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Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?

What you need to know if your party guests have special dietary needs.
By Amy Ahlberg
WebMD Feature

With the holiday season right around the corner, it’s time to send out those dinner invitations -- and start dreaming up what dishes to prepare. Favorite family recipes will be the stars and are likely to be a big hit.

But what if you have guests with dietary restrictions? What can you serve, what's off the table, and how will you avoid any last-minute dinner disasters?

Here's what you need to know before you start drawing up your menu.

Need to Know

Ask your guests in advance if they have any special dietary needs. In today's world, you can't host a dinner party without asking about food restrictions. It's good etiquette to ask your guests ahead of time whether they have any dietary restrictions.

No, you don't have to cater to each person's fad diet or individual likes and dislikes, but not paying the proper attention to serious health conditions, allergies, or food sensitivities can be dangerous. The holidays are no time to make exceptions.

For instance, "a gluten-free diet can be due to celiac disease; other special diets can be due to medical reasons such as diabetes or heart disease, so people really do need to stick to their plan and not diverge from it even 'just this once,'" says Rachel Beller, RD, founder of the Beller Nutritional Institute.

Karen Ansel, RD, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, agrees. "Some restrictions, like food allergies, are a life-threatening situation, so it definitely makes sense to ask guests about this when you invite them."

Who Eats What

So what are some of the food restrictions you may encounter when hosting family and friends this holiday season? Here is Beller's list:

Vegetarians don't eat meat, poultry, or fish, but may eat dairy products and eggs. Variations on vegetarianism include:

  • lacto-vegetarians, who don't eat meat, poultry, fish, or eggs, but do eat dairy.
  • lacto-ovo-vegetarians, who don't eat meat, poultry, or fish, but do eat eggs and dairy.
  • pesco-vegetarians, who don't eat meat, poultry, eggs, or dairy, but do eat fish.

Vegans do not eat any animal products -- including meat, poultry, eggs, dairy, and honey. When cooking for vegans, substitute plant-based margarine and oil for butter. (But remember to focus on healthier fats, such as olive and canola oils, and to skip trans fats). Whole grains, beans, lentils, and tofu are all popular vegan foods that you can easily include in main dishes.

Gluten-free diets completely avoid gluten, a type of protein found in wheat, rye, and barley. There is no gluten in rice, potatoes, corn, or certain whole grains, including quinoa. There's much more than bread to watch out for, and you won't always see "gluten" on the ingredients list. For instance, malt (which is made from barley) and hydrolyzed vegetable protein (which often contains wheat) are common ingredients in many grocery store items. Soy sauce contains wheat, as do many vinegars. 

You'll see many items that say they're gluten-free. But that term is not regulated by the U.S. government, although the FDA proposed rules about how that term may be used. To get an idea of how many foods contain gluten, these are most of the foods that are off-limits: Wheat, barley, rye, spelt, millet, pasta, bread, crackers, breaded or processed meat or fish, cake, cookies, beer, white vinegar, commercial salad dressing, instant coffee, malted milk, canned stock or soup, curry powders, dry seasoning blends, some gravy mixes, and canned tuna (except tuna containing only water and salt).

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