Gayle Rigione, Allergy Force
Allergy Mom Diary: A Birthday Party 'Oops'
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 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 inadvertently upstaged the main event birthday cake.
I felt embarrassed. How awkward.
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? (Sometimes I replay things a gazillion times in my head and my overactive left brain gets creative filling in the blanks with alternate plot twists!)
For future party invites through the school years, I course corrected. Here's what I did:
1) Always RSVP'd quickly, asking if we could speak at length about my son's food allergies before the party.
2) Always followed through having a detailed allergy 'chat' with the hosting mom, asking many questions in addition to explaining all the allergy and medication requirements.
During that chat I'd explain my son's allergies, cross contact, epinephrine, then:
I'd 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.
I'd explore activity plans (e.g., piñata? scavenger hunt? art projects...any party activities involving food?)
I'd ask about party favor plans (e.g., candy, cracker jacks, other foods) and would plan to either curate the favor after collecting it (goodbye M&Ms) or forgo it entirely.
I'd approach the conversation with an open, positive and collaborative mindset. I typically found that the friend moms were understanding, kind, accommodating. (After all, they wanted the party to be a happy one for their child and his/her friends.)
I'd find the courage to ask if food being served could be peanut and nut-free, though sometimes I admit that this was hard for me to do; that 'ask' made me uncomfortable (but then that's me).
Once I had the party details I could figure out a game plan, which, at a minimum, usually involved sending a safe dessert along to eat when the cake was served.
3) Asked if it would be ok to stay, though this became harder as my son got older.
I would try to stay at the parties, just to keep a watchful eye on my guy. This worked until about 1st or 2nd grade, but then definitely became less feasible and more intrusive over the years. 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 sit in my car parked outside the party venue or do quick errands in the vicinity, just in case.
4) Taught him to only eat food he brought from home at parties, unless we were able to research and ok specific foods that would be served.
Sometimes the pizza planned for a party would be safe. It all depended on where it was sourced from, how the crust was made. If not, avocado sushi was a frequent go-to food for birthday 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 didn't want to be 'different' so 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.
Safely navigating birthday parties planned by others — and most social events like team parties and class parties — takes clear & open communication and planning ahead. 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."
Here are some articles I found on navigating birthday parties. These articles offer up some different perspectives and more great ideas for keeping your child with food allergies safe at birthday parties:
From My Berkeley Kitchen
From Label Reading Mommy
“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
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Images: Joanna Lopez on Unsplash and The Rigione Family