Navigating the Holiday Season with Food Sensitivities

For those who must follow a special diet, holiday season can become a source of stress. There are a variety of reasons you may have to adhere to dietary restrictions, but this shouldn’t get in the way of enjoying this special time with friends and family. These simple tips will help you navigate your way through the coming months without sacrificing the joy and good cheer!

  1. Talk to your host ahead of time. By talking to the host ahead of time you can avoid asking the always awkward question of “what is in this?” during the event. Start you conversation by thanking the host for the invitation, then explain what your special diet entails and if you feel comfortable, why you must follow that diet. Let them know that you aren’t expecting them to modify their menu in any way, but that you just wanted to inform them ahead of time. If it is a family member or very close friend they may offer to modify their recipes to meet your needs. An unexpected offer of this kind is very generous, and should be met with the proper thank you. If the host does offer to make alterations to the menu they may not know where to start. Feel free to ask them if they would like you to share any recipes with them. Also, make yourself available to answer any questions they may have.
  2. Offer to bring something. It is important to take responsibility for your special dietary needs, as it is not expected that the host should alter their planned menu. To take control of the situation and to just be helpful it is always a good idea to offer to bring one or two dishes of your own. This will ensure that you have at least one food option you know you can eat without health consequences, and can help take the load off of the host. In my experience, most people are very happy to let you contribute something to the meal, however it is appropriate to let them know ahead of time you will be doing this to avoid offending anyone by just showing up with your own food. Once you have the okay, it may be good to plan to bring an appetizer and a dish to be served with the meal to ensure you will have an option throughout the entire event.
  3. Come with a full belly. If the holiday gathering is more relaxed and does not require you to sit down for a shared meal with everyone, then you can always just eat your dinner or snack prior to attending the event. When food is offered you can feel confident saying ‘No thanks’ because your belly will already be full. If the host continues to offer food you can explain that you had dinner recently and for now you will just take a beverage.
  4. Know your “food story”. Since you have informed your host of your special diet requirements there is no need to inform others at the party or gathering. However, it is common for other attendees to inquire about why you aren’t eating a particular food. This question can be answered in one of two ways, depending on how comfortable you are with sharing. First, if you don’t feel comfortable discussing your dietary needs at the event, politely thank them for asking, explain you would rather not discuss it at the event, and offer to meet with them at a later time to talk about it further if they are still interested. The second option is to know your “food story”, a concept I heard about from Terry Wahls, MD. Your “food story” explains why you choose not to eat certain foods and/or why you choose to emphasize others in your diet. You can honestly and graciously explain this to the individual, and in turn they will likely stop asking or pressuring you to eat foods you know are harmful to you.

Hopefully these tips will give you a bit more confidence as you start to navigate holiday gatherings. Let us know if you have any other great suggestions for attending holiday parties while sticking to your health plan. Happy Holidays!


Written by: Abby Stanley, MS RDN LD