The etiquette of food

After grappling with some heavy moral issues involving the treatment of animals and the eating of meat, I want to look at a related but lighter topic: the etiquette of food restrictions in the host-guest relationship.

Sometimes I wonder if we have gone too far in being accommodating of people’s food restrictions, to the extent of creating a sense of entitlement. As someone who organizes meal-based meetings at work where I feel obliged to ask people in advance what restrictions they have, I am sometimes surprised by the specificity of some requests (“I would like wraps”, “I would like fresh fruits and vegetables”, etc.).

This raises an interesting question that I have been thinking about: How far we should go as both guests and hosts in specifying and meeting dietary restrictions or preferences?

Michael Pollan says in The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006) that during the time he was a vegetarian, he felt that he had in a subtle way become alienated from other people.

Other people now have to accommodate me, and I find this uncomfortable: My new dietary restrictions throw a big wrench into the basic host-guest relationship. As a guest, if I neglect to tell my host in advance that I don’t eat meat, she feels bad, and if I do tell her, she’ll make something special for me, in which case I’ll feel bad. (p. 314)

Whenever we invite people to our home for a meal or as house guests, we always ask them whether they have any dietary restrictions. We get the usual spectrum of requests: no pork, no beef, or vegetarian. But there are more severe restrictions that we have not had to deal with as yet: vegan, strict kosher, no wheat products, allergies to specific foods such as peanuts, salt or sugar free diets, etc.

These restrictions can be split onto four classes: Those that are based on medical reasons, those that are based on religious reasons, those that are based on political/ethical/moral/environmental reasons, and those that are based on personal preferences. The etiquette question is this: which, if any, of these categories of restrictions is it appropriate for a guest to request accommodations and which ones should a host be obliged to meet?

As a host, I feel obliged to ask people what restrictions they have and try to accommodate them, irrespective of the class of restrictions to which it belongs. But I realize that I am laying myself wide open to a potentially awkward situation. Suppose someone says that they have some restriction that would require very elaborate and unfamiliar food preparation on my part. What should I do? Go to extraordinary lengths to meet them, such as preparing a separate meal? At what point does a food request become so onerous that I can feel comfortable declining to meet it?

Similarly, from the point of view of a guest, what is a reasonable request to make of a host to accommodate your preferences? Should people who have very specific and restrictive needs simply decline invitations because they feel that they are imposing too heavy a burden on their host?

Pollan says that, “On this matter I’m inclined to agree with the French, who gaze upon any personal dietary prohibition as bad manners.”

Perhaps this is the way we should go. Hosts should stop asking guests what restrictions they have and prepare whatever the host wants. Guests who choose to attend should decline their host’s offer to specify dietary limitations, and simply eat and drink what they can from whatever is offered, even if it ends up being just some vegetables and fruit and water. And neither party should feel offended or put out.

(Of course, this suggestion only applies to single-meal events. The situation with houseguests who are staying for some time is different and then some accommodations must be made.)

Some might feel that it is easy for me to advocate this policy since I am an omnivore and thus can eat anything, and that I might view this differently if I were someone who had strong food restrictions and might be faced with having a very restricted choice of food items to eat at a dinner party.

But I have had to deal with something roughly equivalent. In Sri Lanka, dinner parties would often start late, say around 9:00 pm, and they would sometimes serve dinner close to midnight. (Unlike in America where the meal forms either the beginning or the middle of an evening of conversation, in Sri Lanka the end of the meal often signifies the end of the party.) Although I get very hungry by that late hour, I did not tell the host that I would like my own dinner to be served early. Instead, if I suspected dinner would be served late, I got in the habit of eating at home before going for the party. That way, I did not care when the meal was served or even what was served. I simply ate what I felt like from whatever was offered whenever it was offered.

Those who have dietary restrictions or preferences that will likely result in them not being able to eat much from what is offered might consider doing the same thing.

