Should Vegetarians Warn Dinner Hosts in Advance?

vegetarian-meal Chaya left this comment on my post When Hosting, How Much is Too Much?:

I am a vegetarian and often face a dilemma when I am invited out.  I don’t like to tell my host that I am vegetarian so as not to make them feel that they need to make something especially for me or change their whole menu to accommodate me.  After salad and side dish and bread, I am rarely hungry and I certainly won’t be malnourished from one meal.  However, hosts sometimes feel upset if you don’t tell them in advance and they have, for example, made a soup with a meat base or they went to great expense to buy an expensive cut of meat which they otherwise would not have purchased had they known.  Any thoughts on my dilemma?

Chaya,  I appreciate that you are flexible about the menu and don’t want to inconvenience your hosts. But the answer is clear. You should tell your hosts, as soon as you are invited. And this applies to any dietary restrictions, unless they are minor. I don’t mention my allergy to red food coloring and buckwheat. Even then it can be awkward when one of those items is served.

Letting your hosts know about your special diet gives them time to prepare, and more important, a chance to retract the invitation. Maybe they were planning to serve a one-dish meat stew, and they’d prefer to invite a vegetarian some other time. And your assumption that there will be suitable side dishes doesn’t always hold.

One guest called before the meal to let me know she was vegetarian, just as I was about to heat up the potatoes with the chicken. Thanks to the call, I served them separately. No big deal to me, but I needed to know. There were other non-meat foods at the meal, but this way the guest enjoyed the potatoes too.

I agree with your point about the special cut of meat. Quantity is an issue as well: Hosts buy meat according to the number of guests, and they may not have made enough salads to serve as a main course.

Guests with food restrictions need to be specific about what they will eat. Vegetarian, for example, can mean anything. One guest ate chicken soup, just not visible meat or poultry. Others won’t eat any food that’s had the slightest contact with an animal product. You can say that the host shouldn’t go out of his or her way, and you’re fine with bread and salads. This gives the hostess the choice. You don’t have to feel bad if she prepares tofu surprise in your honor.

I’m not such a sensitive hostess myself. I don’t worry much about my guests starving, and am not offended if someone passes up a dish or two. But no host likes to prepare a meal for a guest who can’t eat it.

Readers, have you had guests who failed to inform you about their special diets?

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  1. This reminds me of the time when we invited vegan guests for dinner, years before I turned vegan. Wanting to be the perfect hostess, I researched vegan cuisine for two weeks, and this was in 1990, long before the Internet was what it is today in terms of Googling for recipes and information. I poured over books for hours. In the end, I had what I believed was the perfect vegan menu. It HAD to be, I had spent two weeks working on it, didn’t I? We had another couple coming for dinner as well, proper meat and potatoes carnivores, and not wanting to freak them out entirely, I made one dairy dish, a quiche. A small quiche.

    Fast forward to the dinner. Hungry guests dutifully sitting around the table. I serve the vegan starter, I serve the vegan soup. When it comes time to the main course I served up a lentil pie, a potato dish, several salads with the proper proportions of legumes and grains a la Francis Lappe Moore. And lastly, I served the quiche. As I put it on the table I mentioned that this was the only dish that was not vegan.

    “Quiche! We love quiche!” enthused my vegan guests, helping themselves to huge portions of my tiny quiche. “But I thought you were vegans,” I said. “Yes, we are,” they replied, but we don’t expect people to cook special meals for us when we go out…”

    In this case, even though I had advance notice, I couldn’t have forseen what happened. I always ask if there are any dietary issues, and I personally do like to go out of the way to make something special for my guest, whether it be vegan, soy-free, wheat-free or heavy on the lamb (for one beloved guest). I find it challenges me as a cook, and I enjoy it, but that’s me.
    Miriyummy recently posted..Please Rain!My Profile

  2. As a vegetarian, I always tell my hosts before we arrive. I certainly want to know as a host myself, so I make sure to say something well in advance. I also tend to be a little more “dont ask don’t tell” when I’m not quite sure what someone is making….often times they don’t “think” that chicken broth is not vegetarian, for example, and usually I try not to make a big deal of it…I try to be a good guest but not make anyone uncomfortable.

