Many of you have contacted me recently or posted on this blog about how food allergies have created family strife. Some common reasons for this are that relatives don't believe that a child or other family member can be seriously harmed or have their life threatened by a seemingly innocent food. Other times, the emotional ties to tradition holiday or celebration foods that contain potentially harmful allergens causes family to butt heads. For me, one of my biggest challenges--and it's one many of you struggle with as well--is explaining cross contact issues. For example, we're often told "this doesn't have nuts in it, you can have it." Well, no, because we don't know the environment it was cooked in (or we do know and have deemed it unsafe due to allergenic foods also present there.)"
The list goes on. I wish I could give you a one-size-fits-all solution to these disagreements involving food allergy and family, but since each family is different and each allergy is different, this is not always possible. I'm not a therapist, I'm just a regular parent who has had to face many of these same issues. Based on my experiences over the years, I can tell you what's worked for me. This topic is too important to be covered in one post--for one thing it would be too long. :) So here is Part 1 of my suggestions for dealing with food allergies and family.
Evaluate each situation individually. You probably have discovered that certain family members are more open to dealing with food allergies than others. You are going to have to take this into account when saying yes or no to foods and events. For example, an aunt may have removed all nut-containing foods from her home and be a meticulous label-reader. She may consult you before serving certain foods. Obviously, attending events hosted by this person are going to feel better to you, though you still have to check up on things. Another family member may insist on serving the peanut butter blossom cookies she's always served on Superbowl Sunday along with bowls of trail mix and peanuts in the shell, despite your efforts at trying to minimize these foods. You will have to deal differently with this person since they may not be hearing you. In these extreme cases you may have to skip the party. It really depends on how much the other person is open to the situation and this may vary depending on the person and/or event.
Be honest about your concerns. In the case of food allergies and families, as in so many others, honesty is the best policy. If you feel that someone is not "getting it" or you are worried about a menu, speak up, politely, please. :) Let's face it, no one is going to be as concerned about food allergies as you are. They may not consider some things that you feel are obvious. Speaking up (directly to the person you have the issue with) in an honest and straightforward way, helps to prevent not only allergic reactions but hard feelings later on.
Accept that not everyone in your circle will adapt as you hope they would. This is a tough one, I know. You may have some terrific support from most family members, but one or two folks just won't accept, understand or accommodate food allergies. You can't control that, but you can control your exposure to them and any food they may offer. It's sometimes better to quietly feed a child a safe food from home and go on with the party rather than taking a big stand over and over. Some will accept food allergy needs in time; some never will. Best to be cautious and move on.
Don't feel apologetic about food allergies. I find that many parents are really shame-faced when asking for reasonable accommodations for their child. Some people feel guilty about having menus altered or about bringing a safe food for their child even if they've been told things are "safe." This is not your fault so stay upbeat and do what you have to do. Can you imagine feeling guilty over other medical conditions such as diabetes, heart disease or asthma? Probably not, but food allergies invoke a guilt fest. I think one reason is that food allergies are a "hidden" condition for the most part and those who have them look perfectly healthy. You may feel like others think you are making a big deal over nothing, even when you know you're not. Stay firm about staying safe and don't feel bad that you have to do so.
I'll have more to say about this on Friday and please share your thoughts. Also, be sure to check out this excerpt from a terrific article in Allergic Living magazine. The recent issue covers "Food Allergies and Family Feuds."