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Confessions of a Reformed Picky Eater

Whether for personal or health reasons, gluten-free, vegetarian and vegan diets are de rigueur for many these days. Writer Tatiana Boncompagni explains her transformation from a devout herbivore to a part-time meat-lover.

According to two nonprofit research groups, there are roughly 15 million people in the U.S., including 6 million children, with food allergies, and 9 million vegetarians, 2 million of whom are vegan.

here are a host of reasons why people eschew certain foods, including orthorexia nervosa, the compulsion to eat exclusively healthy.

A well-known mystery writer came to dinner. He arrived at my mother-in-law’s house in the Hudson Valley in a white Bentley, wearing a fine cashmere sweater and a tall blonde on his arm. After a round of cocktails on the porch, we sat down to a feast of grilled steaks and vegetables from the garden. I filled my plate with squash and salad, but declined the beef tenderloin. The mystery writer took note. Spearing a piece of pink beef on his fork, he bellowed with admonishment, “Vegetarianism is a form of neurosis.”

It was perhaps one of the most offensive remarks I’d ever heard, but it also got me thinking. I’d followed a plant-based diet because I didn’t care much for the texture or taste of most meats (with the exception of hamburgers, which I secretly loved). I didn’t have, as many of my friends do, an ethical objection—my father and husband are hunters and friends raise cattle—and neither did I have a medical reason to avoid it. Bottom line, vegetarianism was a preference, and one that made me a difficult guest at the dinner table.

I’m hardly the only picky eater out there. Event planners and veteran dinner hosts report a marked increase in the number of dietary requests they’re fielding from guests and attribute the spike, in part, to the increased prevalence of food allergies (gluten, nuts, dairy and eggs are common offenders) and popularity of vegetarianism. According to the Food Allergy Research & Education, a nonprofit group based in McLean, Va., there are roughly 15 million people in the U.S., including nearly 6 million children, with food allergies. The Vegetarian Resource Group, another nonprofit, puts the number of adult vegetarians in the U.S. at 9 million, 2 million of whom are vegans. In the last few years, says Los Angeles-based etiquette expert Lisa Gaché, it has become de rigueur for hosts to inquire if their guests have any restrictions. Certain foods—pesto, which contains nuts—are off the menu, while others—gluten-free crackers to go with cheese platters—have secured a spot. Some even secure sulfite-free wines for the headache-prone.

“Dinner parties are more of a heavy lift,” acknowledges Amy Thomas, former events director for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who is now protocol director for the UAE ambassador. For example, it’s not enough to offer just two choices of entree. Event planner David Monn has kosher, vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free meals at the ready for big events, and asks the caterer to keep a vegetarian risotto handy in case any guests surprise the host with a last-minute request. “Everyone in general can eat a risotto,” he says. Likewise, Stephanie Winston Wolkoff, president of SWW Creative and frequent party-giver, serves lasagna, steak and grilled vegetables at dinners in her home to cover her bases, and Ramy Sharp, who designs the Ramy Brook clothing line, admits her husband turns into a “short-order cook” at their house in Bridgehampton in an attempt to appease weekend guests’ finicky tastes.

At the Greenwich home of Dee and Tommy Hilfiger, there are typically no less than three desserts—a bowl of fresh berries, chocolate mousse and a lemon souffle or tarte, for example—on offer. “I don’t know anyone who serves just one dessert,” says Dee Hilfiger, who designs a lifestyle collection of handbags, footwear and outerwear for sale on HSN.

Hearing that, I can’t help but recall a favorite photo of my mother from my childhood. She is dressed in ivory silk and pearls, her face shining with pride as she presents a magnificent chocolate mousse cake to a table of dinner guests. The dessert, one of my mother’s crowning culinary achievements, took hours of careful preparation, none of which were wasted on her guests, who showered her with accolades and asked for second helpings. But what if I sent that same cake around my dinner table? Would anyone be so uncouth as to ask for bowl of berries or lemon tarte instead?

It’s possible. Last year I hosted one woman who barely touched the pasta I’d made or the very good wine we’d poured for her—explaining her meager appetite on a kale fetish and an early morning workout—and another woman who made a baked potato with cottage cheese for herself when the rest of us supped on pork tenderloin and salad. And then there was the friend I invited to a lobster dinner at our private club. In lieu of a reply, he informed me that he didn’t care much for shellfish. I emailed him back that there would be other dishes on offer, but what I really wanted to say was that he was acting like a spoiled 6-year-old and should get over himself.

Alex Hitz, the Atlanta-born author of My Beverly Hills Kitchen, blames food fads—gluten-free is a current bête noire—and rampant individualism for the rising tide of finicky eaters in this country. “Real food allergies are not to be taken lightly,” he says. “I have my own. But the term ‘gluten-free’ is as omnipresent now as ‘sun-dried tomato’ was 20 years ago. How many people truly have allergies—I get how serious they are—and how many just don’t want to miss the trend?”

Dr. Kristen D’Anci, lecturer of nutritional neuroscience at Tufts University, maintains that people eschew certain foods for a variety of reasons and trying to guess the reason can be a losing game. Aside from true medical restrictions, there are so-called “restrained eaters,” who make careful decisions about what they eat, and supertasters, who are more sensitive to spicy or bitter foods. And then there’s orthorexia nervosa, a recently defined eating disorder described as the compulsion to eat exclusively healthy. “We have a cultural obsession with health and our perception that we can control it with what we eat,” she says. Still, says Dr. D’Anci, we’re better off keeping our noses out of each other’s dietary business.

I hate to admit it, but by the time the mystery writer came to dinner, I’d been a picky eater for a long time. Within my first semester at college, I’d dropped the cafeteria eating plan in favor of shopping at a nearby Dean & DeLuca for groceries—I could afford apples, bread and the occasional quarter-pound of smoked salmon, so that’s what I ate—and when I spent a summer studying in Fiesole at a villa owned by my university, I was the only one at the table who received a different plate—for example, tomatoes with fresh basil and creamy buffalo mozzarella—when everyone else dined on a heavy pasta dish. The cook was overly kind and indulged my preferences, but none of my special treatment engendered any goodwill among my fellow classmates. They would tease me and hide my plate whenever they could. 

I should have changed my ways then, but it wasn’t until Kathy Freston, author of The Lean, a nutritional guide about opting for a plant-based lifestyle, introduced me to the concept of being a part-time vegetarian. She’d given me the advice in the context of getting my husband, an enthusiastic carnivore, to eat more plant-based meals with me at home, but I ended up applying Freston’s philosophy to myself—and in reverse. At home I could gorge on rice and beans and salad, but if I went to a friend’s house and what they’d made was osso buco, well, by George, I’d eat it! It suddenly seemed so simple and easy, the opposite of what I was. Not only do I enjoy dining out more, I also get invited to dinner more often.

As a result, I’ve developed my own set of rules for being a good dinner guest. No. 1, eat what is served unless doing so will land you in an emergency room or put your health (physical, not mental) in jeopardy. But be honest! Your host will know if you are claiming a shellfish allergy but devoured the shrimp cocktail at the last wedding you attended together. No. 2, if you do have an allergy and your hostess hasn’t inquired (forgive her, this is a new rule), please inform her prior to the day of the party. The absolute worst thing you can do is announce it right as dinner is being served, sending her back to the kitchen and disrupting the flow of the evening. And No. 3, do your best to eat well—no pushing food around your plate—even if you don’t care for what is being served. Bonus points can be earned for finding something about the meal to compliment. There’s a reason why we say “bon appétit” before a meal.