It used to be that those who made very specific meal orders in restaurants – asking that certain items be left out of a dish or served on the side – were perceived as picky eaters. These days, awareness of common dietary preferences, restrictions, and allergies is increasing.
At times, people may find it challenging to express their dietary limitations to others. Here are some ways to clearly communicate dietary restrictions at restaurants and among friends and family members.
Different types of dietary restrictions
There are many different types of dietary restrictions. Some individuals have allergies that can be life-threatening, such as severe reactions to seafood or nuts that can cause anaphylactic shock. Others may experience discomfort or serious physical symptoms due to food sensitivities, like lactose or gluten intolerance. Additionally, special diets such as vegetarianism or veganism can impact food choices. While not often considered, abstaining from alcohol can also be a type of dietary restriction.
According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, surveys have shown more than 16 million adults in the United States self-identify as having food allergies, with millions more having food sensitivities and choosing to live alcohol-free lifestyles.
Navigating the pressures of making a lifestyle change
If someone has a dietary restriction, whether it is new or pre-existing, they need to communicate this information regularly. These conversations can create pressure as family, friends, and coworkers may give feedback or ask questions. Unfortunately, some people may not take allergies or food sensitivities seriously and may disregard them, but it is important to hold firm on food boundaries.
Individuals with dietary restrictions often face these challenges while dining out, at work, or visiting someone’s home. They may be guilted and urged to “just try a little” of a certain dish or food, even if it conflicts with their food boundaries. Learning to communicate effectively about dietary restrictions can diffuse these pressures.
How to communicate dietary needs at restaurants
Restaurants are among the easiest places to spell out food restrictions. Communicating dietary needs means being very specific about the requested food and what needs to be left out of the order. Research the menu before arriving at the restaurant to plan out suitable options. When ordering, kindly ask the staff questions about the ingredients and how they are prepared. For example, if someone is allergic to fish and the restaurant serves fish or seafood dishes, they should make the waitstaff aware of their allergy so their food does not come in contact with other fish dishes or equipment used to prepare fish.
Once the food is delivered to the table, confirm with the waitstaff that the meal was prepared as requested. If food is served with a restricted ingredient, kindly request a replacement.
How to communicate dietary needs with friends and family
Talking to family members or friends about dietary restrictions ahead of an event or even a small gathering is just as important as when someone orders food in a restaurant. However, the dynamics can be different – especially if the food is being prepared by a friend or family member. It’s best to take a straightforward approach.
- Contact the person hosting the gathering well in advance.
- Be friendly, but firm when explaining food allergies or dietary restrictions.
- Get comfortable saying “No thank you.”
- If it’s a large gathering, offering to bring food or pay the extra cost for food that fits the requirements is a nice gesture.
- If it’s a casual dinner, consider bringing a dish to pass that meets your dietary needs.
- Thank the host or hostess for keeping your needs in mind.
If someone is questioning your dietary restrictions, take it as an opportunity to educate them in a friendly way instead of feeling judged or ashamed.
Shanthi Appelö is a registered dietitian and health and wellness spokesperson for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan based in Detroit. Passionate about the science of nutrition and behavior, Shanthi has experience working in clinical nutrition, public health and teaching in the university setting. In her free time, she enjoys experimenting in the kitchen, exploring the outdoors, working on art and spending time with family. For more recipes and health information, visit ahealthiermichigan.org.
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