With Thanksgiving just a couple weeks away, I thought it was a good time to pull this post together. I've been asked for sometime to offer tips to friends who would like to have us over but perhaps are afraid of feeding us due to my allergies. Misinformation is rampant including two national posts this past week, one listing the "7 major food allergies" (there are 8) and another that purported to debunk myths but did a poor job of it.
Even professional chefs get it wrong sometimes. (e.g. 33% thought frying would destroy the allergens, 25% thought removing nuts from a salad would make it safe to serve to a nut-allergic diner.)
Current estimates are that 15 million Americans have food allergies.
While the "why" of it is still debated and being explored, there's wide agreement that the incidence of food allergies is on the rise. There is no cure, no pill. The only safe course is strict avoidance.
Since getting my own diagnosis, I've researched a great deal on the topic. I've written this piece on dining out with food allergies for the Washington Post. I've developed and delivered training for restaurant staff on safely serving food allergic diners and I try to stay on top of news, research insights, and what's happening with restaurants and allergies.
I started compiling my own list of Do's and Don'ts and have also reached out to friends in the field to see what they'd want to share.
How to host a food-allergic guest
Understand what you're dealing with - have a direct conversation with your guest to get clear. Ask what your guest can and cannot eat. Guessing is dangerous.
Does your guest wish to bring a dish or help out? Maybe cooking together would be fun and enlightening.
Perhaps you can share recipes so your guest can check for problematic ingredients?
Don't announce to the party that someone's allergic, unless they themselves have asked you to share that info.
Don't make substitutions without checking in with your allergic guest. Or at least, alerting them to it.
Understand cross-contact. A large ice bin or buffet style service are opportunities for cross-contact.
How to be a good guest, even with allergies
I'm so grateful when someone is willing to go the extra mile (or seven) to accommodate my food allergies. Often, I will suggest I could just come for drinks or I will bring something delicious to share.
Offer to go over recipes, ingredients. You may wish to bring something that is a good substitute, but which may be unfamiliar to your hosts.
Offer to bring something to share that everyone can safely enjoy. Ask if there are any other intolerances or allergies you need to be aware of.
Bring something extra (wine, flowers, something that can be shared either before or after the meal) for the host to show your appreciation. They have brought you into their home, and probably worried and fussed a little extra about serving you.
Don't play games. If you just don't like something, don't lie and say you're allergic. This serves no one well.
Tips from Allergic Girl, Sloane Miller
Sloane Miller, MSW, LMSW - Author and coach. www.allergicgirl.com "Just because you have a restricted diet, doesn't mean you have a restricted life."
1. Honest communication / conversation about your (the host's) abilities, understanding or knowledge of food allergies is a great place to start. For example: Ask about your guest's specific dietary needs in advance, what is cross contact, and how to protect against cross contact and how or if even you can accommodate them safely to their specifications.
2. When cooking remember: even the tiniest bit can hurt your severely food allergic guest. If there are mistakes or errors or cross contact (and it happens), be honest with your guest about the errors.
3. If you are using prepared foods, keep all labels of any prepared foods to show your guest and let them make an informed choice.
4. Ask your guest what substitutions work for them or if they have a brand that is safe for them. But even so, keep all labels even of a trusted brand as formulations change without notice.
5. Don't be offended if they want or need to bring their own food or want to only join for cocktails or nightcaps. Sometimes that is the easiest option for everyone.
6. Do your best but know mistakes happen and your guest may need a few visits without dining before they feel safe enough to trust/try dining.
7. Remember: the focus of a get together is to get together; food is merely a vehicle. So enjoy your guest's company with or without food.
Thanks Sloane! Good advice.
What about Gluten-Intolerance and Celiac disease?
I also checked in with the Gluten-Free Girl herself, Shauna Ahern. She's busy testing recipes but offered this excellent post on the specifics of hosting a gluten-free or celiac friend.
The full post is well worth a read, here are some tips I culled from it:
Make everything from scratch. I know this sounds daunting to many of you, but I'm here to help! Many things can be done ahead of time and in stages. (Chopping up veggies for stuffing, making pie dough, making stock or gravy, etc.)
Only use a packaged product if it says "Gluten Free". This is a big surprise to many people. The way that gluten can sneak into many products you'd never imagine had gluten in them...it's something that trips-up even well-meaning restaurants, too. Modified food starches are quite common and quite often contain gluten. Barley - not wheat but often contains gluten. Barley malt.
Be mindful. This is good advice for everyone. We can get so caught up we forget that simple is often better and how satisfying it can be just to stop and smell the roses, or the turkey.
Include us. In the planning, in the cooking. We can learn so much from each other. Celebrating each other through and with food is one of life's great pleasures.
I love the post and so much of the do's and don'ts are familiar to me, like when Doc has a bit of cheese and I move in for a smooch. I get the cheek. Lucky for me he's both irresistible and thoughtful. I often think as I'm cooking about all the ways cross-contact can happen, even in my own kitchen sometimes I forget!
What are your tips, concerns or questions about holidays and food allergies?