Italian

What to Do When Your Dinner Guests Have Dietary Restrictions

What do you serve guests who don't eat meat, fish, or gluten? Risotto! 

When it comes to the sticky question of dietary restrictions, I firmly take the view that if the guests gathered around my table are happy, I’m happy—and therein lies the makings of a good dinner party.

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More: Martha Stewart would not agree.

So, as I plan what to cook, I make sure to check with everyone if there is anything that they prefer not to eat before settling on a menu. Perhaps they’re eschewing sugar (fresh fruit and clotted cream for dessert; clotted cream, of course, being an optional addition); perhaps they are gluten intolerant (some kind of shepherd’s pie for the main and this flourless chocolate cake to follow); or perhaps they just don’t like anchovies (no anchovies on the menu). Once you know what your guests do and don’t like, can and can’t eat, you can begin to plan.

If one of the guests is a vegetarian, say, then I plan a menu for everyone that suits them. The aim is not to cook something that feels "vegetarian" or that relies heavily on some kind of meat substitute, but a meal that everyone can enjoy. Dishes that I would eat anyhow and happen to have no meat; it's a subtle distinction, but—I can’t help but feel—a very important one.

This is also the low maintenance approach. The other option is cooking two menus: a "vegetarian" and a "non-vegetarian" which, frankly, I find to be an unnecessary headache considering there is such a bounty of vegetables, grains, pasta, fruits, and cheeses to work with.

If we are talking "vegetarian" in the loosest sense of the term and we really mean "pescatarian" (in other words, they eat fish but no meat), then I might do something fancy like a salt-baked sea bass or a large plate of mussels cooked in white wine with loaves of bread to soak up the juices.

For vegetarians proper, in the warmer months, I like to toss together a series of vegetable-based sharing plates: couscous or farro salad; grilled peppers with a sprinkling of cilantro, sliced almonds, and crumbled feta; an artichoke salad, breads, fruits, and cheeses. 

But in the winter, I find risotto to be a very pleasing solution: It's wonderfully warming and comforting, and it satisfies everyone, even the heartiest of meat eaters.

The joy of risotto is that you can make it any which way—just use a good quality vegetable stock and flavor it with what you please: fresh peas when they’re in season (or frozen, when they’re not); mixed vegetablesred wine; and—a particular favorite of mine—saffron and lemon, which I find to be just the right balance of sophisticated and nursery food. If you are cooking for a vegan, just leave out the butter and the grated Parmesan from their portion.

More: Risotto any which way, no recipe needed. 

Risotto is wonderfully filling and needs little to go with it, which makes it a pleasure to cook at supper parties. I like to lay out some small bites for guests to nibble on as they chat with me while I cook, and then I serve a nice salad and a decadent dessert. P

Timing is key, so risotto works best for the kind of party where you’re happy to be stirring the rice as your guests have drinks. There is little thinking involved, just rhythmic stirring—which somehow makes the process relaxed and cozy rather than frazzled. I chop my onion and prepare all of my ingredients before everyone arrives. I make the dessert in advance, prepare the salad (setting the dressing aside to add just before serving to prevent wilting leaves), and then, once everyone is happily gathered with a glass of wine in hand (myself included), I begin cooking. 



Any of the choices below will make for an excellent menu:

Snacks:

  • Salted almonds
  • Rosemary potato chips
  • Olives
  • Crostini with ricotta and figs and a smudge of honey (leave off the ricotta if you're cooking vegan)
  • Bite-size chunks of grilled polenta, perhaps even topped with a few porcini and a little fresh parsley

The main:

Dessert:

 

Lemon and Saffron Risotto

Serves 4

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion
700 milliliters good vegetable stock
400 grams arborio rice
125 milliliters white wine
1 lemon
1 pinch saffron
30 grams butter
30 grams Parmesan
Salt and pepper, to taste

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

Do you accommodate guests with dietary restrictions? Tell us your policy in the comments below! 

6 Comments

BocaCindi October 9, 2015
Kate and Avery made my day. When you host a party, the fun is in the planning and preparation of the food. Being hampered by various dietary restrictions, real and imaginary, has been solved. Bring your own dinner in a bag. ☺️ This idea is very freeing. Thank you.
 
Tom October 8, 2015
Need to find tasty food for my granddaughter who has PKU very low protien diet very strict!!
 
JellyJ October 8, 2015
Most of those "dietary restrictions" listed in the article are by choice, it would be great to have more ideas for people with genuine allergies (my daughter has nut and egg allergies so I'm trying to gather as many recipes I can that cater to that. It's tricky!)
 
bookjunky October 8, 2015
I sympathize with the commenters below. My own husband is one of the picky types: vegetarian but with a very narrow range of vegetables that he will actually eat (e.g. no squash, no sweet potatoes, no bell peppers, no goat cheese, no eggs unless in a baked good, etc., etc., etc.) I have a range of vegetarian foods as well as meats/poultry/fish when I have a party and people can pick and choose what they like. If it's nothing but salad and bread, that's their problem, not mine. #firstworldproblems, IMO.
 
Avery J. October 8, 2015
I agree with Kate. Since we have a lot of guests -- sometimes very large crowds -- over for various lunches each year, I've finally resorted to including the following notation on written invitations: "If you have special dietary restrictions or preferences, please feel comfortable in simply bringing a bag lunch with you -- we certainly won't be insulted since we very honestly want you to truly enjoy your time here." We just became exhausted from hearing explicit details about medical issues attached to what they expect/want us to cater to when serving a meal... after all, they are our guests whereas we are not their personal chefs (or servants). Miss Manners would probably be horrified, but it sure has made luncheons here so much more enjoyable for *everyone* involved!
 
Kate October 7, 2015
We have no dietary restrictions personally between my husband and I, but my mom is gluten intolerant, avoids grains in general, and my brother is lactose intolerant, and was vegetarian for a while. I was able to do a little bit, but there's only so much you can do with sweet potatoes and salad, so after a while one or both of them had to supplement their own meals because it was too much work to accommodate them both while making sure everyone else was full. All of the challenges with them as guests for years have led me to be fine with true allergies, but highly irritated by "preferences" which actually are usually just whims.