These kinds of etiquette issues may have arisen because we have forgotten that the only reason to accept an invitation to someone else’s home is to enjoy their company and the company of their other guests, not to treat their home as a restaurant to obtain food that is acceptable to you. The refreshments on offer should not be a consideration.

I wonder how Miss Manners might respond to this question.

POST SCRIPT: Interesting graphic designs

How to tell if you are in the right place. (Thanks to Progressive Review.)


  1. Shruti says

    In most cases I have a friendly enough relationship with the host that I can discuss the menu with them and maybe make some suggestions (like, if you use vegetable broth in the stuffing instead of chicken broth, I’ll be able to eat it).

    Vegetarianism is now common enough that most people don’t have much of a problem accommodating it. I have a bigger problem with my husband, who doesn’t handle spicy food well. When we visit my parents’ friends, he ends up eating plain white rice. Which is fine for him, but the hosts always feel terrible that they made all this food and he won’t eat it. I think it’s better to have some idea of what people can and cannot eat beforehand.. at least then you don’t go to a lot of trouble preparing a meal that your guests can’t eat.

  2. says

    You have done a great job addressing this issue. I tend to agree with you that when a guest be grateful and enjoy the opportunity to experience new relationships and new food within reason. Allergies are one thing and personal or political issues are another.

    There are many other issues worth creating division over and food is just not one of them. Enjoy what we have and celebrate the differences as we all grow together.


  3. says

    On a personal level, I struggle more with the timing of meals than their content. I need to eat at regular intervals, so would also resort to eating something before I went out to dinner if it was going to be very late.

  4. says

    I think it’s sad that vegetarians have to feel appologetic for not eating meat products.

    “I’m sorry if being ethically respectful, humane, health conscience and environmentally friendly inconveniences you but…”

    It seems a little backwards if you ask me.

  5. says

    “…As a host, I feel obliged to ask people what restrictions they have and try to accommodate them, irrespective of the class of restrictions to which it belongs…” You are such a good host. Seldom we can see people of your kind who takes time to ask.

  6. says

    i am a vegetarian and i expect people to accomodate my diet when providing food for me. however, when a meat-eater comes to visit me and i have to cook for them, i am always stuck in the dilemma of “should I cook meat for them?” (because after all they would accomodate my diet so i should accomodate thiers) but despite that i feel that my belif in vegetarianism is more purposeful and meaningful than a meat-eaters belief in eating meat and therefore should be respected as such. still causes a lot of problems though haha.

  7. says

    Down here in the South, I’ve never heard of anyone asking their guests ahead of time what they would prefer to see on the menu. We just invite them and they come. Sometimes the host does all the cooking and sometimes the host provides the meat or main dish and asks everyone to bring a side dish. Either way, there’s always plenty of vegetables to satisfy anybody on a special diet. Although, I must say, we don’t have many vegetarians down here.

    Bye Ya’ll,

  8. says


    That’s interesting. I have never lived in the South but would like to. It looks like they have the same attitude to this question as the French.

  9. says

    Veggie Authority,

    I never expect vegetarians to cook meat for me, even though we prepare vegetarian meals for them. It is easier for omnivores to adapt to other people’s food preferences. In fact, I usually enjoy the meals at my vegetarian friends’ homes because they tend to know how to cook vegetables well.

  10. says

    Miss Manners would certainly agree with your last paragraph. Like Bill from the south, all our acquaintances don’t ask about restrictions. The point is to get together with the hosts and other guests. Our solution was the same as yours for a late meal in Sri Lanka. Even if the meal is right away, you can eat before you go, and at the dinner party just eat enough of what you can eat to be polite.

  11. says

    Asking guests what they want to have is a novel thing. I live down south and have never had anyone asking me such a thing ( although I would have loved had they asked me). Nice post. Thanks.

  12. says

    Food restrictions aside, courtesy goes both ways. The host sometimes is king and guests abide by the king, sometimes the guests are royalty and the host abide. There should be no wrong that can be done, a polite explanation may be all there is to it.

