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How to cater for a diverse range of diets

Catering for vegetarians and vegans as well as those with allergies is worth the extra care and attention.

QUESTION: We have family visiting over the summer holidays. My daughter is vegetarian, there are grandchildren with allergies and intolerances and guests who are dieting. How can I make everyone happy?

ANSWER: “You can’t please all of the people all of the time,” said Abraham Lincoln. Which is about right when it comes to catering for our 21st-century dietary requirements at the buffet table. But for guests with medical food needs, it’s crucial we cater carefully for them.

Food allergies are a serious matter – with the body producing an exaggerated immune system response to a food protein. Typical symptoms include hives, itching, swelling, vomiting, diarrhoea and nausea.

In severe cases a life-threatening reaction, called anaphylaxis, can occur – this involves breathing difficulties and/or a sudden drop in blood pressure that can result in death if not treated promptly.

Even a trace amount of a food allergen can trigger a severe reaction in some people. And there’s no predicting how severe a reaction might be.

So, it’s crucial that all precautions are taken to avoid serving the allergen to the guest, and to avoid cross-contamination of safe foods via chopping boards, utensils or even hands.

In the case of food intolerances, these don’t involve the immune system and can have immediate or delayed symptoms. The symptoms can be vague, including gastrointestinal problems such as bloating and wind, diarrhoea, nausea, indigestion, and aggravation of eczema or asthma.

Although these symptoms are uncomfortable (and sometimes painful), they aren’t life-threatening like a food allergy.

In New Zealand, roasts and barbecues are popular summer meal options, and, fortunately, they make accommodating a range of dietary requirements relatively easy.

  • Plan ahead: check dietary requirements with guests for any large gatherings before the event, so you know what foods are needed.
  • Ask the expert: if you’re unfamiliar with appropriate dishes for a given dietary restriction, ask your guest for suggestions.
  • Details matter: it’s natural to focus on big food items, but lesser ingredients are a real issue for coeliac sufferers, people with food allergies and guests with faith-based dietary restrictions.

For example, avoiding gluten-containing bread in your turkey stuffing is obvious, but you’ll also need to check if your gravy and stock are gluten-free for any guests with coeliac disease.

  • Simple is best: offer some uncomplicated vegetable, fruit and meat dishes. Most diets allow you to consume plenty of green vegetables, even the fashionable keto diet. A mixture of vegetables roasted in avocado or olive oil will probably meet a wide range of dietary needs – although paleo and low-carb dieters probably won’t eat potatoes and keto dieters may shun all roasted starchy vegetables.
  • Add sides: offer offending ingredients on the side. Leave the bacon for the caesar salad in a bowl so vegetarians can enjoy the salad, too.
  • No special meals: most people with allergies, intolerances and medical needs want to join in with the group meal. So, offer options for them, rather than preparing a separate meal and another for everyone else.
  • Provide a variety: not every dish has to cater to every dietary need. Just provide a wide range of options so each person has a selection that meets their needs.
  • Communicate openly: make sure guests know the dishes that meet their dietary needs. If it’s a large gathering, consider labelling dishes “gluten-free”, “nut-free” or “lactose-free”.

Finally, shared meals are a great way to build relationships and nurture a sense of
belonging and community; food is just the backdrop to this.

So, although all these new-fangled diets may break food traditions, remember the meal is about more than food.