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What's the 'best' way to navigate guests food preferences when hosting?

I finally have space to entertain and am starting to throw dinner parties for 5-6 people. Sometimes I know what food preferences people have (vegetarian, no dairy, no pork, no beef, etc.) but I'm finding it a bit mind boggling to create a menu I'm excited about and also make sure my guests are satiated and enjoy themselves.

When you host a dinner party, how do you accommodate varying dietary needs and/or preferences?

Do you inquire ahead of time (for those guests you are not aware of), or do you generally serve enough variety so that all guests will be able to eat some component of the menu?

I'm also playing around with creating the guest list BASED on the menu (for instance, if I'm in the mood to do a short rib braise, invite those that I know would appreciate the hearty meat dish). Although, this method is not as inclusive as I'd like.

Thoughts?

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  1. I plan my menu based on what I want to serve. I invite my guests. If any guest has issues (Vegetarian, Celiac, Lactose Intolerant) it is up to them to let me know when replying and I discuss the menu with them and if a simple accomodation can be made.
    Issues are different than preferences. I would try to accomodate soneone who IS vegetarian as opposed to someone who prefers not to eat meat.

    That said, if the meal is something such as a standing rib roast and we'll only be 6 at the table, I might suggest to the responder that he/she join me on a different date when I serve a different menu.

    Your dinner party is not a catered wedding reception. Your guests do not get to check off Beef, Chicken or Fish on a reply card.

    That said, my nephew's wife is both vegan and Celiac. She is always welcome, eats before she comes, munches the crudites and drinks, always has a great time. i would cook special to accomodate her ethical and medical issues, but she doesn't want anyone to bother, she makes it a non-issue.

    19 Replies
    1. re: bagelman01

      Yay! Too many people try to be a restaurant when having people over. Yours is a good way to do it.

      1. re: bagelman01

        when i invite guests, i usually will be serving several dishes.

        i make sure that every guest has at least one dish that can honestly be seen as a "main" even if the others are having it as an appetizer.

        last friday night, i was invited to a friend's house and she had made some vegetarian enchiladas for the one vegetarian guest.

        as it turned out, the enchiladas were the hit of the party. none of the other guests were vegetarian, but they ALL loved those enchiladas.

        normally i look at accommodating my guests' dietary preferences as a way to expand my repertoire.

        to me, no biggie.

        1. re: westsidegal

          100% agree -- I just ask -- it's easy.

        2. re: bagelman01

          Just curious if you disclose the menu when you do the inviting... or do you simply say something like: join me for dinner.

          1. re: The Oracle

            No, I don't disclose the menu when inviting a small group of friends to a dinner party at my home. My home is NOT a restaurant, you can't view the menu on line and then decide.
            If you have questions/issues, etc., you discuss them while RSVPing.
            The only exception would be if I host a dinner party in honor of someone, such as a birthday, then I would ask the honoree in advance if there was a special meal they'd like me to serve in their honor.
            A small dinner party hosted at home as the OP describes would be mostly made up of friends and relatives. They would probably know that they wouldn't be served pork or shellfish in the B home.................

            When I serve a FORMAL dinner party, it is likely to be multi course, but not multipe entrees, it isn't buffet, pick and choose.
            It will be in the formal dining room, on fine china, with crytal and sterling, an intimate, elegant evening.

            If I invite guests to a cocktail party, then there will be many dishes available that can satisfy most food issues and no one would go unsatisfied or hungry.

            It is time for guests to take responsibilities for their food preferences and issues, the host should not be guilted into cooking multiple menus.

            1. re: bagelman01

              I like your approach. How many times a year do you have formal dinners? We do that maybe twice a year and its quite a bit of work. Much easier to do a casual meal once a month or so.

              Bagelman, curious to find out if you find yourself hosting more than being hosted. That's definitely the case for us. We like to entertain so its a fun thing to do. I get the feeling that's not universal.

              1. re: Bkeats

                Formal dinner parties, about once per month October thru May.
                I actually find a formal dinner party to be less work than a casual meal, as I'm only making one item for each course.

