Whole Story

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Food Allergies & The Holidays

By Elizabeth Leader Smith, December 3, 2015  |  Meet the Blogger  |  More Posts by Elizabeth Leader Smith

Baked Mushroom-Polenta Pie

Baked Mushroom-Polenta Pie Recipe

To eat, or not to eat. That is the question. Most holiday gatherings revolve around sharing food, which can be very difficult if you or your child suffers from a severe food allergy.

From the entrées and sides to the cakes and cookies, holiday dishes are frequently prepared using one or more of the top eight allergens; milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, soy and wheat. And, because food allergies can range in severity, it’s ultimately up to the sufferer (or the sufferer’s parent) to sort out the necessary precautions they need to take to stay safe. 

The good news is, with a little preparation and planning you can enjoy the holidays without a trip to the emergency room. Here are some approaches to consider:

A Fresh Take on Apple Pie

A Fresh Take on Apple Pie Recipe

Prepare an all-in-one dish. If you’re bringing a dish to a party, make something that will serve well as a stand-alone meal in case there are no other dishes that you feel comfortable eating. One-pot meals — such as holiday-ready dairy-free Baked Mushroom-Polenta Pie — are an easy way to cover your bases. If dessert more your style, this Fresh Take on Apple Pie is gluten free, dairy free, vegan and super delicious!

Encourage signage. If you’re planning a potluck, ask the cooks to write an ingredient card with their name on it to place in front of their dish. This way, food allergy sufferers can easily identify the dishes they’re comfortable eating — or locate the cook if they need more information about how the dish was prepared. 

Call ahead. Dining out can be one of the toughest things for food allergy sufferers to navigate. If you’re invited to a meal at a restaurant or a party that’s being catered, call the restaurant or catering company ahead of time to ask about your options. Some chefs are willing to discuss alternative food preparation methods and ingredients.

Don’t hesitate to investigate. If your food allergy has the potential to cause anaphylactic shock, read labels closely, steer clear of foods with a likelihood of cross-contamination (food from bulk bins, deli cases and salad bars to name a few) and when in doubt, play it safe. 

Red Lentil Crackers with Spicy Vegan Cream Cheese

Red Lentil Crackers with Spicy Vegan Cream Cheese Recipe

Eat before you party down. If you’re attending a gathering and are unsure if you’ll be able to eat the food, have a light meal before you go and pack a small snack to get you through the evening in case there’s nothing you’re comfortable eating. Pack Red Lentil Crackers in an airtight container for on the go. Or these Roasted Pumpkin Seeds with a sprinkling of spice can be packaged into a single serving and tucked into your coat pocket or purse.

Host the party. When you do the cooking, you control the ingredients. Ask guests to contribute ice, beverages (labeled) or board games. Find recipe inspiration and check out our tips for holiday hosting with special diets.

If you or one of your family members has a severe food allergy, what are some of your tips for navigating holiday parties?

Originally published in 2010. Updated in 2015.

