My son was in pre-school in a two's program when he was invited to his first 'friend' birthday party. As his mom, this was the first 'friend' birthday party for me, too. As my first and only child at the time, it was all new territory — for both of us. I was excited for him. But I was nervous.
My son had severe food allergies to a long list of foods — with egg, peanut, and tree nuts (among others) topping the list. Complicating this 'first' was that I didn't know the hosting mom. Just as my little guy was forging preschool friendships with classmates, I was also forging new mom friendships along the way.
I called the hosting mom and quickly explained the food allergy situation. I asked if it would be ok to send him with a party treat he could share.
"Sure!" she agreed. She could not have been kinder. I was relieved and grateful.
I found an egg-free cupcake recipe and pulled out all the stops. I made clown cupcakes, using ice cream cones for the clown hats. When they were cooled and decorated, I loaded them into a wicker basket, gathered my son, party gift and car keys, and headed out. Ran late. As usual. I remember breathing a sigh of relief when I got to the party, seeing that moms could stay. It was almost time for cake!
I handed off the basket of cupcake creations — enough for all the party guests — to the birthday mom. To my dismay she seemed upset, and then even more upset when everyone wanted a clown cupcake. No one wanted the cake. It seems my clown cupcake offering upstaged the main event birthday cake.
How awkward. I felt embarrassed.
I saw how my attempt to be overly generous and inclusive was a misstep. Usually I'm somewhat socially clued-in, but my allergy parenting on training wheels was wobbly. Maybe it would have been ok if I'd known the hosting mom better, or arrived earlier, or had a deeper conversation pre-party. But then again, maybe not. Who knows?
For future party invites through the school years, I course corrected.
Here's what I found works:
1) RSVP quickly, asking if you could speak at length about your child's food allergies before the party.
2) Have a detailed allergy 'chat' with the hosting parents, asking questions in addition to explaining all the allergy and medication requirements.
You have to gauge this, but be mindful about how and what you communicate so you don't overwhelm or unnecessarily 'scare' the hosting parent.
During that chat explain your child's food allergies, cross contact, epinephrine. Some guidance:
Approach the conversation with an open, positive and collaborative mindset. I typically found that the friend parents were understanding, kind, accommodating. (After all, they wanted the party to be a happy one for their child and his/her friends.)
Ask about food plans (e.g., pizza? hot dogs? ice cream? cake?), Specifically what would be served, where it would be sourced from, and when & how it would be served.
Explore activity plans (e.g., piñata? scavenger hunt? art projects?...any party activities involving food?)
Ask about party favor plans (e.g., candy, cracker jacks, other foods) and plan to either curate the favor after collecting it (in our case it was goodbye M&Ms,) or switch it out for your own safe 'favor,' or just forgo it entirely.
Ask if food being served could be peanut and nut-free (if those allergens are problematic for you.) I admit that this ask was sometimes hard for me to make (me being me) because I never wanted to burden others, but it's definitely something to consider.
Once you have the party details you can figure out a game plan, which, at a minimum, might involve sending a safe dessert along to eat when the cake is served.
3) Ask if it's ok to stay at the party, though this could become harder as your child gets older. If it's ok, find ways to help the hosting parent and lighten their load.
I would try to stay at the parties to keep a watchful eye on my guy. I'd help serve snacks & cake and clean-up afterwards if the hosting parent was open to help. This worked until about 1st or 2nd grade, but then definitely became more intrusive as the years went along.
In the later elementary school years, I would make sure the hosting parent had my mobile number and my son's medical kit, then I'd do quick errands in the vicinity to be nearby just in case.
4) Teach your child to only eat food brought from home at parties, unless you are able to research and ok specific foods that are served.
Sometimes the pizza planned for a party would be safe for my son. It all depended on where it was sourced from, how the crust was made. If not, avocado sushi — a special treat for him and convenient for me — was a go-to food he liked to bring to parties. He always brought his own dessert — usually a frosted, homemade muffin.
As he got older he became less comfortable eating food that was different in front of everyone else. He would eat before going to the party, or right after the party. Over time, parties became less about the food and more about the fun with friends.
5) A 'nice to do' if you think of it: Don't forget to reach out after the party to thank the parents for including your child and making the event safe for him/her.
Safely navigating birthday parties organized by others — and most social events like team parties and class parties — takes clear & open communication and planning ahead, beyond just buying a birthday gift and wrapping it. Sometimes you have to dig deep to find the courage to make an ask. Sometimes you have to look hard to find your bounce when things go awry.
Mom to mom here, "Be brave. Speak up for what you need. Be resilient. Stay strong."
“Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage.”
About the Author: Gayle Rigione is CEO and Co-founder of Allergy Force, the food allergy app. She’s also an allergy mom. She’s lived the heart stopping moments when her son ate the wrong thing, second guessed reactions and spent the night in the ER. These experiences inspire her to create tools for people with food allergies that make life safer, easier. Whatever you do, do it with a full heart. Audentes Fortuna Iuvat
Images: Carolyn Christine on Unsplash and courtesy of the Rigione Family