The holiday season is filled with opportunities to partake in delicious meals and treats. Many traditions revolve around the food; Christmas cookies, latkes and donuts at Chanukah, etc. But when you are managing food allergies, partaking isn’t as simple and can be downright dangerous.
Not only can foods be a threat, everything from skincare products and cosmetics to cleaning products can contain allergens. My child’s most serious reaction to date was from his grandmother’s lip gloss and occurred on Christmas Eve.
The holiday season can seem overwhelming for food allergy patients and their caregivers with so much to worry about. However, some things can simplify the season and make celebrations safer.
Here are some of my top tips for managing food allergies for food allergy families and their supporters during the holidays.
For Friends, Family, and Supporters of those with Food Allergies
1. Choose ways to celebrate that don’t revolve around food.
Stockings filled with candy. Christmas cookie exchanges. Chanukah gelt. Hot cocoa during movies, decorating, tree cutting, and everywhere. There are so many ways we celebrate with food. When accommodating someone with food allergies (especially a child), please remember that it can be painful to be left out. Make plans that won’t revolve around food, or plan to ensure a comparable safe treat for the person you are accommodating. And, also remember it can be challenging for kids to receive something different than everyone else. It is always better that everyone enjoys the same type of treat, rather than giving a special treat to one person who can’t eat what everyone else is having. Even better, serving up a safe treat to everyone means you cut the risk of cross-contact and contact reactions!
2. Be okay with changing things up.
It can be hard to change longstanding family traditions. If you have baked the same Christmas cookies for generations, it is tough to do something else. However, the spirit of the season won’t be lost if you forego Christmas cookies or try a different recipe. Ultimately, having those you care about participate safely should be the priority (at least I would hope). It is okay to mourn traditions you’ll miss out on, of course. But trust me when I say the accommodating person would far rather you not have to change things up. Try to be sensitive that they wish they could do that food-based tradition as much as you do! It is never the fault of someone with food allergies that they need accommodations.
3. Ask those managing food allergies about their comfort level, and develop a plan with them to make sure everyone can celebrate safely.
Every food allergy patient/family has a different set of needs and different levels of comfort with things like shared facilities, production lines, or having other people cook for them. Always ask rather than assume. Feel like you might annoy someone with frequent questions? Trust me; you won’t! Food allergy families would far rather have a safe and healthy holiday than not receive repeated phone calls and texts about safe products and recipes. Plus, being able to enjoy the holidays safely together makes all that work and communication worth it!
4. Read every label, every time (even on non-food items).
It is important to read labels on all products you use to screen for allergens, even if you have used those products safely in the past. Be sure to know uncommon names for the specific items you are concerned about. It is also essential to check labels on non-food items, including cleaners and cosmetics/skincare products. These commonly utilize top allergens, especially nut and seed oils. If you aren’t sure what to look for, ask!
5. Remember that nut-free, peanut-free, or gluten-free doesn’t mean allergen-free.
There are 9 Top allergens, but allergies can occur to products beyond those. Also, remember that allergen-free products do not exist for the same reason and that allergy-friendly can also still include allergens.
A final reminder for friends and family of those with food allergies; no one chooses to have food allergies. And, no one is being overdramatic about the seriousness of them, either. Your food allergic family member or friend isn’t being difficult. They are trying to stay alive. Please choose to approach their needs with sensitivity rather than assuming they are senselessly demanding.
For Food Allergy Families (Caregivers and Patients)
1. Communicate comfort level and needs during initial planning. Offer to assist in food prep, or even better, offer to host holiday celebrations if possible.
One of the best ways to ensure that gatherings with food are allergy-safe is to take responsibility for as much of the food prep as possible. If this is not realistic, communicate your comfort level about issues such as shared lines and facilities, share information about safe and trusted products, and discuss recipes and food substitutes necessary to help keep yourself or your family safe.
2. Don’t be afraid to set boundaries.
It is always better to be safe than sorry, and it isn’t your fault if someone doesn’t adequately understand food allergies. While it is painful not to see those you care about during the holiday season, there is never a reason to put yourself or your family at risk if you are not comfortable with a situation. Set clear boundaries early in the planning process, and be okay with making changes to plans if those around you can’t or won’t be accommodating. Chances are, however, that given adequate information, sufficient time to prepare and help with acquiring resources, your friends and family will happily work to accommodate your food allergies.
3. Be vigilant.
Read every label, every time. Ingredients can change, and seasonal products may be produced in different facilities or with other ingredients than the regular version. It can seem tedious, but it is an essential step towards staying safe.
4. Take care of yourself and ask for help if you need it.
The holiday season is stressful, but managing it with food allergies can add a new layer of anxiety. It is more than okay to acknowledge this; it is healthy to do so! Simple things like getting enough sleep, eating regularly, staying hydrated, and balancing responsibilities with relaxation are excellent first steps for managing your mental health.
Also, be sure to ask for support or help from trusted members of your circle, and if necessary, seek additional support from professionals. Another effective strategy is to consider implementing practices such as mindfulness/meditation to help manage feelings of stress and anxiety as they arise. The Food Allergy Counselor and their directory (a Food Allergy Research and Education recommended resource for finding mental health resources and providers for those managing food allergy-related concerns) recently shared some great advice for how to do this.
And, as always, be sure to carry two epi-pens, know the details of your allergy action plan, and communicate the allergy action plan with any caregivers.