  13. says

    I think the secret is to find the right balance. Thank you for sharing this with us. It is always fun to read good post like this, keep up the good work.

  14. says

    I think the host should only ask if there are any food allergies otherwise I don’t think they need to ask or let them know what is served.

  15. says

    I grew up in a country with similar culture to teh French and on those days you just ate what the host made. Also everyone would contribute to food, so in that case if teher was a restriction on what I could eat I would take my own food.
    Even if I decided to be on a strict diet even today I will just take my own food and will nt expect the host to provide it. Of course I will let them know, and depending on how strict my diet is I will still take my own meal or eat a bit from whatever teh host prepared.
    I do belive the host can be accommodating if there is a health issue, but in otehr cases it can be a bit difficult. Lets say you have more than one guest, it is difficult to accmmodate every one.
    My father for example at this stage he cannot eat any salt or any green leaf due to health reasons. So if he is invited somewhere and he is following his diet strictly he takes his food, or that day he eats what the host serves , but then continues his diet the next day.
    I find this dilemma also at home. Now if I want to follow a specific diet but you need to feed kids and husband tehn it become s problem. ANd then the kids say I do not like this and I do not like that. It can be quite difficult and time consuming to accommodate eveyrone.
    I suppose if i invite peopel at the same tiem I try to accommodate them and hink of everyone. I will prepare some vegetarian dishes and some otehr meat dishes. But that is me. and I do not expect to be accommodated when going to someone elses’ house. On teh contraty I would feel embarrased for eating a different meal.

  16. says

    I found your article quite fascinating. I was raised in a traditional English home. Dinner party’s were often given and attended. My mother always stated that as a host it was your duty to provide your guests with enough selection that they would be happy and be able to partake in any feast.

    Years later I find myself entertaining clients and friends. I always cook to accommodate their preferences to food stuffs. As a host it is important to make the guest feel at ease and welcome.

  17. says

    Maybe guests should bring their own food, just kidding. I do have many food allergies but I find that when I am invited over to dinner, there is usually something I can eat. Besides it is the companionship that is more important!

  18. says

    Yeah! Totally agree! It’s really important to choose the right food for our life right now. And of cause, taste is still important as well because no matter how healthy is your food, if that food is not tasty at all, human will not have the motivation to have for it! Therefore, we should always choose the right food!!!

  19. says

    I have friends of many nationality, religions and tastes. Actually when we meet for a party at my place we joke about having a UN party 🙂 I never asked anyone their preferences about food. I am an Italian chef and cooking teacher and when I invite people I try to have lots of food as varied as possible. Of course that is a lot of work, but I do it with pleasure because I enjoy the company of my friends and I like to please them with good food. The variety of the dishes pasta and meat, vegetables and fruit, wine, water and juice accommodate everyone’s taste and needs. Food is an important part of socializing and is a language that we all understand. Sitting together at a table and sharing food to be in peace with each other is as old as humankind. Unless your last name is Borgia, I guess… 😀

  20. says

    One summer I interned at an office whose president was from India. I loved my boss, don’t get me wrong, but she had a “no meat whatsoever” policy for the entire company that was located on 2 floors of the building. No one was allowed to eat meet in any other offices. Now, talk about accommodations! I guess when you are the boss you can do things like that!!

  21. says

    I am not a very picky eater so whatever someone prepares for me, I am always willing to try. However, I can definitely see that a host should be courteous of their guests needs. Great article!

  22. says

    Yes, I do agree with some of the post here. As a host, we need to make sure if our guest have any food restrictions. They should the event without experiencing any discomfort because of the food.

  23. says

    As someone who spent a fair amount of time living in Sri Lanka, I can attest to the fact the Sinhalese enjoy eating late at night. It can be quite challenging to pick sprouts and fish bones out of a dish in the dark. Not to mention, you don’t always know what you’re eating!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *