Q: Pam – I’ve talked with my family about my dairy allergy and they told me that they don’t want to know about it. How do you do holiday dinners?
A: Alisa – I think this is a challenge for all free-from dieters, whether gluten-free for Celiac Disease, dealing with a life-threatening peanut allergy, or strictly following a vegan diet. As a collective group, we probably have quite a few good and bad stories.
Over the years though, I have become quite adept at managing situations and food away from the home with a milk allergy. After all, I still love restaurants and time with our family and friends. Here are some tips for how I handle holiday dinners and events:
Don’t Expect Them to Understand – Quite frankly, as you have experienced, many people simply don’t get it. Typically they care about your well-being, but think it really isn’t a concern and even that you may be exaggerating about your allergy. On their behalf, there are so many fad diets out there, it can be hard for people to discern a passing food phase that is more of an inconvenience than anything else from a true life concern that should be taken quite seriously. I have come across many people who will actually tell people that they have an allergy to a certain food simply because they really hate that food or because it doesn’t fit the current diet they are on. Sad but true.
Some people do understand immediately and are more than happy to accommodate, but most don’t. For those people, I simply give it time. Eventually my family and friends realized that this was something serious, lifelong, and essential for me. With people we know, I no longer have a problem with get-togethers, as they always allow me to bring a dish, do their best to make a dairy-free item or two, and keep the packaging of foods so that I can check any labels should they be uncertain about something.
Diet trends and fads are fleeting and irritating for some people. If you are rock solid and consistent with your diet and requests, then they will usually come around with time.
Don’t be Afraid to Decline an Invitation – For Thanksgiving one year, one of our close friends insisted that we come to their friend’s house for the big meal. I didn’t know these people, and wasn’t willing to risk such a dairy-laden meal at a strangers house (nor did I wish to put complete strangers out with my requests). About two weeks after Thanksgiving we invited the host couple to our own holiday party, and they showed up. As it turned out, they were both retired nurses, and when I apologized for declining the invitation and explained the reason, they actually thanked me. They hadn’t realized how serious it was for me, and admitted that they would have had no idea how to make their usual Thanksgiving feast dairy-free. But, we were still able to meet them and enjoy their presence at our own holiday party, which I could assure was dairy-free. Which brings me to the next one …
Be the Host – You can make it easy on yourself and host a potluck, but even then you will have control over some of the dishes and over where things are located. If you are ready for it, host the entire family for the big feast. They may all be amazed at just how delicious a dairy-free holiday dinner can be!
Eat Ahead of Time – If I really don’t trust that the food will be safe, I have just enough food before the event that I won’t be starving while there, just in case I am relinquished to only eating the veggie tray.
Ask if You Can Bring a Couple of Dishes – For most events, we bring an entrée and a dessert. No one ever minds, and we never seem to go home with leftovers! On New Year’s Eve, my husband and I made baked eggrolls and a rum cake. Both were devoured, and we got to enjoy some “safe” food (I am allergic, but my husband chooses to be dairy-free too) in addition to the veggie tray.
Pack Some Snacks – I hardly go anywhere without some snacks in the car, and this includes holiday dinners. I find this tip especially important if you are going to a party where you don’t know the hosts well, and may be a bit too intimidated to make any special requests.
Request a Favorite Dish – This is a little trick I played on my stepmom before she really understood the whole dairy-free thing. I figured out the dishes she made that were naturally dairy-free and made sure to tell her how much I loved them, and would special request them at family get-togethers. It worked like a charm.
Don’t be Too Picky – At home we follow a whole foods diet, and like everyone, I have foods that I enjoy and foods that I could give or take. But at parties, I will be a little less choosy, and will partake in foods that I know are dairy-free, but that I may not usually eat. This allows me to keep with the social theme and avoid starvation. It also makes the host happy to see you eating at least some of the spread they have prepared.
Ask if you Can Bring Your Own Meal – If it isn’t a potluck style, simply request that you can still bring a couple of items. I always make enough to share (turning it into kind of a potluck offering), and the host usually appreciates the help. Also, just making this gesture helps your host to understand just how important dairy-free (or other free-from need) is to you.
but, most importantly …
Be Appreciative – When someone makes an effort to accomodate your allergy or intolerance, even if you didn’t particularly love what they prepared, show them your gratitude. It isn’t easy for people to know how to prepare food for a special diet that they don’t follow themselves. So make sure you thank them for every effort they do make, and they will be more likely to repeat (and even amplify) the gesture.
For more dairy-free Q&A topics, see our Ask Alisa Page.
Alisa Fleming is the founder of GoDairyFree.org and author of Go Dairy Free: The Guide and Cookbook for Milk Allergies, Lactose Intolerance, and Casein-Free Living. In addition to her own dairy-free lifestyle, Alisa has experience in catering to the needs of various special diets, including gluten-free, soy-free, egg-free, vegan, and multiple food allergies.