Thanksgiving may be over, but the holiday season is just starting. Chances are you will be attending or hosting several get-togethers and dinners for family and friends, and some may include children (or adults) with food allergies.
As the parent of a child with food allergies, meals outside our home are a challenge. Obviously, most of the challenge is related to food, but some of the challenges includes anxiety about having to explain my son’s allergies to those hosting.
Here are 5 important tips for hosting that will help families with food allergies.
#1 Ask if there are allergies.
I know the last thing I want to do when I’m opening my home and preparing food for guests is to start catering to every little preference. Asking this could cause you more work, I know. Requesting information about allergies in your invitation can open the door to requests for intolerances, sensitivities, and even just preferences on food.
Please, ask anyway.
I can’t express the relief I feel when I am asked about allergies by the host. This provides me an easy way to explain my son’s egg and peanut allergies ahead of time. Also, this allows the host time to plan their meal, as they dictate the timing of the invitation. You can budget time on the meal prep to hear back about allergies, even suggesting a timeline to respond.
Otherwise, I’m stressing about causing an inconvenience for days before I call or e-mail, and I likely do cause some inconvenience since the timing of my alert may be after meals have been ordered or ingredients have been purchased.
I feel so loved and know my son is loved when family and friends take the time to ask about his allergies and show concern for his health.
I never expect this, but it is so appreciated.
#2 Know that, if we mention our child’s allergies, they are important.
I hate being a bother. I wish I could be unbothered.
But you can’t be unbothered as a parent to a child with serious food allergies!
If I take the time to let you know my son has an allergy, it’s a serious allergy.
Not all food allergies are of the same severity. Allergies can be different for each person. Some children (and grown-ups) have minor allergies that just cause rashes or minor stomach upsets. My son has a serious peanut allergy and a moderate egg allergy (and he used to have a serious dairy allergy.)
While he can eat baked eggs in moderation when mixed with flour, he can’t have French toast, scrambled or boiled eggs, or anything dipped in egg and fried.
He cannot have ANY peanut product. He will go into anaphylaxis. This is life and death for us.
I always have to mention his peanut allergy to hosts. I may not always mention his egg allergy, unless we are going to a brunch or breakfast because it’s not as serious.
Again, I never expect people to guarantee a peanut-free environment for us, but I also will not attend if you mention that you will have boiled peanuts out for guests.
Your attempt to accommodate my son’s allergies is a sign that you will protect my family and that you understand my son’s allergies are legitimate and life-threatening. Such affirmations are rarer than you would think, and they mean the world to my family.
(our son sleeping after his first skin test with marks still visible on his left arm)
#3 My child may not eat at all—it’s OK.
After you’ve gone to the trouble to accommodate a child’s allergies, you’ll naturally be observant and cognizant of their eating. So, you might feel compelled to make sure they eat something and enjoy it. Don’t worry if they don’t.
My son has some extreme food aversions due to his food allergies. Since he was highly allergic to dairy for the first two years of his life, to this day, he doesn’t enjoy cheese and yogurt. He watches his friends eat macaroni and cheese or fried nuggets and is content with toast.
The truth is that we will come with an arsenal of safe foods, Benadryl, and epinephrine.
That’s why it’s more important for us to know that the allergens will be absent than that there will be safe foods available.
My husband and I pack handmade frozen turkey burgers and muffins with preferred snacks almost anytime we go out. Sometimes it works and he eats them while everyone eats other things. Sometimes he tries new safe foods and loves them. Sometimes he eats nothing.
All these options are excellent because they do not end in a reaction.
Even if our son doesn’t eat anything, it’s a win when we can have a meal out with friends and family without leaving early or checking every dish and asking a million questions (which we might ask anyway because this is our child’s life, after all).
#4 We might come for only part of the event.
This one is mostly for birthdays.
When our son had a serious dairy allergy, we would sometimes have to leave for the cake portion. We were lucky that our son outgrew his dairy allergy at two years old. This way he wasn’t too aware that everyone was getting cake, cupcakes, etc. but him. But if he still wasn’t able to eat cake, we would have to leave before the cake to avoid a serious tantrum. (And who could blame him for throwing one in that case?)
I can make a mean dairy-and-egg-free banana muffin with spectrum butter frosting, but it’s not ever going to compete with the cake or cupcakes that everyone else has at a party.
We still can enjoy being part of your celebration while missing certain parts of it for the safety of our child
(our son with ever-present eczema around his face)
#5 Don’t assume you know more about our child’s food allergies than us.
This seems obvious. It’s not.
When my son had his dairy allergy, I got unsolicited advice constantly.
Try goat’s milk!
Try Nutramigen or Alimentum!
Try almond milk!
I appreciate the interest, but maybe start by asking me about our journey.
There are several different types of dairy allergies, and my son was not just allergic to dairy but the actual protein in dairy called casein. There are two types of casein, and my son was allergic to both. Casein is in most mammal’s milk. It’s also in every “sensitive” dairy formula. Also, my son had an almond allergy.
My son was on expensive amino-acid formula and eventually graduated to oat milk. He still LOVES oat milk (and I do too in my cereal and soups).
I know there’s someone reading this right now whose child had an oat allergy and loved almond milk. And there’s probably a parent who still can only give their child orange juice and no milks.
Allergies are varied, and one size never fits all.
So, when you see us carrying around alternatives and safe foods, ask us about our journey rather than immediately advising us.
The worst was when people would assume I just coddled my son too much. That if they just fed him this or did it this way, he would suddenly not have an allergy.
I even had someone imply I simply needed to feed my child more allergens to build up his system!
Never mind that my son had such a huge reaction to my breastmilk after I ate peanuts that we had to rush him to the ER at five months old; Never mind that he cried ten or more hours for weeks in pain from nursing after I had a hot chocolate or a grilled cheese sandwich; Never mind that the most sensitive formulas still left him in covered in eczema and with abs of steel from constant cramps.
Believe me, we would all prefer an easy solution for our child’s allergies. There isn’t one.
But having allies helps our journey.
Knowing I’ve got family and friends who will ask about how they can accommodate my son’s allergies and let me talk about our journey and challenges is a huge relief for me.
Constantly worrying that a nut can kill your child is hellishly draining. Being the parent that scours every playground, office, and party for peanut butter cracker wrappers is exhausting.
I’m never expecting a world devoid of my son’s allergens.
Just knowing someone will help or support me in my mission for my child means the world to me. Even if that just means asking me to talk about my son’s food allergies and removing them from their holiday gathering.
(our son enjoying a meal of sweet potatoes)
I’m Mary Katherine Mason: mama to Roman and Evie, HG survivor, educator, writer, and parent to a child with food allergies.
When I’m not cleaning up poopsplosions, husky hair, and every vehicle ever made, I’m writing a dissertation on maternal nursing identity in eighteenth-century England.
As someone who struggled with pregnancy illness, nursing troubles, Hyperemesis, and postpartum anxiety, I believe representation matters. I rarely see my own experiences in motherhood represented online and in social media, and I suspect I’m not alone.
I hope to share my unique—and often embarrassing—experiences in pregnancy and motherhood in a way that’s relatable – you’re not alone either!