It’s Thanksgiving, and your mother-in-law has prepared her signature stuffing recipe. She’s so proud of the dish, but you’re gluten-intolerant. You feel you have two options: Eat the stuffing and suffer all night, or pass it up and feel the low-key rebuke for years to come. But there’s another choice.
We spoke to experts for advice on how to respectfully and assertively share your food preferences and limits with family and friends this holiday season. Whether you’re going to your work holiday party or you’re meeting your partner’s family for the first time, these tips and quick scripts have you covered.
Acknowledge this is tough
If your eating style strays from the group, it may feel impossible to partake in a communal meal without upsetting someone — especially since cooking a special dish or feeding others is how some people show love.
“Food is so much more than just fuel,” said registered dietitian Abby Langer. “It’s family, it’s community, it’s personal. People often see the reluctance to eat something as personally offensive.”
But we don’t have to sacrifice our health or ethics. We can speak up, share a preference, and draw boundaries, even if it might feel scary at first.
According to a licensed clinical social worker Monica Jurado Kelly, anxiety and fear of being a “burden” are normal when approaching this type of request.
“A big thing is diverting from the standard American diet,” she said. “I think that there can be a stigma around different food preferences for lots of different reasons ― for diet culture, it’s a thing that millennials or Gen Z years are doing.”
Licensed therapist Danielle Locklear explained that drawing boundaries can be challenging and scary for people who haven’t done it before.
“Many people have difficulty expressing and advocating for their boundaries across the board, so it would make sense for the same fear to show up with meal boundaries,” she said. “Of course, it’s individual, but often people are worried about the response they’ll get or fear disappointing or upsetting loved ones by asserting their boundaries.”
Find the right time
Hosting an event can be nerve-racking, so experts recommended speaking to the host about any dietary issues as far in advance as possible.
“If you know you want to have that conversation, do it with plenty of time ahead to allow the host to make accommodations,” Jurado Kelly said. “I would recommend doing it in a non-threatening environment, not in front of a bunch of people.”
Consider taking this step to be a sign of respect for your host, who may not be prepared to properly serve you if you share this information at the last minute. This step is also for your well-being, so you can hopefully avoid a tense and awkward holiday party.
“Finding a neutral moment to communicate your boundary in advance of an event allows the other person time and space for their response, but ultimately helps to create a shared expectation,” Locklear said.
Prepare to encounter resistance
The experts emphasized that you don’t need permission or acceptance from others when making a dietary choice.
“Remember that if a person gets offended that you don’t want to eat something, that’s about them, not you,” Langer said.
Locklear said it’s good to remember that we can still come together and share experiences, even if we aren’t eating the same dishes.
“The good news is, it’s OK for people to feel disappointed ― it’s just another healthy human emotion, and in actuality, you can’t ‘make’ anyone feel one way or the other,” Locklear said.
Be a conscientious host
If you’re hosting a holiday gathering, ask your guests how you can best serve them when you send our invitations.
“It’s a great opportunity not to make assumptions and let guests know that restrictions and preferences are always up for discussion,” Locklear said. “Create a more inclusive event by asking guests in advance about diets, preferences and restrictions.”
And if you do have guests with specific intolerances or eating styles, try to equally and adequately accommodate them so no one feels excluded or, worse, hungry.
“As a host, do not just provide hummus and veggies. Try to make a good-faith effort of providing a main dish for someone vegan or gluten-intolerant, making that available for everyone,” Jurado Kelly said.
Easy prompts to follow
The experts offered some easy sentence starters so you can politely but firmly share your dietary preferences. Use these to feel empowered — and remember, practice makes perfect.
Locklear suggests: “I’m really looking forward to holiday dinner next month. I wanted to let you know that I’m eating vegan, so we have time to plan. I can share some recipes to add to the menu or bring my food.”
By offering help, you take some of the onus off the host.
Jurado Kelly provided a similar conversation starter: “I’ve been doing a lot of work with my doctor and I have found that eating bread or eating gluten really bothers my stomach. I’m wondering if this year there are some alternatives that we can come up with together?”
Remember, you don’t have to explain or justify your decisions to anyone.
Langer suggests simply saying: “I just want to let you know that I can’t eat X. I hope that’s OK.”
“I don’t love the idea of having to provide an explanation why you can’t eat something, especially if it’s a medical reason and it’s nobody’s business,” she said. “But sometimes, it might be necessary to provide additional weight to the request.”
Jurado Kelly reminded us that patience is key.
“Please be kind and gracious with yourself,” she said. “The goal isn’t for perfection. The goal isn’t to perfectly state your boundary, but more of this practice of learning how to state what you need directly.”