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Navigating Holidays with Food Allergies

By Rebecca Joerres, November 18, 2011  |  Meet the Blogger  |  More Posts by Rebecca Joerres
Do you or your kids suffer from a severe food allergy? Our social relationships so often revolve around sharing food that it can be extra difficult to figure out what’s safe to eat and what’s not during the holiday season. 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. After developing a life-threatening allergy to tree nuts in my mid-30s, I’d never realized how much I’d taken stress-free eating for granted. 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 to be a pro at reading food labels — the holidays arrived. The good news is, with just a little preparation and planning you can enjoy the holidays without a trip to the emergency room. Here are some approaches I’ve found really helpful, and I hope you will too. 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. One of my new favorite things to bring to a brunch gathering is this Savory Sausage and Cheddar Breakfast Casserole, and for lunch or dinner I’ve been smitten with this Potato and Leek Soup with Brie Croutons. 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. Get more tips on entertaining for guests with special dietary requirements. 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 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. 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. I really love roasted pumpkin seeds and with a sprinkling of spice, they’ll be my secret stash snack for holiday parties. I roast then portion the spicy seeds into single servings that I can tuck into my coat pocket. 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 inspiration for your next party menu from our collection of holiday recipes. Do you or one of your family members have a severe food allergy? If so, what are some of your tips for enjoying the holidays?




Kate says ...
I think navigating the holidays with any dietary needs can be a challenge. I strive to be vegan when I can, and many people interpret that as vegetarian and bathe all the vegetables in cheese. I have gluten-free friends who can't eat the vegan dishes with made certain grains... more and more, community eating, which is central to our existence as social beings, is a challenging project to pull off. These are great tips for anyone - thank you!!
11/18/2011 10:20:37 AM CST
Molly says ...
My two year old son is allergic to all dairy, eggs, tree nuts and peanuts so determining safe / unsafe food is very very complicated. I usually talk to the host / hostess about what foods they plan on serving and bring safe alternatives for my son (and enough to share!). Although time consuming, this seems to be the best way to deal with it without him feeling singled out.
11/18/2011 7:07:21 PM CST
Denielle says ...
Good blog. I have a really hard time on Christmas and Thanksgiving. My family does Turkey for both, and of course I"m allergic to turkey. I just bring my own chicken breast and gravy so I have something to eat.
11/18/2011 10:00:27 PM CST
Food Allergy Angie says ...
My son has life threatening allergies to the Top 8 and more. Due to the number of allergens we need to avoid, I prepare all of his food myself. For social events I call the hostess ahead of time and prepare similar items that will be served for my son. That way he has something just like what everyone else is enjoying and doesn't feel left out. And I know his food is safe! Also, I prepare treats in advance and always have some yummy safe cupcakes or granola bars for unexpected occasions. With some advance preparation, holiday food events can be safe and fun for everyone!
11/19/2011 9:57:05 AM CST
Allergy Annie says ...
Hear, hear, Rebecca! Simple step-by-step suggestions on how to manage the difficult problem of entertaining people with food allergies! I especially applaud your suggestion for improved signage which is what I also lobby for personally, and professionally with my business which is focused on clear allergy labels for display in front of foods being served. Thanks for the article! --Allergy Annie
11/19/2011 2:48:24 PM CST
Louise says ...
Thank you Rebecca for your thoughtful article. I have been severely allergic to all Soy products for five years. I recommend that if you or someone in your family has a life threatening food allergy print up business cards with a complete list of ingredients to use in restaurants, stores, and with family and friends. It makes it easier to read the labels if you have a list. Also list any products that you cross react to. For example with a Soy allergy, I react to Chickpeas. List any alternative names your food allergen might be labeled. Many people do not know what Whey, casein, lecithin,albumen, or hydrolyze vegetable protein are. Not only will you save your life, but educate people along the way.
11/21/2011 6:33:41 PM CST
ATL Cook says ...
I have a long list of allergies and TWO epi-pens in my pocketbook. Had a political dinner at the Marriott downtown ATL last week. Waitstaff was so wonderful. Allergies to alcohol, dairy, wheat, citrus, peaches, beef etc. I always ask what is on the menu--use all they have and that works. Entree (chicken) plain--no sauce, 2 steamed vegetables. Olive oil OK; a little butter will work. Everyone smiles at that fresh fruit plate I am served instead of a high sugar high carb dessert. I always talk to the head of waitstaff before the meal. I am rather easy to accommodate with this method. A different meal is not required. I learned as a child to learn to like anything I am not allergic to. Head waiter asked as I left how things were. I always BRAG--they deserve it. Thanks ATL Marriott Marquise.
11/21/2011 7:51:50 PM CST
mizlizzie says ...
My daughter cannot eat or touch dairy. Our staples during the holidays and everyday are Earth Balance Butter, Soy Delicious Coconut milk and creamer ( makes soups and mashed potatoes, and biscuits), Enjoy Life chocolate chips and candy bars, hummus (makes a great stand in for grilled cheese!), & Daiya cheese to name a few. Thank goodness for these companies! Lizzie in Atlanta
11/21/2011 8:05:06 PM CST
vanwinkle says ...
Good article even though it still does not cover the basis for those of us with severe allergies. Such as the savory sausage - 98% of all sausage has msg; most soups have a base with msg or a chicken base (I am allergic to chicken, eggs, feather just to name a few). When people bring a dish, they never remember the little things (added seasonings etc) that cause the problems. I rarely dine out or at any family function otherwise I end up in the hospital.
11/21/2011 8:32:55 PM CST
Debby M says ...
