Hosting a party can be complicated these days. Here’s a musical description of the dilemma…then some of my practical suggestions for coping.
First, a quick primer…
- Vegans eat plants only. Nothing produced by animals (cheese, milk, cream, butter, eggs, honey) and of course no meat, fish, or poultry.
- Vegetarians eat plants plus food produced by animals (dairy products and eggs). No meat or poultry. Some eat fish, though most don’t.
- Gluten-free means eliminating wheat, rye, barley, and oats (unless the oats it is labeled gluten-free). This also translates into beverages made from these grains—think beer and rye whisky, for example. Someone who is celiac has a severe gut reaction to gluten and can be in agony from eating even a very small amount. Some people experience non-celiac gluten sensitivity, though this diagnosis is not yet accepted by mainstream doctors. People affected by gluten eat non-gluten grains—e.g. rice and quinoa.
- Grain-free means no grain of any kind—wheat, oats, barley, rye, rice, quinoa and corn being the main examples. The issue isn’t gluten, it’s carbohydrates and their effect on blood sugar. This is sometimes referred to as a low-carb diet. In practical terms, it means avoiding corn chips, crackers and breads, along with sweets, juices, and most alcoholic beverages (alcohol acts like sugar in the body).
- Paleo is a broad category describing what is sometimes called ancestral eating. The idea is to mimic the dietary proportions and unprocessed nature of food that was eaten by our long-ago ancestors. There is considerable variation, but these are a few of the common practices: No grains or refined sugar. Moderate amounts of animal protein. Plenty of healthy fats. Emphasis on real food rather than processed. Lots of vegetables.
- Allergies and sensitivities mean the person’s body over-reacts when a particular food or food category is eaten. Common allergies are dairy, nuts, peanuts, wheat and shellfish. Mild allergic reactions are uncomfortable to varying degrees. But allergies can be life-threatening if a person goes into anaphylactic shock. A lot of children have this sort of reaction to peanuts these days, which is why peanut products are not allowed in schools any more.
Coping when you’re the host…
Think: Does this need to be a sit-down meal? It’s much easier to accommodate variations if you have an open house with a buffet of snacky foods and beverages. Some suggestions and good recipes follow. But buffets don’t always work and you might find yourself organizing a sit-down dinner despite the complications.
Guests have a responsibility to give the host a heads-up. “Thanks so much; I’d love to be there. A lot has changed since we last saw each other and it’ll be good to catch up. I’ve become a vegan recently so I only eat plants. I’m perfectly happy eating just the veggies, so don’t feel you need to make anything special for me.” The guest can have a protein shake at home before leaving, and all dietary bases will be covered. Another option is to ask, “Can I contribute my favourite casserole or salad to the menu?”
The host can ask. Sometimes guests don’t mention their food preferences because they mistakenly think they’ll sound rude. As the host, ask directly when issuing the invitation. “Anyone have allergies or preferences I should know about?” This opens the door for the guest to say something, and avoids any awkward surprises at the event.
The Host’s Survival Guide…
The rest of this post is a guide to drama-free ways to accommodate health-conscious guests. Some key principles:
- Serve good food that you can present to anyone without explanation or apology. Gone are the 1960s when the granola crowd served some concoctions that were just plain weird. I admit to making some of them myself! But today there’s an abundance of very good recipes for real food, and I’ve included links to several of my favourites.
- Put out foods in their whole form as much as possible. This makes it easy for people with sensitivities to choose what works for them without having to find you and ask what’s in everything. In this spirit, you might decide to put cheese on a board rather than incorporating it into several dishes.
- Alert guests to ingredients they might not expect to find. For example, almond flour is not a usual ingredient in crackers. So someone with a nut allergy could inadvertently eat them and have a reaction. From another perspective, a wheat-sensitive person might pass by the Rosemary Crackers (below) without realizing they are grain-free and perfectly suitable. A simple strategy is to make small tent cards. Those in the photos were easily made by folding business cards in half.
Offer some bulky foods.
Vegetables bulk up the menu, and the good news is that everyone can eat them. Serve lots of olives, tiny tomatoes, sliced cucumbers and peppers, artichoke dip, salsa, guacamole, hummus, and all kinds of salads if it’s a knife-and-fork affair. Here are vegetable dips I like because they all work for vegans, whose eating pattern is the most challenging to accommodate.
Artichoke Green Olive Dip is a treasure because it’s made without dairy, a rarity in the world of artichoke dips. This gives dairy-sensitives an unexpected option, so a tent card is helpful.
Easy Hummus has only a few ingredients and is as simple as the name promises, though you can simplify even further by buying your hummus—there are lots of good Middle Eastern delis around.
Lemony Herb Veggie Dip is interesting and tasty. They recommend making it the day of the party because the red onion might turn it pink, but there’s no reason you can’t use white onion and make it the day before.
Provide some protein.
Liver pâté is welcomed by the paleo crowd. You can buy good pâté in many delis and health food stores. But if you fancy making your own so you know exactly what goes into it, this Sage and Chicken Liver Pâté is extraordinary.
Cheese works for all except vegans and folks with dairy sensitivities. Goat cheese is always appreciated because it’s easier for some to digest. And for the rest of us, it just plain tastes good! Nowadays both soft and hard varieties of goat cheese are readily available. A small tent card helps anyone specifically looking for it. But identifying cheese is fun in any case, if you’ve bought some unusual types for the party.
Nuts are a main protein source for vegans, and you can always put out a couple types as they come from the package. But if you want to jazz things up, try these easy-to-make Candied Macadamia Nuts. Vegans also rely on beans for protein, so both hummus and the lemony herb dip (above) will serve as protein sources for them.
Provide foods for dipping and spreading.
The first thing we think of is crackers. These Rosemary Crackers use almond flour instead of grain. This flatbread recipe is good even without the toppings. It’s made with almond flour and a bit of arrowroot powder (buy in a natural foods store). Use water if you don’t have almond milk. If you want a crisp-bread, cut the flatbread into bit-size pieces and leave uncovered at room temperature overnight. Since these are made with nut flour, tent cards are in order.
Some sort of chips are also good…and easy. Look for chips that have been minimally processed. The veggie chips in the photo are sweet potato, but you can also get beet and mixed versions. All of them add a pop of colour.
Vegetables also work for dipping. The Lemony Herb Dip recipe suggests surrounding it with carrots, steamed green beans, radishes, grape tomatoes, snow peas, lightly steamed cauliflower, and fresh broccoli.
Offer unmixed beverages.
Your paleo, low-carb, grain-free friends might not drink alcohol at all since alcohol is metabolized like sugar. They will also steer clear of punch because fruit juice is a big sugar hit. Chilled sparkling mineral water is a good option, and a small dish of lemon or lime wedges adds a nice touch. A bottle of cranberry or pomegranate juice allows for making juice spritzers on demand. This also provides a festive option for designated drivers.
Dry red wine is a thoughtful offering. The dryness means sugar content is lower than in sweet wines, and red wine is a source of resveratrol, an antioxidant that helps control inflammation.
If wine is organic, that’s a bonus to the health-conscious. And it’s not as pricey as you might think. The Pinot Noir in the photo is from Chile and costs only $16 CAD. I love that it’s organic, and that they have a philosophy of care for all aspects of production, including their workers and environment. I’m very happy to support that kind of business.