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Cooking for special diets: Guess who’s coming for dinner?

Nutritionist Bronwen King has advice for entertaining guests with special dietary needs – without stress.

You’ve invited friends for a special dinner, or you have people coming to stay over the holidays. You’ve planned it all when one of them rings with the bombshell: “Did you know my husband has a lactose and egg intolerance?” In the space of a few words, you have been completely thrown outside your comfort zone!

Whether it’s because allergies, intolerances and the need for special diets is increasing these days, or whether it’s just that we are more tuned in to them, the fact remains that being able to cope with special dietary needs is now a necessity for chefs. It is rapidly becoming a necessity for home cooks as well. The good news, however, is that it’s not that difficult, particularly if you are already tuned in to healthy eating!

So how do we keep our cool when entertaining or hosting guests with special dietary needs?

Gather information

  • Start with the person themselves. Ask them about their needs, likes and dislikes. My bet is they will be only too happy to tell you!
  • Find out about the condition. Ask what it mean in terms of the foods they can/can’t have. Are there any other issues to consider – such as timing of food or portion size?

Plan your menu

  • Keep it simple. The less fuss the better and the more relaxed your ‘tricky customer’ will feel.
  • Look for common ground. If you can find a menu that meets the needs of everyone, you will eliminate extra work and stress. This will also reassure your guest that they are not a bother.
  • Rather than eliminating ingredients from your usual recipes, focus on foods that the guest can have and build your menu around those. Fruit and vegetables, for example, are suitable for all diets.
  • Keep it healthy. You will be looking after everyone’s health, not just the guest with special needs.

Prepare as much as you can in advance

  • Minimise last-minute stress by collecting ingredients, preparing and freezing food, and having simple nibbles/snacks on hand. If you have someone needing gluten-free foods for example, stock your freezer with gluten-free bread, and make sure you have rice-based crackers in your pantry. This will save awkward moments and show you have thought about the guest and their needs.
  • If you’re not feeling confident, test some of your ideas in advance. Treat the challenge as an opportunity to develop your skills and try new foods, rather than an inconvenience.

People eating a vegan diet do not eat any food of animal origin. While this sounds simple, it is easy to forget ingredients such as eggs, milk and gelatine are commonly hidden in processed foods.

The main challenge when catering for vegans is to make sure they get enough good quality protein. Plant protein is not as well matched to the body’s needs as animal protein is, but providing vegans have a variety of it, their needs should be met.

Meat, fish, poultry
Pulses (lentils, chick peas, kidney beans)
Nuts and seeds
Cheese, yoghurt
Cream, cream cheese
Soy or rice milk
Soy-based yoghurt and cheese
Tofu, nut butters
Gelatine-containing foods, eg. marshmallows, jelly beans, jelly
Agar agar
Jelly-type confectionery that uses agar or pectin instead of gelatine
Meat-based stocksVegetable stock
Baked goods containing butter and eggsBaked goods containing vegetable oils or margarines and no eggs

Plan your menu around

  • Pulses (lentils, chickpeas etc)
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Soy milk, yoghurt and cheese
  • Tofu
  • Fruit and vegetables
  • Breads (check label to ensure no milk or eggs) and cereals



  • Hummus and other bean-based dips, crackers and vegetable sticks
  • Falafel mini-patties with tzatziki and wholemeal pita triangles
  • Carrot dip with flatbread
  • Bruschetta with chickpea spread and basil tomatoes

Main courses

  • Roasted vegetable and chickpea salad
  • Vegetable pilaf
  • Mushroom and pine nut risotto
  • Pumpkin, walnut and pesto pasta


  • Strawberries dipped in dark chocolate
  • HFG chocolate brownies with raspberry coulis
  • Boysenberry granita
  • Summer pudding served with soy ice cream

People going dairy-free are either:

  • Allergic to milk, in which case they must avoid all products containing milk protein (milk, cheese, yoghurt); OR
  • Lactose intolerant, which means too much milk or milk products causes gastrointestinal discomfort (such as cramps, wind, diarrhoea). People with lactose intolerance can have small quantities of milk or milk products; the main thing is to inform them where and how much milk is in your menu so they can decide what and how much to eat.
Milk, powdered milk, evaporated milkSoy or rice milks if allergic to milk, or lactose-free milks if lactose intolerant
Butter, gheeOil or milk-free spreads
Cheese, yoghurtTofu, soy yoghurt
Ice cream, many sorbets and sherbetsSoy ice cream
Water based sorbets and sherbets
Some breadsMilk-free breads
Mashed potatoPotato mashed with soy milk or stock
Cream saucesTomato or stock-based sauces
Baked goods, eg. cakes, muffins, pikelets,
pancakes, waffles
Substitute soy or rice milk in recipe if allergic to milk, or use lactose-free milk if lactose intolerant
Look for recipes that do not contain milk
Foods that contain the word ‘casein’ on the
label, eg. calcium caseinate
Foods labelled ‘milk or dairy-free’

This is relatively simple – keep eggs out of the menu and check the labels of any processed foods you use.

