alerting your new office that you have food allergies

A reader writes:

I start a new job on Monday, and part of my “orientation,” I guess you can say, will be lunches in order to get to know people better. I am having a bunch of anxiety about this. I have Celiac Disease, which means I cannot eat gluten (which is in wheat, barley, rye) and I also have an allergy to most dairy. Most of the time this is okay, as I cook most of my meals myself and can prepare lunches ahead of time and bring them in.

But I’m starting a new job, and I don’t want to come across as an ill, food freak. I don’t want my first impression to be, “Oh, she’s the one who can’t eat anything” or have awkwardness when/if the company wants to buy me lunch and brings in a sandwich or pizza or something else I can’t eat. I don’t really know the details of what is planned; the HR Director (who has been my primary contact this whole time) just casually mentioned it over the phone.

I have thought about sending her an email about it, but 1) she hasn’t been the most responsive to emails and I can only guess she’s super busy and 2) I don’t want to overwhelm her (“You mentioned there might be a lunch or two. Just a heads-up, I can’t eat anything with gluten or dairy. So, good luck with that!”).

Any idea on how I could handle this with the least amount of awkwardness and inconvenience?

I think you’re probably over-thinking it (although understandably so). I’d just send a matter-of-fact email to either her or your new manager, saying something like, “I realized that you mentioned there will be a series of lunches when I start. I have a bunch of boring food allergies that often make it hard for me to eat out — is there a way for us to do those meetings in a context other than lunch? Alternately, if they’re in the office, I can bring my own stuff in to eat, which is what I normally do — but I wanted to mention it to prevent you from going to any special trouble to arrange food for my benefit!”

(I don’t mean to really call your food allergies boring, by the way. But I think referring to them that way is a good way to downplay it and not come across as “I’m a hugely picky eater, and you should prepare yourself to be hearing about it all the time from me.”)

Also, normally, you’d send this sort of thing to your new manager rather than HR, but you probably have a better sense than I do of who’s running this particular stuff and thus who would be appropriate to email about it.

Alternately, though, you could also just go to the lunches and not eat stuff that you can’t eat. It’s totally fine to say, “Oh, I’ve got allergies that make it hard for me to eat a lot of this,” and just order a beverage or something. Just treat it like it’s not a big deal — don’t keep talking about it and don’t say it apologetically, and it’s very unlikely that anyone will think much about it. People only get labeled as problem eaters when they turn it into a big topic of conversation or inconvenience for everyone else. Treat it like a minor thing, and most other people will too.

{ 90 comments… read them below }

  1. Michelle*

    Food restrictions (especially gluten/dairy/meat) are so common now that they won’t think twice about it. I work in a seven person office and there are two vegetarians, one person who can’t have gluten, and one person who can’t have dairy. Don’t worry!

    1. The Editor*

      I used to work for a team, and we’d have team lunches all the time. Let’s see… Once had celiac, one was allergic to food coloring, I’m allergic to nuts and artificial sweetners, another was allergic to dairy, and the last one was allergic to seafood. We decided that pretty much all we could ever do was rice and chicken.

      And then we hired a vegetarian….

      I loved that team. We got along great and let our quirkiness bind us together.

    2. BW*

      Yup – every team I’ve worked with – there’s always at least one (usually more) people with some food allergy or dietary restriction. When we go out or have food brought in we make sure to have something that those people can eat. Sometimes they offer or prefer to bring their own food if it’s a lunch meeting in the office. When we have food in the office, we make sure to point out to everyone what’s gluten/lactose/nut/whatever-free/vegetarian and what is not. People in my experience have been really good about looking out for each other in food situations. If you’re co-workers aren’t familiar with your type of allergies, you may find they will ask questions and you will have to educate them some.

  2. Meredith*

    I can’t have gluten and it’s no big deal. My boss even orders gluten-free pizza for me when we have pizza parties! There are plenty of things I can eat (salad, etc.) and so I just make do or, worst case, eat after meetings and just have a beverage and some fruit or something during the meeting.

  3. Anna*

    Fellow Celiac here!

    I had the same worries after my diagnosis, but honestly — people don’t care. Sometimes they’re vaguely interested (e.g., “So wait, can you have pasta? …YOU CAN’T HAVE PASTA?!” kind of way), but generally, not eating the company pizza/snacks is always a much bigger deal inside my head. So long as I show up to the meetings/gatherings with a smile, no one really cares if I eat my salad or weird, crumbly sandwich instead of what’s offered. In fact, now that everyone knows that I have my limitations, it’s just par for the course.

    And if someone ever gives me a hard time about not eating their homemade cookies, I’m just polite but unyielding…since clearly they are the ones with the issue and I’m not about to destroy my gut lining/spend the afternoon with a fever & in the bathroom to appease that!

    As for restaurants, it depends on where you live. I’m in a major metropolitan area and I would say about 75% of places can accommodate me in some way, even if it’s just to serve me a spinach salad with nuts and balsamic vinaigrette, prepped on a wiped down surface. But if you’re in a place where servers and chefs generally get their facts wrong or don’t care, then it’s probably worth bowing out.

  4. Erica B*

    Celiac and lactose intolerant are perfectly legitimate reason to not eat a particular food, and no one should be upset by the fact you have these conditions.

  5. Sue*

    As a manager, I’d say definitely mention it. We want you to have a good first week and we want to be sensitive to your food needs. There’s no reason for you to feel bad about this and I’d definitely feel bad if I ordered a meal to welcome you and found out you couldn’t eat it, especially when so people have food needs these days. I’ve got a vegan boss, someone who is lactose intolerant and a person who keeps kosher and one who follows halal food rules. It would be insensitive of me not to care about these things.

