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do you ask guests about food sensitivities and allergies

Having a buffet gathering for 50 people and I don't know their food preferences or any allergies that they may have.

Would it be good form to send everyone a note to ask if they can identify any food sensitivities prior to the gathering?

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  1. That's a nice gesture as a host, but I would limit the requests to strictly allergies and diet based on religion because to go further than that and you'll be cooking individual dinners for 50. Barring those two questions, if you provide enough choices, the rest will find something that they can eat. Just my opinion

    1 Reply
    1. re: Cherylptw

      I agree with Cheryl. I'd ask about allergies or dietary restrictions (using that terminology precisely) but I refrain from using any word such as "preferences."

    2. you certainly can do that, but you may be deluged with special requests. allergies are the thing about which you must be most careful, since a severe reaction can be life and death.

      if i don't know everybody coming, i don't ever put nuts in something and if i make a shellfish dish it's clear what it is. those are the two most common culprits for adults, but luckily allergies are much less than common than people think. only between 2-5% adults have food allergies.

      as for intolerances/preferences, etc. label your dishes clearly and be on-hand to answer any questions if a guest has a private concern. if they have issues, they will come to you.

      1. as someone with allergies, my response may come as a surprise. it's a nice gesture to ask, but a party that size, i never expect special treatment. i figure i can have a small snack before, pick on what i can, and enjoy the company. that said, if you're doing a buffet, consider having one thing dairy free, one vegetarian, and maybe avoid nuts in some. have a good veggie platter and some fruit for dessert. and if you're making anything with a fancy sauce, or even the salad, reserve just a little for those that may be able to enjoy it plain?

        just my ten cents. you're already doing a good turn. the more you ask, the more you know, and the more you'll feel obligated to do...

        1. I would think that anyone with a serious allergy would be sure to either let you know or deal with it themselves.
          It is assuredly not the host's responsibility.

          1 Reply
          1. I agree with Cheryl. I have been astonished by some chowhound posts by dinner party hosts who seem to feel obliged to be clinical dietitians for the occasion---or else their guests feel awfully entitled to special treatment. How about if you know that eating shellfish is going to put you in the emergency room, you just don't eat it---take extra potatoes and salad and shut up about how special you are.

            1. I inquire about whether there's anything that an expected guest is unable to eat. I don't want to get into a clinical evaluation mode, just find out what not to put in front of them.

              1. Absolutely. For example if someone is allergic to shell fish I would definitely put out some beef chicken or pork dish. Similarly for vegetarians, etc.

                1. For a buffet, I don't ask. However, I do keep a "Guest Likes/Allergies/Dislikes" list to avoid problems. For a party of 50, I would try to make sure there would be something to eat for those having common allergies. That doesn't mean I would exclude seafood but I would include another dish for them to enjoy.

                  Once you get into the "I'm allergic to .......", I don't like ............." business, it can be never-ending. Trust me. I have a two page, single-spaced, list for one guest.

                  Those with serious food allergies know they need be cautious and they have always been the most gracious guests. She'll quietly ask "is there Amaretto on the fruit?" because she has a serious nut allergy but won't make a big deal about it. However, the epi-pen is never far away. My mustard-allergic friend never eats mayonnaise because he knows there is likely to be trouble. It's the "I don't like ---------- full-in-the-blank ------- group who gives the seriously allergic a bad name. Those pampered souls can eat before they arrive and on the way home. They need only be socially cordial while they're here.
                  You can drive yourself crazy trying to be all things to all people. Assume they're grownups and can takle care of them selves. It's one thing to be a gracious hostess but another thing entirely to be a Registered Dietician at your own party.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: Sherri

                    "Trust me. I have a two page, single-spaced, list for one guest."

                    Really? One of my family members eats at your house?

                    Seriously, though, the list is a good idea! I'm always getting into trouble because I can't seem to remember which beast provides the milk that makes the cheese that's safe for her to eat. And the fruits and veggies on that list? Oh, my!

                  2. Simply because I have so many food allergies myself, I always ask guest before a sit down dinner, but for a buffet I just make sure there is a wide variety and let people choose their way through. If I'm fairly sure some do have allergies, then I make a small card listing ingredients to put beside each dish to help them out. So far, so good. No Epi-pens have been whipped out to the best of my knowledge.

