Refusing Food When You’re a Guest

Dear Lea,

I have certain dietary restrictions that make it difficult to accept dinner party invitations without a certain amount of anxiety. When I’m cooking in my own home, I do fine to avoid the foods I can’t eat. But inevitably when I’m a guest in someone else’s home, I’m confronted with a dilemma: eat the food I am offered and feel sick later? Or decline but risk appearing rude? I don’t want to be rude, but I’m also tired of eating things out of a sense of duty. Help, please! I’m not sure what the etiquette is here.

It’s thoughtful of you to want to be a good guest and not complicate the evening by making special requests of your host, but I’m equally sure that your hosts would never want to serve you food that would make you sick.  There’s a difference between a dietary restriction and a dietary choice: a peanut allergy is a dietary restriction, a dislike of peanuts is a personal choice.  If you have an allergy to certain foods, the best thing to do is let your host know before the meal so they can plan accordingly.  You can make a joke of it and say something like, “I hate to be a bother but I thought I should tell you that I’m extremely allergic to shellfish.  I wouldn’t want to ruin your party by going into anaphylactic shock over the shrimp cocktail.  Please don’t go to any special effort on my account.  I just wanted you to know that I can’t eat shellfish, however delicious it might be.”   Any decent host will be able to at least scare you up a salad instead, but more importantly you’re establishing a basis on which they can understand that you won’t be eating certain things.  Some dietary restrictions are more complicated.  For example, people with celiac disease really can’t eat gluten without becoming ill.  That is a restriction that has to be honored.  People who prefer to eat gluten-free are not going to get sick if they do; that’s a lifestyle choice and shouldn’t be imposed on a host.   If you’re going to be eating in a restaurant, you can call the day before and let them know what your food restrictions are so they can have an alternative prepared for you, without even bothering your hosts about it.

It’s not always possible to tell a host in advance about your dietary restrictions; maybe you’re at a big hotel event, or you’re a guest of a guest and don’t know your hosts at all.  In that case, I would eat the things I could comfortably eat, and ignore the rest.  If someone remarks on the fact that you haven’t eaten something, you can say that you’re allergic and immediately turn the conversation to what you have eaten, and compliment the host on that particular food.  (This happens to me all the time, not because I’m allergic to foods, but because I’m dieting, or feeling picky that night, or I just made and photographed a batch of cookies and ate half of them before I came.)  Whatever your reason for not eating something, it’s your personal choice and you have every right to it.  Don’t let anyone bully you into eating something you don’t want, because that is inhospitable, however well-intended it might be.

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