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Food Allergies? Stay-Safe Tips for Holiday Eating

The 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.

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 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?