    1. Anna*

      This is very kind! And clearly, you are adept at dealing with lots of different types of very specific, very strict diets.

      I think part of the issue is that the OP is Celiac rather than gluten intolerant…and being Celiac is much, much more complex than just not being able to eat gluten. I’m not sure how sensitive the OP is, but I can’t eat any food that has come in even the smallest contact with any particulates of gluten (i.e., lettuce that is touching bread crust, a GF sandwich cut with the same knife used to cut regular bread, any food prepared without wiping down the surface, etc). This is much harder to reasonably expect even from the most well-meaning employer…and it makes me feel worse when someone puts in a good faith effort and I have to say, “That’s nice, but…”

      So generally, I don’t mention it in a serious way until I know if my manager is someone who would a) be willing and/or able to accommodate that kind of extreme and b) understanding if I still can’t eat whatever special food they got me.

      1. AdAgencyChick*

        I’m with Sue — I would want to know, so that I didn’t arrange anything that the OP can’t eat.

        OP, if your celiac is indeed so severe that you not only need to avoid gluten, but also avoid products cooked near those containing gluten, I’d just mention to your HR contact “I have severe allergies — please don’t go to any trouble to arrange lunch for me, I can bring my own to make sure it’s safe” or something like that. I don’t see how anyone would perceive that as diva or strange.

        1. Anna*

          Ah, I was assuming that the lunch was for a group, which is where I always tend to demur. Absolutely, if the lunch was only for me, I would say something so the company didn’t spend unnecessary time, money and effort on me!

      2. OP*

        OP here =) Yes, Celiac is much more complex that most people realize! No, I can’t eat that hamburger if you just take off the bun.. no I can’t eat those cookies you made gluten-free because I have no idea how safe your kitchen is, No I don’t really feel safe at this restaurant etc etc etc. It’s tough. Take peanut allergy, as an example: Most people understand a peanut allergy and are familiar with anaphylactic shock (needing the epi pen). Most people are NOT familiar with gluten (it’s not just wheat!) and the side effects (can range from GI problems to headaches to lethargy to depression and more!). Gluten is sneaky and is hidden in tons of foods. Peanuts are rarely hidden and are labeled much more clearly and consistently than gluten.

        I used to be vegetarian, and boy did I get comments at work about that. That was very annoying. I’m not really anticipating much of that at my new job, though.

        My main concern is first impressions. I know they’re important. And I don’t want the thing to be most remembered about me is my medical relationship with food. I also don’t want to cause a fuss, or make someone else feel badly for having gone to the trouble of getting food (or taking me out to lunch) and have me not be able to eat it.

        I like the suggestion to send her a low-key email about my “boring” food “allergies” (Celiac isn’t technically an allergy but the term is easier to understand). And I will definitely be bringing my own backup food just in case!

        1. Your Mileage May Vary*

          I have Celiac and I always refer to it as an allergy when it comes up in conversation. You’re right that people understand that allergies can be serious but have no idea about a Celiac’s reactions because so often we’re suffering in private long after the meal.

          I was at a business lunch when I had to send a salad back to the kitchen because they put croutons on it after I specifically said not to. When the salad came back, I could see that they had just picked the croutons off (crumbs still on the salad) and I had to explain to the waitress that my “allergy” to wheat was so bad that I couldn’t eat the salad and I sent it back again. I was low-key and polite and no one at the luncheon blinked an eye.

  6. Ashley*

    I suffer from food allergies as well, but mine are a little more life-threatening. Whenever I start a job, I tell whomever I’m near that I carry an epi-pen and where it will be. It’s not that awkward, and people are usually very understanding.

    1. Hiding Normal Commenter Name So Person in Question Doesn't Find This*

      Good idea, in case they need to use it. I know people who are embarrassed about their allergies and I’m like, “For gosh sakes, just tell me what to do if I need to help you!”

  7. mozandeffect*

    I have a mild wheat allergy that I have made clear whenever there are company functions, whether they be unofficial, like the office is buying everyone pizza, or official – like meetings we’re running outside of the office. Luckily for me, I’m the one doing the food ordering for outside meetings, so I always make sure there are plenty of things for me to eat, and that any dairy-containing salad dressing is on the side for the lactose intolerant, that sort of thing. The people with food allergies thank me for going the extra mile to make sure they have food they can eat, so that makes me feel good!

    I will say that it does get old after a while when you refuse birthday cake, cookies, or pizza and try to explain that I have a wheat allergy and therefore can’t partake. So instead of bothering, I just say I’m not hungry and that stops most people.

    I think sending an email to either your boss or your coworkers is kind of overkill, unless it’s an allergy of the airborne variety (like people who get sick if nuts are in the vicinity). The bigger you make it, the bigger target you’ve put on your back, unfortunately. At the last Christmas party, this one woman yelled at me – loudly so everyone could hear – and was pointing to my plate like I had no right to put that much food on the plate. I had piles of vegetables, rice pilaf, potatoes, ham, etc. because while everyone else had eaten cheese and crackers and crostinis to start with, I couldn’t. So…yeah, I would tread with caution if you want to make it known, unless you’re ok with people making fun of you on occasion.

