navigating family gatherings with food allergies

reading labels is the only way to know where you'll find allergen surprises

navigating family gatherings with food allergies

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Many have asked how to navigate family gatherings with food allergies. My answer? It depends. Here are a number of tips on how I’ve navigated this topic thus far. My conversations with family and comfort level at holidays vary. Either way, my overall approach is the same. It is all about being upfront and fair with your expectations. First, remember that no one owes you anything. It is your responsibility to educate family members about food allergies and what your child needs to be safe. It is the responsibility of your family to in turn respect the safety of your child. With the exception of one holiday, which you’ll read more about, we don’t expect all the food to be safe. We bring our own food.

We are INCREDIBLY fortunate at gatherings with our immediate family. Food is almost always safe for everyone. Our family does this all on their own. They text us photos of ingredients and double check food plans ahead of time. Safe food at these events has become so second nature that we take it for granted sometimes. Family, if you’re reading this, thanks for being so awesome (and if you’re not, you’re a little less awesome… KIDDING!). Part of the reason we got to this point is that we have been super open and honest about Ollie’s food allergies. We send group texts from appointments and give updates if we’re worried about a potential reaction. I believe everyone has seen some level of hives or swelling at least once; they understand the danger of his food allergies. If someone in your family has a hard time understanding, I’d direct them to a reputable source like FARE for information on the seriousness of food allergies.

large group gatherings

My mom is the one that hosts Easter which makes it the easiest holiday. Last year, we were living with my parents while our new house was being built. The rule was simple, no food outside of two rooms and certain foods were off limits. We said it up front in the Facebook event, I put a few signs up around the house and verbally reminded everyone throughout the event. This year, the whole gathering is going to be free of all allergens. I know this is a huge request, but we’re being upfront with everyone about how and why to make it happen.

My mom is one of nine children; holiday gatherings involve a lot of people and a lot of food. It would be impossible for one person to cover everything. I’m constantly learning about new substitutes and alternative cooking methods. I’ll work with my mom to figure out the menu and give everyone information on what is safe. Be mindful of who is bringing what. I know some people need quick and easy options, while others are able to seek out specific ingredients at the store. And if someone makes a mistake and arrives with something that isn’t safe, that food won’t go out. I won’t make a big deal over it, but I also won’t give in. Make a light-hearted comment about that person getting guaranteed leftovers, stash the dish away, and move on. We will still have some of our own food for Ollie too, just in case. 

seventh generation wipes are helpful at family gatherings with food allergies

At family gatherings not hosted by an immediate family member, practices are slightly different. We remind everyone that hands need to be washed upon arrival and after having food. This year at Thanksgiving, we put out packages of baby wipes to make hand clean up quick and easy. Many relatives wiped up and still went to the bathroom for a full scrub after, but I felt very comfortable with the wipes alone. The easier you can make it for everyone to comply, the more likely they are to do so. It’s also about how you present it. When my aunt would text us questions about ingredients, we told her we were perfectly fine bringing Ollie his own food and she didn’t have to worry. You know what? She wanted to. Other relatives didn’t check with us and guess what? That’s fine too! We don’t have to deal with airborne reactions so as long as people are cleaning up after eating, I’m as comfortable as I’ll ever be.

friends are family too

Kids sitting at table for a family gathering with food allergies

Each year we host a Friendsgiving. As our new house is free of everything Ollie is allergic to, we were unsure if the event could even happen this past year. I love our friends, but don’t entirely trust a group of 20-somethings to prepare safe meals and felt terrible even thinking about asking them to. After talking with a few close friends, we decided to go the route of preparing all the food ourselves and asking everyone to chip in. I felt slightly embarrassed and like a terrible host, but we all know how expensive allergy-friendly food can be. All of our friends were on board with the idea and happy to help cover food costs. My husband and I had a lot of fun cooking together and Ollie joined in some too. This event taught me not to stress about asking people to make changes until you’ve actually had the conversation. Weeks of me worrying about ruining Friendsgiving were all for naught.

far from perfection

I don’t want you to think that everything with our gatherings is perfect. Perfect isn’t possible. We’ve skipped events a few times. There is nothing wrong with skipping an occasion if you can’t find a safe way to attend. Family members don’t need to go out of their way to make one million accommodations and as sad as it is to miss out, you’re not going to enjoy yourself if you’re worrying the entire time. Skipping an event and having family feel your absence may also be what they need to make a change.

I can also think back to one very specific instance where things did not go well. Ollie was being passed around and snuggled as babies usually are. I asked everyone to refrain from kissing him. Some couldn’t resist smooching his pudgy neck and I discovered a few hives. From that point on, he didn’t leave my arms or the carrier that was attached to my body. I wiped his neck and thankfully, the hives quickly went away. My trust was still gone. A few relatives hadn’t met him yet and really wanted to hold him, some even gave me a bit of a hard time. I did not give in. I had been clear and reasonable in my expectations for his safety and had not been respected. A part of me wanted to blow up but I knew that would not have gotten me anywhere in that situation.

don’t poke the bear

the mama bear will come out if everyone doesn't cooperate when navigating family gatherings with food allergies

I’m going to preface this with an assurance that I am a good person. That being said, I’m a mom and you don’t mess with my cub! If an issue ever presents itself in a way that I can’t solve in a calm and reasonable manner, you can be guaranteed the “mama bear” in me will emerge. Allergies are quite literally a matter of life and death. I will give respect and act reasonably as long as I get the same in return. If I ever feel a food or party is being given more importance than my son’s life, I’ll say so. There may not be perfect reason or calm about the conversation either. At that point, I don’t think there has to be. There is nothing reasonable about a relative who finds a peanut butter dessert more important than a breathing child. I hope you don’t find that offensive, it’s a fact of life. If you’re offended, please go talk to my new food allergy dad hero. He shares his perspective in a slightly explicit but incredibly eloquent and impactful way.

I want to reiterate, the emergence of the mama bear is suggested as a last resort. I have had great success being clear, respectful, and upfront with what we need to keep Ollie safe. Every event and every family is different. What has worked for you? Do you want input on a specific instance? Let me know.

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