The weather is getting warmer. The days are getting longer. Schools are wrapping up their program year. Summer is here, and you have the burgeoning social calendar to prove it. There are barbecues and picnics and graduation celebrations, not to mention the assortment of birthday parties and family get-togethers. As fun as all this friend-and-family-time can be, there’s also a layer of stress for the food-allergic family. Will there be safe food? What if Great Aunt Edna decides to lavish hugs and kisses on my toddler after eating a slice of her famous cheesecake? How do I handle the disappointment when my child can’t eat the pizza and ice cream being served? Should we just not go? Before you make that decision, take a look at these ideas.
If you’re the host and the allergic person (or a member of your family has food allergies):
Hosting an event allows you to control the menu, which in turn gives you the opportunity to tailor the foods served to the dietary needs of your family. However, depending on what allergens you’re dodging, food can still be a bit tricky to manage. If that’s the case, focus on your timing. People often plan social outings adjacent to meals, but that’s not a requirement. If your son’s long list of allergies makes finding safe, party foods a daunting task, schedule his birthday party to start at 2 pm and end at 4. Placing it after the standard lunch hour but before most families are sitting down to dinner removes any expectation that a meal will be included. Plan a party jam packed with fun. Kids focused on a messy backyard carnival of active games won’t be milling around looking for the snack table. Provide water bottles or other safe drinks to keep everyone hydrated and have a great time!
If you’re the host and the food allergic person is the guest:
If you take away one thing from this article, let it be this: There are as many different ways to manage food allergies are there are food allergic people. Just because your cousin’s best friend is comfortable eating your homemade “Death by Chocolate” cake, doesn’t mean your daughter’s best pal with the same food allergies is going to feel the same way. Respect that folks have different comfort levels. Talk to your food-allergic guests about what foods they can and can’t have. If you’re willing/able to, plan to include some of them on the menu. If, however, your guests still pass on the meal you’ve prepped in favor of a stash of snacks and dishes they brought with them, don’t be offended. It’s not about you or your cooking, it’s about their health. If your guest offers to bring a dish to share, let them. No need to politely demur. Bringing a dish to share means they can have at least one thing everyone else is enjoying. It gives them an opportunity to be included that they may not otherwise have.
Consider limiting food to a specific area of your venue. Cross contamination is a real concern for food allergic individuals. Keeping food to one location, can help control that risk. If you’ve laid out a buffet of items, label each item with a small card that lists its name and any potential allergens that might be an issue for your guests.
If you’re an allergic person attending a party:
First and foremost, be up front and honest about your allergies. Sometimes it seems easier to pass on the event or to try to discreetly navigate the food landmines without drawing much attention to ourselves in the process. Listen, you were invited to this party for a reason. Someone wants you there. This is a social event; food is just one small piece of it. Go if you can and focus on the parts of the party in which you can fully participate – the socializing and the fun.
When you call to accept the invite, mention your allergies and ask if the host can give you an idea of what to expect from the menu so you can plan accordingly. This is also a good time to mention that you may be bringing alternative foods with you to ensure you have a safe option.
If you’re willing, offer to bring a side-dish or a dessert to share. As noted above, this will ensure there’s at least one dish the allergic person can eat that’s others will also be eating. That little bit of inclusion can mean a lot! Pack a few other snack and/or components of your meal so you’ve got something you know is allergen-free if needed. Also, have a supply of baby wipes for on-the-fly hand washing.
Before you get in the car and head over, make a game plan and review it with your family. Who will be responsible for carrying the auto-injector of epinephrine? Who has the safe-food stash? Based on your conversation with the host, what foods might be safe (after on-site label checks!) and which likely won’t be?
Finally, don’t be afraid to speak up. If Great Aunt Edna is leaning in for that cuddle, its okay to ask her to wash her hands and skip the kiss if she’s been enjoying allergen-laden foods. “I know there’s nothing he’d love more than one of your hugs. Can I give you a wipe for your hands first? The cheese and cracker platter is scrumptious, but it’s dangerous for the little guy because of his dairy allergies. If there’s any trace of milk protein on your hands or lips from the cheese it could cause him to react. Washing your hands with this wipe and skipping the kiss will help keep him safe. Thank you for loving him enough to take this precaution. We’re lucky to have such a caring family!”