How do you deal with your dietary restrictions in the workplace?
Gluten-free. Halal. Vegan. Paleo. No peanuts, no shellfish, no dairy. More and more people follow a restricted diet, but opinions change slowly. If you avoid certain foods, you may find yourself labelled as faddy, fussy or demanding – and that’s not the reputation you want to have at work.
Food is an important part of most workplace cultures, and the festive season usually means extra socialising with clients or co-workers. How can you stick to your restricted diet, without being seen as ‘difficult’ or annoying your co-workers with what can be perceived as attention seeking behaviour?
Talk about it …
Make your colleagues aware of your dietary restrictions, trying to keep it as matter-of-fact as possible. If you suffer a severe allergy, you may also need to talk to your manager or the HR department about it.
There is one exception to the rule of honesty, as manager Marian explains: “If you go on a diet, don’t breathe a word of it at work. Everyone in the office will try to feed you cookies.”
…But not too much
Nobody wants to know about your health problems. So tell people you eat paleo, but don’t lecture them about how much better you feel since you gave up wheat. You don’t want to be THAT person. Read: Orthorexia- the dark side of clean eating
Shutting down unhelpful comments
However dull you try to make your diet sound, you’re likely to come across people who make comments. To shut down comments polite blankness is the way to go. Isabelle, an accountant and vegetarian, jokes: “Every few months a man gives me that patronising ‘But don’t you miss bacon?’ talk.” She says she’s learned not to react. “He’s being unprofessional, but if I get into a debate I’ll end up looking bad”
Networking without eating
For informal networking, you could steer your colleagues towards coffee or after-work drinks rather than eating together. In some offices, sharing food is a way that co-workers connect. “My office sometimes orders pizza on Fridays when we’ve had a successful month”, says June, a coeliac sufferer who works for a start-up. “On those days, I bring in gluten-free brownies from home to share so I’m still taking part”
Eating over meals
The easiest way to stick to your restricted diet is simply to avoid meeting over meals, but that’s easier said than done. When planning a meeting which will involve food, let people know about your restrictions as early as possible.
If you don’t have any influence over the choice of venue, then try to find out about the menu beforehand. Anna, a lawyer, has multiple food allergies: “I call the restaurant beforehand and talk to them about my allergies. Most places are really accommodating, as long as you give them a bit of warning.”
Anna admits she’s faced some jokes from colleagues about her limited diet. But as she points out: “I mostly ignore it. The jokes would get a lot worse if I accidentally ate something with almonds in, and my boss had to shoot me in the butt with my EpiPen.”
You want to avoid being that person who spends 15 minutes interrogating the waiter about ingredient details, while everyone else is patiently waiting to order the dish of the day. If the meal is formal such as an interview, handling the situation with the minimum of fuss is key. Very often you can just ask if the chef can make a simple dish you know you can eat, that may not be on the menu.