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The Potluck Problem: How to Create Dishes Everyone Can Eat

What do you do when you’ve been diagnosed with a food allergy and your favourite foods are taken away? Fear not! Each month FBC member and certified nutritionist, Sondi Bruner, takes a look at how to adapt to an allergen-friendly diet, while still eating delicious and healthy food. This month she helps us create potluck party offerings that everyone can eat.

The Potluck Problem | Food Bloggers of Canada

Potluck meals are a wonderful way to connect with others through food without the added stress of cooking every appetizer, main course, side and dessert. For a potluck event, everyone shares the workload and has the chance to sample new recipes. I’m sure we all have our tried-and-true potluck dishes that are always a hit, but what do you do when you learn that another guest has a nut allergy, or is vegan or vegetarian, or lactose intolerant? How can you whip up a delicious potluck dish that everyone can eat?

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While it’s impossible to satisfy everyone’s food allergies and dietary restrictions (and most people in this situation don’t presume you will), there are some simple things you can do to create a satisfying and welcoming potluck dish that appeals to everyone.

Educate Yourself

You’re not anyone’s doctor, so you can’t expect to be an expert on everyone’s personal health history. However, if you’re attending a potluck with friends and family, you’re likely aware of your mom’s egg allergy or that your best friend is gluten-free, so you can go ahead and plan your dish without those ingredients. If you’re attending an event where you don’t know people well, simply ask, “Are there any allergies or dietary restrictions I need to be aware of?”

If you don’t fully understand what a certain dietary restriction means, you might be confused about what foods you can work with, whether cross-contamination is an issue, or how to cook with specialty ingredients. These resources might help you:

Ask Yourself: Can I Make a Simple Substitution?

The Potluck Problem | Food Bloggers of Canada

Some ingredients are easier to swap than others. For example, if you’ve got a favourite pasta salad recipe, gluten-free pasta is a great stand-in for wheat pasta, meat can be replaced with beans, or you could sauté veggies in oil instead of butter. This list of substitutions is a great one to have on hand for potlucks and I use it regularly.

If your favourite recipe requires so many substitutions that they’ll change the overall flavour, consistency and identity of the dish, you may want to consider using another recipe.

These allergen-friendly remixes can help you discover how to handle alternative ingredients and how to use them:

Keep Allergenic Components On the Side

The Potluck Problem | Food Bloggers of Canada

When making potluck dishes, consider what ingredients are absolutely essential to the cooking process versus what can be added later buffet-style for flavour, texture and crunch.

In some cases, your favourite potluck dish may be perfect for those with dietary intolerances or allergies if you left one component on the side. For example, bring cubed cheese, grated cheese, nuts, seeds, bread cubes, et cetera in a separate bowl or container. That way, people can sprinkle cheese on their salads, roasted veggies, or dips if they want to, but they’re not laced into the dish. The same thing goes for dressings or sauces — many dishes can easily become allergen-friendly without them, and those with no dietary issues can drizzle as much as they want.

Label Dishes with All Ingredients

Create an index card or sticky note that lists all of the ingredients and affix it to your dish. That way, if you’re not close by there’ll be no confusion about your recipe’s content. This is an immensely helpful thing to do for people with allergies or food intolerances and they will greatly appreciate it!

Recommended Reading:  Allergen-Friendly Remix: How to Feed Vegetarians and Vegans

If you want to be extra generous, you can write out the entire recipe so people can snap a pic or copy it down to make for later — unless it’s a secret family recipe that can’t be shared!

Don’t Be Offended if People with Allergies and Intolerances Don’t Eat Your Dish

Sometimes people with food allergies and intolerances have been burned before by dishes they thought were safe, only to feel sick afterward.

Don’t take it personally if someone at a potluck decides to avoid your dish and only eat what they brought instead. This is more likely to happen if this person doesn’t know you very well, rather than with your close friends and family. Feel free to explain the ingredients and how you made the dish to set their mind at ease, but don’t push. There are plenty of other people who will be happy to gobble up what you made!

Also, Don’t Worry About Offending Others with Your Dish

The Potluck Problem | Food Bloggers of Canada

I always appreciate when people accommodate my dietary needs at a potluck, but I don’t expect it. It’s my responsibility to manage my health. My default setting is to assume there won’t be much I can eat, so I need to bring an awesome dish to share.

If you’ve got a stellar dish that you adore and you know other people love, don’t worry if it’s filled with meat and cheese and gluten and nuts. Those of us with dietary restrictions can deal with it. (You’ll still want to be mindful of people with severe anaphylaxis: sometimes even the odour of peanuts or other allergens can set off attacks. Again, if it’s your friend or family member you will likely already know about this.)

What I Bring to Potlucks

As much as I love baking and desserts, I don’t often bring treats to potlucks. While gluten-free and vegan brownies are certainly delicious, they’re not a balanced meal! Since I don’t always know what else will be available, I make a savoury dish that I can eat as a main and everyone else can have as a side (or a main as well, if they want).

I typically make a dish that includes gluten-free grains, roasted veg, beans or tofu, nuts/seeds for crunch, and a tasty sauce or dressing. That way, I’ve got all my bases covered and don’t need to worry about feeling hungry. This is also the kind of dish that’s great cold or at room temperature, so I don’t need to worry about keeping it hot.

Some potluck inspiration:

Lastly, while potlucks are certainly food-focused, that isn’t the only reason people attend. Many friends and family members, regardless of food allergies or intolerances, just want to spend time with the people they love. The social component of potluck dinners is reason enough for everyone to show up with a smile, so have fun!

What are your favourite potluck recipes? Please share in the comments!

More Reading

Check out more of Sondi’s Allergen-Friendly Guides and Recipe Remixes for great ideas on revamping your favourite recipes to make them allergen friendly!


Sondi Bruner is a holistic nutritionist, freelance writer, food blogger and author of the Anti-Inflammatory Diet in 21, The Candida Free Cookbook and Action Plan, co-author of The Anti-Inflammatory Diet and Action Plans as well as multiple e-books on healthy eating. She educates people who follow allergen-friendly diets about how to eat simply, deliciously and safely, allowing them to rediscover the pleasure of food. When she’s wearing her writer’s hat, she works with natural health brands to create content that will help their customers live fulfilling, healthful lives. Find out more at www.sondibruner.com. Or you can follow Sondi on Facebook or Twitter.

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