The holidays are festive, filled with good friends and good food, but for people with food allergies and sensitivities, holiday parties can be a source of uncertainty and anxiety. While other party guests enjoy delicious treats, guests with celiac disease or food allergies have to forgo holiday favorites containing their “trigger foods,” such as gluten, nuts, dairy or eggs. So how can food-allergic and food-sensitive guests eat, drink and be safe during the holidays? And how can hosts better accommodate their guests with special dietary needs?
To address these issues I have a guest interview today featuring Alicia Woodward, Editor of Living Without Magazine, the nation’s leading magazine for people with food allergies. Alicia is also a psychotherapist, specializing in the psychological, spiritual and social aspects of celiac disease, food allergies and sensitivities.
Why are the holidays so stressful for people with food allergies?
The holidays are festive, filled with good friends and good food, but for people with food allergies and sensitivities, get-togethers and parties can be a source of uncertainty and anxiety. So much of our celebrating is centered around food. While other guests enjoy delicious treats, guests with celiac disease or food allergies have to forgo holiday favorites containing their “trigger foods,” such as gluten, nuts, dairy or eggs. People with food allergies often feel frustrated that they can't share what everyone else is having. They might be embarrassed or reluctant to talk to the hosts in advance to explain their special dietary restrictions, and then they feel left out, socially, when they can't eat like everybody else.
So how can food-allergic and food-sensitive guests eat, drink and be safe during the holidays?
Here are some suggestions:
Tell another. Use your best judgment about divulging your medical condition but consider this: You give yourself extra eyes, ears and taste buds by alerting others to your allergy or sensitivity. Whether it’s your spouse or a close companion, one informed person can tip you off to potential hazards in the kitchen or dining room or on the buffet table. If you decide to confide in others, you’ll discover you’re not alone. Everyone knows someone with a food issue. You may build your support network and discover new friends (and recipes!) by sharing your story.
Arrive early. If you show up just before the other guests, you can offer to help in the kitchen. This is instructive because you can see how the food is being prepared and served. Chances are your host will appreciate the extra hand and you’ll be able to scope the place for cross contamination.
Eat beforehand. Don’t arrive hungry. Hunger makes you lose your edge — you may take a bite that you’d never risk on a full belly. Play it safe by munching on a nutritious snack that’s filling before you leave the house. This way, you won’t be disappointed, feeling famished and irritated if there’s not much at the party you can eat.
Share favorites. Bring a safe item or two to share. Alert your host ahead of time that you’d like to make a favorite dish, one that will complement the menu and that others are certain to enjoy. My criteria for a BYO dish are that it be well balanced, nutritious and taste good. It’s great to know that you will have a sufficient “meal” if it turns out that the item you bring is the only food you can consume.
Go first. If they’re serving buffet-style, try to be one of the first in line. You want to avoid any potential for scattered ingredients and mixed-up serving spoons. Another option is to ask your host if you can prepare a plate early before the buffet starts. Then set your meal aside and eat when everyone else is served.
Keep it simple. Be mindful of hidden ingredients. Stick to foods that you know are safe — whole foods that haven’t been processed, coated or mixed, such as plain fruit, vegetables and meats. Avoid sauces, dips, marinated items, casseroles and desserts unless you know for certain what’s in them.
Give thanks. Be resolute about your safety but strive to be gracious and courteous. Remember to say thank you to your host for being accommodating.
Have fun. Party on! With your safety plan in place, you can relax and enjoy the festivities.
And how can hosts better accommodate their guests with special dietary needs?
Here are some ways to help make your food-allergic company feel welcome:
Communicate. The best approach is to ask each guest whether there are any special dietary needs or requests. This allows people to bring up their concerns without feeling awkward. It also gives you the information you need to provide an atmosphere where everyone can relax and enjoy the party.
Understand contamination. Be aware of hidden ingredients and how items can become cross-contaminated during meal preparation. Talk with your allergic guests about their concerns. Chances are they’ll be delighted and grateful for your interest.
Label ingredients. Inform your company about your menu and the items you’re serving. As a courtesy, share the ingredients for each dish or provide the recipes. This makes it easier for those avoiding certain foods.
Encourage potluck. Invite food-allergic guests to bring their own dishes to pass around. Ask everyone to include their recipe to share with other guests so that ingredients are identified.
Provide other options. If you’re not sure who’s coming, provide alternative items that don’t contain common allergens (i.e., dairy, gluten, soy, shellfish, nuts, eggs). Avoid sauces, casseroles and dishes with multiple mixed ingredients. Simple whole foods are wholesome and delicious – and safe for most.
Be sensitive. As you plan your party and during the event itself, check in with your special-diet guests from time to time. If you’re serving buffet-style, discreetly invite them to go first so they can avoid the risk of cross contamination. Or allow them to prepare their plates ahead of time to set aside until others are served.
Do you have any tips or advice for navigating holiday parties and events with a food-allergic child?
Talk to the host. Inform the party planner about your child’s food sensitivities and cross contamination concerns. Inquire about the menu and ingredients and ask whether you can bring a safe dish or two.
Pack alternative items. With the menu in mind, bring your child’s favorite foods so that he or she can eat along with the group and not feel left out.
Bring something special. Bring a safe kid-favorite treat to pass around, something other children will want to eat. Have your child share. This way, it’s cool to have a food allergy.
Prepare your child. Hopefully, parents have already done this work they should be certain their youngster is aware (in an age-appropriate way) of the foods he or she can safely eat and those he or she should avoid. Children should also know the signs of a reaction and know that they should immediately report any symptoms or concerns to their parents or a trusted adult.
Bring appropriate medication. If your child has severe food allergies with risk of anaphylaxis, be prepared with proper medicines in case there’s a reaction. Pack two (not one) doses of auto-injectable epinephrine and be certain meds are up to date (not expired). Know how to use it. And don’t be afraid to do so.
Model calmness and competence. Parents should be confident of their ability to keep their child safe and to know they can successfully follow through with their doctor-advised allergy action plan if there’s a reaction. If mom and dad are relaxed and having fun, their child will do the same.
If a friend, neighbor, colleague or other acquaintance gives us a homemade treat as a holiday gift, what's the best (and nicest) way to let them know why you're not immediately gobbling up their homemade goodies? Should you tell them the truth about your food allergy or just pretend that you're not hungry?
It depends on your feelings and your relationship with the person giving the gift. One way to handle this is to thank them and say other family members (those without food allergies) will enjoy the treats. But frankly, I strongly believe the more we all talk about food allergies and sensitivities, the better it is. This doesn’t have to be awkward. Consider it a great opportunity to educate and inform. Getting the word out there raises everyone’s awareness and makes the world a safer place for those on special diets.
What are some of your favorite dairy-free holiday recipes?
Alicia Woodward is the Editor-in-Chief at Living Without Magazine (www.livingwithout.com), the nation’s leading magazine for people with food allergies. She's also a psychotherapist, specializing in the psychological, spiritual and social aspects of celiac disease, food allergies and sensitivities.