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How to handle food allergies during the holidays

Alicia DiFabio, Psy.D. is a freelance writer with a doctorate in psychology. Her work has appeared in various newspapers, magazines, psychology journals and professional sourcebooks. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and four girl...

Food allergies at Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is all about family and food. For parents of children with food allergies, however, homemade meals and goodies prepared by others can cause some anxiety and concern.
Family Thanksgiving dinner

The following tips will help both parents and hostesses ensure a safe and happy Thanksgiving feast for all.

Taralee Hurff and Ruth Buck are mothers who know firsthand how difficult managing food allergies can be during special occasions. “It’s harder for the holidays because people have specific traditions with food,” says Hurff. Her son has a severe peanut and tree nut allergy. Buck’s son has a peanut allergy and her daughter is allergic to both egg and shellfish.

These seasoned mothers share some tips that can help make Thanksgiving less stressful for families dealing with food allergies.

For the hostess: Entertaining for a guest with food allergies

If you are hosting Thanksgiving and one of your little guests has a food allergy, follow these basic tips.

  • Call the parent in advance and ask how you can work with them to ensure a safe dinner. Hurff says “I always tell people, just ask. If you don’t ask me, I can’t help.”
  • When preparing and serving food, be mindful of cross-contamination. Wash hands with warm water and soap when handling different ingredients.
  • Make a sincere attempt to avoid serving problematic food. For instance, refrain from setting out a bowl of mixed nuts when there is a nut allergy.
  • Avoid cross-contamination by providing separate serving utensils. Don’t have safe and unsafe foods touching on one platter.
  • Before guests arrive, wipe down eating surfaces with Clorox Wipes.
  • Save packages of any prepared food so the parent can read the ingredient list. If home cooked, keep recipes accessible.
  • Don’t be offended if the visiting parent brings her own food or is reluctant for her child to try your preparation. Many allergies are life-threatening. Respect her wishes without taking it personally.

For the parent: Managing your child’s food allergies during the holidays

When hosting, if a guest offers to bring something Hurff assigns them to beverages or paper products. “That ensures that I feel good and so do they,” she explains.

  • If eating Thanksgiving away from home, call ahead to inquire about the menu.
  • Pack safe food alternatives. “It’s not worth the risk,” says Hurff.
  • Desserts are the most loved — but also the most dangerous — food category. “I never let my kids have dessert anywhere,” Buck says. She always packs an allergen-free alternative.
  • If bringing a safe, alternative dessert, avoid cross-contamination by also bringing separate serving utensils — you may even want to label your serving spoons and spatulas.
  • Ask people to wash their hands with soap and water after they eat certain foods. This is especially relevant with kissing and hugging children. “Hand sanitizer just spreads the peanut protein,” Hurff warns. “It doesn’t clean it.”

Hidden allergens in the Thanksgiving feast

The most common food allergies are egg, dairy, tree nut, peanut, soy, wheat and shellfish. These ingredients can be very obvious but sometimes are hidden in seemingly “safe” foods at the Thanksgiving table. For example:

  • Many turkeys are injected with a soybean mixture which may contain peanut oil. Hurff always opts for a fresh turkey.
  • Stuffings often contain nuts, egg, and/or soy.
  • Thickening agents and salad dressings often have peanuts, peanut oils, walnuts or hazelnut oil.
  • Packaged gravy may have dairy, soy, gluten or peanuts.
  • Homemade cranberry sauce may contain walnuts or other tree nuts.
  • Most desserts contain dairy and/or egg. Some seasonal pie crusts contain ground walnuts or pecans.

More about food allergies

Signs of food allergies in kids
When kids with food allergies are bullied
Entertaining kids with food allergies

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