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A Request: Please Don't Read the Menu to Me

Friday, May 4, 2012

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A Request: Please Don't Read the Menu to Me | Faith Permeating Life
I am making a Public Service Announcement because I know that a lot of you are nice, helpful people and therefore you may have done this very annoying thing I am about to describe.

I am lactose intolerant. Because I am an adult and have learned how to manage this condition, it does not greatly interfere with my life. I know that if I eat something with a significant amount of cheese or cream, I need to take a pill with a lactase enzyme, and if it is something mostly dairy like a bowl of ice cream or a glass of milk, I need to avoid it or choose a lactose-free option (thank you, Breyers).

Now, I also happen to be literate, which means that if I find myself in the unfortunate situation of accompanying friends or family to an ice cream shop, I am fully capable of consulting the menu myself and determining if there is anything that 1) I can have and 2) I like.

However, in an effort to be helpful, my companions almost inevitably begin to point out to me options of things that I can have.

This is frustrating to me for several reasons:
  • It's a bit patronizing because it implies that I'm unable to discover for myself what options are available to me.
  • Generally, people assume that because I'm accompanying them, I want to buy something, when really I may just want to hang out with them or am unsure whether I want anything.
  • Every time something is suggested to me, the person expects me to respond. So they'll say something like, "You could get a popsicle...?" and look at me expectantly, hoping that I'll praise them for solving my "problem." Then I have to say, "Um... No, I don't really want a popsicle." Or (this one ALWAYS comes up) "Actually, fruit smoothies usually have milk in them..." And then they suggest another thing, and another thing, and I have to make a split-second decision about whether I really want that thing and if not, if and how to explain why not.
  • This actually makes it more difficult for me to find something to order. Rather than training my attention on the menu and thinking through what I might want, my attention is on the person talking to me and how to respond to their suggestions. Think about how you would feel if every time you went to a restaurant, your friends would rapid-fire suggest things you might want to order so you never got a chance to actually read the menu for yourself.

The analogy I used to use was that of inviting a vegetarian to a steakhouse and then going, "Hey, you could order a salad! And it comes with bread!" Of course, now that I am a pesco-vegetarian (when I go out to eat), I have had this kind of experience myself, with my dinner companions feeling the need to comb the menu for vegetarian options and then read them aloud to me. Often they do it in an apologetic tone, like, "I feel so bad you can't eat all this delicious meat, so I'm going to make the non-meat options sound as appetizing and exciting as possible."

This is even more annoying than the ice cream thing because while I am sad sometimes about not having the broad range of ice cream flavors available to me (the only lactose-free ice cream I've seen is vanilla, chocolate, and butter pecan, and it's been a decade since I had soft-serve), I am a vegetarian by choice, so no one needs to pity me for it. And I've actually found that it makes ordering infinitely easier because I may only have three or four things to choose from instead of the entire menu.

What prompted me to write about this was yet another version of this experience that happened last week at work. A bunch of my coworkers were taking a break to walk over to Caribou and invited me to go with them. I made the mistake of mentioning that I don't like coffee, but I said I'd be happy to walk over with them anyway.

Of course, as soon as we walked in, everyone started suggesting things that I could buy instead of coffee. I tried really hard to focus on the menu, but it was impossible to absorb any of it because I had to keep saying, "No, I don't really drink soda... Actually, I can't have caffeine after 10am... Yeah, but I don't really like those flavors of tea..."

I was trying to remember whether I had any Lactaid pills with me so I could order a hot chocolate, and trying to decide if I actually wanted a hot chocolate, but my brain couldn't fully process those two thoughts because my one coworker was talking rapid-fire for at least five straight minutes about the caramel apple cider: "I usually get that because I don't really like coffee either but sometimes I just get it without the caramel so it's really just heated up apple juice if you wanted that, but I don't see it on the menu but I'm sure you could ask and I know they have apple juice so if you just wanted them to heat up apple juice and then maybe they could put caramel in it if you wanted but I don't know because I don't see it on the menu -- oh, maybe it's -- oh no, that's not it, I don't know, I don't really come here that often."

I ended up ordering nothing.

So that's my public service announcement for the day. If you have an adult friend or family member with a food allergy or intolerance or simply a dislike of a certain food, assume that they are perfectly capable of reading the menu and ordering for themselves unless they tell you otherwise.

Have you ever found yourself in this kind of situation, either giving or receiving these kinds of suggestions?


  1. I have a couple of friends who are wheat intolerant and I wouldn't dream of pointing out to them what they could and couldn't have, especially as, like you, they are perfectly capable of reading a menu and know enough about their intolerance to know what they can and can't eat, and what do I really know about it anyway? So I can see how people trying to help in this situation is so annoying for you! If it was me I wouldn't be very happy about it either. Having said that, I've recently stopped eating bread for a number of reasons, and a few people have begun to point out to me what I can and can't eat when I'm out, uh-oh...

    1. Sounds like you are going to get to experience this phenomenon for yourself! It often seems like it would be better not to tell people about my lactose intolerance or whatever, but then it manages to come out one way or another. Maybe you can share this post to head people off :)

  2. I feel this is a common reaction to *any* trait distinguishing you from others and with which they have little/no experience or understanding. People don't get it, but since they like you they want to show somehow that they care or at least notice your "condition" (or unconsciously compensate for their lack of understanding).

    I've experienced similar accommodations (or condescensions, depending on your viewpoint) as an Asian among Caucasians, a feminist among traditionalists, a Christian among non-. However, this usually doesn't result in an actual conversation to increase mutual understanding, which annoys me more than the pointing out of the difference. I think what your PSA comes down to is to try to make no assumptions at all about a person, and talk or get to know them where they're at.

