Navigating special events when you’re gluten-free isn’t easy. You have to consider the event, the guests, the hosts and your personal situation.
Last week, I attended my friend’s Bar Mitzvah in Minneapolis, far from my home in Denver. I shared my anxieties about the trip (and food) on Facebook Live, which you can watch below.
While I normally stay in a hotel with a kitchen or kitchenette, this time we just stayed in a low key hotel room that didn’t have a kitchen. Our reasoning was we were there for only two nights, and we were being entertained for most of our meals by our friends.
Of course, my friends knew I was gluten-free, but I couldn’t expect them to cater to my every need. They were hosting a 200 person event; my diet didn’t need to be top of mind to them.
So here’s how the food situation went during my trip – please note that some of the links include affiliate links to the products I talk about – all opinions are my own:
We traveled on a Friday night and I was able to pack my dinner. Easy.
For Saturday morning breakfast, we stopped at Starbucks to enjoy an egg and cheese breakfast sandwich (I had them take out the sausage), coffee and I shared a Evolution Sweet Greens juice with my husband. Once again, easy.
Now here’s where navigating special events when you’re gluten-free gets tricky. On Saturday afternoon, we attended a luncheon sponsored by our friends at the synagogue. I enjoyed a mandarin orange, a partial apple and a few wafer cookies marked gluten-free. The rest of the lunch buffet was off limits because between the bread and bagels, the buffet table was covered in bits of gluten.
After the luncheon, we stopped at Whole Foods to get me some food. It worked.
For Saturday night dinner, we attended our friend’s party. This is where I had the most anxiety because I’m at the event from 4:00-10:00 pm and I wasn’t hungry enough to eat beforehand. I had a Wild Zora and can of dolmas (stuffed grape leaves) in my purse, just in case.
Instead of bothering my friend to find out if anything was gluten-free, I snuck into the kitchen where the staff was busy preparing food. I asked for the catering manager and spoke with him about what I could and couldn’t eat. He was incredibly nice – telling me his daughter is gluten sensitive so he gets it. He told me I could eat two of the passed appetizers: the chicken satay and the caprese skewers. For the main course, unfortunately, I could only eat watermelon and chips.
Armed with this information, I loaded my plate with the safe appetizers and ate plenty of those items so I could sustain myself through the night.
On Sunday morning, the Bar Mitzvah boy’s grandmother hosted a brunch, complete with an omelet bar and plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables. The grandmother even told me the night before that there would be plenty of gluten-free options – isn’t it so sweet that she thought to tell me this Saturday night?!
This weekend was a bit tricky to navigate, but it worked! I didn’t have to bother the hosts with my special requests (they have enough to worry about this weekend) and I still was able to find food safe for me to eat.
If you’re going to attend a special event – weddings, Bar Mitzvahs and other special occasions – here are some tips for you:
Four Tips to Navigating Special Events When You’re Gluten-Free
Always have a few protein bars or snacks in your purse just in case there are no food options for you to eat. Try to eat a little something before you go this way you won’t be hungry and you’ll be way less concerned about food.
Talk to the Chef/Catering Manager:
Instead of bothering your hosts with your special diet request, sneak into the kitchen as early as you can to talk with the chef or catering manager. Explain your dietary needs and ask him or her to walk you through the menu. If it appears that nothing is safe for you, ask if it’s possible for him or her to make you something. If there are plated dishes and pasta is on the dish, ask if the chef can make your plate without the pasta.
Talk to Your Friend:
If you feel comfortable broaching the subject with your friend, by all means let them know (well in advance of the event) about your special diet and ask if the chef can accommodate. I think weddings and Bar Mitzvahs are so stressful for the hosts, so I would only do this if they were good friends (and really good friends will likely be open to telling you ahead of time they have already requested a special meal for you, like my friend Amy did. I’m going to her daughter’s Bat Mitzvah next week and she already told me a special GF meal awaits me – yay!).
If a special meal is provided for you – be sure to thank the hostess and/or chef. Go out of your way to thank them. Do whatever you can to encourage them to be sensitive and accommodating to their guests (especially out of town guests) with special dietary needs. A little gratefulness goes a long way!
And a little tip for the hostess… on the RSVP card, ask your guests if they have any special dietary requests. The extra gesture goes a long way in making your friends with food allergies feel welcomed on your special day.
Navigating Conferences and Networking Luncheons When You’re Gluten-Free
If you know me, you know that I speak up when I need to. I’m rarely shy and I usually always make my needs known. However, as you can see, for special occasions like weddings and Bar Mitzvahs, I feel like my diet shouldn’t be a worry for the hostess, who is already under stress. Do you, too, struggle when navigating special events when you’re gluten-free like me?
However, you might find this interesting… everything changes when I pay to attend an event.
For example, I attended a blogger conference in Denver a few weeks ago. I paid the conference fee, which included the event plus all meals. About three weeks before the event, I called both the conference organizer and hotel to notify them that I would need special meals for the duration of the three-day weekend. The hotel never responded (and I’m pretty sure the Curtis Hotel in Downtown Denver isn’t very sensitive to the gluten-free community based on my experience with them, BTW), but the conference host replied and said she would make sure I had a safe meal. I paid for the meal just as much as the next person, so I truly believe the hotel should either provide a safe meal for me, or reimburse me for the food portion of the event so I can buy something else.
Also, whenever I attend networking luncheons and there’s a fee involved, I always request a GF meal. I’m attending a networking luncheon tomorrow. Once I signed up for the luncheon a few weeks ago (and paid), I notified the event planner of my special meal request. She told me that the caterer would either provide me a safe meal or she would give me $20 of the $25 back since that was the cost of the meal. In the end, the caterer said she would provide a safe meal for me.
Also, the caterer needs to provide a similar meal – albeit not exact. For example, if the caterer is serving salmon and pasta, a similar meal should be provided (perhaps salmon with potatoes). If this doesn’t happen, I definitely say something to both the chef and event planner at the end of the event or in the evaluations.
Overall, navigating special events when you’re gluten-free and navigating conferences and networking luncheons when you’re gluten-free require two different approaches. For a special event where I’m an invited guest, I try hard not to be a bother. For events I pay to attend, I always request a safe gluten-free meal (or my money back).
Now mind you, part of me wonders if I need to be more assertive when it comes to special events too – after all, the hostess is paying for a meal that I won’t eat. I may muster up the courage to do that one day. For now, these strategies work.
Tell me, what strategies do you employ when navigating special events when you’re gluten-free? Please leave a comment below to share.