MayonnaiseEgg-free mayonnaise (check label)
Yoghurt mixed with lemon juice or vinegar, a little sugar and mustard
Meat loaf, hamburgers or rissolesSame recipe with a little flour or cornflour used to bind instead of egg
Baked goods containing eggs, ie. most biscuits, cakes and cheesecakesUse recipes that do not contain eggs
Foods that are battered or crumbedUse milk instead of egg when crumbing
Caesar saladOther salads without mayonnaise or hard-boiled eggs
Quiche, frittataPizza
PavlovaOther desserts (fruit-based where possible)
Egg custardCustard made with custard powder
Sea meal custard

Menu ideas for egg-free and dairy-free diets

Plan your menu around

  • Lean meat, poultry or fish
  • Vegetables and fruit
  • Soy or rice milk, yoghurt and cheese*
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Pulses (lentils, chickpeas etc)
  • Breads (check label to ensure no milk or eggs)



  • Seafood and coriander patties with chilli dipping sauce
  • Healthy platters with dips, breads, vegetables etc (no cheese or dips based on sour cream or cream cheese)
  • Vietnamese rice paper rolls
  • Guacamole with pita crisps


  • Paprika chicken and four-bean salad
  • Thai grilled salmon
  • Chicken stuffed with almond and tomato
  • Lentil and vegetable curry


  • Berry crumble with soy yoghurt/custard*
  • Fresh fruit salad with soy ice cream*
  • HFG chocolate brownies with strawberries
  • Date and walnut balls dipped in dark (dairy-free) chocolate

*Use regular milk, yoghurt or cheese if egg allergy only.

People who have coeliac disease or a wheat intolerance cannot eat foods containing gluten. Since gluten is the main protein found in wheat, this means anything with wheat or wheat flour in it. While this may sound simple, flour is found in a surprising number of unlikely sounding products, eg. stock cubes. People with a wheat allergy also need to avoid wheat.

Wheat flour in bakingRice, soy, buckwheat, corn or potato flours
Wheat flour for thickeningCornflour, arrowroot or potato flour
Red lentils
Cereals containing wheat or bran
Rice, buckwheat and corn-based cereals (look for packages labelled ‘gluten-free’)
CouscousRice, polenta, quinoa
Bread and crackersGluten-free bread
Rice crackers/cakes
Corn thins
PastaRice noodles
Buckwheat (soba) noodles
Crumbed or battered foods
Hamburgers, meatballs, rissoles etc with breadcrumbs in mix
Gluten-free breadcrumbs
Grilled foods, or use gluten-free crumbs and flour
Use gluten-free crumbs in mix or add cooked rice instead
Canned goods, eg.
Creamed corn
Baked beans
Tinned spaghetti
Chilli beans
Whole-kernel corn
Cannellini beans with a tin of tomatoes
Gluten-free pasta and homemade pasta sauce
Cannellini beans with a jar of Mexican salsa
Sausages and processed meatsFresh meat and poultry
Stock powder/cubes
Gravy and soup mixes
Homemade or fresh commercial stock
Homemade gravy
Homemade soups – use lentils to thicken if necessary
Custard made from custard powderHomemade egg custard
Curry powderMix your own using individual spices, eg. cumin, coriander, chilli, garam masala, ginger
Mustard and mustard powderMustard seeds (toast a little to develop flavour): grind, and add a little vinegar and salt to produce mustard

Menu ideas for people with coeliac disease or who can’t eat wheat

Plan your menu around

  • Meat, fish, poultry
  • Legumes
  • Fruit and vegetables
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Milk and milk products
  • Rice, buckwheat, corn and their flours



  • Hummus or salsa with rice or corn crackers and vegetable sticks
  • Smoked salmon sushi
  • Zingy prawn platter
  • Asparagus and ricotta salad with mint vinaigrette

Main courses

  • Chicken Caesar salad
  • Vietnamese beef skewers with noodle salad
  • Thai beef and kumara curry
  • Barbecued lamb chops with potato and iceberg salad


  • Passionfruit and peach fool
  • Wheat-free orange and almond cake
  • Berry easy instant ice cream
  • Date and walnut balls

Date modified: 23 January 2018
First published: Dec 2009


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