Culturally-sensitive spreadsheets for menu planning

For an early Thanksgiving dinner, I invited a variety of friends with an even wider variety of dietary restrictions. 

When serving snacks at a party, I just label the ingredients and let people pick foods they can eat.  But at Thanksgiving dinner, people expect to eat certain traditional dishes.

I asked 12 guests to each bring one dish (the potatoes, a dessert, etc.).  If I told all the cooks to bring a low-sugar vegan dish, free of all the allergens (gluten, nuts, peanuts, certain seeds, legumes, mushrooms, brassica vegetables, stone fruits and various oils), most of them would throw their hands up and just bring wine.  So I set an easier goal:  “most of the people can eat most of the food”.

I thought long and hard about how to get people to share their food restriction info. Online potluck planners were too simplistic for our allergies.  If you’re a data management pro, you’re probably analyzing the dimensions of this information, to concoct a little database:

  • Person first and last name
  • Food category
  • Food name
  • Restriction severity
  • Restriction reason

But if I set up a database like that, it would offend the cultural expectation to keep social activities simple and light.  We don’t want people to feel they have to work hard just to share a dinner.  Another hostess in this crowd had used a collaborative spreadsheet, so it seemed like a good bet – so long as I kept it simple, with only two dimensions.

To design a recipe that meets most people’s restrictions, the important dimensions are Person and Food Category.  If someone wants to make a green salad, they just need the Vegetables and Oils rows. If they’re making a meat dish, they can ignore all restrictions in the column of a vegetarian.

potluck allergy spreadsheet

The food name goes in the cells. I let people describe their own restrictions in free text, because severity levels are difficult to classify.  Nobody was asked to give a reason for their restrictions; that is irrelevant personal information.  (This illustrative spreadsheet is much-modified for confidentiality.)  The day before dinner, I sent an email reminding people of the most severe allergies.

My friends are over-achievers in the kitchen.  The spreadsheet inspired us to make three kinds of gluten-free gravy, a meaty nutty stuffing (gluten free) and a vegetarian bread stuffing, cranberry sauce with orange and honey, carrots sous-vide, and roasted potatoes, yams, parsnips and fennel.  And then the table groaned with four fabulous desserts!

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