Etiquette Lessons: How to Eat With FCI (Food Challenged Individuals)

"How many vegans does it take to screw in a lightbulb?"

"Two. One to screw it in, and one to check it for animal byproducts."

Vegans occupy a unique place in our label-obsessed culture. In certain circles, not being one automatically makes you a part of the un-washed, un-thinking, TV-obsessed, McDonalds-eating masses. In others, admitting to being one is the equivalent of social suicide. You are automatically branded uptight, anal, and sanctimonious.

The fact is, vegans (and gluten-free types, and vegetarians, and pescatarians, and fruit-arians, and observant Hindus, and those who keep kosher) are people too. With that in mind, I've compiled a list of rules that will make it possible for omnivores and FCI (Food Challenged Individuals) to coexist.

1. Accept that Thanksgiving is a wash.

There is LITERALLY no way in hell to make a proper, American Thanksgiving dinner with food restrictions. The solution? Don't try. The good news for those who abstain from meat, wheat, or dairy is that, due to the plethora of options, there will be something on that overladen table that you can, in fact, ingest. The good news for those of us who eat everything but the kitchen sink: more food for you.

2. When going out to dinner, pick a restaurant BEFORE everyone gets hungry.

This is actually a good rule for anyone, FCI or otherwise. Hungry people are cranky. Hungry people make poor decisions. Decide where you are going before your intestines start cramping from emptiness and you start having murderous thoughts about each other. Reminding everyone that you can't go to the burger place when everyone else is already on their last calorie is simply dangerous to your physical safety.

3. Be accommodating.

For those of us with no dietary restrictions, a little bit of sensitivity goes a long way. Making dinner with the lactose-free folk? Skip the cheese. Grabbing lunch with a vegetarian? Indian food is a great choice. Baking for the holidays? Flourless chocolate cake is bomb, and allows the celiacs among us to partake. Remembering the details (without being prompted) is part of what makes someone a good friend, and what someone can or cannot eat is a fairly large detail.

4. Be flexible.

For those proud FCIs, flexibility is key. Big dinner parties are hassle enough without reminding the host what you can and can't eat once the food is on the table. Eat what you can or offer to make a vegetarian/vegan/gluten-free/what-have-you dish for everyone to enjoy. Plus, when you are graceful and poised, you help to dispel all those nasty vegan jokes ("How do you spot the vegan at a dinner party?" "Don't worry, they'll tell you.")

5. Be kind to your server. Seriously.

Whether it's a deathly peanut allergy, a strict diet, or just a borderline-unhealthy interest in your food's preparation, be nice about it. These people are on their feet serving you, and you should respect them for that. Also: tip (well), especially if you know someone in your party is being a pain in the ass.

6. Don't comment on other people's food.

Growing up, this was the golden rule in my house. If you think meat is murder, there is no need to tell that to your friend, significant other, or the perfect stranger next to you who is about to slice into a bloody steak. If you think veganism is silly, keep it to yourself and applaud the discipline, if nothing else.

7. Get creative.

Viewing your roommates gluten allergy as a challenge rather than a handicap can save a friendship (and generate some cool recipes).

8. Be ready with a quick save.

Friends fighting over food issues at the table? Bring up Syria. Or affirmative action. If they're gonna yell, might as well yell over something important, right?

9. Ask and you shall receive.

Don't be afraid to be the girl holding the burger while everyone else is chowing down on a salad. If the rest of the party wants to grab fast-food and you don't do meat, unashamedly ask for grilled cheese on a bun. You do you!

10. Don't sweat the small stuff.

Food, at the end of the day, is merely food. If your biggest issue with your BFF is that she refuses to eat anything that tastes good to you, I'd say you have it pretty good.

Photo by Vegan Feast Catering and Marshall Astor on Flickr