    Also, be thankful that you have an allergy and therefore it’s a medical reason to refusing food. If someone really gets on your nerves, go to HR. I’m sure people who choose to be vegetarians, kosher, etc. wouldn’t think twice about doing that. One of my coworkers is a “sometimes “vegan and because her dietary requirements change at will, someone else came up to her and put a piece of birthday cake in her face, saying, “you can have this, nothing in here has a face!” I know it was rude to laugh, but I couldn’t help myself after what happened to me at the Christmas party.

    1. -X-*

      “her dietary requirements change at will”

      This annoys me. I wouldn’t push her to eat anything in particular, but sure wouldn’t go out of my way to accommodate her either.

      1. KellyK*

        Honestly, unless she’s demanding about it or expects people to keep track of what her requirement is *this* week, it shouldn’t be a big deal. As a grown-up, she’s entitled to eat what she wants, for any reason or no reason, so if she wants to go back and forth between vegan, vegetarian, pescetarian and full-on meat eater as it suits her, that should be nobody’s business but her own.

      2. Jessa*

        Exactly. I don’t care what people want to eat, but if you’re going to keep changing at will, for no reason, it causes HUGE problems for me. I’m violently allergic to mustard (epi-pen in purse thank you.) When I go out and say does this have x in it? It’s people like that co-worker who changes at a whim, who make it horrible. So many waitpersons and restaurants just blow it off. So many offices do too because well Chris says sie is allergic to x but really isn’t and just doesn’t like it, so allergies really aren’t a THING.

        It’s okay to not like something and refuse to eat it. Don’t make up excuses though. Those who are Kosher, Halal, Gluten Free, Diabetic, Allergic, whatevertheheck. Will thank you for it.

        And to those who work with food. I don’t care if 500 people said “Allergic” and weren’t. You need to treat them all seriously.

  8. Malissa*

    You sound like a lady I work with. She’s also lactose intolerant and does a gluten free diet for other reasons. You’ll find that the office is probably full of food allergies and what not.
    In my office besides the lady already mentioned, I have a citrus allergy, there is one latex fruit allergy, and one person who doesn’t do good with sugar.
    People will understand and will accommodate with out much thought.

    1. Diane*

      Wow, I have a citrus allergy too and never met anyone else w/the same annoying problem! I long for the days of orange juice and fish with lemon!! Mine came out of nowhere at age 25 and for three months, had no clue what was causing my symptoms.

      1. Laura L*

        Interesting! A former roommate of mine has a citrus allergy. I’ve never met anyone else with that.

  9. Lanya*

    I think your new coworkers will be completely understanding. It’s very common for people to have special dietary restrictions. I think the only way you would become marked as the “she can’t eat anything” person is if you continually make a huge deal about it, and it sounds like that’s exactly the opposite of what you want to do. So, no worries!

  10. Anonymous*

    If the food allergy is severe, you must avoid any food that may contain the allergen – and with dairy that could be almost anything, because milk products pop up in sauces, soups, dressings, sides, rice, etc. and can be hidden. Also food contamination issues can cause reactions as well . If it is severe enough to carry an epi-pen, you can’t eat at a restaurant before talking with the chef to ensure that food has been prepared without cross contamination of work surfaces, utensils, etc., and you have to know the exact ingredients for every dish.

    And just a small, teeny soapbox here: “People only get labeled as problem eaters when they turn it into a big topic of conversation or inconvenience for everyone else.” It can be hugely inconvenient to accommodate food allergies, and allergy sufferers with a shred of sense know this and try to avoid that by bringing their own food, making arrangements, etc., but the bottom line is if it can be life threatening then sometimes someone needs to be inconvenienced, and that’s just the breaks. It’s not inconvenient to have an on-ramp for wheelchair bound employees, it shouldn’t be inconvenient to make arrangements for folks with severe allergies.

    1. Anna*

      Sure, but you also need to be realistic about what the world actually is vs. what it should be.

      At the end of the day, we live in a world where there definitely are bosses who think it’s “off-putting” if you are at a mandatory client dinner and you don’t order anything. Or, like in the example I mentioned above, that you’re a jerk if you don’t eat the special supposedly allergy-friendly food someone brought for you because it’s actually NOT allergy-friendly. As I’m sure you know, people can turn very sour, very quickly if they think their effort is being snubbed, even if you’re actually just looking out for your safety.

      Or just people who don’t understand food allergies and don’t care to understand food allergies.

      In an ideal world, yes, it would be treated as an obvious and completely understandable thing. And I think we’re getting there — like I said even further above, none of my co-workers care. But I still feel the need to choose my words carefully and not make a “fuss” because enough people would see me as entitled or picky…or frankly, just annoying. In the work world, these kind of perceptions are important to your overall career, so you need to be as careful as possible to downplay when you can and only make specific requests when you don’t have any other choice.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      What Anna said :)

      Also, I didn’t mean to say that it’s reasonable for people to label you as a pain in the ass just because you take responsible measures to ensure your food won’t harm you. But there ARE people who talk about their food restrictions constantly — way more than needed — and it does annoy others. (I don’t think the OP falls in this category though.)

      1. Anonymous*

        No, she didn’t, and I think most allergy sufferers do understand what an enormous inconvenience it is for others, and try to take appropriate measures. Frankly, the fact that gluten-free diets and are a fad right now does a great disservice to those with true wheat allergies, because people can err on the side of thinking it’s a lifestyle choice, versus a lifesaving one.

        1. littlemoose*

          Exactly! That’s why I stick with the word allergy at restaurants and such – it’s not really a food allergy, but the consequences are still serious, and people in food service are trained to treat allergies cautiously.

