Find out our top tips for managing a food allergy during the holidays, whether you have a food allergy in your immediate family, or whether you’re hosting a gathering.
The holidays are a joyful time when families come together – often, over a meal. Unfortunately, for the 1 in 13 children and 1 in 10 adults living with food allergies, family holiday meals could be dangerous. Eating even a small amount of a food they’re allergic to will cause them to develop an allergic reaction, which could become severe or even life-threatening. There’s also the risk of cross-contamination, or when a food with an allergen accidentally gets mixed into a food that doesn’t normally contain the allergen.
And because of the need to be cautious around food, people with food allergies might feel left out at gatherings. Fortunately, there are ways to plan ahead and make sure everyone is included, whether you have a food allergy in your immediate family, or whether you’re hosting a gathering where someone with a food allergy is attending. Here are our top tips for managing a food allergy during the holidays.
When You Or Your Child Has A Food Allergy
Consider being the host
When you’re the host, that’s often the best way to keep yourself or your child safe. This way, you’ll be able to prepare only safe dishes, and ensure you or your child can eat the holiday meal without worry. And if others are bringing food, you can set ground rules for what foods they can and can’t bring into your home, to ensure that they won’t bring a dish that could trigger an allergic reaction.
Of course, you can’t be the host of every holiday gathering, and you may be invited to a family member’s or friend’s house over the holidays. So, these next tips will help keep you or your child safe when eating at another person’s home.
Talk to the host ahead of time
Let the host know about your or your child’s food allergy ahead of time. Ask what the host is planning on making, including all of the ingredients in each planned dish. Explain the seriousness of your or your child’s allergy, and ask what allergen-free options there will be for you or your child.
Make sure the host knows to wash their hands with soap and warm water before and after handling food, and educate them on food allergy label-reading if they aren’t familiar.
If there will be both safe and unsafe foods at the gathering, explain that dishes made without your or your child’s allergen need to be prepared separately, and then kept separate from dishes with the allergen, to avoid cross-contamination. Also, request that the safe, allergen-free foods be kept in a different serving area.
Bring your own food
It’s perfectly fine to prepare a favorite safe dish (or multiple safe dishes) of your own to bring to the gathering. This way, you know the exact ingredients in a dish and how it’s prepared, and you can be sure you or your child has something safe to eat. Plus, the host will probably be grateful that you offered to help!
If you plan on sharing the dish, be sure to bring serving utensils so there’s less of a risk of cross-contamination, and serve it in a separate area from other food.
If your child has a food allergy, you might opt to create a safe meal just for them instead, that’s similar to the main parts of the family meal so they won’t feel left out. It's a good idea to bring safe snacks for before (or after) the meal as well, so they won’t get hungry. Safe desserts are also a great idea to bring, so your child will be able to eat something sweet like everyone else.
If you serve yourself – or your child with allergies – first, you’ll get the safe foods you or they need before other people could accidentally mix the safe foods with allergen foods. Take as much of the safe foods as you think you or your child will eat before everyone else starts serving.
Even though friends and extended family mean well, they might not fully understand the danger of cross-contamination, and might use the same utensils for your safe and unsafe foods without thinking.
Set ground rules for your child
If your child has a food allergy, it’s important to set up some rules before the gathering to keep them safe. The rules will look different for every family and depend on your child’s age, but here are some sample rules:
- Only accept food from (name the trusted adults who know your child’s food allergies and know the steps to keep them safe).
- Don’t accept food from anyone else. Say, “No thank you, I have food allergies.”
- Only eat the foods we know are safe for you. Ask me if you aren’t sure.
Always carry epinephrine
Make sure you bring two epinephrine auto-injectors to the holiday event, just in case an allergic reaction might happen. Even though you’re being careful, there’s still the risk that you or your child could accidentally eat an allergen food and develop an allergic reaction. And if an allergic reaction turns severe, this the first line of defense and the only way to stop the severe reaction.
(Having a second epinephrine auto-injector on hand is vital in case another severe reaction occurs, after the first injection stops the initial allergic reaction.)
