Part 6 of a series: Handling private dinner invitations
Maybe I’m unique on this, but even after dealing with my food sensitivities for close to twenty years, I still find it really hard to say to someone who has gone to great effort to prepare a delicious meal, “Sorry, I can’t eat that because it will likely make me sick.”
So how do I handle it? For me it comes down to two main options. 1) Eat whatever I’m served and bear the consequences, which in my case are a three day migraine, sore stomach, fatigue and flu like symptoms and missing some work while I wait for the reaction to pass. 2) To not eat the food I’m sensitive to. This second option can be broken down into a few more options. One is to not put that food on my plate, or if some ends up on my plate to not eat it. If the host asks if I don’t like it, I can make up some excuse, such as I’m kind of full already, or some other excuse for not eating it. Another possibility is to get my wife to eat it while no one is looking, or to secretly shove it into a plastic bag, put it into my pocket and flush it down the toilet later. I’ve never tried the last option, but the one that I’ve tried too often is to tell myself that maybe it won’t bother me. Some people immediately react to certain foods to the point where they can’t breathe, but in my case it’s a food sensitivity, which means that in most cases, if I had a little bit of it, I’m ok. It’s only if I breach a certain level that the reaction kicks in. So you can see why the last option is often the one that I chose, even though I’m usually wrong and the reaction does kicks in and I vow to be more careful next time. Even though I have eaten foods that I thought might harm me, I have never eaten something knowing that I would react to it. Eating the wrong thing is not a matter of lack of self-discipline; it’s been a desire to avoid embarrassment.
I’ll share an example of how one dinner invitation worked out for me. My wife and I moved to Calgary and were invited over by a wealthy couple that we had met at the church we both attended. We understood that two other couples were also being invited and that it was to be a quiet social evening with some refreshments. None of the couples knew anything about my food and chemical sensitivities and I wondered how to best handle things.
I have found that chemical sensitivities are more daunting than food sensitivities. With food there is always the option of not eating it, but with chemicals, it’s different. Not breathing is not an option. I’ve trained my wife to be my spokesperson in certain situations. It’s not just that I’m a chicken; it does seem to work better for her to explain to someone that “my husband is allergic to…” Questions are asked, she explains and no one is offended. So it was with this dinner invitation. My wife took the opportunity to let our host know that I was allergic to chemicals, meaning perfume, etc. , but nothing was said about food. After all, we did not understand this to be a dinner invitation, just some light refreshments.
You know, somehow, I can’t get used to the idea of me, a man, a successful business man at that, once upon a time a cool young guy afraid of nothing, now worried over what someone will serve them at a social function! Will the ladies be wearing perfume, or scented hand lotion, or hair spray? Will any of the men be wearing cologne or hand lotion? Will the hostess serve me chicken dipped in egg or will there be a dairy product mixed into one of the sauces. How can I tactfully get out of eating the pie that she’s made for dessert?
Back to the social evening I started to relate. First I noticed to my relief that there were no fragrances. The other three couples were not wearing any scents and the house was also free of scents. My wife’s explanation had worked! The eight of us were seated in the front room getting to know each other. The other three couples already knew each other, so my wife and I were the centre of attention, when the hostess came in with a light appetizer. I quickly recognized that I could eat some of it, but shouldn’t eat it all, so that’s what I did. The hostess seemed ok with it, but it was a little awkward and it worried me a bit that she wondered why I didn’t eat it all.
And then it happened, we were ushered into the dining room and I realized that we had been invited over for a formal dinner and that the hostess was a gourmet chef who was simply being modest when she had invited us over for the evening and “some refreshments”. It’s time to panic, either I explain my food problem or I eat what I’m served and suffer. “Errr, uhh, I’m not only allergic to fragrances, I’m also allergic to foods.” Oh, how awful it feels to say that! And then the thought, “You idiot, you should have told her before you showed up! She’s made all this food and had no idea that it would be a problem. What is she supposed to do now, you are such a jerk!”
This lady handled it well. She inquired as to which foods I was ok with and which ones I couldn’t have. She graciously explained that I was not to worry and when it came for dessert asked if I’d like some fruit instead of the cake that she had baked.
Was the internal dilemma that I had caused myself necessary? No, it wasn’t. Was there a better way that would have made it easier for our hosts? Yes there was. When the invitation came, my wife or I could have simply said, “We’d love to come, and by the way, I am – my husband is – allergic to fragrances and certain foods.” Even after almost twenty years of practice, this is still hard for me to talk about. There is a very strong taboo in our society against telling someone that how they smell makes me sick and the food they are hoping to serve will also make me sick.
A few tips on what works for me:
- Say something up front in a straight forward manner and take the conversation from there. The other party has the opportunity to make adjustments in advance. It’s me that’s embarrassed to bring up the topic in advance; it’s not embarrassing for them at that point. But if I leave it for later, it’s embarrassing and awkward for both of us.
- Offer ideas to help them know what they can serve you. I’ll explain that I don’t expect to be able to eat everything that’s prepared, saying, please don’t try to make the whole meal to suit me.
- I ask for permission to quiz them regarding ingredients, explaining that I’m not being nosey, it’s just something that I have to do to know whether I can have some.
- I tell them not to even try to make a dessert that I can have and that I enjoy watching other people eating delicious desserts even if I can’t have any. (Some hosts feel badly to serve others delicious food that they know I can’t have.) If they insist on providing a dessert that I can have, I’ll ask for an apple, or a banana or some other fruit.
- Because of my food sensitivities, the meal time topic tends to turn towards me and my food problem. Although I’d rather not talk about my food sensitivities, I try to make the conversation as interesting for them as possible and then gradually steer the topic to something else.
- Express appreciation for the host’s sensitivity to my food sensitivity and compliment her meal and let her know that I feel fine and had a great evening. The host will naturally worry if her food has made me ill or not.
A food sensitivity is a handicap that can become a social barrier. As difficult as it is to accept this handicap, it’s important to do so and to be appropriately open about it. Fortunately, or unfortunately, whichever way you look at it, food sensitivities are no longer rare. It’s different now than it was when I was young, when it was only babies that had food allergies who soon out grew them. Now there are adult women and men who have them and they don’t outgrow them. But I guess I’m of the old school that still feels that a real man wouldn’t have a food allergy. Now almost everyone knows about them, it’s a matter of learning the most effective ways of dealing with them.