Category: Holidays, Special Diets




Sarah says ...
Don't be afraid to ask. And likewise, don't be afraid to explain that no, it's not just a dislike and you can't just pick it out. I'm allergic to pineapple and bleu cheese (including gorgonzola). I state my severe reaction in a semi-joking funny way which gets the point across, even if not completely accurate. ("I swell up, quit breathing, turn funny colors....") You don't want your host/hostess so horrified that they never invite you again, and you want them to understand that you have no intention of ruining their party. Also, don't be afraid to let your host/hostess know ahead of time if it's something severe. I always ask my guests as I'm aware due to my own allergies, and make sure there's something EVERYONE can eat.
11/10/2010 11:41:23 AM CST
Jules says ...
I'm very allergic to cinnamon, which means that to be safe I pretty much have to avoid the holiday season. Since that's not an option, I talk to people first if I'm going to be a guest in their house and let them know about my allergy. I also try to have an escape route - people forget sometimes and their house is cinnamon laden - and I carry my medications at all times. It's important to take change of your health and not rely on others to keep you safe. By the way, Whole Foods - I miss you this time of year, but I can't get near your store without getting sick. See you after the holidays!
11/10/2010 12:06:01 PM CST
Amanda says ...
I always turn down holiday cookies unless they are sugar cookies or ginger snaps. As a severe peanut butter and tree nut allergy sufferer, I have had too many run ins with holiday cookies to trust anything else. I also always turn down cake unless there is the hostess there to confirm for me there's no nuts. (oh and that's not always a guarantee. I have had hostesses go "there's just almonds in there". Thanks - that's a nut.) I am a firm believer in calling ahead if you know the host/hostess and just saying "I have a severe food allergy and I don't want to ruin your party with 911 calls. I don't need anything special made..." and just inquire about the menu. Don't be afraid ot bring your own food either! (Crockpot meals/food safe casseroles are the best since you can share and I always bring a nut free dessert and post a little note by it) To deal with the food pushers that want you to try just a bite, I just politely smile and say "No thanks, I'll leave it for someone that would love a second helping."
11/10/2010 12:45:06 PM CST
jennifer blanchard says ...
Rebecca--Thank you SO MUCH for this blog post. I recently discovered that I'm allergic to both dairy and gluten. My life has transformed immensely since this discovery. Eating out is damn-near impossible now, and eating at other people's houses/parties--forget about it. I feel really uncomfortable now when I eat out because I'm always asking a million questions and the waiter's look at me like I have three heads. And my family and friends just don't understand. They invite me over, but don't take into consideration my dietary needs so I usually end up eating potato chips and nothing else. And while the allergic reaction I get to dairy and gluten isn't by any means life-threatening, the side affects suck and it's a choice I'm making to keep them out of my diet. I really appreciate you putting together these ideas for how to navigate the holidays. This is my first holiday season eating an allergy-free diet. I've been dreading Thanksgiving, which makes me really sad because usually it's my favorite holiday. I LOVE your suggestion about bringing an all-in-one meal. That way if it's the only thing I can eat at the party, at least it's a complete meal. Thank you, thank you, thank you!!!
11/10/2010 1:51:25 PM CST
Kathryn says ...
I am a vegetarian for health reasons. I have nothing against eating meat, but my body doesn't digest it well and eating any kind of meat makes me sick for days. Most of my friends and family are still dedicated meat eaters and eating out or eating at their homes has been a trial. They are also hesitant to let me host because they think all they'll get is salad and raw veggies. (I am slowly re-educating them on that part. My vegan pumpkin stew went over big time). I have taken to eating something before I go out and I have my list of area restaurants that are "Kathryn Friendly." When I eat at someone else's house, I bring an emergency stash of Boca burgers and such so I know I will have something to eat. That has been a life-saver. For instance, I had dinner at my parent's house a week ago. I asked her ahead of time and she said there would be pot roast, but also mashed potatoes and salad. I figured I would be good with the potatoes and salad, but brought my backup food just in case. It's a good thing I did. The potatoes were not mashed and had been cooked in the pot with the roast and she had the sitting in the serving dish covered in gravy so I couldn't eat them and the salad had chicken in it. I picked the chicken out of my salad and heated up a Boca burger and at along with everyone else.
11/10/2010 2:15:10 PM CST
kyndal says ...
Holidays are always hard for vegans with a family full of carnivores. They don't understand why I can't eat the mash potatoes and gravy because to them it "has no meat". Dairy makes me sick. The thought of meat makes my head spin, and I even use animal-product-free makeup! The holidays are just so hard to deal with food-wise and this year I want to take a stand and prepare the meal so that A)They will see that I'm neither malnourished nor missing out on anything. and B)I won't have to stress over what I can and can't eat.
11/10/2010 2:36:46 PM CST
Rebecca says ...
We suffer from an allergy to corn, peanuts & soy... the holidays are tricky indeed. While friends and family don't intend to cause harm it's so easy to miss corn as an ingredient and often someone will scoop a "corn free" dish with a contaminated spoon. Our solution is to bring not only a complete "meal" but 2 serving spoons or forks so no one is tempted to "borrow" a serving utensil from another dish. We also carry snacks and stainless steel re-usable water containers as the plastic from bottled water is often made with corn and causes an allergic reaction. We also try to be somewhat discreet. If the party is sit down & formal it's more difficult to manage the questions but casual parties are simple if one keeps a plate and drink handy. Even if the drink is from my purse and the snacks are from a coat pocket.
