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I have an upcoming multi-hour interview which includes one hour with a lunch (not a break, a continuation of the interview). I'm being asked to select a box lunch order ahead of time. Given that I have severe food sensitivities, the options available from the particular catering company's online offerings don't really meet my needs.

I could:

  • order a box lunch but only eat the piece of fruit, leaving most of the food uneaten
  • don't order or eat anything
  • decline ordering and bring my own lunch
  • order something and avoid the worst immediate-reaction foods while eating what will give me only intestinal distress
  • something else

If I don't eat carefully I can have very unpleasant reactions, though nothing life-threatening. I don't want to be seen as "special" or act as though I'm self-entitled in any way. I could just avoid the whole problem by not eating, but this itself could put interviewers off who are judging their comfort with me socially as well as professionally.

If I just eat food as a sacrifice and am hired, and then later during employment I decline eating at times (invitations to particular restaurants or lunch or provided lunches) then the question can come up "but you ate this before, what's wrong?" making me seem inconsistent.

Bringing food seems like the worst idea. It may be no big deal for others, but it feels very awkward to me to show up to an interview clutching a brown paper bag in addition to my black portfolio. And while others open their boxes, I'm going to whip out random weird things in little ziploc bags? Ugh. Just a week ago with a friend in public I had an experience much like this where my nonstandard food was of intense interest.

What do I do?

Note: my food reactions may be, or may be similar to, Herxheimer reactions. Also, with a strong enough dose of an MSG analog, in 90 minutes I can be either falling asleep with no power to stop it or I can actually end up speaking nonsense if I'm prevented from sleeping. This would be after the interview ends, though.

  • Catering companies will often offer options for people with special dietary needs - but they are so many and varied they can't all be listed. Letting them (or the interviewing company) your requirements, is a reasonable Plan A. – Laconic Droid May 11 '17 at 8:54
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    I shudder to think what kind of Spanish Inquisition interrogations over food you've been through to be so extremely concerned about other people's perception of your diet. I hope this gets better for you soon and you find an employer who respects your needs. – AllTheKingsHorses May 13 '17 at 6:26
  • @AllTheKingsHorses Thanks for the kind words. This may seem stupid but sometimes what I wish most is to feel normal. I go to a party without thinking about food first and I have a choice: ask the host or whoever brought each dish about ingredients and often still not be 100% sure of safety, don't eat at all and go hungry, or risk suffering. The desire to be normal and be able to just plain eat food has made me pick asking too often—then I get "oh, are you talking about your allergies again???" I've got this mostly under control, but the interview context is new, and concerning. – CodeSeeker May 13 '17 at 6:30
  • @CodeSeeker I guess the long and the short of it is: most people don't want to think about what you're eating (for too long). The trick is to turn that to your advantage. I'd say: Bring your own food and act like that's completely normal, not going into lengthy explanations about it ("because of medial reasons" should suffice). Most sane people should take your cue there and roll with it. Make it easy for them to not think about your food. Make it easy for yourself to not think about your food (by bringing something you don't have to worry about). Then don't think about food ;-) – AllTheKingsHorses May 13 '17 at 6:45
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    @AllTheKingsHorses I have a relatively simple and common dietary requirement (lactose intolerance) and the amount of hassle, unwanted negative attention and embarrassment is utterly staggering. The OP has my utmost sympathy. I try to act like it's completely normal but it's extremely common for people around me to act like it's a big deal and turn it into a drama. Playing it down is very hard work which leads to discomfort and distraction from more important tasks – Darren H May 13 '17 at 12:39
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I would let them know that you have food allergies, thank them for their offer of lunch but demur and let them know that you will bring your own lunch as your allergies can be difficult to accommodate. They may write back and say that they're happy to order a lunch that won't cause an allergic reaction if you let them know what the allergies are or they may simply accept that you will bring your own lunch.

Please, please don't eat food that will make you sick just to make a good impression.

Depending on the severity of the reaction (particularly if it makes you fall asleep), you will just make your interview extremely uncomfortable for everyone involved... ending an interview with them calling an ambulance isn't great for anyone involved. And ordering a lunch and not eating it looks wasteful and people will wonder why the lunch you selected was not acceptable to you.

If they understand your needs and your preference to supply your own food, that should be enough for them. It's really common for people to have both medical and non-medical (religious, diet, lifestyle) reasons for dietary restrictions and a good company will be respectful of that.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – enderland May 12 '17 at 19:48
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Another option is to contact the person who asked you to order the lunch, and without any drama say something like this:

I have some food intolerances - is there any way to order just fruit (veggies/gluten-free) for my lunch?

