Food is an integral part of many festive winter celebrations, so holiday gatherings can be a concern if your child has a food allergy.
Amy Dean, MPH, RD, LDN, and Shannan Stewart, RD, LDN, clinical dietitians with the Food Allergy Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), advise families on healthy food practices for children with food allergies. Here, they share their suggestions for inclusive — and safe — holiday gatherings.
“Your two key goals,” says Stewart, “are to protect your child’s health and ensure they are able to participate in and fully enjoy holiday celebrations. That can take a bit of extra planning.”
Plan ahead with the host
“If you are invited to a holiday gathering with a meal, talk ahead of time with the host and others who will be bringing food," Dean says. "The earlier you have that conversation, the more time everyone will have to plan a safe meal for your child.”
- Explain your child’s food allergy and the kinds of food that can trigger an allergic reaction.
- Explain the risk of cross-contamination and the steps you take to avoid it when preparing and serving food.
- Ask what they are planning to serve and discuss whether some of the dishes can be prepared in ways that don’t present a health risk to your child.
- Offer to bring safe alternatives, either dishes for the meal or snacks your child can eat and others will enjoy.
- Offer to provide ingredients and allergen-free recipes to help the host or others make food that is safe for your child.
- Ask the host and other food contributors to save food labels so you can look at them and decide which dishes your child can safely eat.
- Request a food-free play zone to avoid the risk of exposing your child to foods they are allergic to and ask other parents to help ensure children observe the rule.
Plan ahead with your child
“If your child is old enough to apply some self-control at the gathering,” says Dean, “make a game plan together before you go about how to deal with the food.”
- If you know what foods will be served, discuss which foods are safe for your child to eat, and which must be avoided.
- Encourage your child to say “No, thank you” to foods that are not safe for them.
- Eat ahead of time. Offer an allergen-free meal or snack before you leave home. This is an occasion when spoiling your child’s appetite can be a good thing.
Be vigilant with food at the gathering
- Review what is being served and look at food labels to understand ingredients.
- Label allergenic and allergen-free dishes with stickers that your child, and anyone serving food, will understand. Those might be simple red and green stickers for safe and unsafe foods. Or, you might write on labels to identify the specific allergen in the dish such as nuts, eggs or wheat.
- If possible, isolate the safe dishes from the unsafe ones in a separate area.
- Ask that each dish have a dedicated serving spoon and that each spoon stay in its dish to avoid cross-contamination. To be even safer, ask to serve your child first, before serving spoons can be cross-contaminated by being placed in more than one dish.
- Be vigilant. Your child is likely to be curious about all of the food, and you’ll need to make sure they don’t try anything unsafe.
- Be ready to follow your child’s medical plan in the event of a reaction.
- If you can’t be with your child at the gathering, ask another trusted adult to stay with your child and prevent eating mistakes. That person will need to know the signs of a food reaction, how to respond, and be prepared to act.
Be the host
- If you’re in charge of the food, you’ll have a bigger opportunity to incorporate allergen-free foods into a traditional meal.
- With your expertise in dealing with food allergies, you’ll show others that it can be done in a way that is festive and enjoyable for all.
- You’ll be able to show that a focus on simple dishes with selected natural ingredients can be healthy and tasty for everyone.
- If others want to contribute to the meal, suggest non-food alternatives for them to bring, such as holiday-themed napkins or plates, flowers or wine.
Organize special allergen-free holiday events
Host an allergen-free party for your child and other kids with food allergies.
- Plan an event without food as the focus: making holiday decorations, reading favorite holiday books, playing holiday games, watching holiday movies or singing holiday music.
- Depending on the allergies of the children, consider a party to make latkes, decorate cookies or make gingerbread houses — with carefully controlled ingredients.
Your party might be the start of new holiday tradition.