Holiday Strategies For Your Allergic Life
(Post refreshed December 2023)
There’s nothing that puts you in the holiday mood more than a chill in the air, the smell of wood smoke, and shorter days.
But for families with food allergies, the holidays are also tinged by the uncertainties of allergic life — our life in the gray zone.
Here are strategies for [safely] keeping the jolly in the holiday season.
Hosting Gives You Great Control
As a food allergic family, you can optimize for safety during the holidays by making your home the go-to home for holiday celebrations. When you host, you have your best shot at controlling the variables that could trigger an unwelcome allergic reaction.
But it can be hard to always lead the charge hosting — you might have more family than space to gather, or you might live in a location that’s hard for loved ones to visit, or you might not have the time or energy or money to host. And sometimes, you just need to let other family members take a turn.
Finding the Joy as a Guest
So, when you’re not the go-to house for holiday celebrations — you’re the guest — what can you do to keep the joy in your celebration?
1. Communicate! Communicate! Communicate!
People are more aware than ever before that one size no longer fits all on the food front. It’s become increasingly common for people to have special dietary needs or alternative lifestyles — think keto, vegan, vegetarian, gluten free, whole foods-plant based, low glycemic to name just a few. This heightened awareness about different dietary needs and lifestyle choices is a huge positive for families managing food allergies. Why? Because it makes having the food allergy conversation with your holiday host easier.
2. Explain the Facts of Allergic Life
Regardless of your relationship with the host — sometimes it’s a family member; sometimes it’s a friend; sometimes it’s a more distant acquaintance — it’s important to share all the facts about your family food allergies.
Even if you’ve had The Allergy Conversation with your host before, it’s important to give them a refresh because they will likely have forgotten details, they may have never understood them in the first place, or your own allergy situation might have changed. You need to:
Explain all the food allergies your family manages.
Describe what cross contact is, how it can happen, how it can be avoided (e.g., sliced cold cuts from the deli might be contaminated with dairy.)
Provide clear examples of where your allergens can hide in common ingredients (e.g., casein is milk, ovalbumin is egg, tahini is sesame, marzipan has almonds, etc.)
It’s important to put the information in writing, too. A follow-up email to a conversation reinforces the importance of this information.
3. Ask lots of questions
Beyond explaining your food allergy situation, you will want to fully understand your host’s plans. Consider asking:
What will be served? — What’s the menu?
How will it be prepared? — Homemade by the host? Store bought? Catered? Contributed by other guests? Some combination of all?
How will it be served? — Will there be appetizers and munchies before the main event? Will food be individually plated and served from the kitchen? Will food be served family-style at the table? Or will it be self-served from a buffet? How will dessert work?
You need to walk away from this conversation with confidence that either your host clearly understands the allergy situation and is capable of providing safe food options, or not.
4. Brainstorm Work Arounds
If you DO have confidence in your host, try to support their efforts to accommodate you.
Here are ways you can help them help you:
Provide a list of safe brands, recipes, and trusted food vendors that work for your food allergy profile.
Provide some guidance on how to cook safely for a person with food allergies.
Ask your host to avoid serving foods with your allergens, within reason. For example, our son is allergic to eggs, peanuts, peas, lentils, and chickpeas. We will ask our holiday hosts to avoid serving anything with peanuts and the other legumes. However, asking them to bake without eggs has always seemed to be a much bigger ask since eggs can be tricky to replace in some recipes. (Just try making Grandma’s cream puffs without eggs!)
Ask your host to save ingredients labels from the ingredients they use in their recipes so you can vet the dishes. My son's cousin, an amazing baker, has mastered baking egg-free cakes. She always sends us photos of every ingredient label for ingredients she uses, from the flour to the dyes to the confectioner’s sugar, before she bakes the cake!
Ask your host if you can assemble your loved one’s plate of food behind the scenes in the kitchen before the meal is served to everyone else.
Talk with your food allergic loved about the food plans before the gathering to manage their expectations about the options they'll have, and to learn what safe food they’d like to bring from home, just in case.
Bring back-up food. Despite your best efforts, sometimes food plans at a gathering unravel and you need a Plan B. Consider this your Plan B.
Role play in advance with your child. Help them find the words and practice how to politely turn down pro-offered food, how to excuse themselves so they can double check a food with you, how to politely ask another guest if they could wash their hands before playing with them.
If you DON'T have confidence there will be safe food options at the event for your loved ones, you still can attend with a degree of peace of mind. Here’s how:
Tactfully let your host know that you prefer to bring a safe meal from home for your allergic loved one(s).
Offer to bring a number of allergy friendly dishes for everyone to enjoy. I became the baker I never aspired to be because of my son’s egg allergy. Family members know I am good to supply safe desserts for holiday gatherings. Bringing a contribution can lighten the prep load for the host, and reduce the stress they feel about being responsible for your food allergic loved one’s safety.
Find an ally among the other guests – someone who’s prepared food for your child before, someone you’re confident understands your child’s allergies – and see if they’d also be willing to ask the host if they could bring an allergy-friendly dish or two to the gathering. For example, my sister-in-law’s son grew up with a similar allergy profile to my son. She 100% understands how to prepare safe dishes for my son and is always happy to bring allergy-friendly dishes to a holiday celebration.
Talk openly with your child in advance about the need to bring all their own safe food to the holiday gathering. Find out what special foods your child would like to eat. Sushi was always a go-to option for our son. My son always had allergy friendly desserts to look forward to that his aunt, cousin, and I make.
Role play, role play, role play.
5. Manage Your Own Expectations
Be calm and patient when you explain your family food allergies.
Don't let frustration overwhelm you, even if you’re explaining them for the umpteenth time. Keep in mind that you are in teacher-mode and food allergies are complicated. Put any frustration you feel aside. If you do your job well, you will be able to add another person to your list of food allergy trustees.
Your host may have the best of intentions, but fall short on execution. Don’t hesitate to go to Plan B after you arrive if you discover the lay of the land isn’t what you expected.
Share this responsibility with your partner or another trusted relative. Try to keep eyes on your food allergic loved one, even from a distance.
Be resolved to exit quickly if you feel the environment is unsafe.
Leave quietly, tactfully, expressing gratitude to have been included. For example, we arrived at a family celebration in SoCal and found bowls of dry roasted peanuts throughout the house for guests to nibble. We made a beeline for the backyard with our son, and kept him outside until we could explain the situation and leave. Even removing the peanuts would not have helped, with peanut crumbs and dust flying everywhere. Our relatives understood, kind of?
Be forgiving if a food mistake happens.
Holiday celebrations have many moving parts that make them complex, whether you’re hosting people with food allergies, or trying to navigate safely as a guest.
Be sure to have two epinephrine auto-injectors and other medications with you.
Know your Emergency Care Plan. Know the signs of anaphylaxis. Be resolved to use your epinephrine if you must. Know where the nearest ER is located.
You can always opt-out if safety is a concern.
If you don't think your hosts understand, or they are reluctant to adapt their traditions, you can always make other plans and start new (safe) traditions for you and yours.
“Small cheer and great welcome makes a merry feast.”
Wishing you and yours a safe, joy-filled and family-filled holiday season! You’ve got this!
About the Author: Gayle Rigione is CEO 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 raced to the ER. These experiences inspire her to create tech tools for people with food allergies. Whatever you do, do it with a full heart. Audentes Fortuna Iuvat
Images: Annie Spratt on Unsplash and Matthew Henry on Burst