I just moved to Philly and am fortunate to have received a few invitations for holiday meals. Since I’m new to the community, I’m not sure what to expect in terms of how people communicate about dietary needs. What’s a good way to bring up allergies or even just strong preferences with people I’ve never met before?
As a host, I can tell you it’s extremely disheartening to prepare a whole meal for guests only to find out that my food would have been enjoyed more with a few minor substitutions. From both the guest and host perspective, transparency in advance is better for everyone. Even if you’ve known someone a long time, a reminder about food needs in both directions is a considerate way to set the tone for a meal and, as a newcomer, you have the chance here to prove yourself as a thoughtful guest.
When you receive an email invitation, you can respond with an enthusiastic thank you followed by a brief description of your dietary needs. If you’re vegetarian, just say so. If you have a serious allergy, describe it and offer to provide suggestions on how to cook for you. If you have a very strong aversion to, say, a specific vegetable, you can say, “This is probably irrelevant, but I wanted to mention that I don’t eat rutabagas, but it’s no problem if other people want to enjoy them around me.” If someone invites you in person, you’ll need to take the initiative to follow up with an email or text if you have significant food needs and the host didn’t ask directly.
Particularly if your needs are difficult to accommodate, make a genuine offer to bring something with you that you can eat. Regardless of the specifics of what you’ve shared, it’s always a good practice to ask what you can contribute to the meal. Even if you don’t cook — or even if the host tells you there’s no need to bring anything — a bottle of wine is always appropriate.
Once you’ve been hosted by a few people and gotten more settled in town, you’ll probably want to reciprocate hosting. Think about how you want to phrase your invitations to maximize the comfort of your potential guests in sharing their food needs with you. Be open about wanting to provide food that will be enjoyed by everyone, and assure them you really want to know both what they can’t eat and what they’d prefer to avoid.
Since a hosted holiday meal is partially about the food but also about the conversation, communicating clearly up front is a good idea all around.