Food allergies can put a damper on life—especially when it comes to holidays that rotate around food, glorious food! Today, most Americans are touched by food allergies in some way—whether they suffer from these allergies themselves or know someone who does. Food allergies can complicate Thanksgiving, but they don’t have to be a deal-breaker. If you or a family member suffers from food allergies or you are hosting a food-allergic guest, there are many ways to keep Thanksgiving safe and enjoyable for all.
Below, we’ll outline some different food allergy-related scenarios and share some tips for navigating them.
Scenario 1: You’re hosting guests with allergies
If you’re in charge of the Thanksgiving meal this year, that’s reason enough to be feeling some pressure. If some of your guests have food allergies, that can add another layer of stress. With some extra preparation, however, you can keep the added responsibility manageable. Here’s how:
- Have a conversation. Talk to your guest(s) and find out exactly what to avoid. If they are deathly allergic to nuts, you might consider avoiding them altogether. If they only react mildly, you could probably put nuts in some things as long as you have plenty of nut-free alternatives. Just make sure to thoroughly wash anything that might have come in contact with the nuts (knife, cutting board, etc.) before using it to prepare other foods. That way, you can avoid cross-contamination.
- Ask your guest to bring a couple of allergen-free dishes. You may not be familiar with allergen-free cooking, but your guest probably is. Ask them to bring a couple of favorites to the Thanksgiving meal. That way, they can be guaranteed some safe selections, and it takes some pressure off of you.
- Display a list of ingredients. You can list them on a tented card displayed near the dish or set out a copy of the recipe.
- Look for ingredient substitutions. Just because a guest has an egg allergy doesn’t mean that you can’t make your traditional pumpkin pie. Rather than tossing out beloved recipes that including allergenic ingredients, get creative with ingredient substitutions. Egg substitutes can work well. So can rice flour for people with wheat allergies and almond milk for people with dairy allergies. There are some great recipes on the internet for allergen-free versions of favorite Thanksgiving recipes.
- Put separate serving utensils in each dish. Make sure that each dish has its own set of serving utensils to minimize the risk of cross-contamination.
Scenario 2: You have food allergies and are eating elsewhere for Thanksgiving
If you have food allergies and have been invited to eat at Aunt Clara’s house for Thanksgiving, you may worry that food allergens are lurking in certain recipes, ready to trigger your allergic reactions. Here’s what to do to minimize risks and maximize enjoyment:
- Talk to your host in advance. Don’t feel sheepish about communicating your food allergies to your host or hostess. It’s better that they know so that they can prepare adequately. Communicate with tact, letting your host know that you don’t expect them to change the menu but that you do want them to be aware of what is safe for you. You can also offer to help with the meal, which brings us to our next tip…
- Volunteer to bring a dish. Assure your host that you don’t expect them to be a short-order cook by offering to bring a dish or two. For example, you could bring milk-free mashed potatoes or wheat-free dinner rolls to serve as a non-allergenic complement to whatever your host is cooking.
- Don’t assume. Allergies can hide in unsuspecting places. I have a delicious hummus dip that contains soy sauce. That may not sound like a big deal, but soy sauce contains wheat—one of the “top 8” allergens. So don’t dive into anything until you find out exactly what it contains.
Scenario 3: You have children with food allergies
Even if you don’t have food allergies, your child may, and that can lead to a lot of anxiety during Thanksgiving dinner as you worry about what they may be putting in their mouth. Try these tips for a stress-free Thanksgiving meal with food-allergic kids.
- Dish up first. If you are worried about cross-contamination between dishes, request that you be able to dish your child up first. That way, the pecan pie server won’t get switched with the chocolate cream pie—which is of utmost importance if your child is allergic to nuts.
- Sit near your child. It’s a good idea to keep your child within your sight if you have concern about an anaphylactic reaction.
- Advise your child to choose with care. Part of parenting a child with food allergies is helping them to understand exactly what foods they are allergic to and how to stay away from those foods. Remind them that this is as important as ever at Thanksgiving with a cornucopia of different foods to choose from.
- BYOM if necessary. If your child’s allergies are quite severe and involve multiple foods, it might be easiest to BYOM (bring your own meal). Dish up a plate at home, and make sure it includes some special foods that your child can get excited about. You can let your host or hostess know in advance that you’ll be providing this. That way, they won’t get offended when you show up with your own food. In addition, they’ll know that they have one less person to cook for, which could save them a little time.
- Bring a kid-friendly dish. If someone else is hosting, offer to bring a dish that has “kid appeal.” Make sure that it is something that your child can safely eat and that other children will enjoy as well.
- Bring your EpiPens. If prescribed, make sure to keep two epinephrine auto-injectors with you at all times.
If your food allergies are cramping your quality of life, talk to your doctor about a food allergy treatment program known as sublingual immunotherapy (SLIT). With SLIT, you can dispense liquid droplets under the tongue. Those drops contain traces of the food proteins that trigger allergic reactions. Over time, the drops can condition your body to tolerate more of the foods you love.