        2. Jessa*

          Except that if it’s a lifestyle choice, that’s valid too. Being vegetarian because you think eating meat is animal cruelty, is the same as being vegetarian because it’s easier for you to keep Kosher or Halal or to avoid gluten or whatever you’re allergic to. And as long as everyone is polite about it both states should be treated the same.

          The problem is that people just can’t get over that other people might not want to or be ABLE to eat x. They all take it personally.

          And it’s worse when someone does make something they think is “allergy free” they’re TRYING. But that doesn’t mean the person in question needs to kill themselves over it. Personally I think the best response is “oh thank you so much,” pack it away to take home, “I’m not hungry right now,” and then when you’re ALONE with the gifter, explain that it’s wonderful that they want to help with your allergy but did they “x, y, z?” You need to know before you actually eat it.

          But this way you don’t make them lose face in FRONT of people.

  11. Anonymouse*

    I think the ‘Problem eaters’ that were mentioned are more when people are inconvenienced by a food choice/picky eaters (for instance, I have a friend that has a really limited palate of what she’ll eat (just based on taste, no medical reasoning), so I have to check the menu by her every time I plan to feed her, and she wouldn’t eat anything offered by my office’s occasional pizza party), rather than one that has a medical issue behind it (for instance your ramp that you mentioned, or the OP’s allergies)

    It kind of goes back to people’s priorities. A medical issue is obviously more a priority than a dislike, and people that mix that up are problematic when it comes to serving a lot of people.

    1. -X-*

      I have very little sympathy for people like your friend, and they undermine the message of dealing with serious medical issues, since pickiness tends to get lumped together with need.

      Preference is not close to need, unless you’re living on a ship or some remote location without access to other food.

      1. Jamie*

        Why would you assume her friend expects sympathy?

        I am one of those people, I have an extremely limited range of what I’ll eat but I fail to see how that undermines anyone’s medical issue.

        I don’t pretend to have allergies, and I don’t discuss my food choices – ever. If something is offered not on my short list I say “no, thank you.” I don’t make a deal out of it and I pave never asked anyone to accommodate me. I just assess what’s offered and either partake or not – and if not I just arrange my own meals.

        Picky eaters who make it an issue for other people are a pita – for sure. But there are a lot of us who just politely decline without comment – ad nauseum to those who won’t take a hint – but no one owes it to their co-workers or those with medical issues to be less picky.

        1. -X-*

          Pardon me, I assumed that “I have to check the menu by her every time I plan to feed her” meant the picky eater is someone “who make it an issue for other people are a pita.”


          And I don’t like that.

          And it undermines the medical issue because some of the picky eaters say “I can’t eat that.” Which is not the same as “I don’t like that and won’t eat it.”

          1. Jamie*

            I didn’t read that. She said she does that when “she plans to feed her” and didn’t say that her friend says she ‘can’t eat anything.

            And she doesn’t say that her friend expects her to do recon before feeding her – believe me many people take this upon themselves. The verbiage infers a certain interest in what she is or isn’t eating and nothing about the demands of the friend.

            And she said she won’t eat anything offered at her office pizza party – to which I think if she doesn’t want to eat she shouldn’t have to. I was just responding to the language in he post.

            If I’m incorrect and its the friend is requiring special consideration than I’d agree with you wholeheartedly. I just read it differently.

            But yep, if people make their pickiness other people’s problem then that sucks and they should knock it off. If people just opt to quietly and politely decline and take care of their own food needs then other people should accept that and stop worrying about what others are or aren’t eating.

            1. -X-*

              What about the phrase “for instance,” in “when people are inconvenienced by a food choice/picky eaters (for instance, “?

              1. Jamie*

                We interpreted her post differently. I don’t know any of these people so my opinions are based on how I read the comment.

            2. Elizabeth West*

              I hate mushrooms.

              Can’t stand them. To me, they taste like dirt and look like bogeys. I just pick them off my pizza (sometimes I eat them, if there aren’t a lot), and if I’m in a restaurant where they are in something I want, I ask if it can be made without them. If not, no biggie; I’ll order something else.

              I do feel weird sometimes not liking something most people enjoy. They just gross me out. :{

              1. BW*

                Me too! Your description is totally accurate of my experience with mushrooms. They taste like dirt and look like boogeys (unless they are stuffed, but then they still taste like dirt).

          2. Flynn*

            Not really. I’m one of those picky eaters, always have been – based on taste and texture alone, I am utterly revolted by a wide variety of common foodstuffs (e.g. cooked tomato, onions, mushrooms, cooked capsicum, anything spicy and I do mean ANYTHING, even a dash of pepper, parsnips, kumara, coconut, red meat… ). I can only really explain it by saying that I’m incredibly sensitive to flavour and the burning of evil spiciness. I find flavour in food my family swears is bland and tasteless. At any given restaurant/takeaway, I scan the menu looking for the one or two things I can eat, as I can taste it even if I don’t know it’s there (my dad still doesn’t believe this and keeps lying when I taste things in his cooking. And then has to admit it’s there). And it’s so frustrating to see dish after dish I’d otherwise enjoy that happens to come full of onions or flavoured with a spicy sauce, or something else too difficult to take out, but too pervasive to ignore. I’m also having issues with gluten and dairy, which cuts out pretty much anything else people might offer (though I’m trying to ignore this because my diet is so limited).

