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Food Allergies? Stay-Safe Tips for Holiday Eating

SignageThe first time I went into anaphylactic shock was the scariest day of my life. I was in my mid-30s and was enjoying brunch with a group of girlfriends. I’d never had a food allergy before, but on that day I had a severe reaction to a pecan mole sauce that was on my roasted chicken enchiladas. After just a few bites I was having trouble breathing, so my girlfriends took me straight to an emergency room just a few blocks away. Several hours and lots of epinephrine and antihistamine later… the doctor welcomed me to the wonderful world of food allergies and sent me packing with a prescription for an Epi-Pen.

In one morning I went from being able to eat anything, anywhere, any time, to being that high-maintenance person with a food allergy.  And just when I’d gotten used to meticulously reading food labels – the holidays arrived.

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 the responsibility of the allergy sufferer (or their parent) to sort out the necessary precautions they need to take to stay safe and worry free.

With just a bit of preparation and planning you can have a stress-free holiday season and (hopefully) avoid a trip to the emergency room. Here are some tips and tricks I’ve found really helpful, and I hope you will, too.

Call Ahead

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

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.

Prepare an all-in-one dish.

Chicken Sausage Jambalaya with ShrimpIf 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 made this Chicken Sausage Jambalaya with Shrimp for a party recently and it was a huge hit. There were a few gluten-free party guests, so I made sure the chicken sausage I chose was a safe bet for them.

Coordinate the buffet line.

If you’re hosting and have put signage up with your guests’ allergies taken into consideration – go one step further and invite all guests with food allergies to be first in line for the buffet so they can avoid cross-contaminated serving utensils. And consider serving sauces on the side – each with their own serving spoon. No double dipping, please!

Read labels.

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 it doubt, play it safe. If you’re hosting a party, consider saving the wrappers from cheeses, crackers and chips so your guests with foods allergies can read them.

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 with eating. I like to stash one of these Mini Yogurt Tea Breads in my coat pocket for safe snacking.

Host the party.

When you do the cooking, you control the ingredients. Then, just ask guests to bring things like the ice, the beverages (labeled) and a music playlist, mixed CD or mixed tape (if you’re really old school).

Do you or one of your family members have a food allergy? If so, what are some of your tips for enjoying the holidays?

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Belinda says …

I have a very large family (17) with parents, siblings, spouses, kids and grandkids. I have offered to have the holidays at my house and do the cooking because of my severe allergies. My mother is so set on having thanksgiving at her home (despite) her table only seats 6 and has a very small home, I have seating for 18 with out using folding chairs or tables... Yes I have 2 dining tables & a breakfast table! My siblings get offended when i ask what is in something. It looks like I will be having to cook two thanksgivings at my house for my family(3) and Vegan for me... It is really sad that a stubborn mother and uncaring siblings would rather eat in shifts and sit on sofa arms than be comfortable and be together... I didnt choose to have these severe allergies, they chose me!!!! So my advice is make it yourself with my own family of 4 and the heck with everyone else...

Becky Hill says …

My youngest son has severe peanut, tree nut, and egg allergies. Over the holidays, I always make sure I have some "safe" food for him. I grab a frozen package of hot dogs, soup, and crackers. So if there isn't anything available for him, I can still feed him foods he loves. Also, I always carry Oreos or smarties... he loves dessert (who doesn't) and all desserts are out of the question for him. So I bring Oreos and/or smarties..which he LOVES and he doesn't mind eating those instead. The best advice I'd give is to make find a safe alternative to bring, as to not feel left out. -Becky H

Tonya says …

Make sure that you mention your allergies to the host (who may need reminding). I have a regular group who meets and the hostess serves lunch. Even though we meet weekly, we usually confirm who can eat what at least every few weeks because someone who hasn't hosted in a while forgets. Recently we had someone new who had an allergy that wasn't on the list. The person didn't mention their allergies (mushrooms) which meant that person wasn't accommodated. As the hostess, it was very embarrassing because I would have done my best to make sure there was something for that person to eat if I had known. The meal served had already taken into account soy, wheat, nuts, eggs, dairy and cinnamon.

Barbara says …

recipes that are wheat free, egg free, chocolate free