It’s Thanksgiving, and your mother-in-law has prepared her signature stuffing recipe. She’s so proud of the dish, but you’re gluten-intolerant. There are two choices: Either eat the stuffing, and then suffer the rest of the night. Or you can ignore it and get the low-key criticism for many years. But there’s another choice.
For advice, we spoke with experts about sharing your preferences and limitations in food with family and friends during the holiday season. Whether you’re going to your work holiday party or you’re meeting your partner’s family for the first time, these tips and quick scripts have you covered.
This is a difficult truth to accept
If your eating style strays from the group, it may feel impossible to partake in a communal meal without upsetting someone — especially since cooking a special dish or feeding others is how some people show love.
“Food is so much more than just fuel,” said registered dietitian Abby Langer. “It’s family, it’s community, it’s personal. People often see the reluctance to eat something as personally offensive.”
But we don’t have to sacrifice our health or ethics. It doesn’t have to be scary for us to voice our opinion, communicate our preferences and establish boundaries.
Refer to licensed clinical social workers Monica Jurado Kelly, anxiety and fear of being a “burden” are normal when approaching this type of request.
“A big thing is diverting from the standard American diet,” she said. “I think that there can be a stigma around different food preferences for lots of different reasons ― for diet culture, it’s a thing that millennials or Gen Z years are doing.”
Therapists licensed Danielle Locklear explained that drawing boundaries can be challenging and scary for people who haven’t done it before.
“Many people have difficulty expressing and advocating for their boundaries across the board, so it would make sense for the same fear to show up with meal boundaries,” she said. “Of course, it’s individual, but often people are worried about the response they’ll get or fear disappointing or upsetting loved ones by asserting their boundaries.”
The right moment is available
It can be stressful to host an event. Therefore, experts recommend that you speak with your host as early as possible about any dietary requirements.
“If you know you want to have that conversation, do it with plenty of time ahead to allow the host to make accommodations,” Jurado Kelly said. “I would recommend doing it in a non-threatening environment, not in front of a bunch of people.”
You can consider this a way to show respect for your host. If you give this information too soon, they may not be available to help you. It is important to take this step for your own well-being so that you avoid awkward situations at holiday parties.
“Finding a neutral moment to communicate your boundary in advance of an event allows the other person time and space for their response, but ultimately helps to create a shared expectation,” Locklear said.
Be prepared to face resistance
The experts emphasized that you don’t need permission or acceptance from others when making a dietary choice.
“Remember that if a person gets offended that you don’t want to eat something, that’s about These are them, not you,” Langer said.
Locklear said it’s good to remember that we can still come together and share experiences, even if we aren’t eating the same dishes.
“The good news is, it’s OK for people to feel disappointed ― it’s just another healthy human emotion, and in actuality, you can’t ‘make’ anyone feel one way or the other,” Locklear said.
Be a conscientious host
If you’re hosting a holiday gathering, ask your guests how you can best serve them when you send our invitations.
“It’s a great opportunity not to make assumptions and let guests know that restrictions and preferences are always up for discussion,” Locklear said. “Create a more inclusive event by asking guests in advance about diets, preferences and restrictions.”
If you have guests who are sensitive to certain foods or eating habits, make sure they are accommodated equally.
“As a host, do not just provide hummus and veggies. Try to make a good-faith effort of providing a main dish for someone vegan or gluten-intolerant, making that available for everyone,” Jurado Kelly said.
Simple prompts you can follow
These sentences were created by experts to help you politely, but firmly share your preferences in dietary matters. Use these to feel empowered — and remember, practice makes perfect.
Locklear suggests: “I’m really looking forward to holiday dinner next month. I wanted to let you know that I’m eating vegan, so we have time to plan. I can share some recipes to add to the menu or bring my food.”
You can offer help and take some responsibility off of the host by offering your assistance.
Jurado Kelly provided a similar conversation starter: “I’ve been doing a lot of work with my doctor and I have found that eating bread or eating gluten really bothers my stomach. I’m wondering if this year there are some alternatives that we can come up with together?”
Remember, you don’t have to explain or justify your decisions to anyone.
Langer suggests simply saying: “I just want to let you know that I can’t eat X. I hope that’s OK.”
“I don’t love the idea of having to provide an explanation why you can’t eat something, especially if it’s a medical reason and it’s nobody’s business,” she said. “But sometimes, it might be necessary to provide additional weight to the request.”
Jurado Kelly reminds us patience is the key.
“Please be kind and gracious with yourself,” she said. “The goal isn’t for perfection. The goal isn’t to perfectly state your boundary, but more of this practice of learning how to state what you need directly.”