Maybe it’s my family’s Italian heritage, or maybe it’s the fact that a picky eater was a persona non grata in my household—either way, I grew up eating everything. Everyone from my nanny to the lunch ladies at school would marvel at my “healthy appetite,” and I never left a single morsel on my dinner plates.
Quite simply, I was raised to love food, and love food I did. I loved it because it brings people together. It nourishes us. It’s the lynchpin of our most beloved memories, from family reunion barbecues to weddings and welcome meals for friends with new babies. I loved it all.
And yet, here’s my ugly confession:
I never really “got” people who navigated dietary restrictions. Of course, I understood that celiac disease is serious, but my friends who cut certain foods for health reasons or because of diagnosed intolerances confused me. Why would anyone choose to not eat certain foods? I even went so far as to think these friends were picky just for the sake of being picky.
But fast forward a few years, and I found myself unable to tolerate certain foods due to a flare-up of a GI condition I’d managed for years. Now, I’m following an elimination diet that makes eating out, cooking, and sharing meals with friends difficult and sometimes downright frustrating. Recently, a family vacation took an ugly turn when, after a full week of asking waiters fifty-seven questions every time we stepped out to grab a quick salad at the beach pavilion, I burst into tears when a seemingly innocent steak I ordered was delivered to the table drenched in a thick sauce (which was undoubtedly loaded with noncompliant ingredients).
I felt infantile for making a scene, but I hated feeling like I was being difficult—not to mention, I was worn out by obsessing over every menu placed in front of me. I ate my meal instead of summoning the kind waitress and manager who’d already bent over backward to try to accommodate me and prayed I wouldn’t get sick later.
Thankfully, I didn’t, but the experience gave me a rush of compassion for my friends who face various food intolerances and allergies. Dietary intolerances and allergies can be burdensome and scary. They can evoke shame and embarrassment, exhaustion and frustration. Now that I’m dealing with my own small—but still existent—challenge, I realize how much I lacked empathy for my friends who collectively share a host of dietary needs, allergies, and intolerances: for instance, not bothering to ask them what they can eat before inviting them to dinner, growing irritated when eating out becomes a production, and failing to regularly ask them how they are feeling and how I can help or support them.
Since discovering my own special dietary needs that have helped me conquer nagging pain and illness, I’ve discovered more compassionate ways to handle, host, and love my friends with food intolerances. I’ve learned to see these gustatory challenges not as capricious preferences, but as a choice—sometimes necessary (like for those with a debilitating and life-threatening allergy like celiac disease), often elective (like for those who deal with pain as a reaction to inflammatory agents like gluten), but always a decision that positions them to live healthier lives. Their best lives. Lives that aren’t encumbered by intermittent pain and illness. I want this for my friends, as I wanted it for myself, and now I commit to making my table a safe place for them to gather.
If you’re hosting, ask for a rundown of any dietary restrictions.
One of the most awkward social encounters I’ve endured is sitting down to a meal at someone’s home only to realize there is nothing on the table I can eat. In an attempt to be polite, I will either eat the food and deal with the consequences later or pick around my plate to make it look like I’ve eaten: both less than ideal tactics.
The simplest way to support your friends with food allergies and intolerances is asking them what they can and can’t eat. Better yet, ask them some of their favorite meals and try to replicate one.
On the flip side, if you’re invited to someone’s home, avoid the awkwardness of navigating a meal that you can’t eat by offering to contribute one or two dishes. That way, you’ll not only help your host, you’ll also ensure there is something for you to eat—thus eliminating the awkwardness of sitting at the table with an untouched plate.
Let her choose the restaurant.
No one likes being the sole diner at the pizza parlor ordering a plain side salad with no dressing, as this inevitably leads to the awkward (and often TMI) explanation of why they’re not diving into the shared pizza. When you’re planning a meal out with a friend who you know has restrictions, let her choose the spot so that everyone can eat comfortably.
Host a joint dinner party and let her plan the menu.
Let your friend choose the recipes but share in the shopping and preparation—then invite your friends or spouses over to share the meal with you. This is a fun way to not only support your friend as she works through her dietary troubles, but also expand your own repertoire. For instance, if your friend is vegan, learn how to master the art of vegan mac and cheese. If she’s gluten-free, try making gluten-free pizza, and use the leftover dough to make cinnamon rolls.
Plan activities that don’t revolve around food.
I’ve found that eating out often triggers anxiety, as I fear I’ll end up spending the meal surreptitiously scraping sauces and seasonings off my food. Instead of immediately resorting to a lunch or dinner date, meet a friend for a walk at a local park, go shopping together, head to someone’s neighborhood pool, or take your kids to a playground, library storytime, or a museum. Check out LivingSocial deals or follow your town’s social media profiles for unique local events, like rooftop yoga or gardening classes—or better yet, sit on your back patio with tea and enjoy some quality time. There are numerous things you can do together that don’t involve anxiety-triggering food and will help you bond more deeply.
Food allergies and intolerances are on the rise, so even if you don’t have one yourself, you likely know someone who does. If, like me, you’ve struggled to understand these challenges, try shifting to a posture of compassion. Challenge yourself to stretch your creative muscles and expand your horizons so that you can love and support your friends no matter what trials they’re facing—dietary or otherwise.