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Food Allergies: Simple Strategies for the Holiday Party Season

Seafood Cucumber Stacks with Lemon Cream and Chives

Seafood Cucumber Stacks with Lemon Cream and Chives

It can be tough to navigate holiday parties with a food allergy. About 10 years ago I developed a severe tree nut allergy and had to completely rethink my approach to eating at social events. It was really isolating at first. Our social relationships so often revolve around gatherings that feature food, and I’d never realized how much I’d taken that for granted. I went from being able to eat anything, anywhere, any time to being that high-maintenance person with a nut allergy. And just when I’d gotten to be a pro at reading food labels – the holidays arrived. 

Vegetarian Chipotle ChiliPart of the fun around holiday food is that it’s meant to be shared, but it can be difficult to figure out what’s safe to eat and what’s not when you have a severe food allergy. Plus, holiday food is 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 just a little investigation and planning you can enjoy the holidays without having to get out the Epi-Pen®. Here are some coping tools I’ve found really helpful, and I hope you will too. 

Host the party. When you do the cooking, you control the ingredients. Then, just ask guests to bring things like ice, beverages (labeled) and board games. Get tips on making a meal for special diets.

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 are an easy way to cover your bases. I brought this Vegetarian Chipotle Chili to a Breaking Bad finale watch party earlier this fall and it was a hit! 

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. 

Pimenton Roasted GarbanzosCall 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 a week or two 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. Nothing brings a holiday affair down faster than the sound of ambulance sirens. 

Eat before you party down. If you’re attending a function and are unsure if you’ll be able to eat the food – have a light meal before you go out and pack a small snack to get you through the evening in case you discover there’s nothing you’re comfortable eating. This recipe for Pimenton Roasted Chickpeas is my go-to snack for holiday parties. I roast and then portion the chickpeas into small containers that I can stash in my car’s glove box or tuck into my coat pocket.

Do you or one of your family members have a severe food allergy? If so, what are some of your tips for surviving the holiday season?

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Brandon says …

This is such a great list of tips. I;m thankful that I don't have any food allergies, although I have a few family members who do. It's tough when you aren't doing the cooking... you never know what could be in there.

Susan Hawrylow says …

Great tips :) Holiday get-togethers are quite difficult for our family...my eldest son has food allergies to dairy, eggs, beef, lamb, sesame, peanut/tree nuts, fish, shellfish, mustard and raspberries and my youngest, peanut/tree nuts. When we attend a friend/family function I always bake a French stick and the dessert. If the main dish is something that is free of their allergens, then I make sure that the host feels comfortable in preparing the meal without any cross-contamination. If not, I bring a similar meal from home. For instance, this week my son's graduating class is having a Christmas Grad Dinner. Due to cross-contamination issues, I will be preparing his turkey dinner at home to bring to the school for him to enjoy with his friends. I have also offered to bake Dairy, Egg and Peanut/Tree Nut Free Vanilla and Chocolate Mini Cupcakes for the dessert. A lot of work...but well worth it! :)

Liz says …

This was my best Thanksgiving EVER! And here's why: More than 13 years ago I was diagnosed with celiac disease. Since then I have always had to explain and question what was being served when invited to a function, and usually had to prepare my own meal to take along. Enter a new friend whose soon-to-be daughter-in-law also has gluten problems. Plus an amazing group of enlightened people (15) at the table, half of whom were vegetarians. Result: We were informed by our amazing hostess that there was only ONE dish on the table that contained gluten. For those of you who are thinking: How nice, please understand that this was the first time in 13 years that I felt loved and nurtured at the table, and ACCEPTED. I am sharing this because even I could never have imagined how wonderful this experience would be. What a blessing!

Sandy says …

do you carry peanut free sunflower butter or almond or cashew butter?? Do you carry Rice Oil for cooking?

Nikki - Community Moderator says …

@SANDY - Our exact product options differ between stores. Check with your local store to see if they have any of these specific items in stock!

Patricia Smith says …

I am allergic to tree nuts so what can I use that is not tree nut? I can't use peanut butter so what can I use? What seeds can be eaten for allergies people any at all?

Nikki - Community Moderator says …

@PATRICIA - I would suggest checking with your health care provider first before adding anything new to you diet. Often times sunflower seeds (we offer this in a spreadable butter as well) are a great sub for nut allergies.