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Tips for Hosting Vegan, Vegetarian, or Gluten-Free Guests

WebMD talks to experts for advice on hosting guests who have special dietary needs, including people on vegetarian, vegan, or gluten-free diets.

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).

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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