    1. I think you make a really good point! And on the one hand, I do appreciate when people remember my dietary limitations or preferences -- some people I've known for years still can't ever remember that I'm lactose intolerant, and it's awkward when I have to remind them again. But, as you say, I prefer when people ask me questions (e.g., "If I make this with cheese, will you be able to eat it?") rather than making a big show out of accommodating me when it may not even be necessary. Last summer when we went on vacation with my cousins' church group, someone went to a lot of trouble to make me a special cheese-less version of the main dish, even though I could have eaten the regular one by taking a single pill. So then I felt obligated to eat my "special" (less tasty) meal rather than just taking the kind with cheese. It would have been so easy for them to ask me whether I could have the regular version!

  3. I am sooooooooooooooo guilty of this. And I KNOW it's annoying, and I just. can't. stop.

    My sister is a vegan, my best friend is a pescatarian, my SIL is lactose intolerant, and I'm allergic to shellfish.

    People do this to me when we go to Red Lobster, which happens a lot since it's my hubby's favorite restaurant. And I feel the same way you do, and I KNOW that grown ups don't need my help making decisions.

    Heck, if you wanted to eat a giant bowl of ice cream and make yourself miserable, that's YOUR PREROGATIVE! And I shouldn't stop you!


    This is one really long comment to tell you that you are not alone, I agree with you, and on behalf of all butt-in-skees out there, I am sorry.

    1. Hahaha I appreciate your honesty! And I am sure that you do it with the intention to be helpful, which is why I labeled this as a PSA rather than an angry rant. I do find it funny that you experience this yourself but still do it to other people, but then I probably do the same thing once in a while -- mainly, as Q said, as a way to show that I remember and acknowledge the other person's situation.

      Apology accepted ;)

  4. Oh My Goodness Yes. As someone with multiple food allergies (gluten + mushrooms seriously, soy + corn more moderately), who's also a vegetarian by choice, I think I mostly tend to flummox people into silence. Back when the allergies were undiagnosed, people would sometimes read me my choices, but for whatever reason, it petered off after a little while.

    The celiac thing, though, is a reliable conversation-starter at restaurants. However, I've found that a # of folks are really just wanting reassurance that I'm not secretly seething at them for eating bread. It comes most often from people who take pride in being good hosts (it's hard for them to enjoy themselves if they think that I'm suffering, even if we're at a restaurant and the meal isn't 'their' responsibility), but it ends up putting an onus on me to be effusive in my enjoyment. Honestly, it's more of a deterrent to eating out than the lack of options is, which is a shame (the whole experience has really made me reflect on the community-building aspects of food and hospitality.)

    And I just have to give Gina kudos for using the word pescatarian! The only folks I know who use it on a regular basis are vegetarians like me, who've had the 'what do you mean you don't eat fish?' a few (dozen) too many times.

    1. Glad to know someone understands what this is like! I do understand the "host" thing -- people all the time are like, "Is it OK if I eat ice cream in front of you? I feel horrible." I think they're trying to be polite, but I also don't want to know that my intolerance, which I've accepted and can deal with, is causing you massive guilt. But that's still preferable, I think, to the people who keep forgetting I'm lactose intolerant and will go on and on about how good their ice cream / milkshake / whatever is. Over-the-top sensitive vs. completely insensitive? It's a hard call :)

  5. I realize this post is a few months old but I just wanted to say it's a great PSA that I wish more people would read. I have a diet restriction and I'm never happy about having it mentioned aloud in public, and I rue my misfortune when my food symptoms become the central subject of dinner conversation!

    Up until a year ago I could eat anything, until I suddenly started having digestive problems. I tried first eliminating gluten from my diet (at the doctor's advice), and when that didn't help I discovered for myself that I needed to avoid sulfite. Twice, I went through the difficult process of learning what I could and couldn't eat, converting my pantry, and explaining my situation to my friends and coworkers.

    A typical conversation wherein I try to explain to someone I don't want to try whatever food they are offering me...

    Friend: "I thought you like jelly-filled doughnuts?"
    Me: "Yes I love them, however that is not the issue, the issue is that I cannot eat them anymore."
    Friend: "Well just have one bite, how bad could it be."
    Me: "Enjoying one tasty bite of food for 30 seconds is not worth dealing with pain and bloating for the next two days, so no thanks!!"
    Friend: "You're being over-dramatic."
    Me (thinking to myself): "What, like I would have created this food problem just to get attention?"

    I can 100% echo alice's sentiment that the overzealous helpfulness of friends can be more of a deterrent to eat out than the lack of food choices. A few awkward social situations I now find myself in when eating out:

    -- Some of my friends are from cultures where it's considered normal to pressure their guests to eat and even to add food to their guests' plates without invitation. The more adamant they are at offering, the ruder I sound by refusing.

    -- One coworker of mine claims she can't eat in front of me if I'm not eating, because it makes her uncomfortable, and it's not good enough if I bring a candy bar to munch on. She has effectively prevented me from accompanying everyone to the cafeteria for lunch anymore, if she's going to be there. :(

    -- I'm nearly always advised that I "could just get a salad with no dressing" (as if I hadn't already thought of that), and then I have to explain how I'm not the type of person to pay $12 for cut up lettuce and veggies that taste exactly the same as the lettuce and veggies I can cut at home for a fraction of the cost.

    ... *sigh*

    1. Man, that sounds frustrating! It's strange to me how many expectations and feelings are associated with food, that people have such strong feelings about other people's food choices or limitations. I'm not sure what people think they're accomplishing by doing things like refusing to eat in front of you -- trying to be polite? trying to pressure you to make the "right" choice of eating with everyone? I wish people generally were more understanding.


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