By Mireille Schwartz
Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Mireille Schwartz is the founder and executive director of the Bay Area Allergy Advisory Board, an organization that promotes education and awareness, and provides no-cost medical care and medication to San Francisco Bay Area families with severely allergic children. She is the author of “The Family Food Allergy Book.”
(CNN) — Holidays are a particularly challenging time for us food-allergic individuals with so many desserts and homemade treats, casseroles and dips laid out on the table — largely without ingredient labels.
Food-allergic children can feel left out of the traditional festivities, many of which center around food, and allergies can present a challenge for hosts, as they frequently must tend to a wide range of preferences and needs behind the scenes.
All the excitement and good cheer makes it more difficult to be informed about the ingredients in each and every party food. There are ways, however, to reduce anxiety through the holidays while staying happy, healthy, and allergy free.
This is a wonderful time of year for getting together over meals with those closest to you. I suffer from fish allergy and my daughter has a peanut and tree nut allergy.
Members of our inner circle are the most reliable and trusted food allergy gatekeepers for parties and celebrations, but it’s not possible to assume that friends and family will always remember to avoid reaction-causing foods after you’ve told them. After all, they don’t live with your food allergy day in and day out and, thus, naturally aren’t yet in the habit of checking every label every time.
The holiday season is an optimal time to check in and remind everyone of your allergies prior to the get-togethers. This season is also an excellent time to ensure your auto-injectors and rescue medications are up-to-date. The auto-injectors, in particular, have a relatively short shelf life and the product visibly starts to deteriorate at or around the expiration date. Remaining vigilant is key.
Here are some holiday gathering tips for both hosts and guests:
Hang on to labels. Keep food labels for everything used to prepare a festive homemade holiday meal so an allergic guest may double-check the ingredient list.
Suggest alternatives. Request flowers, wine or holiday-themed napkins and plates if guests want to contribute to the party and someone with a food allergy is attending.
Look for “natural” turkey. Some pre-basted turkeys contain soy, wheat, and dairy. Instead, look for turkeys labeled “natural,” which by law must be minimally processed. Some free-range, all-natural, fresh turkeys are free of antibiotics, hormones, and allergens.
Avoid cross-contamination. Care with utensils and surfaces when preparing foods is a must. Rinsing a knife that chopped walnuts is insufficient — thoroughly scrub all utensils and surfaces with soap and water and wipe clean. Even trace amounts of a food can cause a reaction for highly allergic people.
Use color coding. How about trying color-coded cooking utensils this year? A bright red silicone spatula or a nifty lime green serving spoon is sure to alert food-allergic guests. Many large box stores stock seasonal arrays of themed and brightly colored utensils in advance of the holiday season.
Consider donating. If a guest brings a food item that contains allergens, and there’s an allergic diner at the table, you could accept the item if it’s well-sealed and donate it later to a friend or a soup kitchen. Some cities even have volunteer organizations dedicated to alleviating hunger. After a free phone call, their volunteers, who deliver sometimes more than 10 tons of food a week to agencies feeding people in need, will pick up your donation.
Put thought into contributions. When in doubt, beautiful fresh flowers are always a welcome hostess gift instead of a pie from a bakery when you’re just not sure about the allergy safety.
Ship ahead. If you’re allergic and flying to visit friends or family, make some simple allergy-free foods that travel well and ship them to your host’s home a week or more in advance, so you’re sure they’ll arrive in time for your visit.
Bring an allergy-free host gift. If your host has food allergies, you can always bring a gift of unpeeled fruit or a prepackaged seasonal safe food, with ingredient lists approved by your host.
Bring a safe dish. If you’re food allergic and even if the party you’re invited to is not a potluck, why not offer to bring a safe dish or two so there’s definitely something you can eat. Your host will be thankful not to have to prepare separate food items, and sharing dishes that are allergen-free will delight everyone there.
Check in beforehand. If you are allergic, always let your host or restaurant where you’re celebrating know in advance — don’t assume they will remember. Even a restaurant where you frequently dine may not immediately remember you and your medical condition at holiday banquet tables with prix-fixe meals. Be sure to remember to always carry your rescue medication just in case of emergency. And here’s to your good health.
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