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How to do foodie social gatherings when you have dietary restrictions

A lot of important social moments revovle around foods, but when you have dietary restrictions, it’s hard to integrate into these events.

I have Celiac disease, an autoimmune disease that attacks my digestive system when I consume gluten. For the five-ish years I’ve had it, I’ve developed a little acronym to help me. I call it "SOPH" because I am Soph and this order makes the most sense to me, but you can call it SHOP or POSH instead.

I made a video with Steph Ng from Body Banter in which I break down SOPH. She hosts a series called Lending Language Lab that equips viewers with the vocal and syntax to navigate different situations. Check out our video or read about SOPH below.

1. Check if the venue is safe

Call ahead. If it's a restaurant, event, family dinner, pick up the phone, send an email, zip off a text. You want to check that the food is prepared in a space and way that means you won't have your allergy or food-triggered illness flare. Obviously, if your dietary restrictions is a food preference, it's less dangerous, but cross-contamination is no joke for those with peanut allergies, celiac disease, and so on, so do the work to check.

If you're deciding between a few restaurants and don't want to call many to establish safety, search keywords like "gluten free", "celiac", "shellfish allergy", etcetera in Yelp, OpenRice, Google Reviews, and even allergen-specific apps like Find Me Gluten Free.

Advocate for yourself. This can feel pushy and hoity-toity but your allergic or autoimmune reaction will probably feel worse.

2. Bring your own food

Kitchen not safe? Use your own kitchen and bring food along. Check if you’re allowed to first. Some people maintain nut-free homes; many restaurants don’t let you bring your own food; some conferences will search bags for food before entry, but if you get the go-ahead, bring a lunchbox of your own stuff.

I learned the hard way so pro-tip: check if there's a microwave to heat your food. If there isn't, consider investing in a thermos. While salads or sandwiches suffice, there's something about a nice, hot meal that you deserve, especially when everyone around you has one.

Another thing I do is keep my home-brought food in its original container. Sometimes hosts will offer you a plate to transfer your food. I avoid this for two reasons. 1.) People may mistake your food as communal food and take it. When they take it, they may contaminate it, leaving you with nothing to eat. My dad (no aspersions cast) will often forget which plate is "mine" and his chopsticks go reaching all over the place. Having a distinct lunchbox or thermos is a subconscious reminder to other diners that your food is off-limits. 2.) There is a risk of cross-contamination when you switch plates. While it's small, is it worth it?

3. Pre-eat

I get it. All this attention with the thermos and calling ahead can be embarrassing or time-consuming. If you’d rather eat at home before or after (I prefer before), do that. If anyone asks why you’re not eating during the event, you can just say that you ate before because you have dietary restrictions.

You may find that there is something you can eat safely at the venue like a bowl of rice or a dessert, but you will be able to make a smart decision on whether to accept it if you aren't running on an empty stomach.

4. Host in your home

When you throw your own shindigs, you control the kitchen and menu. I acknowledge this relies on you having access to a safe kitchen and a large enough space to host people, which could be a barrier. However, what shouldn’t be a barrier is paying for everyone’s meal. I read an article saying it’s tacky to ask guests to chip in for hosted dinners, but especially if you are hosting regularly and your circle is accustomed to you playing host, establishing a norm of requesting a small contribution to cover groceries is not unreasonable (at least to millennials and Gen Z friends. If you’re comfortable with other people’s foods (and allergens) being in your home, you can also encourage them to bring their own food if they’d prefer.


Wrapping up

I know these things may not work for you. Sometimes they don’t work for me! But once I broke this down into an acronym, I felt less trapped and more like I had at least four options to navigate social meals with.

Steph also notes in the description of this video on Instagram that it’s important that these tips should not be used to facilitate or encourage restrictive eating habits. This thread is about prioritising your health and healthy eating, which means caring for your body and giving it the nutrition it needs.

Do you have other tips besides SOPH that you use? Watch Steph’s Lending Language Lab video too if you’d like to see these talked through in a visual soundbyte. And go follow Steph and Body Banter.

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