5 ways to make food allergy sufferers feel welcome at your holiday table

Catering for those with dietary restrictions doesn’t have to be problematic. Follow these great tips to make your Thanksgiving meal a rewarding experience for guests and hostess alike.

Alita Ong | Stocksy United

At our son’s very first birthday party last year, we had among our guests a brother and sister who both suffer from gluten intolerance. As we planned the celebration, I made it a point to provide gluten-free snacks and cupcakes, because I wanted all of the children to have a great time, and feel included. I especially did not want this brother and sister to feel left out while all of the other kids got cupcakes. Their mother was so appreciative to see her children feeling like everyone else at an event that involved food, I would say our friendship definitely deepened that day. The simple gesture let her know that I wasn’t just thinking of my own child, but her children, too—that I cared about her family, specifically.

Ever since then, when it comes time to feed people, I actually enjoy taking dietary restrictions into consideration. I see it as an opportunity to take hospitality to a new level, and let people in my life know that I care about them in a personal way. So as we approach the many holiday feasts ahead of us this season, here are a few suggestions for letting the food-allergy sufferers in our lives know that our holiday tables are not just our own, but theirs, too.

1. Understand the difference between food allergies & food preferences

There are many different reasons people have dietary restrictions. Sometimes they simply prefer not to eat particular things. Other times, however, people are forced to exclude specific foods from their diets due to medical reasons. Far beyond preference, food allergies can cause serious illness, and even be life-threatening. But because there is often so little understanding about the subject, many food allergy sufferers and their families find themselves in dining situations in which the hosts don’t know the difference between preference and allergy.

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Victoria Kotz has a two-year-old daughter who is severely allergic to dairy, egg, wheat, peanut, and tree nut. Kotz works very hard to keep her daughter safe, and says one of the hardest parts of eating shared meals outside of the home happens when others treat the situation as if this was a chosen lifestyle for their daughter. She says, “Most people just don’t understand that it’s not us being helicopter parents. It’s literally her life. So when others seem inconvenienced or annoyed, it does bother me, because it’s not like I want her to be this way, or want to worry incessantly about her.”

Helping food allergy sufferers feel welcome at the table starts with a simple willingness to understand their burden, and show that we’re willing to help carry it with them in whatever way we can. By doing this, we let them know that their presence is a blessing, not a disturbance.

2. Initiate the conversation & ask a lot of questions.

Inevitably, food-allergy sufferers (and for children, their parents) end up needing to approach shared meals with a litany of questions and cautionary statements. When others start the conversation by asking about dietary restrictions in advance, it is a major relief. Be sure to find out the nature of the food allergies, and ask them to tell their stories. Most food-allergy sufferers have interesting testimonies about how they first discovered the allergy, and how scary the experience was. Listening to their stories is a great way to get to know them better. This, of course, sets a much different tone for sharing a special meal than one where they feel they need to approach you with warning signs about how your cooking might kill them or their children.

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One of the most important things to learn from these conversations is how severe the food allergy might be. The level of severity could mean the difference between keeping certain foods away from someone who is allergic to them, or deciding that serving those foods at all will not be worth the risk.

Anjanette Spann has a son who is so allergic to nuts that their allergist informed them he could have an anaphylactic reaction from 1/250ths of a peanut. If anyone eats something with nuts in it, and then hugs or kisses him afterward, he breaks out into hives and has asthma attacks. Spann explains, “Our family on both sides has come to understand that it’s not worth the risk during the holidays to have pecan pies or pecan topped sweet-potato casseroles.” She says that even his friends know to wash their hands and face before interacting with him if they’ve eaten anything with nuts in it.

3. Provide safe options by learning new recipes or ordering from professionals.

Personally, I love going on Pinterest and finding new recipes to try at home. However, cooking for guests can be a lot more intimidating than cooking for my family on a random Tuesday night. When I wanted to provide gluten-free options for our son’s birthday party, I had never made gluten-free cupcakes before, and felt less than confident in my ability to get it right under pressure. I ended up finding a wonderful gluten-free bakery in the area, which became a new resource for our party guests as well.

Whatever food restrictions you’re dealing with, see what creative options are available online—you might just discover a new go-to party treat!

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4. Read labels & let your guest know what’s in the food.

Having food-allergy sufferers as guests at our tables offers us a chance to really get to know our own food. In order to help keep them safe, it’s vitally important to read the dietary information on any packaging—which is something we should probably be in the habit of doing anyway, right? Depending on the food allergy, it may also be important to learn alternative names for some ingredients. Kotz said, “Dairy and wheat have a ton of different names and are hidden in so many things, from seasonings to meat and sauces. It’s kind of crazy.”

Laura Kirchgraber, the friend whose children attended our son’s first birthday party last year, says that before she became more educated about gluten intolerance for her children, she herself made the mistake of accidentally feeding gluten to someone with celiac disease. “I thought I prepared a gluten-free meal,” she said. “I even made gluten-free cookies … but I used a canned soup mix to top the roast that I had made, and I now know that the soup mix was not gluten-free. So she probably got sick that night, and once I found that out, I felt terrible.”

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Kirchgraber says food labeling is getting better, but the best thing to do to avoid accidentally feeding guests something they are allergic to is to send the recipes in advance and confirm that the ingredients do not contain anything that would make them ill. She also says that there are no stupid questions when it comes to food allergies, so don’t be afraid to ask anything. Families who deal with these issues on a daily basis are usually more than happy to help educate.

5. Invite your guests with food allergies to contribute a favorite recipe for the feast.

People with dietary restrictions often enjoy sharing their favorite foods. Not only does it give them the chance to help educate others about their conditions and lifestyles, it also gives them a chance to reveal the fact that they usually still eat really well regardless of needing to eat differently. Sharing food and seeing others enjoying the same things they love to eat can be a huge blessing and relief for food-allergy sufferers just as it is for all of us who bond over shared food.

Granted, social events are already challenging to plan, with so much to think about as it is, and our menus often revolve around traditional recipes that we hold dear to our hearts. Going above and beyond for food allergy sufferers can add more steps, and perhaps change a few things. But instead of thinking of these added steps as disruptions, we can embrace them as opportunities to learn new things, get to know people in our lives better, and bless them in a special way. And who knows? Following these steps could even lead to the beginning of your newest, beloved holiday traditions this year. And the best part will be that everyone will be able to enjoy it.

Christina Kleehammer
Christina Kleehammer
Christina Kleehammer is a wife, mother, former television news writer, and author of 'Catholics on Spotlight.'

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