            And it is far, far easier to just warn people up front that ‘oh, I’m a really picky eater, please don’t bother to cook for me’ and spend the five or ten minutes necessary insisting on that, to override the automatic hospitality of ‘oh, I’m sure we can find you something!’, than to just not eat their food and go hungry/hurt their feelings, or go through the ‘let us go through the cupboard and see what I have that you can eat’ dance, which usually ends up with nothing much.

            I don’t expect sympathy, I just try and persuade them to let me handle my food. If I like it, I WILL eat. I just… don’t view the majority of alleged foodstuffs as edible. I’d love that not to be the case, it makes cooking, shopping and sharing food extremely difficult.

            I do have a very few friends and family that are able to remember some foods I will eat, or to check with me first before picking a takeaway (e.g. I probably won’t eat any pizza that is sold, ever, ick) – because they feel crappy too, if they cook dinner or we go out to eat somewhere and I just can’t eat any of it. And I appreciate that. But it took them months to learn, as they just assume I’ll like at least half of the ten things they offer (when it ends up being one or two, if we’re lucky).

            So yeah, just because it’s not endangering our health doesn’t mean picky eating is always a fad. And it’s always courteous to try and accommodate people when reasonable. I will say that my pickiness makes me hyperaware of other people’s dietary habits!

            1. Laura L*

              I’m really sensitive to spiciness too and that’s a great way to describe it! I think I’m going to use that. I don’t think I’m quite as sensitive to other types of tastes and textures as you are, but I often find foods spicy that others do not.

              1. Jamie*

                I wonder if this is a physical reaction more than just usual taste preferences.

                Even medium taco sauce from the grocery store tastes like battery acid to me – there is no flavor just burning. Which my husband thought I was making up until he saw the result of a bite from the wrong taco. My mouth was red and burned and starting to swell.

                I read somewhere once that things like broccoli and cilantro actually taste different to different people based on a variation in the taste receptor gene. I love broccoli, but to some it tastes very bitter. Cilantro tastes just like soap to me – if I eat it by accident I expect lather.

                I love watching cooking shows on TV (ironic, I know) and I’ve always wondered what spicy food tastes like to other people – because believe me if it tastes to them the way it tastes to me Bobby Flay would not be a bazillionaire.

                1. Laura L*

                  I looked this up after I posted it. :-)

                  It looks like it is related to how strongly a lipid molecule binds to the capsaicin receptor in the mouth.

                  It’s possible you might be a supertaster:

                  They have more taste buds than average tasters and nontasters and experience tastes much more strongly. So, they’re really picky eaters.

                  This article talks about the genetics of bitter tastes receptors:

                  I’ve heard the thing about cilantro, too. Apparently, the people who don’t like it taste it as soap and I think that’s somehow genetic too.

                2. BW*

                  I LOOOOOVE cilantro. It tastes only of freshness and happiness to me, definitely not of soap. Swiss cheese, on the other hand, is like eating chewy vomit to me.

                3. Flynn*

                  Weirdly, the rest of my family will eat anything! (and my parents both love coriander – which I think is cilantro – but their offspring al universally hate it).

                  The bitter taste receptor thing is very interesting and sounds a lot like me.

  12. Darcie*

    Yes! It’s hard being known as the “weird one” or the “picky eater” (I’m a vegetarian), but eventually your coworkers will find it funny to jab at you. I agree with AAM, just let them know at the lunch event and don’t be a pain in the ass about it (you probably aren’t) , and no one will think you’re weird for having food allergies. Lots of people do. Your managers are people too, and don’t want to cause any of their staff allergic reactions. I wouldn’t e-mail beforehand myself, maybe because my food restrictions are self-inflicted, but maybe allergies are different.

  13. Liz in the City*

    OP, if you live in / near a major metropolitan area, your food allergies are not going to be an issue. Why? Because most people are on some sort of eating plan that means they can ONLY eat veggies / soy / bacon. I think I’d notice only someone who wasn’t partaking in a group lunch because I’d want to make sure they know they can serve themselves, etc. But if the person replied that they had food allergies, I’d drop it without probing further.

    I think if you ask if you can bring your own food (I read this as your lunches being in house rather than at a restaurant) to accommodate, you’ll be just fine.

    1. Luis Zach*


      I have a chronic illness that causes inflammation of the intestine and I follow a restricted diet because it reduces the frequency/severity of flares. In NY there are a kajillion restaurants and cafes for every taste imaginable and my diet is a lot more “typical” than many others. When we lived in rural Texas? Not so much. (One reason we soon moved to Austin, but that is a whole ‘nother story…)

  14. Cruella Da Boss*

    Nut allergy here. I like that my coworkers know because they will be the ones speaking with the EMT’s.

    Why treat Celiac disease any different?

    1. P.*

      Because celiac is an autoimmune disorder that has around 6,000 symptoms of varying levels of severity and can occasionally even be asymptomatic. It’s easier for people to understand “if I have any nut particles enter my food, I’ll have to go to the hospital” than “if I have any glutne particles enter my food, I may or may not become some sort of sick but trust me, it will affect my health long term”

      It shouldn’t be different but the reality is that if people don’t understand it, they’re more likely to not treat it as seriously.

      1. Laney*

        6,000 symptoms?! o____O That’s…insane. I don’t think I could even think of 50 symptoms off the top of my head.

        1. Your Mileage May Vary*

          Eating gluten when you have Celiac disease can lead to strokes and heart attacks as well as more immediate symptoms. Although the great majority of people with undiagnosed Celiac disease only have altered levels of vitamins and minerals in their blood and unless they have an on-the-ball doctor (or start to develop more obvious symptoms), they may never know they actually have Celiac.

