By Madeleine Kates

As we gather for holiday meals, those with special diets know how challenging it can be to navigate the dinner table. Whether it is food allergies, or a medically-specific diet, both the guest and host want everyone to feel comfortable and happy spending time together. Here are some tips to make holidays a little easier for everyone attending:

Let the Host Know About Special Considerations in Advance: No host wants to accidentally serve a life-threatening allergen to someone they love! Let the host know in advance about anything they may need to be aware of, so they can work around the needs of their guests. Even if they cannot eliminate something from the menu, hosts can still make the guests aware of the offending ingredients before anyone digs in.

Prepare Your Surroundings: For serious allergies, even breathing in the aromas of cooking foods can be dangerous since particles can remain in the air. An easy solution is to ask the host if they can open the windows after cooking before you arrive. Or, if it is a contact allergen, ask to be seated away from certain food items, and be sure to wash your hands after eating.

Offer to Share in the Prep: Often, those with special diets have a collection of their own favorite creative recipes. Offer to bring something to share with the group, and the host will likely appreciate not having to make an extra dish. Keep in mind, not every host knows what a vegan or gluten-free dish should or should not include, so you are doing them a favor by offering to contribute.

Label Food Items: The same way someone with a special diet needs to read labels, others may likely feel the same. Instead of having a mystery casserole sitting on the table, ask the host to, or assist in, writing labels for what each dish is, and what it contains. This is especially helpful for a large, buffet-style meal.

Personal Responsibility: If you have a special diet, there is an element of personal responsibility. You must be in control of your own situation, but be fair to the host and other guests. However, bringing along a side dish or two that meets your individual needs to share, or eating before you come, is a great way to still enjoy the experience without worrying about mealtime. And, if you still want to participate in the meal, bring along a picnic of your own food with silverware that you washed and packed. Always make sure to bring emergency precautions, such as medications or a plan in case there is an accidental exposure to an offending ingredient.

For those with special diets, mealtimes can be stressful, and the holidays are no exception. But we all love to be included in the festivities, and with some extra planning, the holidays can be enjoyable for everyone.

Madeleine Kates is a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, with degrees in Environmental Science, Life Science, and Psychology from Niagara University. She holds certificates in Plant-Based Nutrition from Cornell University, and CHEF Coaching from Harvard University.