11/10/2010 3:36:21 PM CST
Evelyn Roberts Brooks says ...
I have a lot of food allergies, and also gluten intolerance. Plus I'm vegan and can't tolerate legumes. So yeah, it can be a real challenge! I always have a snack before going to a party, and have fruit/nut bars in my purse for emergencies. Stop by my web site for more on dieting. Evelyn
11/10/2010 8:13:22 PM CST
Jessie says ...
Looks delicious!
11/10/2010 11:00:52 PM CST
Katie says ...
I'm allergic to tree nuts and have been since I was a child, so I am pretty used to being careful and asking a lot of questions when eating out or with friends. My family is pretty accomodating and always wonderful about warning me before the meal if there is a dish I should steer clear of. My poor niece, however seems to be allergic to everything. She has an allergy to peanuts, tree nuts, shellfish, sesame seeds and sunflower seeds. It can be difficult to find even an oil to saute veggies in if she is going to be over for dinner. I think my family has an advantage because they have been dealing my my allergies for more than 20 years, but it might take some getting used to to remember at family gatherings to let my sister know what my niece should avoid. I guess the point I'm making is, your friends and family are not doing it on purpose, and if you have the allergy, it is your responsibility to know what you're putting in your mouth. If you're patient with them, things will get better.
11/11/2010 11:19:29 AM CST
Brynne says ...
As a young adult, I became allergic/developed intolerances to nearly half of ALL foods. Through careful "exclusion diets," I learned every symptom that each food produced. I went organic which dropped nearly 30 pounds of blubber off me. But that did not heal the lining of my intestines, which still let molecules of undigested food through into my bloodstream. I was doing well avoiding the culprits when I inexplicably got fat, had acne, and had trouble breathing through the nose again. I had acquired a new intolerance to soybeans! I have read about NAET therapy (and its equivalents by other names.) When I get fed up enough with my limited food choices, I will seek out a natural doctor who can try it on me as a free charity case, since I have no money. Hope gives rise!
11/11/2010 5:59:18 PM CST
Gina Clowes says ...
Rebecca, These are excellent tips. I love the idea of encouraging signage. I'd also suggest, allowing food allergy guests to be first in line at the buffet table to avoid cross contaminated utensils. It's helpful (if you're the host) to serve sauces on the side and also to save wrappers from cheeses, crackers, chips etc so that your guests with food allergies can read them.
11/11/2010 10:25:30 PM CST
smilinggreenmom says ...
Awesome advice!! We are never ashamed to ask or request or even pull the chef out of the kitchen at a restaurant. Our little boy has several food allergies and he used to have terrible food intolerances too that caused awful eczema. It was so hard to navigate what he could or could not have and we have really gotten used to just packing up his own food. WEven though he is much better now that he takes his Belly Boost, at the holidays, I call ahead and find out what the host is preparing and then I duplicate it in allergy-free form and take it with us! It works very well for our family :) Hope our story helps!! Thanks for the awesome tips though - my advice is never be afraid to ask too! It's better to be safe than sorry as I am sure most host's would agree and want to know about!!
11/13/2010 10:40:57 AM CST
Teresa says ...
My daughter and I both have severe food allergies. For the most part, we are fine so long as we don't eat anything with the things we are allergic to in it (eggs, peanuts and milk), but I react even to egg fumes, so if someone's even reheating a quiche at a potluck, I'm in trouble. I try to explain to people that our particular allergies are hard because they are often used as ingredients and I ask to see the ingredients list--people think nothing of using mayonnaise or spaghetti sauce that has real romano cheese made from cow's milk. People mean well and tell me that I can eat something because they used an egg substitute-- without realizing that many egg substitutes still contain eggs! Another issue that I face is that many people hear "milk allergy" and say that they have it, too. Turns out that what they actually have is a lactose intolerance. It's hard to convince them that a true milk allergy is quite different and that lactose-free is not necessarily allergy-free.
11/16/2010 3:37:25 PM CST
Bernadette says ...
Hello Jennifer, Have you checked online for gluten free restaurants? Since nobody understands at your gatherings, have you tried bringing a food you can tolerate? There are so many gluten free products out there now. I just bought King Arthur gluten free chocolate cake. It's so delicious and moist! It doesn't have 8 of the most common allergens in it either. More and more restaurants have gluten free pizza so once in a while I order one for my daughter. I understand how difficult it is, believe me, but other people are so unsympathetic! Good luck and all the best!
11/17/2010 7:28:29 PM CST
June Selders says ...
I have severe food allergies as well. I have to be careful that food is not manufactured on any equipment that is shared with the foods that I am allergic to, which means that if it is not stated on the label (and most time it is not), I either do not purchase the item(s), or I have to e-mail/call the company and plead with them to investigate this possibility.
11/17/2010 7:39:59 PM CST
Hannah says ...
