Whether you realize it or not, more people in your life have food sensitivities than you would ever guess—like gluten-sensitivity (including celiac disease), lactose intolerance, diabetes, and various food allergies. The likely reason you aren’t aware of who’s living with food limitations is because most people with such challenges find creative ways to avoid telling others about it. While this is beginning to change, many people are ashamed about their health challenges and treat their special dietary needs as a deep dark secret because of their fears of being judged, misunderstood, or of being a burden to others. They often feel it is easier to just keep this information private.
Here’s a common scene: at a gathering, someone is offered something to eat and the guest graciously says, “No thanks, I’ve already eaten.” If pressured further, the polite guest may just go ahead and take what is offered, not wanting to cause a scene or have too much attention directed at them.) But then they never actually eat the food that is on their plate. While this could be a reflection of other eating challenges, it also might simply be associated with food sensitivities.
Another example is the person who, when asked to go out to eat or attend a dinner party never seems to be able to go. This person may be mistakenly seen as a really busy person or even perhaps a bit antisocial by friends and co-workers. However, the truth may be that this person would really love to participate, but is afraid to do so because of social anxiety about their health issues or how others might respond to them because of their special dietary needs.
Dietary limitations may be an issue for people in your world. The great news is that there are ways that you can help them feel more included and safe to be themselves in your community.
6 Tips to Help Those with Food Restrictions
- Any time there is an invitation to share a meal, make it a common practice to ask all invitees what they would like to eat and if they have any food sensitivities, preferences, or other dietary needs. Be proactive and persistent about this—most people with dietary restrictions are afraid to tell you about it and may need to be coaxed to share this information with you.
- Inform yourself of venues in the community that offer safe food options for patrons with dietary restrictions or preferences. More restaurants have dedicated gluten-free kitchens and tools, as well as dairy-free and egg-free menu options. Even if you don’t know the health requirements of your guests, suggest venues that accommodate for certain food restrictions whenever possible. Chances are, at least one or more individuals in your group has special dietary needs. Individuals who are uncertain about whether a restaurant will have food that they can eat often find it easier to simply make up an excuse not to go. By communicating the reasons for choosing the suggested venues, your sensitivity and awareness will be appreciated in ways and by people you never would have imagined. Another bonus is that you will also be supporting local businesses that are offering a wonderful resource in the community—making the world safe and inclusive for more people.
- Understand that there may be a seemingly endless list of questions asked of the server or the cook before a food-sensitive person will be confident that it is safe for them to eat at any establishment or home. Don’t make them feel badly for asking and certainly don’t act embarrassed to be with a guest who needs to ask such questions. Support them and perhaps even ask related questions yourself, so helping them feel safe to enjoy the meal with everyone else and not be distracted by unnecessary anxiety.
- Educate yourself by learning recipes for delicious food and about food products that are available for those with dietary restrictions. It is nice to have yummy food options for all of your guests. Sure, carrot sticks and broccoli are usually safe for most people, but when you are having a dinner party with special dishes, it’s nice to be able to offer something extra delicious for all of your guests, not just some of them.
- Avoid making any guest feel like they are “missing out” on something that they are unable to enjoy because of their dietary restriction(s). Also, be sure to avoid asking a guest with food sensitivities if they would like to try “just a little” of a food that they need to avoid, or whether they can just “pick out” or eat the “safe parts” of a dish. These are dreaded questions by those with serious food allergies and sensitivities. For some, “just a little” could land them in the emergency room or cause them to have to face distressful physical effects.
- It’s important not to take it personally if someone is cautious about or unwilling to eat food that you have prepared. Cross-contamination is a bugger. For those with very extreme sensitivities, like nut allergies and celiac disease, they simply need to be extremely careful.
The more educated you are about food sensitivities, special dietary needs and food preferences, the better. Once you start to be more openly vocal about your awareness, you will be amazed by how many people will open up and share with you more about themselves and their appreciation for your sensitivity. Simply respecting and honouring these often unspoken needs and requests will earn you big-time kudos of gratitude. You may even find that your circle of friends grows bigger because more people will feel safe with you, knowing that you really care about them and their needs and that they don’t have to apologize for being who they really are.
Photo by Theresa Nicassio