Dinner Party Etiquette: Should You Alter Your Menu Based on Guests’ Food Preferences?

From gluten-free to vegan to paleo, there's no shortage of trendy diets these days. If one of your guests has a special diet or food preference, is it your obligation to alter your menu accordingly? We tackle this tough etiquette question.

Two women on the right side of the table lay down dishes as two men and another woman are laughing and enjoying wine

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When planning a dinner party, it’s important to keep your guests’ preferences in mind. But let’s be honest: People can be picky, and you’ll probably never please everyone. But what happens when one of your guests turns out to be a vegetarian, or avoiding gluten or dairy? What if they have a real allergy…or what if they’re just trying the diet of the week?

Generally, my policy is not to alter my menu. I won’t tie myself in knots or dramatically change my routine to satisfy a whim. Paleo? Vegan? Something new I’ve never heard of? I’m sure you’ll be able to enjoy one of my fresh sides, but I won’t be offering a second entree especially for you.

The exception to the rule? If someone has a real food allergy or intolerance, I’ll try to offer something safe for you to eat. (Again, I probably will not alter my entire meal plan to suit you.)

Here’s my reasoning, and advice for other hosts:

Serve Some “Everyone-Friendly” Items

Keep some simple vegetarian, gluten-free and meat-free recipes in your back pocket. Even if you’re only up for making a couple appetizers or side dishes, your guests with special diets will be able to fill their plates. Some of my favorites:

  • Quinoa, rice or other grain salads make a tasty appetizer for anyone, and someone avoiding gluten can enjoy a plate as their main dish.
  • Leafy salads are generally safe for everyone. Make them vegan by putting the cheese on the side and serving with a plain oil-based vinaigrette. (Here’s how to make an easy homemade vinaigrette.)
  • Roasted veggies with a dip or two (perhaps some hummus) = easy, delicious and filling.
  • Plain roast chicken or other meats satisfy paleo and gluten-free eaters without any fussy recipes.
  • Serving cheese or dips? Offer sliced veggies or corn chips as well as crackers.

Everyone thinks these foods are vegetarian-but they’re not.

Hosting Kids? Don’t Bend Over Backwards

Some of the children in my acquaintance-while lovely-are the dullest eaters. Apart from handing out Go-Gurts at dinner, I’m skeptical that any kid-friendly menu item could please them. My solution: not even trying. Kids can nibble on appetizers or pick the meat out of the pasta. It’s a hard-knock life, kids.

Check out our secret weapons for parents of picky eaters.

Stick to Your Strengths

Aside from making one or two of the “safe” items listed above, I generally stick to what I personally enjoy! While I love tasting new recipes, I won’t try out something unfamiliar when I’m hosting. It’s too stressful, and the risk of things turning out all wrong is too high.

I lean on low-and-slow recipes that cook all day without much work on my part, taste great and serve a crowd. (Like these impressive slow cooker recipes.) I try to get the cooking out of the way beforehand. No one wants to be in the kitchen whisking souffle while their guests sip cocktails and chat. As Ina Garten has said, parties are about people, not food. (Read more wisdom from Ina.)

Don’t Apologize

Everybody has an opinion, but I typically only trust my own. Chances are your guests will love the food and have a wonderful time. Worrying about whether everything is perfect will only make people nervous. As Julia Child once wrote, “The young hostess should be advised never to say anything about what she serves, in the way of ‘Oh, I don’t know how to cook, and this may be awful.’ … I make it a rule, no matter what happens, never to say one word, though it kills me. Maybe the cat has fallen in the stew, or I have put the lettuce out the window and it has frozen, or the meat is not quite done. … Grit one’s teeth and smile.”

And just in case, serve a loaf of bread on the side (and keep the wine flowing!).

(Did you wait until the last minute? We’ve got potluck ideas and Mediterranean diet recipes ready in just 30 minutes)

What do you think? Should the host alter the menu to suit guests’ requests? Tell us in the comments!

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Laura Denby
Laura is a New York-based freelance food writer with a degree in Culinary Arts from the Institute of Culinary Education and a degree in Journalism from Penn State. Her work has appeared in Taste of Home, Chowhound, the Culture Trip and Patch.