April 25, 2014

Dietary Restrictions? Don’t Be a Jerk.


On one occasion, when offered my homemade, vegetarian lasagna, she informed me that I’d “better change my menus because pretty soon everyone will go gluten-free.”

Like fingerprints, most of us carry a unique set of preferences, cultural influences and health issues surrounding food.

I think about this a lot because I feed people for a living. My observation is that a person can be cool, influential and informative about their dietary choices, or a person can be a total jerk.

Being cool is as simple as eating what you choose to eat, and accepting (without comment or judgment) what other people eat.

It means being a gracious guest. If you are a vegetarian and you are offered a hunk of meat, all you have to do is say, “No thanks, I don’t eat meat but that squash casserole and salad looks delicious!” (And yes, they could have asked about dietary restrictions, but your partner’s 78-year-old aunt is just not going to do that.)

It means giving dissertations about ones’ own choices only when asked, and trying to avoid the implication that everyone who chooses differently is a moron or a murderer.

It means never, ever critiquing what someone else chooses to eat. (Honestly, if it bothers you enough that you can’t control yourself, you should probably find someone else with whom to share your meals.)

Being a jerk tends to involve dietary choices that are not necessitated by health or religion coupled with the belief that one’s dietary choices are a religion, and one which everyone should follow.

You are not a jerk if you can’t eat pork because you’re a Muslim, bread because you have celiac disease or eggs because you have an allergy. I have never, ever seen anyone be a jerk about dietary restrictions stemming from diagnosed health issues or religious prohibition. Not once.

You are not a jerk if you have elected not to eat meat, dairy, gluten, sugar or whatever it is you don’t eat, and you understand that not everyone has made the same choices. This is also true if your diet is Paleo, ayurvedic, South Beach, or based on your blood type.

Part of not being a jerk is understanding that lots of folks still eat whatever it is you don’t eat, and maybe they shouldn’t, but they do.  (And maybe they are eating exactly what their conscience and body dictate.)

Once a week, I feed a large and diverse group of people. I have a budget, and time constraints that make it impossible for me to accommodate everyone’s restrictions and preferences, but I try.

There is always a vegetarian alternative, and the meal is always balanced with a protein, whole grain, a small amount of fat and at least two fruit and vegetable offerings. A vegan can pretty much always make a hearty salad to go with bread and fruit. Especially in the summer, I try to buy as much locally-sourced food as possible.

There’s no pleasing everybody, of course. The older folks miss cookies for dessert, and ask why I don’t make casseroles more often. Children miss the cookies, too, and regard with great suspicion anything like mushrooms, onions or assorted other icky things.

Everybody hates fish. I can’t make anything spicy; this is not a crowd for which I could prepare the vegan, no-pasta Primavera recipe I’ve bookmarked for home consumption. Or curry. Or grilled salmon.  Or any one of a million things I routinely cook at home.

In that crowd, there are cool people and there are jerks. One particularly cool mom has experimented with removing gluten from her childrens’ diet, and found that they behave better without it. If she knows that I am making soup with rolls, she asks whether the soup has flour in it, and if it does, she brings takeout for her kids. If it doesn’t, she brings a bag of gluten-free rolls and they eat them with their soup.

If someone asks, she explains her choice and its benefits for her family. She is not a jerk. She is firm about sticking with her program, while being charming, understanding and pleasant. I’m pretty sure people have been intrigued by her example.

There is, however, the woman who appears at dinner, and lists all the things she can’t eat because they contain gluten. Or onions, which she just doesn’t like. (And who cooks without onions?!) On one occasion, when offered my homemade, vegetarian lasagna, she informed me that I’d “better change my menus because pretty soon everyone will go gluten-free.”

That woman, although she has other fine qualities, is a jerk about food.

Another woman came to the serving table with her small son, and sized up the chili I was serving. “Oh honey,” she said to her child (as if I were invisible), “she put a lot of meat in that. I don’t want you to take that.”

“Are you vegetarians?” I asked. “This pot is veggie chili.” She made a kind of disgusted “tch” sound.

“No, we’re not vegetarian; there’s just too much meat in that. I only like him to have a little. And he won’t eat that other one because it has Lima beans in it.”

If you’re following along, you know that at least on that occasion, that woman was a jerk. She was also teaching her child to follow suit.

It always best not to be a jerk.

If you can’t eat things because they’ll kill you, or for religious reasons, you’ve probably gotten to be a clutch avoider/explainer/meal planner. You don’t need my advice.

If you don’t eat things because you have chosen not to eat them, be cool—you have the chance to be such a great example that people will want to “have what you’re having.”

When someone asks why you don’t eat whatever it is you don’t eat, be nice. Be a positive proponent of your choices.

Tell them how great you feel, how your rash cleared up, and how you have more energy. (And stop if their eyes glaze.)

Talk about your choice not to harm living things, and that you feel pretty great living in harmony with your deepest beliefs.

If it’s true, say that you are experimenting—you read a book about wheat belly and decided to see if passing on gluten would make you feel better.

And in the end, let’s agree that you tend to your plate and I’ll tend to mine.

We’re cool like that.


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Editor: Travis May

Photo: Wiki Commons

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