                    1. For a buffet, I think you would be fine simply providing enough food choices so that those with allergic reactions/sensitivities can have a satisfying meal, even if there are certain dishes they'll have to pass on tasting. As mentioned already, nuts, dairy and shellfish are quite common; so is gluten and citrus. Preparing a dairy-free vegetarian entree is a good option.

                      What is good is to know what exactly is IN each dish you are serving. If you didn't make it yourself, make sure to save the nutrition info and ingredient list, so if someone does ask if a particular allergen/irritating ingredient is present, you know the answer. For instance, I am highly intolerant of raw garlic, so I have to be careful about certain dips and sauces commonly prepared. It won't send me to the hospital, but it can ruin the rest of my night (and next day) if I accidentally ingest some. A store bought vegetable soup might actually be made with chicken broth - making it not a great choice for a vegetarian.

                      With 50 people, simply asking for food "preferences" is probably going to be a nightmare. You'll get so many different likes/dislikes there's no way you could please everyone with every dish.

                      1. Agree with Cherylptw. Ask them for food restriction, not food preference. You don't necessary have to change your buffet, simply label the foods so that specific guests can avoid foods which they cannot eat.

                        1. I don't think it's worth bothering. Assuming you give a good selection of dishes and label them clearly, people should able to pick what they want and avoid the rest. Typically someone with a life-threatening allergy will tell you she can't have peanuts, shellfish, stone fruit, etc.

                          1. I would not ask. But for large groups I usually put a small card in front of every dish with a list of ingredients. I cook from scratch and if I use something prepared, I copy the ingredients from the package. I also make sure there is something vegan on hand and that also covers vegetarians and most religious restrictions.

                            1. it wouldn't occur to me to ask, I have cooked hundreds of dinner parties, buffets, Xmas and Jewish holiday meals and to be honest I had never ever ever heard of all these food allergies until I came to America 6 years ago. I have one English friend who is a Coeliac but he knows how to deal with his foods. Of course there are Brits with peanut allergies but nobody I know, no lactose intolerants that I have ever heard of. Maybe the British keep it to themselves I don't know.

                              anyway back to a buffet, you could label your dishes if you so wish but people with preferences will sniff it out for themselves. I don't eat shellfish or pork so I would just go ask the host, but if they were busy I would stay with 'safe' items.

                              3 Replies
                              1. re: smartie

                                "Sniffing it out" to an extent, with some ingredients, are easy. Not so easy with other things. As I mentioned up thread, raw garlic is a big problem for me and it can be insidious in certain dishes. I have a lot of trouble even in restaurants trying to find out from servers if their bread-dipping sauce contains raw/only barely-cooked garlic, salad dressings, pastas, etc. What seems trivial to them can leave me in real pain and discomfort for days afterward, and make me never want to eat there again.

                                A person doesn't have to be obnoxious about announcing their allergies and intolerances, but a host should know what their dishes contain, and be able to answer--accurately--what is in the food they are serving. Even if it is to say "I don't know" so a person with problematic intolerances and allergies can avoid.

                                1. re: sockii

                                  I understand but a buffet is hard for people who can't or won't eat certain items for example a wedding buffet is almost impossible for you to figure out what might have garlic in it. Presumably you stay safe and eat bread and cheese or cruditees and dessert?

                                  1. re: smartie

                                    I don't have to be that selective. My sensitivity is really limited to undercooked and raw garlic - I know people who can't handle ANY onion and garlic, in any form, who have it much, much harder b/c garlic powder is used in so many condiments without thought. I've basically learned not to eat hummus, most dips, Middle Eastern food I haven't made myself or anything that at all lists "garlic" in the description (like an "oil and garlic" sauce) because I have to assume the dish will be loaded with garlic that hasn't been cooked to the extent I can tolerate it. (I am Italian and follow the traditional Italian method of flavoring cooking oil with garlic cloves, then removing it from a dish entirely.) Yet I still end up sometimes being served something unexpectedly that is loaded with garlic and makes me sick because it was not listed as a major ingredient, and it can't always be tasted right away. I've learned the hard way, many times, unfortunately.

                                    At wedding buffets I have actually not ever had a problem because it is typically pretty bland, boring food that no one would have any reason to object to - nor praise for being especially tasty, either :)

                              2. For a buffet, absolutely not. It's up to the ingester to decide whether or not to ingest, & they're more than welcome to ask me at the time what's in something, But I'm certainly not going to print out an ingredient list for every dish & post it. Nor am I going to make a special menu to accommodate certain people. You want to come to the party, it's up to you what you eat.

