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Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?

What you need to know if your party guests have special dietary needs.

You've Got Options

Once you know what you're dealing with, consider how much you are willing to change your menu. "There is a really wide spectrum of dietary restrictions that people can have, so asking your guests this question can really open up a Pandora's box," Ansel says.

For guests on eating plans as strict as a vegan diet, the responsibility also falls on the guest to tell the dinner host their dietary needs. It isn't at all unreasonable for guests to RSVP with a short note (or phone call or email) informing the host of a dietary need or sensitivity, as long as it isn't just a preference.

How can you make guests with special diets still feel welcome, rather than singled out or burdensome? As a host, you want your guests to feel comfortable, so it might not be the best idea to make a separate entrée just for him or her.

The solution: Make holiday main dishes that can easily be adapted to various restrictions. Look up recipes online -- you can often filter them by terms such as "vegan," "vegetarian," or "gluten-free." And the bottom of every product's ingredient list also indicates if the product contains even a trace of nuts or soy, which is important for people with those specific food allergies.

On the Side

"Putting some foods on the side, rather than incorporating them into the meal, helps," Beller says. For example, she suggests serving bread on its own plate and not including it in items such as stuffings or soups. Likewise, if you have a guest on a low-sodium diet, season food lightly, and encourage guests to add their own salt and pepper tableside.

Ansel agrees that it's easy to adapt dishes by serving specific ingredients on the side. "For example, you can leave out the nuts in a salad and simply serve them on the side if one of your guests has a nut allergy. Or, for vegetarians or vegans, you can make a meat-free pasta sauce for a spaghetti dinner and serve meatballs on the side," Ansel says.

Last-Minute Surprise

What if someone doesn't tell you about their restrictions ahead of time, and you're scrambling at the last minute, or you're grilled about your meal's various ingredients?

Ideally, both host and guest will be on the same page ahead of time about any food restrictions. But if a relative shows up to dinner and announces that he or she is now eating a gluten-free or vegan diet, don't draw even more attention to the issue.

"Plan dishes that are safe options -- and there are a lot -- especially when hosting a holiday dinner for a wide range of people," Beller says. "An example of an easy, gluten-free holiday meal is sliced roasted turkey served with seasonal vegetables or with a salad dressed with lemon juice and olive oil." Your gluten-free relative won't go hungry, and that same meal may suit other guests who are watching their fat intake but are reluctant to ask you for it.

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Reviewed on October 26, 2011

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