List 2 or 3 foods that you know are safe, and just ask. It is so common now for people to eat vegan/gluten-free/something else, that it is very likely that a special box can be made, you can eat your lunch without problems.

And if you're asked about it during the lunch, again make it a small thing, and then move the conversation back to the interview.

Oh, I have some food sensitivities, but it's no big deal. You were asking about my experience in marketing marbles?

  • As someone else mentioned upthread, don't call it a diet, which could easily be misinterpreted. I'd use "food intolerance" or "allergy" instead, whichever comes closer. – Llewellyn May 11 '17 at 17:48
  • @Llewellyn good point. I changed it. – thursdaysgeek May 11 '17 at 18:23
  • @thursdaysgeek foods that appear safe may not really be. For example, an offering listed as a salad may or may not include croutons, which are dietary hand grenades for people with certain conditions (and no, they cannot simply be "picked off" or "eaten around"). Not to mention the possibility of cross-contamination in the food preparation. – alroc May 11 '17 at 19:21
  • @alroc Yes. Additionally, a salad listed as having dressing on the side might not come that way or might already have some other unidentified substance on it. Everything is suspicious unless I can read every ingredient. – CodeSeeker May 13 '17 at 4:53
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I am in a very similar situation, often, at work and at family occasions and even closest relatives and friends tend to think of it as a figment of imagination or inferred problem. It is not feasible to explain it convincingly, so avoid that all costs.

I'll suggest 3 options in that order of priority:

1) Get your own lunch packed, in as similar a container/style as possible to the one for interviewers, and ask the service staff, beforehand, to serve that for your lunch. If at all it is noticed, you can just say I'm on a special medical diet for a few days. Remember to keep the quantity minimal, you just need this to survive the meeting without looking awkward.

2) Ask the person managing interviews if they can order from someplace else for you. Give the same reason as 1) if asked by interviewers.

3) If the harm caused to you is not permanent, you can consider eating it in smaller quantities, or maybe even completely. I face similar problems with pizzas but at times I'm willing to bear the later discomfort.

  • You're the first person who's seemed to understand the aspect of differentness that I'm at least partly worried about. The point about having a similar container or presentation style as the other's lunches is exactly what I mean, though I don't know how I would pull off talking to the service staff. Few know what it's like to be looked at strangely or even questioned despite trying as unobtrusively as possible to manage this. – CodeSeeker May 11 '17 at 15:25
  • Actually, to tide over that, you might say just before lunch to the senior people: "I hope you won't mind that I've brought my lunch with me, due to some medical dietary restrictions". I hope they will be understanding enough. – DS R May 11 '17 at 15:47
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You could reply with something along the lines of:

Hey there, I have such-and-such food allergy, and unfortunately it looks like none of the options really work for me. Could this be accommodated? Otherwise I don't mind bringing my own food, but I'd like to know beforehand. Thanks a lot!

This gives the company the option to accommodate to your allergies, while also giving them an escape route if this proves to be difficult for whatever reason. There is no need to mention details or discus specifics, just tell them enough so they can check if they can accommodate your needs.

Sometimes you don't need to make things more complicated than they are. Food allergies are nothing to be ashamed of and no one will think less of you because of them (in fact, it might be a good conversation starter during lunch!)

  • Grin: the last thing anyone needs is for me to start talking about health... a topic I avoid in most company due to my passion on it. – CodeSeeker May 13 '17 at 4:51
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Make sure you eat sufficiently before the interview, so that whatever happens with lunch, you aren't overly hungry.

Order whichever box lunch provides the most food that you can tolerate.

Then eat only the parts which don't cause you any sensitivities, and leave the rest.

Most likely, nobody will even notice. If they do, then just casually mention you have some food sensitivity issues and leave it at that. (Don't dwell on it or start listing everything that bothers you.)

I've worked with many folks who had religious reasons for being careful about food. They found a way to eat at least something in every situation without making it a big deal. Sometimes, just salad.

  • One possible problem with this is that you might get hungry, as you're not getting a full meal. Probably not a good thing at a time when you're trying your best to make an impression. – Martin Tournoij May 13 '17 at 4:38
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    The problem with religious people as the example is that if they accidentally eat something they shouldn't, nothing happens. That won't work for people who get sick from doing the same. – Erik May 13 '17 at 7:54

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