                                Now that's not to say that I don't keep in mind different general dietary preferences & thus for a buffet automatically have dishes that should enable everyone to enjoy several items. That's just part of being a good host.

                                For a sit-down dinner, I do ask my guests ahead of time if they have any allergies, & if it's a small party, then I'll also ask if there's anything they particularly hate. Last thing I need is to spring for lobsters only to find out one of the guests would rather eat worms & die than eat it - lol!!

                                1. i have celiac disease and a soy intolerance, and my mom has a potentially fatal seafood allergy, so i'm hyper-aware and vigilant when it comes to these things. it's just a reality of my everyday existence that unless i have prepared it myself from raw ingredients, i must read the label or ask the chef, counter-person or server before i eat something...anything. it's a pain in the ass, and i always hate having to broach the subject with hosts when they invite me, so whenever i'm hosting, i check with my guests and make sure i have food that is safe for everyone to eat because i like being able to pay it forward and sparing those in a similar position as myself from having to deal with it for just one night.

                                  HOWEVER, i would *never* expect someone who invited me for a meal to be so proactive. the burden lies with the person who has the limitations, not the one who is generous enough to offer to feed and entertain them. it's really thoughtful of you to consider, and certainly greatly appreciated by those of us who do deal with allergies and intolerances, but it's not necessary. believe me, we're all used to doing the detective work ourselves, and coming prepared if necessary ;)

                                  the most you need to do is be able to answer any questions about the ingredients in a dish...so if you didn't make something yourself, or if you use sauces, condiments or other prepared ingredients that contain potential allergens, just make sure you hang on to the package or label!

                                  1 Reply
                                  1. re: goodhealthgourmet

                                    Thanks for your thoughtful and encouraging replies. I have had situations where friends suffer from celiac disease or they happen to keep Kosher. So I try to do my best to ensure that they can enjoy foods.

                                    The occasion that I am hosting next is a bit more unpredictable. A group of older people who used to teach at my elementary school when I was a child. I am hosting this with another ex student; should be fun.

                                  2. I wouldn't inquire for a large party (though I automatically make sure to include a decent spread for non meat-eaters). If I knew of a certain dietary restriction of a guest I would certainly make sure they had something to eat.

                                    If it's a small dinner party, I always ask for food allergies/aversions/preferences ahead of time and plan a menu based on that feedback.

                                    1 Reply
                                    1. re: LeoLioness

                                      Even if you keep a file of your friends' preferences, you may need to ask again anyway. I know a few who change 'how' vegetarian they are from year to year.

                                    2. To get around people who fake allergies to avoid things they don't like, and because I think their health issues are none of my business, I generally just ask guests if there's anything they don't eat. If they're deathly allergic they can offer that information. But generally, barring allergies or religious dietary laws, people are embarrassed to answer that question with a whole litany of things. The only thing I would name in that situation are bananas because I might actually hurl if I tried to eat them.

                                      That said I question the wisdom of trying to juggle dietary restrictions when cooking for 50 people. I would recommend just making enough of a variety so that everyone can find something to eat, without worrying about making every single dish suitable for every guest.

                                      1. when we have people over for dinner whether 2 or 20 we always ask "is there anything you cannot eat?" then we make sure we have something that fits their requirements.

                                        nothing brings buzz kill to a prty faster then EMS showing up to take a guest away for an allergic reaction or watching someone sit at the table with an empty plate.

                                        seems to me it is just common courtesy.

                                        3 Replies
                                          1. re: buttertart

                                            ditto. I always ask about food allergies. Parties are a lot more fun when people are at ease and well fed.

                                            I look at menu planning around allergies as a way to challenge my abilities in the kitchen and I usually learn a thing or two along the way.

                                          2. re: jfood

                                            My position as well. I've never had anyone be too difficult (in fact, I am more difficult than anyone else I know in this regard!).

                                            I want my friends and family to leave my home feeling happy, sated, and hosted.

                                          3. As a hostess, I always ask my guests whether they have any food allergies. I would hate to either see a guest fall potentially ill, or not be able to eat anything. Given my own stomach problems, I can sympathize with people when it comes to not having a thing to eat or being terribly allergic and suffer a horrid reaction.

