Those of us who follow special or restricted diets, by choice or for health reasons, can find it daunting to go out for tea. Whatever you’re avoiding – wheat, meat, carbs, cholesterol, or any of dozens of food allergens – you can oftentimes arrange a special meal, but you’ve got to plan ahead. Here are some suggestions:

  • Whenever possible, choose a tea room where they indicate they are willing to work with special diets. Many owners are aware of different dietary needs, and already have one or more suitable choices on their menu. ( Online tea room guide sites such as Tea Guide includes this information in tea room descriptions when available.)
  • Call or stop in at least one week prior to your planned visit to speak to the owner or manager. Don’t even think about arriving for your tea expecting them to alter their menu on the spot. Many foods are prepared ahead of time, so even if they are inclined to accommodate you they may not be able to: They won’t have the time, and as often as not they won’t have the necessary ingredients in stock.
  • Be specific. Some people think that “vegetarian” includes fish, or don’t know that gluten can lurk in salad dressings or candies. If you simply say “low cholesterol” without explaining what that means, you may get an unpleasant surprise.
  • Don’t just describe what you can’t have, be prepared with suggestions for what you can have. Look at their regular menu for tea (and other meals if they serve them) and see if you can tweak it around. Do they have a children’s menu? If so, it probably includes peanut butter and jelly, which is fine for vegans. For a gluten-free “sandwich,” ask for regular fillings to be served rolled in a lettuce leaf instead of on bread. Substituting margarine or mustard on a sandwich eliminates the cholesterol. You get the idea.
  • Be ready with ideas for suitable dishes, because some tea room owners will really go all out to please you – but be realistic with your suggestions, and don’t ask for hard-to-find ingredients.
  • Despite your advance notice, not all tea rooms will agree to your requests. Several tea room owners have told me that they don’t want to be responsible for a customer getting sick if the food is not just right. This is especially true when it comes to allergies.
  • If you’re invited to someone’s home for tea, call ahead and explain your dietary needs. Offer to bring one or two suitable dishes that can be shared with all the guests.

In the coming weeks, I’ll be putting together tea menu ideas for different types of diets.

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