          As I said above, people really respond to the word “allergy” because they envision you collapsing on the floor with the EMTs on the way. They don’t think gluten is as big a deal because our reaction is later and often private.

          I did once have a co-worker say that she didn’t think Celiac disease was real. She said that people would say they had Celiac because they didn’t want to admit they had IBS. But she was very opinionated and frequently wrong so I just let that comment sail on by.

      2. OP*

        It’s very true, people understand a peanut allergy much more than gluten intolerance. Not sure about the exact symptom numbers, but yeah there are a lot and are varied. Not all are GI! Some people get lethargic, depression, achy joints, brain fog, lightheaded, migraines, weight loss or weight gain, PLUS symptoms from malabsorption since their intestines get damages and can’t absorb vital nutrients. Sometimes if you’re glutened you feel it right away, other times it can take hours or days, depending on your symptom and digestion.

  15. AG*

    I think as long as you let them know ahead of time and offer to bring your own food, it shouldn’t be an issue at all!

  16. COT*

    There’s some great advice here. If these are one-on-one events, not group lunches, just ask to make it a coffee meeting instead, or to eat onsite so you can bring your own lunch.

    No one wants their new employee to go hungry or get sick, so I think they’d be happy to know upfront before they order lunch!

  17. S*

    I have a gluten intolerance, and I avoid most grains and many other foods simply because I feel better when I don’t eat them. I’ve gotten pretty good at navigating work/food events, but I have started to be just generally annoyed at how often food is used a reward or social lubricant at work. My weird food preferences should be only my business, but every time my company rewards people with pizza or lures people to an optional meeting with free lunch, it has to come up again. I wish it were more like religion and people knew that it is personal, not appropriate for general discussion with people you don’t know well, and not something we should center work events around.

    1. Anonymous*

      This. And don’t get me started on SCHOOLS. There is food everywhere, all the time, in schools these days, and I don’t understand it. It’s not neccesary, it’s junk half the time, and it puts some kids at serious risk.

    2. Jamie*

      Food events are used so often in workplaces because many do see them as a perk or reward.

      For everyone who dreads them, or like me who couldn’t care less, there are tons of people who love for those things. And once started cutting back the birthday cakes or monthly lunches is seen as high treason.

      It’s a relatively easy and inexpensive way to reward people and as long as the majority responds to it, it will continue.

    3. K*

      I don’t think this is really reasonable. People are at work for anywhere from 8 hours and up, meaning that they will be eating at least one meal there. As a result, the act of eating is just not going to be separate from work or personal. And, frankly, pretty much all of human culture and history suggests another reason food is never going to be considered private or personal: we just don’t seem to work that way as a species and eating communally is important to us. It’s completely reasonable for companies to sometimes provide that meal as a perk.

      What’s unreasonable is people harassing you or otherwise making you feel uncomfortable about your diet and what you do or don’t eat. That’s not okay, and we shouldn’t conflate that with the mere provision of food in the workplace.

    4. Luis Zach*

      I think the good news is that more people are becoming aware of conditions that may require a person to follow a restricted or special diet. My family has several people on restricted diets between me, my brother, and my dad who’s eating a lean Mediterranian (SP?) diet to prevent heart disease, and I know that we’re not the only ones eating specialty menus by necessity. My mom loves the opportunity to go all Martha Stewart at Thanksgiving and whip up stuff that meets all the checklists.

    5. JT*

      Most people seem to like food a lot, and even like gifts of food. So food is used as a social lubricant in almost all aspects of life, including outside work.

      So it’s not that odd that it’s done at work or at schools – places at which we spend large amounts of time. In fact, it’s quite normal in a lot of places/cultures.

  18. littlemoose*

    Everyone here has great advice – I have celiac disease too, and this is helpful even though I’ve been dealing with it for a while. Luckily I am in the kind of job where I don’t have to do lunch/dinner with clients or anything. When our office does have events, it’s almost always potluck, and then I can bring something I know I can eat. If it’s just that somebody brought pizza or doughnuts, which I can’t eat, I just smile and say that I’m not hungry/just ate/whatever. It’s also good practice to identify a couple of “safe” restaurants around your workplace, in case you do want to go out (or if the food-stealing boss starts working at your office).

    I think what the OP might be referring to is the feeling that having celiac disease and/or other food allergies makes you high-maintenance. After I was first diagnosed, I did feel like a jerk whenever I declined a restaurant, home-cooked food, etc. I still feel that way sometimes. But I think handling it in a low-key way like Alison has suggested is the best way to go about it in the workplace. As she and others said, if you don’t make a big production out of it or talk about it incessantly, nobody else will either. It’ll just become an ordinary fact about you, like where you went to college. Best (gluten-free) wishes at your new workplace!

    1. OP*

      Thanks, littlemoose! Once I am settled in there I know I’ll be fine. Mostly I’m just a little amped up because it is a new job with new people, and I don’t want to start off on the wrong foot =)

  19. Ashley*

    This isn’t really an answer to the OP’s question, but just a little advice for those that have co-workers/friends/family with gluten intolerance or celiac or other food allergies that may not be life threatening, but do affect their health.

    It’s fine to ask questions and be curious, but the comments like “Oh I could never do that!” or “Why even bother?” get offensive and old really quickly. If your choice was to feel like junk every day, or to eat gluten free, you could definitely do it. And why even bother? Well, because eating gluten free is better than dying, and since I need food to live, it’s kind of a non-decision. Be curious, but understanding and empathic. You have no idea how much I miss bread and pasta!