I can definitely relate to your experience. Figuring out that my college-onset stomach issues were due to gluten intolerance in my freshman year was socially isolating. The prevalence of beer and pizza, combined with the lack of food intolerance knowledge in dining halls, has led to a huge amount of frustration with eating. Luckily, the process has been eased by lots of support from my family and friends. While I was hesitant to share my issues with people for fear of being labeled high-maintenance, I eventually started making my problem known and my community has risen to the occasion. I am going to my boyfriend's home for Thanksgiving this year, and his family has been amazing about planning such that I can enjoy the annual meal fully. I am currently a junior and still struggling to take care of my body while maintaining some level of social normalcy. The tips you have given here strike a great balance between the "fend for yourself" mentality we must all sometimes adopt, and giving others a chance to be understanding and accommodating. I especially like the eating before and event idea...while it will take extra planning, it seems worth it to avoid either hunger or 5 subsequent days of pain!
11/17/2010 8:42:28 PM CST
Denise G. says ...
Thanks to all of you! :} I sometimes feel like a freak,oh she can't eat anything. I take condiments,drinks, and snacks with me. Simply don't trust what anyone tells you about the food. I have gotten ill to many times. Now I trust myself only.Today I made honey mustard spread and it was yummy. Tofu,vanilla soy milk,cider vinegar, and sea salt. Stay healthy everyone and do smile. Thanks for all the input.
11/17/2010 9:14:49 PM CST
Jeanne says ...
Like the author and many of the other commenters I'm allergic to nuts as well as occasion issues with pumpkins and celery. Education is the key. I have no problem telling people I have the allergy, I just wish they would remember it for the next time I eat with them. It gets old telling the same person five, six, seven times. It would also be helpful if restaurants, deli's and grocery stores would be better about listing their ingredients. That is one reason I LOVE Whole Foods. I very seldom have to ask "what's in this?" and I never get the three-headed crazy person look. One more thing on the wish list, especially around holiday time, it would be nice to have more recipe alternatives. I get that you can't make pecan pie without the pecans but maybe divinity can be made without the walnuts.
11/18/2010 9:11:45 AM CST
Vicki Shreiner says ...
What a great story. I appreciate Whole Foods posting this on the front page of their website. Too many people still do not understand the real danger that food allergies can cause. My 9 year old niece has a severe peanut and tree nut allergy that has already caused several emergency room visits, 911 calls, and ambulance rides. Not something that most young kids have experienced or even adults for that matter. Her nut allergies are deadly not just a rash or stomach ache. Good work!
11/18/2010 10:55:31 AM CST
adriana says ...
My husband and I come from families with NO food allergies but we have 2 young daughters who are allergic to tree nuts, peanuts, dairy, eggs. It is so difficult for family members to understand that my kids can die if you give them the wrong food, so I bring the food for my kids in every party. One day, my cousin made this mixed fruit blend and she did not read the labels that some yoghurt was in there. My 2 year old put the spoon in her mouth, she spit the food and got hives in her mouth, start crying from fear or whatever made her uncomfortable and most of all, my cousins saw my husband and I went in terror mode and ready to call 911. I remember like today, they all stayed quiet and worried but they got the message once they saw the 2 year old how miserable she became.
11/18/2010 11:22:28 AM CST
Janet Hage says ...
Food Allergies are a very serious matter for those that have the allergy and to those who are the host of hostess of the Holiday Parties. Bringing something you can eat is very important or eat before you go to the party. I carry cookies or energy bars that I can eat before I go to a party. Nothing is as embarrassing to all then to have a guest not able to eat or to have to go to the hospital or home early due to to a missed allergen. I will get on my little soap box. I need milk to be listed as milk product, corn as a corn product, peanuts as a peanut product, not by its dirivatives names. Natural flavorings should by law list what those flavorings are derived from. This would really help the person with the allergy, the host or hostess, or the restaurant. How many times I have gotten sick from a restaurant because they said that there were no food products that I listed in the food or better yet there has been cross contamination. After over 40 years, I have still been told by doctors that there is not such thing as a food allergy.
11/18/2010 5:21:10 PM CST
esther says ...
I avoid major allergens; unfortunately, this includes most major foods. I HATE explaining how I'm so allergic to everything so I just take two benadryls in my pocket for when I feel the reactions kicking in and when I get home take another if it's bad but two usually do it.
11/19/2010 12:53:46 PM CST
The Healthy Apple says ...
Great post, as someone who is allergic to both dairy and gluten, I enjoyed reading this post. Helpful hints and very informative. I blog about gluten-free and dairy-free recipes and lifestyle on my blog, The Healthy Apple at www.TheHealthyApple.com! Would love to answer any allergy questions or help anyone suffering from food allergies create delicious, clean, healthy meals! Thank you again for this wonderful post! Happy Holidays.
12/08/2010 6:27:33 PM CST
Tammy Studebaker says ...
We had a great time at the Gingerbread House class. I had 30 participants at the Whole Foods in Annapolis on December 18th. This class was gluten free and free from the top 8 food allergens. Included was a recipe for your own gingerbread crackers to make another house or simply enjoy your own cookies at home. We made 30 great looking houses!
12/26/2010 10:37:24 AM CST