                Formal Holiday Dining (20-30 guests) for Jewish New Year and Passover.

                Formal Sabbath Dinners (4-12) about 3 times per month.

                All of this gives us a reason to use the good china, crystal, silver and formal dining room.

                Wife is a builder/designer, and kitchen and dining room were designed and equipped with formal dining in mind.

                We definitely host more than we are guests. Many of our friends have already downsized and don't have the space, or are stuck in McMansions (popular in the 90s and early 2000s) that have kitchens and great rooms, but no formal dining rooms. These are not condusive to adult dinner entertaining.

                Not everyone has confidence in their ability to entertain and put out a complete meal on time (hint, try using the stove, not the microwave, the stove has multiple burners for a reason).
                Lastly, in this economy many people can not afford to host a formal dinner party-wine, liquor, food, linens, etc.

                1. re: bagelman01

                  That's an impressive entertainment calendar.

                  1. re: Bkeats

                    we enjoy it.
                    With the death of area country clubs and the closing of many city clubs, it is no longer possible to spend an evening dining (out) with friends. Restaurants need to turn the tables in order to survive and one may not camp out all evening.

                    When we belonged to the private clubs, there was only one sitting per table. If we made a reservation for 7:30 or 8 on a Saturday night, we knew the table was ours all evening. In fact the orchestra/band generally didn't start playing until about 10 for after dinner dancing. Around 1:30 am coffee, danish and after dinner drinks would be served and all would end by 2. BUT, as the clubs were member owned, they had to merely cover expenses, not turn a profit for investors.

                    1. re: bagelman01

                      We belong to one of these old school athletic clubs in the city. One of the last survivors in the area. I would never have joined it on my own but the wife insisted and said it would be great for the kids to get them involved in some sports.

                      They have a small but formal dining area. No jeans or t-shirts for the kiddies permitted. You make a reservation and you have the table for the evening. No band, but we get together with friends and there is no rush to get out. Very pleasant. The bartender can make a mean martini too. The bill for the evening is pretty reasonable for the quality of the food and wine. As you say, no need to turn a profit. My dues take care of the real expenses of running the place.

                  2. re: bagelman01

                    Before the "recession" and I had to return to work, we hosted a dinner party at least once a month, with formal dinners probably on holidays only. However, with encroaching age, reduced energy, time and resources, our dinners are seldom, and I'm not sure but it seems to me that we were the primary dinner hosts because invitations are few and far between. Maybe the same issues are the culprits. I don't think I've broken out the china and crystal in a couple of years!

                    I approach informal dining the same way as I do formal, except the preparation is simpler because I'm not polishing silver, ironing tablecloths, etc. With formal, when selecting the menu I have to consider the fragile finish of the dishes (no steak knives, please) and serving dishes and flatware (careful about silver plated knives & acids). With casual, I still think about coordinating appetizers, entrees, sides, desserts, wines, textures & colors, decor & timing of all.

                    These days I ask about dietary limitations. So many of our friends have developed health issues that I'd feel terrible if someone came over and I served something that caused them distress. I also always make sure I have something non-alcoholic available!

                    1. re: bagelman01

                      Rosh Hashanah, Passover, Thanksgiving and Christmas are pretty traditional menus, and most people know what to expect with a few permutations. Our table seats 10, 12 gets pretty crowded, but we can have 30 if we spread out, so we tend to do buffet and casual, mixing all the dishes and utensils. For holiday meals, I pretty much serve the same thing every year on those days and only those days--for me, kinda boring, but then the kids ask are we having mashed potatoes, or green beans/whatever, so I wind up making what I am interested in and then more to satisfy them. But only family makes those requests, most folks are just happy to come to your home for a meal. I have a friend who just gave up on holiday meal variety, as she said, "everybody wants the green jello."

                  3. re: bagelman01

                    I'm waiting to hear what happens when you invite someone to a cocktail party and they go all Carrie Nation anti-alcohol when they get there.
                    Some people, I truly believe, really enjoy the attention they get when they act like a pain in the ass.