    Then again, I would bend over backwards to make sure someone was totally as comfortable as possible in my own house!!! But that’s my own mishegas, right!?
    phyllis recently posted..Chanukah Giveaway WinnersMy Profile

    • Phyllis, I think we all want guests to be comfortable. Are you uncomfortable if your hosts serve meat as well as vegetarian options?

  3. phyllis, it’s my mishegas too.

    I always ask if there are dietary restrictions or allergies that I should know about. Once people are a “known” quantity (as it were) I might invite 2x vegetarians to the same meal. And, IMO, an allergy or an all encompassing lifestyle choice (veganism, etc) is not the same as disliking root vegetables or refusing to eat chicken on the bone–to that I say tough luck.

    On the other hand, I rarely make soups or side dishes that aren’t pareve because I don’t like to have meat leftovers hanging around after the chicken gets finished.

    Usually when I ask Israelis about allergies in the family they laugh, but we had some friends in the US whose kids had pretty severe allergies. I made an effort to make food and especially a dessert that was appropriate to everyone and it was really appreciated.
    Kate recently posted..HereMy Profile

    • Kate, good point about inviting other vegetarians. And I agree with you about the food preferences, although I usually try to accommodate those as well. Nice that you went out of your way to make a special dessert for the allergenic kids.

  4. I always let our hosts know, when we accept a meal invitation: there are 5 of us, and we’re all non-meat eaters. That’s an awful lot of meat that doesn’t need to be prepared. As a result, I have found that most people who we go to for meals will make a milk meal, so we don’t feel as if we’re “alternatives”. (It helps that we eat fish – hear that referred to as a “Jewish vegetarian”.) I don’t find it necessary to mention that neither I nor any of my daughters can stand mushrooms. Those, we can pick out. And if that’s all there is, I’ll cope with choking them down.

    I’ll also make sure with any of my guests that
    1) I check for allergies or other foody “issues”
    2) they know we’re veggie, and they won’t be getting meat. Have found that’s been a disappointment to some year-off students who didn’t know before they came!

    • Yes, Ruth, if Chaya were one of 5 she probably wouldn’t be asking! But even one makes a difference. And you’re right, veggie hosts should make that clear as well.

  5. This was addressed in Ask Amy today (2nd question): http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/12/01/AR2010120106060_2.html

    As someone with food restrictions and allergies, I always feel that I don’t want any one to go out of their way but don’t want the host to have made something they think I’ll love which I can’t eat. As in all things, I think it’s best to be upfront: “We don’t eat x, y, z but we don’t want you to go out of your way.” And I’d offer to bring something especcially if my diet were super-restrictive.
    And like Miriyummy, I enjoy the challenge (just as I do with Passover cooking/baking) but I have an experience from many years ago that stands out in my mind. I had a couple over, he was lactose intolerant, she was vegetarian. My starter had eggplants and he said he didn’t like eggplants. I sort of felt like personal preferences were a bit much. But that was not hte end. My cake had failed so I made a trifle and then a non-fail dessert. The lactose intolerant husband couldn’t stop eating the trifle–he said he made an exception for desserts (and this was a rich, whipped cream extravaganza). I was so annoyed that I had made the lactose-free meal for him and it was sort of bogus. So maybe the rule is to mention your food issues to your host only if you are really serious about them!

    • Miriam, either I’m trendy or it’s a common question. Although the Ask Amy question was more about the attitude, which Chaya clearly doesn’t share.

  6. Just adding to what has already been said. Definitely tell. It makes the host much more uncomfortable to find out too late that the guest is vegetarian (or whatever)and most hosts would rather ensure that there is food for everyone that to see someone not eating very much, when they could easily have prepared an alternative.

    My most negative experience with this was when a family that we had invited for the Passover seder called to ask if they could bring a relative that was here on a one year programme. It was only when he arrived, minutes before eating, that they told me that he was vegetarian. He ate matza, the seder plate stuff and salad, but the entire rest of the meal had meat in it, including the potatoes.