Consider eating before an event
If you’re anxious about the potentially unsafe foods at a gathering or event, or aren’t sure if there will be enough safe food, you and your immediate family can always eat a safe meal at home before the event. That way, you or your child won’t be tempted to try foods when you aren’t 100% sure they’re safe. Plus, you can better focus on spending time with family.
Create food-free traditions
Even though a lot of holiday traditions involve food, the holidays are really about spending time with family and making joyful memories together. So, why not create family traditions where no food is involved? For instance, you could make homemade decorations, attend a drive-through light show (or look at lights in your neighborhood), read favorite holiday stories, or watch holiday movies.
When You’re Hosting Someone With a Food Allergy
Ask about allergies in advance
It’s best to ask every guest about allergies, as well as other dietary restrictions. That way, you’ll be able to have safe options for everyone. Don’t just take things for granted, as someone may have a new allergy, may have “outgrown” an allergy, or may be bringing a friend, family member, or significant other with different dietary needs.
Then, perform a more detailed check-in with the families who do have allergy needs, to understand how to keep everyone safe. This will guide you as you select what foods to prepare. Being a good host is about keeping everyone safe and making sure they feel included.
Prepare safe versions of favorites
Instead of just designating one allergy-safe dish, why not prepare allergen-free versions of holiday classics so everyone can enjoy the favorites? For instance, if someone’s allergic to wheat, try making wheat-free cornbread stuffing. Or, if someone has a dairy allergy, use oat milk in your baked goods instead of dairy milk.
Be sure to accommodate all allergies of guests – and remember that dishes free of one allergen could contain other allergens. If you need help managing several guests’ allergies, you can always ask if the food allergy families want to bring favorite dishes of their own.
Read labels three times
When buying foods for your gathering, read labels three times to make sure packaged foods don’t contain an allergen that your guest(s) can’t have. Read the label once in the store, once when you get home, and once right before you use the food to prepare the meal.
Prepare safe foods separately
If you’re making both safe foods and foods that contain a guest’s allergen, prepare all the allergen-free foods first. Then, store the finished safe dishes away from any foods with the allergen. Prepare the allergen-containing foods second. Be sure to wash your hands afterwards, and wash the serving area with soap and water before serving.
Keep allergen foods and safe foods separate during serving
If some foods aren’t 100% safe for the guests with food allergies, designate two serving areas – one with food that contains the allergen(s), and one with food that’s free from the allergens. Each serving area should be far enough apart from the other, and each individual dish should have its own serving utensils to prevent cross-contamination. Be sure that guests only use the designated utensil to serve a given food.
Label every food item
When you put out all the dishes, label each dish with the name of the dish and the allergens it contains.
The top 9 allergens are responsible for around 90% of all food allergies, so highlight whenever a food contains one of these allergens:
- Cow’s milk (dairy)
- Tree nuts (such as almonds, cashews, pagans, walnuts, and pistachios)
- Finned fish
In addition, if someone you know has a less common allergen, label any dishes that contain that allergen.
Wash hands before and after serving
Washing hands before and after serving allergen foods will help keep allergen foods from accidentally mixing into safe foods. You should also ask guests to wash their hands before serving food and after eating.
Create food-free fun
If a close friend or family member has a food allergy, why not invite them for holiday fun that doesn’t involve food? You could attend a drive-through light show together, go ice skating, try snow tubing, make holiday crafts, sing carols door-to-door, play dreidel for nonfood trinkets like fidgets, or even volunteer your time together at a location that doesn’t involve food.
Have a happy – and safe and inclusive – holiday season!
All health-related content on this website is for informational purposes only and does not create a doctor-patient relationship. Always seek the advice of your own pediatrician in connection with any questions regarding your baby’s health.
These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. Products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.
See the FDA Peanut Allergy Qualified Health Claim at the bottom of our homepage.
New Study Shows That Infant Anaphylaxis Usually Resolves With One Epinephrine Dose
A recent study has shown that, when infants experience severe aller...
8 Types Of Picky Eaters (And How To Get Them To Eat)
Not all picky eaters are the same – there are actually several diff...
Pregnancy Nutrition: What To Eat In The First Trimester
What to eat in the first trimester that will nourish your body, pro...
Formula Feeding Amounts: How Much Formula Should You Feed Baby Per Day?
How much formula should baby drink per day? It depends on their age...