'Tis the season ... for holiday parties. And while some of these parties can be joyous occasions and opportunities to celebrate the holidays with loved ones, others can represent command performances you might prefer to avoid entirely.
Many workplaces have office Christmas parties that are all but mandatory, and some organizations and clubs hold holiday gatherings and usually expect members to attend. Unfortunately for those of us who follow the gluten-free diet, the vast majority of these events seem to revolve around the food ... and that makes coping with them tricky.
There are several approaches you can take to dealing with these social conundrums. For example, you can attempt to ensure safe food from the event, bring your own, plan to skip the food entirely or even to skip the event entirely. Before you decide what you should do, you'll need to consider some questions: Do you need to be at this party to maintain workplace relationships? Will people be offended if you don't participate? Does the event cost money? Do you really want to go?
Once you've answered those questions for yourself, here's a rundown of the various ways you can cope with a holiday party on the gluten-free diet, and the pros and cons of each:
• Bring your own food. If you want to (or are required to) attend the party, but you most likely can't trust the food — for example, it's a potluck or it's being catered by a company you don't know — this is your best option. Bring food you'll really enjoy — that way, you won't feel left out as everyone else eats. Also, don't give in to pressure from others to try the food that's being served, either, because you'll very likely get sick.
If you want to participate in a potluck event, make something gluten-free and substantial (like chili or a stew), take a generous portion for yourself first, and then place it on the buffet line. Don't take seconds unless you've kept some aside and covered up, away from any gluten foods — once your dish is on the buffet, assume its contents have been cross-contaminated and that it's no longer safe.
• Work with the caterer. If a company is catering the event and the organizer can provide you with contact information, you can consider contacting the caterers directly to see if it's possible for them to provide you with safe food. In this case, you should follow the rules to dine out safely gluten-free: talk directly with the people cooking the food, discuss gluten cross-contamination issues in detail, and question every ingredient.
Whatever you do, don't try to work through the party organizer — it's not fair to expect him to relay all your concerns accurately and to ask the right questions. If you can't talk directly to the caterers, don't eat the food. Also, go with your gut feeling — if you feel as if the caterers don't understand all the places gluten can hide, don't take the chance.
• Eat beforehand, and avoid eating at the party. This is an easy solution, although it frequently provokes annoying questions — and often some unwanted pressure, as well — from other party-goers ("Surely just a little bit of this won't hurt you!"). I've also feared hurting people's feelings when I've had to decline their food ... especially in cases when they've made something specially "gluten-free" for me, but I still didn't trust it. (There's more on why you shouldn't take the chance in Should You Eat 'Gluten-Free' Food Prepared By Friends or Relatives?) Be as tactful as you can, but remember that you need to take care of yourself first. Most people do get that ... eventually, anyway.
There's one situation in which you probably won't want to attend the party and bring your own food: if you're required to pay for food you won't be eating. In some cases, you may be able to negotiate with party organizers for a reduced ticket cost, but in others, you'll find there's less flexibility. In that case, you'll need to make up your own mind as to whether you should attend or not.
• Skip the party altogether. If it's a party you're expected to attend, as opposed to one you want to attend, this is a viable option, as long as attendance isn't absolutely mandatory. Take it from me: it gets easier the more often you say "no." If you don't want to socialize — or if the sight of all that food you can't eat will make you sad — simply don't go. Stay home, rent a movie and eat something that's both really good and completely gluten-free.
If you're new to the gluten-free diet, or if you still find the holidays to be a particularly trying time, you might want to take a look at these two articles: Five Tips to Cope with the Holidays Gluten-Free and Holidays Can Be Tough Emotionally on the Gluten-Free Diet. In them, you'll find tips and strategies for coping.
Regardless of whether you're dealing with an office Christmas party or a huge gathering of relatives on the holiday itself, if you keep in mind what's best for you, as opposed to giving equal weight to what others expect and want from you, you'll make the right decisions.