                    1. re: EWSflash

                      If that ever happened (not in my social circle!) I'd tell that person to take a hike.

                      I'm of the belief that many people act like jerks because others enable them to. Not in my house!

                      1. re: EWSflash

                        I once had a party for 36 in my 900 s.f. apartment. A dear friend brought a date, who asked if I had any Perrier. I told her I had water, wine, beer, and if she preferred I could probably dig up a bottle of club soda. Puh-leeze. I don't remember ever seeing her again. Hmmm, must have been the club soda crack.

                        1. re: blaireso

                          we had a Crawfish boil. ..in fact went out of the way having two pots..one spicy one mild...which is kind of untraditional..went further out of the way and had a table inside with some kid friendly food...popcorn shrimp and cornbread muffins vodoo chips and praline... Well, some date of a guest in a squeakkkky loud voice complained the whole time " THIS IS BARBARIC THERE IS NOTHING HERE I CAN EAT!" I even fixed her a salad.

                          1. re: girloftheworld

                            I'd have handed her $5 and told her to go to McDonald's.

                  4. re: bagelman01

                    Bless her heart- she sounds like a keeper

                  5. I always accommodate medical needs and religious requirements. Beyond that, not much. I always have plenty of vegetables, so anyone can skip the meat and seafood if they wish. And I can always do an omelet.
                    But they cannot dictate my menu----take it or leave it.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: mwhitmore

                      +1. The host should never be confused with a short-order cook.

                    2. I'll ask for dietary accommodations when I send the invite. For a group of 5-6, I'd probably create the guest list based on what I feel like cooking. OTOH, we have a family member who is allergic to black pepper, and someone else who doesn't eat dairy. So, when they are both coming to dinner, some accommodation is made. But not everyone will eat every dish served.

                        1. re: MGZ

                          Yes, I confess, I have no idea what this means, can someone please explain.

                          1. re: BeefeaterRocks

                            Just writing a period (or other random mark) just means the poster wrote something, posted it, changed their mind about what they wrote, and edited it to say just a period. It's delightfully mysterious.

                            1. re: BeefeaterRocks

                              It means that after MGZ posted something he had second thoughts about what he'd said, deleted it, and replaced it with a period. Although how he was able to do that after the two-hour editing window expired, I have no idea. He must have some good connections. And now, of course, Jon Parker's comment below makes no sense to anyone reading along.

                              1. re: JoanN

                                Just as an FYI, you can then self-Flag these things and leave us a note, and we'll delete them.

                                1. re: The Chowhound Team

                                  Yes, I understand. But it doesn't seem quite fair to me to agree to it when there's another post that makes no sense after the deletion.

                                2. re: JoanN

                                  Ah, thank you Hobbert & JoanN, mystery solved?

                                  1. re: JoanN

                                    It's better to delete the more likely to be misunderstood comments than have 'em continue to be misunderstood.

                                    1. re: MGZ

                                      This is really off-topic here, so if you want to discuss mods deleting posts on request, we'd ask that you please start a thread on Site Talk so we can discuss in more detail there. Thanks!

                                      1. re: The Chowhound Team

                                        Wow. I love you guys and think you do an amazin' job.

                                        I was talkin' about self deletin' so you guys need not get involved.

                              2. It all depends.

                                For one friend who has celiac disease and a rather long list of other foods she's medically restricted from eating, I invited her to my apartment about a week before the dinner and not only showed her the menu, but the list of ingredients in each recipe so I'd know exactly what substitutions I would have to make. This was more than a year ago, and she's still talking about how much she appreciated it. By the way, this was a small Chinese banquet, and none of the other guests were aware that the dinner had been planned that way.

                                As far as creating the guest list based on the menu, I do that all the time. If I want to prepare a big, honking pork shoulder, I'm not inviting friends who keep Kosher.

                                For me, it's all about making my friends comfortable and happy. And catering to their preferences makes me happy. Win/win.

                                1 Reply
                                1. re: JoanN

                                  I much prefer your approach to MGZ's.