alerting your new office that you have food sensitivities

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.

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