Monday, November 21, 2011

Allergy-Safe Thanksgiving and Holiday Party Tips

by Kelley Lindberg

Thanksgiving is on our doorstep, with its family get-togethers and that huge traditional meal. And as soon as that’s over, we head right into the rest of the holidays, with office parties, family gatherings, neighbor parties, traditional dinners, non-stop goodies….

Egads. Andy Williams says it’s the most wonderful time of the year, but it’s also the foodiest time of the year, which makes it even more stressful for those of us with food allergies.

It’s worse if you have small children. Older kids and adults can understand how to avoid the foods that make them sick, and they can often adjust by limiting what they eat at the party. But for younger children who want to eat everything they see, or who are playing with other young kids who will invariably have food on their hands, it’s a much bigger issue.

So here are a dozen holiday survival tips that I’ve gathered from friends, family, and UFAN members that hopefully will help make this time of year a little easier to manage.

  1. When you are invited to someone’s house for a meal or snacks, tell them immediately about your family’s food issues. Most people really want to keep you or your child happy and safe, and they will try hard to accommodate you. Hostesses don’t want to be surprised by a food allergy at the party, and then feel guilty that they served something unsafe. Tell them up front – trust me, you will really be doing them a favor.
  2. If you’ve got a relative or two who just doesn’t “get it” and insists on bringing their famous nut-topped casserole, make sure you talk to them calmly beforehand about how serious the allergy is, and how skin contact can send you to the ER on Thanksgiving, which isn’t where anyone wants to be. If they still don’t get it, ask another relative to talk to them.
  3. If diplomacy doesn’t work and you know there will be food around that will put your child at risk, remember that this is YOUR life and YOUR child, and you don’t have to do anything dangerous just because someone else thinks a traditional casserole is more important than your child. Don’t be angry or pouty, but explain that although you love them, your young child will be at risk and you’ll be anxious the whole time, so you’re going to skip the huge family gathering and catch up with people later one-on-one, when it’s easier to make sure you don’t end up spending your holiday in the ER. You can tell them that when the child is older, that maybe you can again join the giant food-fest, but for the next few years, you’re going to create your own holiday tradition within your own immediate family, where you know your child is safe. Family gatherings aren’t fun if you feel threatened, bullied, neglected, or ridiculed. Therefore, don’t put yourself or your child in that position. It’s okay to say no. If someone’s feelings get hurt, it’s not your fault. They chose to put your child at risk. You can choose to skip their party.
  4. At the party, ask the other parents to make sure their kids wash their hands after dinner. This actually works out even easier if you talk to the kids – kids seem to “get it” and accommodate their cousins/friends more matter-of-factly than most adults. So talk to the kids, and then remind them after dinner, and they’ll probably be happy to oblige.
  5. Carry some simple safe food with you. If there’s nothing safe at the party, you can always pull it out and let your child eat that. I used to carry safe chicken nuggets (cooked, chopped, and chilled) everywhere we went when my son was younger. I still tuck a couple of safe granola bars in my purse even now, just in case we can’t find anything at a party for him to eat – at least that will tide him over until we can make a graceful exit and find him some safe food.
  6. When going to a potluck, always volunteer to take the dessert. When people bring desserts, they bring their fanciest creations, which for some reason almost always seems to ensure they will include the most common allergens like nuts, chocolate, and dairy ingredients. So volunteering to bring a dessert will cut down on some of that risk, and will ensure that your food-allergic family member gets something sweet to look forward to at the end of the meal.
  7. It goes without saying, but make sure you have your antihistamine and EpiPens with you.
  8. When you first get to the party, check out the food table, ask who made each dish and talk to them about the ingredients, and then decide which foods you feel comfortable with your child eating. Then take the child to the table and calmly explain which items are safe, and which items will make him/her sick. Try to do this before everyone is loading up plates – it will be more chaotic and noisy if you try to have this conversation while people are crowding the table, and your child will sense the stress.
  9. When people say things like, “Gosh, your child’s allergies must be AWFUL! He can’t eat ANYTHING!,” try to turn it into a more positive statement. Those comments can stress kids out and make them suddenly think they’re missing out, when they were perfectly content a few minutes ago. So try to answer with “Actually, it’s not so bad once you learn a few ways to substitute safe ingredients/learn where to shop/read an ingredients label” or whatever works for you. Other fun replies include, “You’d be surprised how much healthier we all are now that we don’t eat all those cream sauces and processed foods.” Or, “It’s made me a much better cook, now. Would you like to try my fruit salad?” The main thing is to make them understand that dealing with food allergies might be an adjustment at first, but once we get our new routines established, it’s manageable, and our children are totally normal. (It’s perfectly acceptable to mention that Aunt Bertha’s green beans with the nut topping would have been so easy to make with safe bread crumbs or crushed potato chips or cracker crumbs instead. In fact, it’s kind of desirable!)
  10. If you can, try to make an announcement before everyone starts filling their plates, asking them please not to use serving utensils in more than one dish. If they dip the sour cream spoon in the safe potatoes, those potatoes aren’t safe any more.
  11. Move dishes with unsafe ingredients to one side of the table, and safe ones on the other side. If it’s not your party, explain to the hostess what you’d like to do, and they’ll be fine with it.
  12. And finally, I have a little trick I like to use called bribery. Before the party, I make a deal with my son that if he can’t eat any of the desserts, he will get a special dessert when we get home. If I was organized enough to make it first, then I show it to him and say, “This is for you after the party, no matter how late it is, as long as you don’t throw a fit over the food at the party.” If I don’t have time to make it first, I promise him we’ll make it together the next day. That deal worked wonders when he was little, and it kept him from trying to sneak unsafe treats.
Do you have more suggestions? Post them in the comments so we can all learn from your experience and ideas. And here’s looking forward to a safe and yummy holiday season!

Happy Thanksgiving!