Dinner etiquette

I have been thinking about the comments in another question regarding inviting people to dinner and having them announce, on arrival. that they are vegans. I have always been amazed by the combos of guest that people seem to accommodate. Hotline questions abound about planning a menu for multiple diet requirements of guests : vegan, gluten free, no red meat, paleo etc. etc. etc. I am curious, as a guest do you indicate menu preferences? Or do you figure you will just muddle through with whatever is on the menu. Do you distinguish between diet choices and medical diet requirements? As a host, what are your thoughts? It always seems rather demanding (to me) for guest to respond to a dinner invitation with a list of what they will and won’t eat. On the other hand I suppose it is worse to prepare an elaborate meal only to have guests eat nothing but salad and the green vegetable. I am curious about what others think both as hosts and guest. If you are planning a dinner party do you compare known dietary preferences as you make up the guest list?



Mary C. October 21, 2017
I always fall back on ole' reliable: the potluck. When I have guests over, I generally make the main, a side or two (one is usually a salad), and something sweet. I let guests know what each is before arrival and they can fill in the holes around it based on their needs. If they like what they see on the menu, they can bring wine. Or cheese. This also ensures there's enough food--which puts my mind at ease because where people have nightmares about standing naked on stage, I have nightmares about hosting a dinner party and running out of nosh.
Bevi October 20, 2017
I ask guests in advance if they have any food allergies or food they don't eat. Also, I have reached the point where it's easier for me to include a vegan dish just in case.
Jennifer W. October 18, 2017
This is such an interesting thread! I have people over for dinner several times a month, and it seems that food intolerances are becoming more and more of an issue. Even though I really enjoy cooking and hosting, it can still be a frustration to be ingredient restricted. I would absolutely die if someone showed up with an announcement about their diet. I do think it behooves us as Hosts to ask What cant you eat? or give guests a heads up about what we are considering preparing in order to spare ourselves the stress of the unknown. I had a guest, now a close friend, handle it so graciously a while ago- She simply offered to bring something! Problem solved!!
So a good lesson for all Guests- If you're picky, suck it up and try something new. If you're intolerant or allergic, offer to bring something to supplement the menu thus giving your Host an opportunity to either gratefully accept your offer or make the adjustment themselves.
nancy E. October 14, 2017
IMHO, when you are lucky enough to be invited to a dinner you don't dictate what the host(ess) should serve. That being said should your restrictions be due to a medical problem as IBS, allergies,(actual medical allergies) Crones, it is fine to let your host know. Otherwise, shut up and eat what is put in front of you, or not. Just don't make it an issue
MMH October 13, 2017
So here's what we did. We live in Omaha and we are having a very warm beautiful fall. We had planned to serve on our patio. We have an outside paella burner and were planning to cook table side. We have 2 paella pans so we doubled the recipe. Then, to stretch, we made a bunch of tapas which were vegetarian - still not knowing we were hosting 2 vegans. I ran to the store and bought marcona almonds, olives and cheese (Ina always recommends that). We prepared sangria in advance. It was a flexible menu anyway and easy to extend but a bit of stress. One of our vegans just ate the tapas and the other cheated- flexitarian. (I love that!) Our outside seating worked. Everyone had a great time. We are just counting it as another adventure in cooking. We always say we don't have enough dinner parties and when we just commit to doing it we always have a great time.
We are toying with starting a monthly dinner party group. This maybe should be posed as another hotline question but I'd like to know if other people do this and how it is arranged.
ChefJune October 11, 2017
I would hope if I invited someone to dinner that I didn't know well that they would inform me of any dietary restrictions. I have a couple of allergies and sensitivities that I always remind my host(ess) about when I'm invited to dine. It's important. It could be life threatening!
ronyvee October 11, 2017
I just try to plan a meal that satisfies most guests so unexpected food allergies and restrictions don't throw off the evening. Nuts, spiced popcorn or vegetable focused starter, a pureed vegetable soup or gazpacho, a meat main accompanied by a side with lentils or a dal, a salad with roasted vegetables, bread, cheese and fruit, chocolate and coffee and brandy or port to finish. I try not to build a meal around pasta or cream anymore because so many friends are watching their weight or are gluten free. I ty to skip eggs and butter and focus on good olive or nut oils, citrus, herbs. That way the dishes are more accessible and friends can find enough choice to feel satisfied over the course of the evening. I like to cook and host. It's a fun challenge for me to build a meal that will accomodate the unexpected. I never ever want to make my guests feel awkward in my home.
