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Four steps to address Thanksgiving food drama

POSTED: November 23, 2015 10:19 a.m.
Kelsey Dallas/

Here's a guide to becoming the best Thanksgiving host you can be.

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Lizzie Post was born into an etiquette empire, but even she gets stressed out about hosting Thanksgiving dinner.

"As a host, you don't want to send someone to the hospital" because you served something a guest's allergic to or undercooked the turkey, she said.

Her go-to strategy to quiet her nerves is to have friends and family members bring dishes to share, spreading the work of the holiday between attendees.

However, Post, who is the great-great-granddaughter of Emily Post, whose 1922 book on etiquette made her opinions the final word on manners and entertaining protocol, and co-hosts the Awesome Etiquette podcast, acknowledged that every host is different. Some prefer to control all aspects of the Thanksgiving meal, which means they'll bear the brunt of any food drama.

"You can cater to every single (dietary) need or put out what's ready and people will partake of what they can," she said.

As amateur chefs across the country prepare to host Thanksgiving, Post and other etiquette experts offered these steps for surviving the holiday:

1. Be aware of food allergies

Do you have a cousin who can't have dairy? A mother-in-law who's gluten-free? Dietary limitations can put a serious damper on any dinner party, but they're easy enough to address when hosts are aware of them, said Yvonne Durant, who runs a blog on modern manners with her sister, Yvette.

When a guest alerts them about a food allergy, hosts should look over their planned menu and ensure that everyone will have enough to eat, she said.

"Everyone at the table should be able to eat at least two dishes," Durant noted.

And these food options should be more substantial than a lettuce salad, Post said. Every guest should have enough to feel full by the end of the meal.

"You have to ask yourself, 'If I had their allergy or situation, would I have enough on my plate?'" she said.

Durant prefers to plan and execute every aspect of the meals she hosts, so she works with guests to ensure she understands their food allergies.

It's also OK to ask someone with a serious condition to bring their own main course or side dish, Post said, noting that it's important to prioritize safety.

2. Prepare for picky eaters

Another potential problem affecting Thanksgiving dinner — particularly at the kids' table — is picky eaters. It's natural for hosts to be frustrated when their youngest guests refuse everything but mashed potatoes, said Natalie Digate Muth, who co-authored "The Picky Eater Project" for The New York Times.

Hosts shouldn't feel pressured to provide a dish of chicken nuggets, but they can speak with a picky eater's parents ahead of the holiday to guarantee that something in the Thanksgiving spread will be appealing, she noted.

"I think it's important to have something that you know the picky eater will like," said Muth, a pediatrician and obesity medicine physician.

If it's your own children who may cause trouble, you can be proactive and get them involved in the meal preparation, she added, highlighting the benefits of letting young eaters pick out recipes or help with food preparation.

"If you use a hands-on approach, you may be surprised to find out what the child is interested in or willing to try," Muth said.

In general, changing picky eating habits is a process, so one thoughtful holiday meal won't change much. But Thanksgiving is a special occasion that can nudge some young eaters out of their comfort zones.

"Try to create an environment with lots of healthy options. Present (dishes) in a nice way," and you may be surprised at what picky eaters are willing to try, Muth said.

3. Don't let dieting guests add stress

Pumpkin pies and other Thanksgiving treats are difficult to resist, and some guests may pressure their host to help them guard against holiday weight gain.

But when a dietary concern is about weight loss rather than an allergy, hosts shouldn't be obligated to address it, Post said.

"It's on (people who are dieting) to monitor their intake," she noted.

Similarly, Durant said it's bad manners for a visitor to expect a host to worry about everyone else's waistline.

"Your host should not become your nutritionist," she said. "We're all getting together to have a good time."

The etiquette experts suggested asking a dieting guest to bring his or her own sugar-free dessert option or provide a bowl of fruit for people passing on pie.

4. Try to relax

Visiting family members and friends can be overwhelming, especially when their food-related demands disrupt the Thanksgiving menu.

But it's important for every stressed-out host to remember to enjoy the holiday amid the chaos, Post said, noting that family bonding matters more during the holiday season than food.

"Have a plan. Have help. And remember that, at the end of the day, you can order takeout if it's all gone wrong," she said.
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