you can spend some carbs on dessert,” she suggests. “Remind yourself you don’t really need to eat a big portion to get a taste of something.”

4. Stand Far from the Food

You know the scene: a giant buffet table, topped with delicious foods you should be avoiding, so close you can smell them. Once the smell kicks in, the hunger starts, and then it becomes that much harder to resist. In order to avoid this scenario, try standing farther away.

“Where you stand or sit at a social gathering makes a difference,” DeRobertis says. If you’re talking with someone next to the cheese platter, for example, you might feel the urge to taste “just one” or to mindlessly overindulge, she says.

5. Don’t Forget to Moderate Booze, Too

Alcoholic beverages are often served at events and gatherings. For some people, this can be even trickier than food to manage, since socializing often means sipping. For those avoiding sugar, eliminating or limiting alcohol is key.

“Some people with psoriasis, for example, find that alcohol may trigger a flare-up,” DeRobertis says. “If this is the case, it would be best to order a nonalcoholic drink instead.”

If you can drink alcohol and would like to aim to consume less, one tip is to keep adding club soda to your drink.

“If you order a glass of white wine, when you are halfway through, order a club soda to fill it back up again,” explains DeRobertis. “Now you have a wine spritzer, and you just turned one drink into two. You can do the same thing if you order a vodka and club soda: Order a second club soda on the side, and you can keep adding this to your mixed drink to help it last longer.”

Staying mindful of your dietary restrictions and setting yourself up for success are the keys to partaking in parties and gatherings without exacerbating your illness or wreaking havoc on your diet.

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