                                            As a guest, I now never expect my hosts to have to prepare anything specifically for me. I typically attend dinners armed with snacks in the event that I am unable to even pick around the food.

                                            I do remember one instance when a host inquired about food intolerances/allergies. I stated mine with the caveat that he should not change his menu and I would be happy to bring my own snacks and share the company. His response was that he hadn't started menu planning and that he wouldn't put my intolerances on the menu so that I could eat. "Don't bring any snacks," he told me. "You'll have plenty to eat!" You can imagine my surprise when I arrived sans snacks, to find every dish on his menu was covered in the one thing that I could not eat, stating that I could just pick out what I could eat. I should have known better and brought my snacks despite his assurances. That lesson taught me that no matter how well-meaning your hosts are, as a person with food intolerances, you should always arrive with snacks in purse.

                                            1 Reply
                                            1. re: daeira

                                              For dinner parties we simply ask, do you have any food allergies or strong dislikes. We then plan the menu around that. We have a niece who is intolerant of gluten, so we always work around that, either with the whole meal, or at least alternatives. We have never had a problem with this approach. For a large group, we simply provide lots of alternatives.

                                            2. Have a friend who is allergic to shellfish but always asks me to bring shrimp because her husband loves it. I'm sure everyone can find something to eat. I recently went to a party where most of the dishes contained tomato products which I cannot eat (silent acid reflux) so I just ate some apps and had a snack later at home as well. Only thing I hated about it is that I LOVE tomatoes and it killed me to not eat the food lol!!!

                                              1. I would ask just to help layout the buffet menu, but generally I leave it up to the guest to rsvp and mention any food allergies. I generally don't worry about people eating the wrong food since they should know better.

                                                1. As the mother of a child with a life-threatening peanut allergy, I think it is my job to tell the host, and I imagine anyone with a severe allergy or religious restriction would do the same thing. I'd never expect a host to ask or even to accommodate us--I just offer to bring something safe for him . (And now that he's older, he can cook it himself!)

                                                  I tell hosts not because we are special, but to save them embarrassment if my son can't eat their food. (Hosts generally want to please their guests and not accidentally kill them.) I learned to speak up from experience after we had to leave one house because the smell of baking PB cookies made him feel sick to his stomach. It was very awkward and embarrassing for us and for the hostess. I felt awful for not warning her in advance, but he was only 3 and newly diagnosed, so the whole allergy thing was new to me.

                                                  Just know that if you do want to accommodate guests' needs, not every dish has to be acceptable to every person, as long as a few of them are.

                                                  1. I have never even considered asking people about allergies or preferences.

                                                    1. I don't do it. If you're coming to my house to eat food I'm going to prepare, you owe me the courtesy of telling me in advance.;

                                                      2 Replies
                                                      1. re: jmckee

                                                        I understand why you feel this way, but if I were invited to someone's home for dinner, I'd feel awkward giving an unsolicited list of my food preferences (demands, necessities, whatever). You could as easily find someone who did that discourteous. Whereas it's never rude for a host to ask.

                                                        1. re: small h

                                                          agree, a gracious host(ess) strives to make their guest feel comfortable and welcomed. I think it is important to understand restrictions up front.
                                                          A buffet for a large group is less problematic because there is usually a larger variety of dishes. I remember hosting 2 other couples for dinner and one of the guests would not eat the entree because she keeps Kosher and couldn't confirm that the poultry was Kosher.
                                                          I felt terrible that she couldn't enjoy dinner.

                                                      2. I used try to take food preferences into consideration, but not anymore. Guest have become too demanding and there are too many different food preferences--vegan, vegetarian, organic, gluten free, peanut and nut free, lactose free, low fat, low sugar, high-fructose corn syrup free, no preservatives, no food additives, no hormones, etc. I am sure I missed a few. I tell guest what I will be serving and invite them to pack a sack lunch if they wish. I do not want to be responsible for causing an adverse reaction in a guest. Besides it is expensive to purchase specialty food items and plan menus. A loaf of gluten free bread is at least $10.00. Cooking for picky eaters generally exceeds my budget.

                                                        1. We do, and not just when hosting a dinner at home.

                                                          We also keep a log of guests' likes, dislikes and allergies, for when we host at a restaurant, or an event, and try to accommodate them 100%.