Ten tips for safely celebrating the holidays with food allergies

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The holidays can be a stressful time for people with food allergies. There are a million parties that are centered around food and drink. It is a joyous time of year but it can also trigger anxiety around planning safe events.

Usually, I’ve been the one to host holidays at home. However, this year we travelled to Minnesota to spend Thanksgiving with my husband’s family.

We stayed with my sister-in-law and her family of four. I was a bit nervous about travelling for the holidays and staying somewhere new but our Minnesota family is super organized, cooperative and loving so I felt confident that we were in good hands.

Travelling with food allergies always requires a great deal of planning and effort. Staying with someone new to celebrate a major holiday with food allergies requires you to plan a step further, making it imperative to work together with family or friends to create a safe and inclusive holiday experience for everyone.

Unfortunately, this sounds easier said than done. It becomes challenging especially when some family members may not fully understand that allergies are serious and can be life threatening as is the case with my daughter.

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I’ve learned that I can only take the approach of educating others around me instead of feeling frustrated or hurt that people just don’t get it. From there, you have to make choices based on your comfort level, prioritizing the safety of your child.

Here is how we planned for our Thanksgiving holiday:

  1. Send a detailed email to the host: listing your child’s allergens. Even if they are aware of the allergens,  send a list every time as a reminder. We send a note like this “ my daughter is allergic to all tree nuts, peanuts and sesame seeds including food made with hummus and tahini, oils, crackers and bagels. She is also allergic to seeds such as poppy-seed, chia, flax, and hemp.
  2. Create a meal plan: for each day you are away. Plan and share it with your host especially if you will be eating and/ or cooking meals together. We make an Excel spreadsheet.  I cannot stress the importance of a meal plan even if you intend on eating out a few times. Having a plan helps to minimize accidental exposure to allergens because you are not scrambling at the last minute to figure out where to get safe food and potentially make unsafe choices.
  3. Bring specialty food items: we pack food such as sunbutter, spices, chocolate, and bread. We either pack it into our luggage or small cooler that gets checked in with our luggage. Our first stop off the plane is always to a grocery store.
  4. Research safe eating out options: when we travel our safe “go to” restaurants are usually Chipotle or In-n-Out. However, sometimes we try to find other dining options by researching menus, calling ahead to the restaurant and bringing an allergy chef card. Here is an example of an allergy chef card.
  5. Ask for accommodations: my daughter is contact allergic so when we stay in someone’s home, we ask that her allergens be removed. Usually I ask for these items to be kept in a top cupboard or garage. If this is not possible or you are comfortable with having your allergens in the kitchen, make sure to still keep food items separate.
  6. Cleaning: after removing her allergens, I ask the host to wipe down counters and the fridge (preferably before our arrival). A Clorox wipe or soap and a clean sponge is sufficient.
  7. Work together: If someone else is cooking the holiday meal, we go over all ingredients ahead of time including spices, oils etc. Even though my daughter may not eat the food, she still has to be around it so working together to ensure ingredients are safe is still very important.
  8. Ask family or friends to save labels: collecting them in a bag so that you can read all ingredients and make sure manufacturing processes are safe is very helpful. Do not expect your family to understand how to read labels, especially if they do not have to read them each and every time they purchase food like we do.
  9. Contribute a dish:  Your host will be thrilled! Usually we serve portions of our dish first and then place it on the table. However this year, we ran out of time so we asked our daughter if we could make her a “special” meal. She doesn’t like turkey anyways, so we made her a chicken teriyaki rice bowl. She was able to eat grandma’s apple pie because we went over ingredients before hand which were safe. She was so happy.
  10. Use simple, whole ingredients:  Create a menu based on specific dietary requirements using simple, whole ingredients and review each ingredient together.  I don’t have food allergies but over the past year I’ve cooked for friends who have multiple food allergies. I’ve found that whole, clean ingredients are safer to manage. Do not change or add ingredients last minute unless you check with your allergic loved one first.

After reading this you may think, planning a trip away for the holidays seems daunting for both the host and the family of allergic children. Is it worth it?

It’s challenging but yes it’s so worth it!. Seeing the joy on my daughter’s face is priceless.

The downfall is that I end up experiencing a great deal of anxiety because I hope that each event will be safe. I’m working on different ways of reducing my anxiety but having a plan is so helpful. Also remember that your host may be feeling nervous too but allergy parents are so appreciative of all the effort that goes into including our little ones.

My husband and I take turns to keep an eye on my daughter so that we can also try to relax and socialize. I try to remember to breathe and focus on all that we’ve done to ensure her safety.

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In the end, we strive to find a way to make it work because for us it is important for our little girl to experience the joys of travel and time spent together with family.

Happy Holidays ❤️

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