1. veggie

    What is the proper etiquette for a vegetarian who is invited to a dinner where there is no choice in the menu (i.e. someone else is cooking, or fixed menu at a restaurant)? How should the vegetarian inform the host, and is it necessary for the vegetarian to inform the host every time an invitation is offered? For example, if I, a vegetarian, am invited about once a year to a family member’s home for a home-cooked meal, should I remind them every year? Finally, it is ever acceptable for a vegetarian (or vegan, or other dietary restriction) to bring their own food to a gathering? I’m thinking specifically of a large traditional family Thanksgiving meal where there will only be one vegan and no vegetarians.

    • I am not a vegetarian, but being gluten intolerant I have often found myself in situation where there is little–if anything–to eat. I have found it best to be up front about my dietary restrictions. Saying something like, “Do you have your menu planned yet? I’m a vegetarian, so I’d be happy to bring a dish if needed!” And yes, you should do this every time unless you dine with the person frequently.

      For the large family gatherings, you could also bring a dish to share that is vegetarian and would be filling for you.

    • Rachel

      I believe it is polite to remind the host, and offer to bring something. I was a vegetarian for 15 years, and now I have Celiac disease (as do my daughters and my fiance). When invited somewhere I mention, “I know it can be hard to accommodate our need for gluten-free food. Can I bring something to help out?” I usually end up bringing a dessert, as those are hardest gf, the opposite of your issue. If you’re close with someone, one would hope they would remember your dietary restrictions, but I know that’s not always the case. By offering to bring something you’re drawing their attention to the issue without insinuating that they don’t remember.

      If we’re going to a restaurant I call the restaurant in advance to check in with the manager.

    • Elizabeth

      Cyra and Rachel’s advice is very good when attending a dinner in a private home. In the case of a restaurant, though, I would think the best way to deal with it would be to contact the restaurant directly. They have a lot of experience dealing with restricted diets, and since vegetarianism can be defined in a few different ways (some eat fish, some don’t eat dairy, some will make an occasional exception for artisanal bacon) it would be easiest and most direct to ring up the manager. Vegetarian options are almost always cheaper than meat entrees anyway, so it is extremely unlikely that it would cost the host more. You could say, “Hi, I will be attending a dinner hosted by the Smith family on the 19th, and I understand there is a fixed menu. I’m a vegetarian and do not eat X (or do eat Y), and I was wondering if that’s something you’d be able to accommodate that on the day-of, or whether some other arrangements should be made in advance?”

    • Jody

      I agree with all the above advice, excellent suggestions. What I would add is that the best time to inform the host of your dietary restrictions is at the time you accept the invitation. That gives the host plenty of time to make sure your restrictions are accommodated.

    • Winifred Rosenburg

      I have to disagree with previous posters. Hosts at a private home should not be told dietary restrictions. It is too much of an imposition on your host to expect them to adjust their menu for you. An exception is for allergies or religious restrictions. However, that is not so the host can adjust the menu for you but so he or she can inform you of which items contain the offensive ingredients. In the case of a restaurant, you can tell the server you are a vegetarian and see what they can offer you. When invited to someone’s home, you can offer to bring a dish but if the host turns you down you should respect your hosts wishes.

      To quote Miss Manners:
      The socially correct thing for a guest to do is to be perfectly happy eating salad, bread and any vegetable; the socially correct thing for a host to do is to refrain from being disappointment when a guest does not, for any reason, consume everything that is offered.
      Suppose the other guests call too, and announce themselves as being on the latest diet, kosher, allergic to seafood, and on the grapefruit diet. Is their hostess expected to be a short-order cook?

      • Elizabeth

        I disagree with Miss Manners here for a couple of reasons:
        I think this attitude privileges religion and allergies over other reasons in a way that is not particularly useful. One chooses a religion just as much as one chooses not to eat meat for ethical or even health reasons. I definitely don’t think the guest should articulate their preferences, but a long-time vegetarian is no more able to eat meat than is someone allergic to gluten able to eat bread.

        Second, most hosts invite guests over because they want to extend some hospitality to them. Miss Manners seems to have in mind a large dinner party in which the hostess is likely to have set the menu well in advance and in which there are a substantial number of guests. However, if you’re just having another couple over, or just another person, it would be quite absurd for the sole guest to hold back crucial dietary information that would cause them to not be able to eat a substantial portion of the meal. Further, many people will inadvertently put meat/nuts/gluten/whathaveyou in the vegetables or salad, potentially making the whole thing inedible to the one guest that you’ve especially invited over to treat. If I were that host, I would be quite disappointed to have worked hard to create a meal that my guest could not enjoy.

