Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Thanksgiving and Food Allergies: Let's Dish

You know what I'm talkin' about....
Regular readers of this blog know that I choose a positive approach to managing life-threatening food allergies. Personally, I think it's the best way to manage life's challenges. We can only be upset about the changes and restrictions for so long before we have to move on and live. I have written several posts about managing life-threatening nut allergies at Thanksgiving (I'll list those in a minute) and I firmly believe that in most cases you can make this holiday safe and fun for all.

That being said: I don't know of any other holiday that strikes more fear into my heart when I'm not the one preparing the meal. You'd think I'd be used to it by now, but  Thanksgiving season is arguably the most "nutty" time of year and I don't mean the long lines at the grocery store and erratic drivers on the road.

No, I'm talking about tree nuts and peanuts being pretty much everywhere. Even if they are not an actual ingredient, so many of the seasonal packaged foods that come out this time of year have a cross-contact allergy warning on the label. Snacks, pretzels, stuffing, Williams-Sonoma gravy base (I LOVED that stuff, so that one still burns me), pumpkin bread mix, pies, candy, cookies, baking ingredients: the list is endless.

Then there are the bowls of mixed nuts that are a holiday tradition at so many homes. Hey, I get it. Before life with tree nut allergies, I would partake. But nowadays, seeing the anaphylaxis I've seen and knowing what a I know about cross-contact, I'd rather see a live snake on the snack table.

Special, chosen diets are another issue that is cropping up more in recent years. Many of us have family members or friends that have taken on a chosen diet (and please, I'm not talking about a medically-recommended one) that they approach with near-religious fervor. Trying to explain that you haven't chosen your allergy-restricted diet but, instead, it has chosen YOU, is an often headache-inducing discussion. Unfortunately, many of the new trendy diets these days are nut-centric, often prompting a discussion about whose dietary needs are more important or valid. Good times.

When It's Not About the Nuts

Every year around Thanksgiving I get blog comments and e-mails from family members of people with nut allergies or other allergies who want me to settle their family disputes. I'm flattered to be asked, but to paraphrase one of my favorite lines from a classic Thanksgiving movie: "How can I settle your family dispute? I can't even figure out how to use the can opener!"

Food is very emotional and traditional. My husband and I both come from a long line of people who love to cook, bake and eat and who have very strong food traditions. I understand that tradition is important but I also believe that you can maintain your traditions and still have a family meal together. How you work this out may be individual to your family.

One question I get a lot is: should every single thing on the table be "safe" for the allergic person? The answer is: it varies. I can't tell you that because I don't know your specific situation. But some questions to consider are: Is the child very young and doesn't know not to eat something? Is the parent of the allergic child able to provide some food to share (this is my favorite approach). Does eliminating this food throw off the meal completely for everyone else or can the menu be adapted with relative ease by the cook or cooks? Does the host/cook even know how to make an "allergy-safe" meal? As you can see, you have to consider what you're dealing with personally.

Even if you can get people to agree on not serving a certain food or using a certain ingredient you may be interpreted as someone who simply needs to be humored. That's frustrating because it's so not true.  I don't know many people who relish the role of being spokesperson for food allergies at every holiday meal, me included. It just goes with the territory and maybe if I'm lucky, someone will listen and think differently. Or maybe not. That I can't control.

We don't choose the food restrictions for our children. The medical condition -- that is, a life-threatening, diagnosed allergy -- dictates what is safe for a child to eat. I follow our doctor's orders. Here's my "choice:" avoid a food or traces of it, or wind up in the ER or worse. When thought of that way, it's a no-brainer that I'm going to have to try and figure out what's going into the food. If I can't determine it, we avoid it.

On the flipside, I know everybody looks forward to the traditional Thanksgiving feast. I do, too. Sometimes we have to work around things and sometimes people have to work around us. It can be done, provided you can talk about it.

Working It Out

Finding a solution is going to be different for everyone. Your child may be allergic to one thing; they may be allergic to 12 things. So obviously, that will dictate some of your approach.

Here are some past posts where I talk about solutions for dealing with food allergies at Thanksgiving.

Nut Allergies at Thanksgiving

Food Allergy and Family Meals

Food Allergies and America's Ultimate Food Fest

Since I've been hearing from many readers lately about family and food allergy strife with regard to the holidays, I felt the need to vent a bit. However, I've also been very encouraged by stories from readers as well as the people in my own life who do their best to help us out during a very stressful time of year for our family.

We're all doing our best, so let's remember that. Work together if at all possible and be thankful for the gift of food and the blessings of family.

For more on talking to family members about food allergies and dealing with life in general with regard to nut allergy management, check out my e-book, "The New Nut-Free Mom: A Crash Course in Caring for Your Nut-Allergic Child."

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Family Allergy Pro said...

I enjoyed reading this post. We are dealing with TN and PN allergy but also several others. We have found that we must say no to T-day invitations. I just wish people would not argue when I say no. This has been an issue for a couple of years now. I do the whole meal and family who wants to join us is welcome - but I ask they do not bring food unless its a family member I know 'gets it'. It's simply too painful for kids (and adults) to be a holiday guest and see everyone else enjoying and discussing how wonderful a meal is when they can not eat 98-100 percent of it. When I make it myself nothing is off limits. Having shared that, I really wanted to find a Pumpkin Pie or Cheesecake recipe that we could all eat. I came up with a merging of the two that I like and I'd be happy to share! I love Thanksgiving and really want to embrace it and share the joy safely!

Jenny said...

Thanks for your comment. You bring up an excellent point that managing the foods/exposures to allergens is only one part of food allergy management. The other half of that is the emotional side of things. It can be hurtful to see others partake and have a community experience over a delicious food that is off limits. It sounds as if you've found some good solutions for dealing with this, difficult though it may be to say "no." Thanks for sharing!

Jamie R. said...

I really enjoyed reading this post! This time of year can certainly make me crazy with all the food EVERYWHERE! But, as the kids get older, I don't feel like we need to live in a bubble quite so much. :) We are so blessed to have family members that accept my kids' tree nut allergies, even if they don't totally understand them, and do their best to make a safe, happy holiday for everyone. That said, it is a good reminder to have the "food talk" with everyone again. Thanks again for all your encouragement and experience Jenny! It's wonderful to know that we aren't alone in this nut-free journey! Happy, healthy holidays to you and your family!

Jenny said...

Thanks, Jamie! Happy healthy holidays to you and yours, as well. Thanks for reading and commenting!

Courtney said...

Thanks so much for this article. Thanksgiving, with its focus being so much on the food, is the hardest holiday for me, too. We want our 6 year old son to be safe and feel included so we do this holiday at home and anyone willing to join us is more than welcome. It may not go over well with family that we do it this way but, like you said, you have to take into consideration the details of your situation and doing this holiday at home with me on charge of all the food protects our son emotionally and physically. We'll probably bring a meal like we do the other 364 days of the year once he's older and is better able to understand his allergy (who to trust when it comes to being offered food, how to size up the safety of a situation, not feeling left out because he can't eat what others are) but for now Thanksgiving is at home with the family that loves him and wants to spend time with him - not focus on food, which is one of the best things you can do for an allergic person. As long as we're all healthy and happy we've plenty to be thankful for. Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family, and thank you for all you do for us other moms dealing with the same food allergy diagnosis.

Jenny said...

Thank you for your perspective Courtney; you're so smart to focus on what you have to be thankful for and not on specific foods. Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family!