QueenSashy October 10, 2017
As a guest, I eat pretty much anything -- except cilantro :). As a host, I like when folks tell me ahead of time their restrictions (and their preferences). As a matter of fact, I always ask when extending an invitation. I like to cook and do not mind accommodating everyone, as long as I know ahead of time.
Windischgirl October 8, 2017
As a hostess, I always ask, "Are there any foods that you are unable to eat?" But as a guest—since my food issues are not life-threatening—I eat what is served and take my Beano!
If a guest has a serious food allergy, it's on them to either say something in advance, or to eat what they can. But I think it’s rude to show up at the door and announce that one doesn't eat this, that, and the other.
A young family friend frequently travels to Central America on humanitarian missions. At home, she is a strict vegan, but on her trips she's an omnivore, out of respect to the local people who are sharing what they have in thanks for her work. I wish all guests were as gracious!
Windischgirl October 10, 2017
MMH, I think you need nicer friends! (I'm also wondering what they thought paella is, since they knew the menu in advance). I'll be your friend! Can't eat raw onions or garlic (small amounts of cooked are fine), not a big fan of bivalves. Everything else is fine. What's for dinner?
Martha October 4, 2017
Maybe this is just the crowd I travel in, but I feel that part of being a good host is to ask about dietary restrictions when the invitation is issued. It’s usually pretty easy to be accommodating.
Nancy October 4, 2017
OK, that's your practice among people you know & when you're hosting.
Byt then what do you do when you're the guest of a stranger or relatively unknown host, have chosen a restricted diet and are not asked about it when invited?
MMH October 10, 2017
I think im the one who commented in a previous post about the people who showed up and announced they were vegans. It's worse than that. We always accommodate our guests. My husband emailed 3 couples in our neighborhood & invited them for paella. The invite said that/ We are fortunate to live in a neighborhood full of gourmet cooks. Only 1 couple sent an rsvp so he invited 3 more couples. Two responded. The day of the dinner 1 more couple responded & when they arrived they announced they were vegan. We ended up with 10 couples for dinner. We are the sort who can roll with it but i dont think we were in thr wrong here
Windischgirl October 10, 2017
Nancy, I think if you’re the guest, you have two choices: either communicate with your host about your dietary restrictions in advance and offer to bring something you can eat, or graciously eat what's put in front of you. If it's a spur of the moment thing, eat what you can. I feel for the host who is expected to have psychic abilities about their guests' food choices.
Nancy October 11, 2017
@Windishgirl - thanks for your take on this. Consideration all around, yes?
Stephanie B. October 11, 2017
MMH that sounds like a dinner party nightmare! How did you handle that many unexpected guests? Especially with events on social media where you're never sure how many people will actually show up, tips on unexpected guests are always handy.
Vandana October 4, 2017
I'm vegetarian. I threw my first dinner party three years ago, and spent most of the lead-up to the party being increasingly stressed out about people not feeling well-fed due to the absence of meat. It turned out great - I am lucky to have excellent, generous, flexible friends. But I still worry about feeding others. In any group of people, I am always likely to have the most food restrictions, but if that is ever not the case, I think I would cook for the person with the most restrictions, so that everyone can eat all the food. When I'm a guest, I generally eat salads or bring enough of something to contribute to the spread.
Exbruxelles October 3, 2017
I thought I was the only one who gave dinner parties anymore....I'm glad to see I'm wrong.

I generally don't eat meat and, since I rarely dine in someone's home whom I don't know well, this has never been a problem. The reverse is also mostly true: I know my guests well enough to know what they will/won't/can/can't eat and I make accommodations. I think someone already mentioned this, but the easiest way to avoid this problem is to make a lot of varied side dishes, so even if you've gotten something wrong your guests are not going to go hungry. I also do a lot of appetizers and serve a lot of wine.

Having said that, I'm planning a larger dinner party later this month with people I know professionally but not well personally and I asked about their food preferences. This is a religiously, racially, geographically diverse group and I expected a lot of exceptions. I had to kind of laugh at the response: No pork. No lamb. Everything else is fine. This made it really easy because neither pork nor lamb were going to be on the menu.