        I have a friend with a whole host of allergies, who I invited over for dinner once. She handled it well. She replied a polite decline (over email) that she had a lot of food restrictions, and that it would be hard for me to cook for her. I took the opportunity to say that I loved a good challenge, what were her food restrictions? I’d come up with a menu and double-check to make sure it didn’t have an allergen. That worked perfectly, and we had a very nice meal together. No, I didn’t cook with seafood or tropical fruits, but otherwise I had many other recipes in my repertoire that needed little to no modification. It’s just not that difficult to accommodate someone with a dietary restriction.

        • Winifred Rosenburg

          When I have friends over for dinner for the first time, I always ask if they have dietary restrictions, and I expect them to tell me if they are vegetarians or whatever so I can accommodate them. However, I once had a friend invite me over for dinner who was new to cooking. He had just taken a cooking class and made what he was taught to make in the class. It was literally the only thing he knew how to make so having a guest tell him “I don’t eat shellfish” (it was a shrimp dish) would have created a major problem for him. The exception for allergies and religion is so someone doesn’t accidentally eat something they had no idea was in the dish, causing an allergic reaction or a spiritual problem for the person. Yes, etiquette consistently puts religious beliefs ahead of ethical and other beliefs. That’s just the way it is. By the way, I was on a gluten-free, dairy-free diet on doctor’s orders for a long time so I do feel where many of you are coming from.

          • Winifred Rosenburg

            Sorry, I forgot to mention my point in that story was if your host asks you should tell him but be sure to mention he shouldn’t go to a lot of trouble for you. If he doesn’t ask, assume he doesn’t want to know.

          • Elizabeth

            I can certainly sympathize with someone in your friend’s position, but still – someone in this day and age must realize that people do have various dietary restrictions (for whatever reason), and I can imagine him being all the more disappointed when he proudly serves his dish and his guest doesn’t actually take any of it. How devastating that would be! Not to mention what a waste of money, something else he would likely feel. (Again, it depends whether this is an 8-person dinner party, or whether it’s just you and John, and you can’t eat what he’s making. One guest of 8 not eating the main dish could be overlooked, but certainly not the one other person sitting across the table.)

      • Joanna

        On the other hand, look at it this way…if you are the host of a dinner party, you have undoubtedly put a good deal of work into cooking and preparing. You want to make sure your guests actually eat what you troubled yourself to put out! Thus, in my mind, it would be much more preferable to be told in advance what Jane or John will eat, as opposed to having them just show up and nibble a roll while the main entree sits untouched and cold.

  2. DM

    Elisabeth is on point with this – invitations are generally issued by a host that would like to catch up, and I see nothing wrong with mentioning dietary restrictions when accepting an invitation (with the caveat that you don’t mind declining if it’s too much trouble).

    As someone who chooses not to eat farm animals based on ethical concerns, I find it a bit rude that religious observance is considered a legitimate dietary restriction in some comments, but other restrictions based on moral beliefs is not. I would never advocate that hosts should cater to everybody’s whims or that someone on a fad diet should expect accommodation, but assuming a host enjoys the company of those invited, I think mentioning dietary restrictions in advance so that there are no surprises is very reasonable. Accommodations do not have to be complex – I love the variety of sides at Thanksgiving, nothing special is ever prepared for me – but I have been to meals where vegetables are seasoned with bacon or other meats and have struggled to have even a couple of bites (bacon tastes awful to me).

  3. NessyS

    I am a vegetarian AND have several food intolerances. I would always offer to help by preparing something to share with the others that would fit in with my dietary restrictions and the menu. Hosting a dinner party can be stressful for the host (I know it can be for me!) and they don’t need extra worry. I agree it would be very rude if someone had gone to a lot of trouble to cook for a gathering then I turned up and only ate the salad (if one was even on offer…).

    I agree wholeheartedly with DM’s comments re religion/vs ethical. I am not a vego and have intolerances on a whim. I have been to gatherings (say, what you American’s refer to as a “Pot Luck”) where I have prepared a dish to share that I can eat – only to find it is always the first to go! So people must like these things. Unfortunately – the result can sometimes be that I too find myself picking through vegetable sides to find hunks of bacon/ham (or a trigger like onion/fruit) but at least if I get in early I get something!

    The responsibility is on the person with the dietary issues to be pro-active regardless of where the meal is to take place.

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