    1. Flynn*

      Have you tried rice pasta? I switched to it when normal pasta gave me stomachaches. It’s a bit bland and cooks faster so you have to take it off on time (or you get mush!), but if you eat it with some kind of sauce or pesto or tuna or whatever, it’s fine.

      1. Ashley*

        I love rice noodles, but for me it really depends on what you put on them…in thai food? delicious! regular pasta sauce? no thank you! The texture is different than wheat pasta, though, so sometimes it satisfies, and sometimes not so much. I have come to love corn pasta (thankfully I’m not allergic to corn…yet!), but I still can’t find a bread that I love…

        1. Flynn*

          You have to be really careful with the cooking times – normal pasta lets you overcook it a fair bit, with rice pasta you usually have to take it off within a minute of the required cooking time (does depend on if it has other flours and things in it). That’s half the problem!

          And yeah, normal pasta will always have more taste, but you get used to it. I wouldn’t eat it ‘bare’, but I love it with tuna and pesto. Or something strongly flavoured like anchovy/sardine paste. Something with a bit of texture and flavour.

    2. Your Mileage May Vary*

      Spaghetti squash instead of pasta! It gives you the toothiness of wheat pasta and it doesn’t have much taste by itself so it picks up the sauce really well. It does take more time to prepare because you have to roast the squash first. But we get a bunch of these in the summer and prepare them and put them in the freezer. Heaven for scratching that pasta itch!

      1. Ashley*

        Oh I love spaghetti squash! It’s just sometimes it doesn’t quite satisfy that pasta craving, you know?

  20. jesicka309*

    While this may not be the answer you’re looking for, OP, this is something to consider.

    You may just have to accept you’re going to have to go hungry/eat at odd times for the first few days, if you find there isn’t any food you can eat. Pack some fruit/snacks/whatever you know you can eat that doesn’t need refrigeration in your purse or bag. Scope out nearby cafes/restaurants/supermarkets if you can on Google and see if there’s anything that sells food you can eat.

    While you may have to decline the free lunches, or even pick them apart and pretend you’ve made a go of it, make sure there’s food you can eat when you’re not in the meetings, so you at least aren’t caught in a tough spot where you haven’t eaten all day.

    It something most people have to deal with when they start a new job, allergies or not. It’s always a good idea to bring something that doesn’t require refrigeration (in case you don’t have acces to a fridge) or requires heating (same with microwave) and you shouldn’t bank on cafes nearby until you’ve had a few days to see the selection of food. I’d say that’s a safe way to initially look after your needs – though navigating the lunch meetings may be a bit tougher. Just make sure you’ve got something to eat! :)

    1. Jamie*

      While much more important for those who have food restrictions this is good advice for everyone.

      A little survival kit in my desk of some Campbell’s microwavable soups, some cereal/granola bars, and crackers have saved the day when lunch flies by and I don’t have the time 0r it’s an unexpectedly late night.

  21. Anonymous*

    Here’s a relevant question for everyone. I have multiple food allergies and always try to downplay them when I’m in a professional setting because I want to avoid drawing attention to myself. How do other folks respond when co-workers finds out you have food allergies and persist in asking you questions and wanting to talk about it? I’ve had this happen more than once, and sometimes the person asking has meant well and sometimes the person is just plain nosy and rude. I really don’t want to discuss some of the terrible and scary experiences I’ve had relating to my allergies. My responses have been along the lines of, “Oh, it’s not that interesting” and “It’s something I manage” and then I change the subject. This has sometimes worked, but what do you all do when someone really, really wants to make your allergies the topic of conversation? And bring other people into that conversation, so suddenly everyone is focused on your “problems”? Ugh.

    1. Jamie*

      If it were me my response would be different depending on my relationship to the person and why they were asking.

      And regardless of their motives you are under no obligation to discuss your medical issues or anything personal with people at work.

      But for me, if it were idle curiosity or they were trying to ferret out if it’s real or whatever I love your response. It makes it clear you aren’t going to discuss it without being rude.

      However, if it was coming from a place of truly wanting to understand you should feel free to be as open as you’re comfortable being – if you wanted to use it to spread accurate information.

      For example – once someone I knew only in passing asked me about my son’s autism. If he were asking out of curiosity I’d have given a non-answer – but his son had been recently diagnosed and he was looking for some local resources. It’s tough at first and it can help to have someone point you in the right direction – so I gave him some names.

      But again – even if people have the purest of motives you aren’t obligated to share anything.

    2. Your Mileage May Vary*

      Most of the reactions I get are people saying, “OMG! You can’t eat bread! I would just die!!!!” I used to take this seriously and explain that when your health is in danger, you make sacrifices. Nowadays, I just nod and say, “Yeah, you probably would die,then.” Stops that conversation short.

  22. Anon*

    One of my colleagues had a staff member with a laundry list of allergies. At times it seems like anything could cause a reaction. Which I understand, for a time my lips would swell like Goldie Hawn in First Wives Club after the collagen injection but with no discernible cause. However, she was one of the PITA people. We got to hear about it at the all hands (30+ people) staff meeting, at lunches, at anytime she could talk about how she couldn’t eat anything but what she brought in. And my friend felt like she couldn’t ever bring in anything to work (food-wise, like bagels) without making the allergic person feel bad.