  7. I have a compulsion to feed people, it’s part of being a Jewish woman. I know my guests could “make do” if I didn’t accommodate them, but I hate that! We like to pick up guests at the synagogue and I’ve been caught unprepared and even the most easy going “really I don’t mind just eating bread” guest makes me sad :(

    I think they should do a Jewish Iron Chef challenge: accommodating different dietary restrictions all under the kosher umbrella for one dinner party – go! Gluten free, south beach diet, vegetarian, “meat and fish” hehe

    Food preferences are different. I don’t like onions, I deal. We are carnivores and the hosts want to serve dairy, we get our fix on our own time. Although it might be nice if the guests get some warning if the host is serving something out of the norm or that is a known “dislike.” I was once at a meal where the main course was roast tongue and potatoes. Eep! I ate to be polite (and enjoyed) but I wish I could have gotten out of it!

  8. Had to share the iron chef challenge–Thanksgiving version:
    http://www.newyorkerstore.com/november-22-2010/title-the-last-thanksgiving-family-seated-around-thanksgiving-table-each-person-has-arrow-p/invt/136236/

    And while Ask Amy has a different version of the question, I do think that all the hosts who answered here are being very polite and that guests should be polite too. While I don’t like guests to bring food and like the challenge, it is nice when people offer.
    Andone more perspective–my husband is now on a very restrictive diet and I sometimes forget to tell people. Because he had a scary false alarm after eating pizza which precipitated the diet, he is scared of cheese. We were at a very cheesy meal and he flipped out. He is generally much more polite than that–but I didn’t think it hurt him to eat bread and salad and felt (though of course I love him and understand) that once he is past the freak out stage, it is best not to freak out when a meal doesn’t meet his dietary needs.

  9. @Miriam – LOVE it the cartoon (and lived it).

  10. If you are a vegetarian for moral reasons, surely you would not want to risk your host purchasing meat on your behalf!

    When I invite guests over, I want to make something they will enjoy. I don’t have a set menu of things I always make. If they can point me in the right direction of what they will like, or steer me away from a dish that they’re family will not enjoy, more power to them! Personally, I have fun with restrictions. It brings out my creative side.

    As a host, I think it is important not to make special dishes for one picky eater. It puts a lot of pressure on that guest to like and eat that dish. And it might make other guests feel left out. Sometimes I think, “I wish I was a vegetarian, or I wish I got what the kids are getting.” My family was invited over one holiday when my mom was in town. The host asked about dietary restrictions, and I mentioned my mom is a vegetarian but she eats so little, she’ll find enough she can eat from salads and dips, and she also eats fish. My mom was stuffed by the time the main course came out and they had made blitzes just for her! She’s also a very healthy eater and doesn’t eat much wheat, but she felt obligated to eat two blitzes.

    If you are so picky that you would need special food, tell your host before accepting and put it in a way that they can get out of the invite, like:
    Host: We’d like to have you over on Tuesday.
    Picky: Oh, thank you, but we don’t go out much because of my dietary restrictions. Maybe we can just get together for drinks? [or] Maybe we can have you over?
    Yosefa recently posted..The Miracle of the OilMy Profile

  11. Ms. Krieger says:

    Yes yes definitely tell! I was a guest at a dinner party last night and somehow, every last thing had dairy in it. That meant that one of the guests did not eat anything. Not a single thing could he eat. It was awful. He was quite calm and fine about it – he insisted he was there for the company, not the food – but it was still horrible.

  12. As the person who originally posed the question, the answers were strongly in favour of letting the host/hostess know in advance and that it would in fact be discourteous not to let him/her/them know. Thanks for your answer, Hannah, and everyone’s input. I will definitely know how to respond in future.

  13. Kate, good point about inviting other vegetarians. And I agree with you about the food preferences, although I usually try to accommodate those as well. Nice that you went out of your way to make a special dessert for the allergenic kids.

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