Good question, very interesting answers.
MMH October 14, 2017
I agree. It seems to be a fading art. We don't want to just throw steaks on a grill. We live in a a turn of the century neighborhood full of very interesting and diverse people. We really enjoy meeting and mixing with people that way. We did do a really fun dinner party last year where we cooked octopus - we knew those guests very well.

Professionally we associate with a number of people who are vegetarian or don't eat certain meats. Middle eastern and Asian menus are easy for us to use to accommodate different diets.
Stephanie B. October 3, 2017
I try to make reasonable accommodations, and generally when I have people over for dinner, their eating habits and my family's are similar enough that everyone will get a good meal.
I do distinguish between diet choices and medical diets in that I check in with friends with medical dietary restrictions if I'm unsure about something, because if a paleo friend has a slice of bread they might feel guilty, but my friend with celiac disease will be in pain for weeks. Regardless of the reason for the diet, no one is going home hungry if I host. I probably won't tailor a whole menu to everyone's diets, but everyone will be able to "muddle through." I've never had guests respond to an invite with a list of food rules, and there have been times when I didn't know someone had celiac disease and I wish I had!
What I find simplest for diverse dietary needs is to have potluck style dinner parties, that way people cover their own bases, and everyone gets to try something new. If I'm a guest at those types of parties, I'll make something to accommodate the hosts. I once made a gluten free pie crust and lightning did not come down from the heavens to smite me - I actually like the challenge sometimes of making foods to accommodate different diets, regardless of the reason for the diet. It can be a fun way to push yourself as a cook/baker.
As a guest, I have no restrictions and will eat pretty much anything. But my husband has oral allergy syndrome, which means he gets mild to moderate allergic reactions from lots of different fruits and nuts, and when he's a guest he just doesn't eat the things that give him allergies. There's not much else to do about it.
SKK October 3, 2017
Great questions! Since I am a flexitarian in my food habits, I am grateful for the invitation, the company and the meal. As a host I definitely take into account my guests food tolerances. It isn't hard to do. Extra sides of vegetables, salads where I take out the fixings for those who want a different dressing, do not cook with garlic or onions for two friends who become violently ill with either. I have first hand experience of medical food intolerances and the pain they cause and I am unwilling to have friends and family be at the painful effect of a meal I have made.
Stephanie B. October 3, 2017
Flexitarian! I may have to use that. If I hadn't written a whole book response before I saw your answer, I would have just agreed with yours and called it good.
Nancy October 3, 2017
On the overall question, I think something magical happens at a good dinner party, and part of that magic comes from eating the same food.
I did a quick web review looking for Miss Manners' take on this, but found instead a British army major who issued some dinner etiquette after he found his officers' habits wanting some refinement (more about him later).
The host shouldn't demand that the guests eat everything (like a nanny, or a nagging college dean I once worked for at her start-of-term receptions for new students).
Neither should a guest demand a meal tailored to his or her specifications.
After all, it's a home, not a short-order diner.
Only exception: those for whom a substance can cause anaphylactic shock.
When I was a vegetarian (more than 20 years), my experience was like Valhalla's - I would happily eat what I could, not issue demands, but after a while some repeat hosts would set aside something I could eat or task me with making a dish we could all eat if I offered to cook something.
And yes, per the British Major, who commands us to eat what our hosts offer, I have sometimes eaten against my convictions to spare a host embarrassment or extra work.
To conclude, I think both sides need to show goodwill, few or no demands and a spirit of generosity to make an evening work.
Valhalla October 3, 2017
I've been a vegetarian for over 30 years. I am happy to eat just a salad in good company, but I tend to receive invitations from people who either know my life or eat a more broad variety of foods. I guess I just don't get out much, because it has never been a problem for me. I'll let you know whenever I receive an invitation from people who don't know me, but I am wondering what I am supposed to do--not go, or inform the host (well ahead of time, naturally)!
BerryBaby October 3, 2017
I agree. Making a number of different meals is more like being a restaurant! When I have a dinner party guests know what I'm going to make and they can decide if they want to partake. an alternative would be a cocktail party with a buffet of various small hors d'oeuvres.
Recommended by Food52