    I often bring in food for my staff. It’s your normal, bagels, pizza, etc. If they don’t want to eat, they don’t have to. It doesn’t matter to me. (We always made clear when something had nuts though.) When we order out, we pick somewhere everyone can eat from. But even then, some don’t order. I think it falls into the “let’s just be adults about this” category. It’s not your fault that you have an allergy/Celiac etc but I don’t have to curtail what I eat because of it.

    1. Anonymous*

      It depends on whether that individual is contact sensitive or not. My son is contact sensitive to the proteins in cow’s milk, and any substance with either casien or whey (cheese, cream cheese, butter, goldfish cheese crackers, cheez-its, ice cream, yogurt, etc.) can cause a reaction. Unfortunately many of these substances are very sticky and if people get them on their hands and/or common work surfaces and my son touches this surface, he can have a serious reaction. Again, this follows the line of inconveniencing everyone else but if you think of it in terms of that person having an auto-immune disorder which makes them vulnerable to exposure to food proteins (which is exactly what serious, multiple food and environmental allergies is), you may wish to minimize their talking about it by creating one or two zones in the work area that remain food free. Just a thought.

      1. Prefers to Breathe*

        I realize this is an old thread but was deeply moved to comment…

        Yes, this. For anyone with contact sensitivity, your bringing in food with nuts (or other allergens) triggers a reaction. This ranges in severity depending on how sensitive the individual is. If you touch a nut product, touch the doorknob, then they do- their hand could swell up and itch. If they are required to be in the room where the food is, it could cause their throat to constrict, hives to break out, or worse, and they could hyperventilate. If the nuts come in contact with a food they can eat, the above could happen, and they could black-out or die right there in the breakroom. Reactions range, but all of these are real. Do you really want a nut, etc. snack that badly?

  23. Lora*

    For the first couple of weeks, I would just pack a lunch and a bunch of snacks and expect that you might not be able to eat with everyone else. I would mention it to your boss but more as a casual question of, “I see that there are going to be lunches scheduled, are there any accommodations for food restrictions?” and leave it there. The answer might be No though.

    I’m in the Boston area and sadly I have found many people who should know better are strangely jerk-y about this. Had a department that thought it was a great treat for us to have off-site all-day team-building exercises at his favorite exclusive country club…that had no vegetarian dishes or accommodations for food restrictions, and would not permit food to be brought in as brown-bag meals, and we weren’t allowed to leave as we had been bused in. Fully 1/3 of the staff in the department had religious and allergy based food restrictions, so that meant 10 people who spent the whole time increasingly hungry, frustrated and angry while they watched their colleagues eat. Seriously, even the salads had bacon and croutons pre-sprinkled.

    The first time it happened, one of the department managers (who was vegetarian and had gone hungry all day himself) told the department head that future meetings should arrange for this issue, and spoke to the admin who made those type of arrangements. The admin announced she refused to coordinate these events anymore if Ritzy Country Club wasn’t good enough for our picky behinds and the department head ended up arranging the events himself…which were still at the same location with the same issue. The third time we ordered vegetarian pizza to be delivered, and we got in trouble for not being Team Players and setting aside allergies and religion for a day.

    OTOH, I’ve also asked “what about food restrictions?” and gotten a surprised, “oh! uhhhh sure I’ll just call for a vegetarian option now!” and then the organizers were shocked that often carnivores eat vegetables too.

    1. Lynn*

      I used to work at a place like this. They eventually got smart enough to provide a meatless option, but never nearly enough. The conversation at the “team-building lunches” always tediously centered around bothering the people who opted for the Veggie Lovers pizza, and why aren’t you eating the hot dogs, and how do you get enough protein, and are you one of those PETA weirdos, and don’t you miss meat. Veggie-pizza-eaters trying valiantly but fruitlessly to change the subject to anything else at all.

      I don’t feel like it made us a stronger team, to say the least.

      1. Flynn*

        I’ve got a friend that’s… very nice, but not very open to alternative lifestyles/ways of thinking (in that they just don’t consider them, rather than specifically objecting). I had pretty much the same conversations with them every time they provided food for an event I was at, over several years. It would go something like this:

        “hey, have a hot dog/pizza/other!”
        “no thank you”
        “aw come on, why not?”
        “I don’t eat red meat/like it?” (note: they’re a friend, who has known me for years!)
        “Really?! why not?”
        “uh… [insert deflection or explanation until they accept it and leave me alone, or they just go ‘oh my weird friend is being weird again’]

        Twenty minutes later…
        “hey, why aren’t you eating the hot dogs? Here, I saved you some!”
        me [facepalm]

        They did this to other people too, including Muslim people with Halaal requirements and vegetarian friends.

        Sadly/hilariously/ironically, they recently developed a medical condition requiring them to be very careful about what they eat, and they now always consider that some people can’t/won’t eat whatever they’re eating.

  24. FA Mom*

    Some day my son will be dealing with this at work, since he will likely carry many of his multiple food allergies to the workplace (as will the 1 in 13 children who now have food allergies). I hope his coworkers will know how to use his epipen in case he can’t use it himself.
    I am not affiliated with this website, but this was released today: it’s a great resource for those of us looking for accommodating places to eat: it’s just good business, BTW:

  25. Anonymous*

    My company asks people when they start what food allergies or preferences they have so they can be sure to order appropriate food (vegetarian, gluten-free, etc) for team meetings. I live in Seattle where everyone tends to be all PC about everything, but as an allergy sufferer myself I appreciate it!

Comments are closed.