Celiac's is not fun during the holidays. I can't eat stuffing or the bird it was stuffed in. No cookies, pastries, bread, fortified wine either. I do eat before I go out or carry a discrete sandwich made from gluten free bread. I have a dear girlfriend who has made me a gluten free cake for a party and the ever present pretzel jello out of gluten free pretzels. My mother in law makes her dynamite scalloped potatoes with corn starch instead of flour. Yum! My sister in law makes 2 turkeys one with and one without stuffing baked in separate ovens. You know who is special if they pay attention to your needs.
11/22/2011 5:34:45 AM CST
Rob says ...
Thanks for the informative article regarding food allergies-especially during the Holidays. Do you have any suggestions for someone who is lactose-intolerant and does not eat meat or poultry? Thanks
11/22/2011 7:23:55 AM CST
Shelley says ...
I'm looking for a HEAVY CREAM substitute to cook sweet potato casserole with. Any suggestions?
11/22/2011 9:05:00 AM CST
janejohnson says ...
@Shelley I love using light coconut milk in my sweet potato casserole. It's very creamy and low in fat and calories. Unless you have a nut allergy, I also highly recommend using Almond Milk. Unsweetened Almond Milk has only about 40 calories per cup and lots of protein.
11/22/2011 12:13:16 PM CST
janejohnson says ...
@Rob Our recipes site has a great sorting option for people who have specialty diets. The link below will take you to our index of recipes. Just scroll down and search by "main ingredient" or "special diets" to come up with some great options for enjoying the holidays. Also, almond and coconut milks are great for cooking and baking and will work with just about any dish! http://www.wholefoodsmarket.com/recipes/
11/22/2011 12:21:05 PM CST
Sumer says ...
Explaining to family members that I have allergies to dairy and gluten isn't so hard, they understand that. But even those with allergies don't understand the alliums, such as all garlic and onions or that I am allergic as well to all fungus in varying degrees such as mushrooms, yeast, and antibiotics, or that I can't have sulphites or food with alot of sulphur in it. They all know someone, or of someone, who has dairy or gluten, but the rest they tend to ignore. I'm anaphylactic to all alliums and many related plants as well as fungus. Most people, including my family, assume that this means a belly ache...and can't grasp the concept of my throat and lungs swelling shut, my heart and nerves going nuts and going into seizures when I get these things and that sometimes all it takes is a tiny amount. They don't get that I can't be around when they cook garlic or onions. And then trying to explain that I live and eat Paleo-primal on top of this...then the questions come hot and heavy about "Well if you are allergic to things, you shouldn't be so picky!" Comments any allergic vegan can understand completely I am sure! My tips: make food you can eat and eat only that. If you are even remotely concerned or can't be sure something you are allergic to won't end up in your food, then only eat your food that you KNOW is safe. The holidays aren't fun for ANYONE when you get sick or worse end up in the hospital or dead. People die by the thousands every holiday from food allergies...don't take any chances. If you need recipes join the page Cooking with Food Allergies on Facebook, they do a wonderful job of posting lots of links every day for everything imaginable and if you ask, they will find a recipe that fits your needs if possible. Make what you can eat and what you want to eat yourself, and be safe! Happy Holidays!
11/22/2011 7:54:08 PM CST
Sumer says ...
Substitute whole full fat coconut milk for whole cream in recipes. It's thick, rich and can even we used to make whipped cream and other similar things.
11/22/2011 7:57:11 PM CST
Julie Trone says ...
Our son has multiple life threatening food allergies and we have had to cautiously navigate through the holidays every year of his life. This year we are hosting two families and with them we are adding a couple of allergens to avoid. Total allergens avoiding this Thanksgiving are peanuts, tree nuts, dairy, wheat, soy, egg, sesame and sunflower. Some would say...what do you eat however our table will be filled with delicious vegetables, baked and roasted potatoes, two turkeys...one roasted and one smoked, a salad, safe home made bread, cranberry orange relish, home made turkey pate, hummus, and for dessert a cookie/brownie tower that has none of the allergens listed. One word of caution to all who are reading this...wine may contain the following food allergens: egg, fish, wheat, milk due to the process of finishing which creates better clarity and improves flavor. Our farm to table organic celebration comes with much gratitude because food allergies makes us think, create, and find alternatives which are healthier and less caloric. Happy Holidays to you.
11/24/2011 4:37:42 PM CST
Ali says ...
In my situation, I'm able to stay home and cook the meals for the holidays. It makes it a lot easier to not have to worry about explaining cross-contamination to a host/hostess. I need to be gluten and casein free, which knocks out a lot of the traditional recipes for the holidays. Many gluten-free recipes aren't very healthy and I've had a LOT of trouble finding non-dairy recipes that live up to the originals. I'm personally not too keen on substitutes and the way the taste and texture of recipes are affected, so I stick with wholesome foods like meats, fruits and veggies. This year for Thanksgiving we decided to do something not-so-traditional for us and had crawfish etouffee without the roux gravy. It was really delicious and a nice change of pace! Earlier in the week I made a recipe I found from a newspaper (I think it was AM New York) for a sugar pumpkin stuffed with beef, wild rice, egg, onion and sage. Cooked for 1.5 hours and it was a great "stick to your ribs" kind of meal. I think the key is to make a meal savory with good spices to help cope with the onslaught of the comfort food season. For those that do go out, I would do the same, which is bring my own meal(s). I have to do that for work parties. In order to not feel left out or moody that I can't eat the same thing, I cook something that I really love and look forward to eating and sharing. That helps with the mental aspect, since I'm only one year into my GF/CF way of life. Happy Holidays and Good Eats!
11/25/2011 2:38:31 PM CST