Enjoying the holidays when you have a food allergy

Are you living blissfully unaware of a potential danger?

My son was 10 years old when we discovered his life-threatening allergy to tree nuts. Until then, we had lived blissfully unaware of the potential danger. He ate whatever he wanted, whether we were at home, in a restaurant or visiting friends or family. We didn’t need to check food labels or ask party hosts if the salad dressing contains walnut oil.

That changed forever during a visit to his grandmother’s house on the day after Christmas. All it took was a couple of bites from a container of mixed nuts. The reaction started with a scratchy throat and red, puffy eyes. On the way to the hospital, it progressed to a full-blown attack that left him barely able to breathe.

The holidays are particularly challenging for him. All those family get-togethers, friends’ parties and social activities at school usually have food as a main attraction. It should be such a joyful time, and the last thing I want to do is stop him from having fun. But there are strategies we must follow to keep him safe.

Because there is no cure for food allergies, the only way to prevent a reaction is strict avoidance of the trigger foods. It took a while for us to get used to our new, necessary vigilance. The following year at Thanksgiving dinner among extended family, my son was faced with barely anything to eat. Almonds in the salad made that off-limits. Chestnuts in the stuffing meant he couldn’t eat that. No sweet potato casserole — pecans. Our host was kind enough to carefully separate portions for him where possible. Even so, he was more at risk than we realized, since all the food had been prepared in the same kitchen and sometimes with the same utensils. We’re more careful now.

So how do you enjoy holiday parties when you have a food allergy? Food Allergy Research & Education Inc. (FARE) offers some tips:

RSVP immediately. Talk with the party host as soon as you get the invitation. Gently explain your concerns about food allergens and cross-contact — when foods containing an allergen come in contact with foods that don’t, making them unsafe to eat. Have a conversation about food allergies in general to avoid offending your host while helping to find ways to create a safe environment.

Follow your safety rules. Remind young children to check with you before eating any food. Ask your host about ingredients and check food labels if possible. By law, manufacturers must list the eight most common food allergens: milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat and soy, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Many labels also indicate if a food is made on the same equipment or in the same facility as products containing these allergens. Don’t forget to carry an EpiPen and other rescue medications you use.

Bring a safe dish. Offer to bring at least one food item that is safe for you (or your child) to eat. Make enough to share.

Start a trend. Make a card listing all the ingredients in the food you bring to the party and display it with the dish. It’s a great way to raise awareness about food allergies.

Take turns watching the kids. Plan for your partner or another adult to help you keep an eye on young children. That way you can make sure they stay away from unsafe foods and you can both enjoy the party.

Host your own party. Make a few allergen-free dishes and display an ingredients card with all the food you prepare. Keep the labels from processed foods you use in case one of your guests also has a food allergy. If your guests want to contribute something, ask them to bring nonfood items such as cups, napkins, their own beverages or flowers for the table.

My son and I follow these recommendations and have added a few precautions of our own. Before going to a party, he eats a snack so he won’t be hungry and tempted to eat foods that might not be safe. We mostly avoid potlucks, where it’s nearly impossible to even know who to ask about what’s in a particular dish and there’s an increased risk of cross-contact. If it’s a party he doesn’t want to miss, he’ll have a meal at home and go just to socialize.

When in doubt about a food, don’t eat it. Trying a bite to “see if it’s OK” is a common cause of accidental exposure to allergens. For many people, that’s enough to cause a dangerous reaction.

For more information about managing food allergies in various situations, visit FARE’s website at FoodAllergy.org.


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