Hospitality in the age of allergies

or all you need is love (and some new recipes)

Sharing a holy meal is at the centre of our communal worship as Christians. The fruit of the spirit is organic. The water of life contains no lactose. The bread of life is gluten-free. In other words, there are no barriers that keep the free gift of God’s salvation from being consumed and joyfully feasted on by everyone. There’s one problem, though: by our human shortcomings, we can contaminate the message of God’s love.

As anyone with a food allergy is all too aware of, it is that no matter what the substance of a food is, if it has come into contact with a particular antigen, it may as well be the main ingredient. When a child has a life-threatening peanut allergy, food they consume must be known to be manufactured in a peanut-free facility to prevent inadvertent contamination. For a person living with celiac disease, even a minute quantity of wheat can cause serious health repercussions, and careful procedures in the food preparation areas must be observed. For a person observing a strict diet for another reason, eating a restricted food may have health consequences or violate a set of personal values or goals. Your first reaction to this may be like mine: “How inconvenient!”

As inconvenient as the necessary adjustments are, they are necessary for the life of a person living with food allergies. Later, I will give a few tips on how to manage this inconvenience, and make hosting a person with special dietary needs easier. Did you ever think about how your hospitality preparations affect the health of your relationships?

Make it safe for your friends

As a part of my preparation for this article, I interviewed a woman whose two young sons have severe food allergies. She told me about her family’s experiences. She told me discouraging stories about the struggles of embarrassment and stress her older son underwent as the only kid at a birthday parties with different food from everyone else, or the only kid at school with a picture of himself on the wall announcing his allergy. She recounted her frustrations at the lack of support from other parents at the school whose unwillingness to be inconvenienced in the planning of five lunches a week contrasted so absurdly with her family’s drastically-altered lifestyle. And she told me about the spectacular understanding and leadership from her sons’ young friends who are vigilant in reminding their parents about the preparations they must make in their homes to make it safe for their friends with allergies to visit. The friends who care enough to ensure that everything at their birthday parties is safe for her sons have fostered relationships that have survived the “inconvenience” of careful forethought, and have grown stronger.

To be honest, I have not always been as understanding as I am now learning to be on the issue of food allergies and intolerances. As has happened to me in so many circumstances before, it was only when I was confronted with real people who I cared about experiencing something that I had strong opinions on that I began to question my own attitudes and reactions. I get exasperated by the fad diets and pop “science” that lately has been leading so many people to eschew wheat or embrace smoothies for scientifically unproven reasons. Yet, when a friend of mine decided to try eating gluten-free to address her ongoing intestinal distress, I suddenly found myself combing the Internet for new recipes and baking gluten-free bread for her. Why the abrupt change?  Love.

Hospitality is love

What is hospitality if not a tangible expression of love? At the centre of hospitality is the sharing of food and drink. As Christians, we are aware of how a common meal can bring unity. In addition to the charge to commemorate Christ’s sacrifice with bread and wine, there are many other examples in the Scriptures about eating and drinking together, and its significance for relationships. Jesus shared meals with tax collectors and other unsavoury members of society, and the religious leaders had no doubt about what it meant. Accepting hospitality and sharing food with someone was a sign of a relationship — one they didn’t approve of. Jesus accepted water from a Samaritan woman, and offered her the water of life in return. Jesus fed the five thousand in a miraculous display of hospitality, showing his love for the people who came to hear his message that day.

The relationships forged and developed in hospitality don’t merely rely on the host, however; the guest also plays an important role. Once again, we can look to Christ for the standard for guests. A gracious guest, Christ did not decline invitations from those who couldn’t advance his standing in society and there are no stories of him declining a certain dish for any reason (watching his weight, dates aren’t really his favourite…). Rather, he gratefully accepted everything from a cup of water or a wedding feast to the anointing of his feet with perfume. For those whose gifts are those of hospitality, the acceptance of this gift is a gift of love in return. We all know someone who loves to feed people and we know that the rejection of this gift can be disappointing and hurtful. Yet likelihood of this happening is becoming a greater concern in recent years where two phenomenons are making both offering and receiving hospitality more difficult than ever. The first challenge to the practice of hospitality is the near epidemic of food allergies in our society. This makes receiving hospitality (“eat what’s put in front of you”) potentially life-threatening for individuals living with food allergies, and unbearable for those with intolerances. The second challenge is the prevalence of specialized diets for a variety of non-allergy reasons, including diets restricting wheat, salt, processed sugar, meat or animal products or others. The reasons for these specialized diets are varied, including those for a variety of health, fitness, religious or ethical reasons.

In both cases (allergy and non-allergy), the response of a caring host should include the following: care and love (rather than judgement or begrudging the extra considerations required), education and communication and a willingness to try new things. Although education and communication are second on the above list, the practice of these will lead both to an increased understanding of your guest and their needs, but also will challenge you to the third item: trying new things.

Stretch your hospitality muscles

It can be daunting at first to adapt one’s particular hosting habits and style to accommodate a guest with an unfamiliar set of food restrictions, but I’ve found a few principles to make it easier:

1. Focus on what is permitted, rather than what is excluded from the diet of your guest during the initial planning of your meal or baking project, and choose recipes which normally do not contain the ingredients you need to avoid, rather than trying to adapt an existing recipe. Instead of wondering how to bake a cake without flour, consider a fruit-based dessert, and many more wheat-free options will be available.

2. Make use of the many websites and cookbooks that are available and designed for the particular dietary plan of your guest. A quick Internet search can lead you to many websites that allow user reviews and ratings to help guide you in making selections as well as offering cooking tips.

3. Don’t forget to make use of the best resource of all: your guest! For many people with food allergies, the fear of the dangerous unknown may make them reluctant to accept an invitation, so communicating with your guest can not only help the host gather tips and recipes, but also reassure the guest that accepting your invitation won’t be dangerous to their health or compromise their diet.

4. Start small. Try hosting tea and dessert for your guest before attempting a three-course meal or ask your guest if they will contribute a dish to help you. In this way, with some minor preparations, the host and guest can get down to the real business of hospitality: spending time together.

This Thanksgiving, stretch your hospitality muscles and hone your hosting skills by sharing a meal with someone new, trying a new recipe and giving thanks for God’s gift of good food together.


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