What to Do if You Can't (or Just Won't) Eat the Food at a Dinner Party

Ordering delivery to the host's house isn't an option.

You showed up expecting salmon only to be served a medium-rare steak—the week you vowed to give up red meat. Or your peanut allergy went on high alert the second you spotted a satay sauce comingling with the grilled chicken on your crystal plate.

Whatever the issue may be, you don't want—or quite literally can't—eat the meal at this particular dinner party. What's a good guest to do—without offending the host?

First and foremost, recognize there's a difference between not liking a food and a real inability to eat it, says Diane Gottsman, national etiquette expert, author of Modern Etiquette for a Better Life, and founder of The Protocol School of Texas.

"If you arrive at someone's home and they are serving an item that you don't really care for, a good guest will do their best to find at least something on the menu they can eat and discreetly move the rest of the food around the plate—without the host noticing," Gottsman points out. But if this simple strategy won't work for you, here are five steps you can follow if you don't like what the dinner party host is serving.

1. Let the host know before you arrive.

According to Gottsman, "nothing is worse than surprising the host after he or she has prepared a beautiful meal." If you're a picky eater, "offering to bring food items that you share with everyone will make you appear gracious and generous," she says. "Don't go into detail about the fact that you don't like what the host is serving."

Allergies causing your aversion? Offer up that information too. "Certainly, you can say something like, 'dinner at your home sounds great. But I must tell you I have a severe nut allergy. May I bring a dish that is nut-free so I don't inconvenience you? I would love to share with the rest of your guests?'" Gottsman says. And the same basic concept applies if you're shunning meat in favor of a vegetarian diet, she adds.

"The goal is to show appreciation for the invite, while offering an alternative option for the host so he or she does not have to change their entire menu," Gottsman says.

2. Eat before you go.

If you know there's a chance you could arrive at the party only to find you won't or can't eat what's on your plate, have a little nosh before you head out the door, says Gottsman. "You should always have a snack in the event the host has forgotten or they have prepared a limited amount of special food items," she advises. "In other words, a Plan B is a must." Just don't eat so much that you're full when you arrive.

3. Don't be afraid to speak up once you arrive.

If you followed step number one and made your host aware that you are unable to eat nuts or really, really don't like anything with mayonnaise, then it's OK to speak up if you arrive to find there's something on the table you can't eat. "If you've done your due diligence and alerted the host in advance, reminding him or her that you will not be partaking is perfectly fine," Gottsman says.

4. Protect your health.

You've never met a mustard you liked. But assuming you're not allergic to Dijon, you should still try a little bit of the mustardy dish "so you don't hurt the host's feelings," says Gottsman. Of course, however, "if it's going to make you ill or you simply can't tolerate the taste, or it goes against a basic philosophy, you don't have to suck it up," she says. And, "regardless of any circumstances, when you have a food allergy, you should never put yourself at risk." In this case, simply—politely—pass on the dish.

5. Be discreet.

When you're not eating the food your dinner party host has prepared, you can't just sit and stare at the other guests. Instead, "make dazzling conversation and do your best not to stand out," instructs Gottsman. Remember: "The role of a good guest is to make the host happy you were invited," she says. "Being a good conversationalist—someone who puts others at ease—is the ultimate goal. Even at a dinner party, your first job is to 'sing for your supper' by being the kind of guest that doesn't make the host or fellow guests uncomfortable."

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