Monday, November 9, 2009

How to Have a Safe Thanksgiving with Nut Allergies

The days are getting crisper, the leaves are falling in Chicago and every magazine I flip through seem to feature recipes like these: pecan pie, pine nut turkey stuffing and pumpkin nut bread. That can only mean one thing: Thanksgiving is just around the corner. And so is a nut allergy minefield if you're not prepared.

Don't get me wrong, I love Thanksgiving--it revolves around feeling thankful, celebrating family and eating a ton of good food. What's not to love? However, we've all got to keep our guard up if we're caring for an allergic child. Something about the fall/winter holidays makes people crave tree nuts, so this is a particularly difficult time for this allergy. Peanut butter and its many related food items seem to be favorites year round, but tree nuts don't usually turn up in such massive quantities until now.

My family has been celebrating Thanksgiving with a nut allergy for nearly 6 years (!) now and I've seen a lot of nutty things happen in the kitchen (that's not even counting the behavior of me and my relatives) so I have a few tips to share that should make it easier for you to cope.

I've said some of these before but they bear repeating. And if you're new to nut allergies at the holidays, take heart. Once you've been through it once, you learn A LOT so you're much better prepared next time. You must not apologize for the allergy or worry about seeming "over the top." Believe me, that's better than winding up in the ER with your child.

The other thing to remember is that family recipes and traditions are different, but one thing is the same at Thanksgiving: the emotional ties to favorite foods. So don't be shocked if you meet resistance to a "nut-free" or altered Thanksgiving menu at first. Your family and friends will get the hang of it as time goes on. And if they don't, you may want to consider hosting the celebration.

Safe Thanksgiving Tips for Nut-Allergies:

1. Communicate about the allergy early and often. Whether you plan to attend a dinner outside of your home or you are the host family, you want to put the word out now about your nut allergy concerns. Things to discuss would be safe brands of bread for stuffing, gravy sauces or sauce enhancers or mixes, stuffing recipes in general (many contain pecans, pine nuts or other nuts), desserts and cross-contamination when cooking or baking. You want to give people plenty of notice about the food to help ensure safe choices. Many times people set their menus and decide what they plan to bring to a dinner early, so go on, make that call today!

2. Offer to provide safe alternatives to family favorites. Does someone always want to make pecan pie or peanut butter blossom cookies? See if you can make an alternative pie or offer to make the cookies using Sunbutter (sunflower seed butter) or soybutter. Or, introduce a new recipe that may become a nut-free family favorite.

3. Be careful at the buffet table. Buffet tables present cross-contact problems, since serving spoons may be used for more than one food. You may ask to serve your child first to prevent cross contact, or prepare a separate plate for your child in the kitchen.

4. Suggest an alternative to "mixed nuts in a bowl" and peanut-laden Chex mix-style snacks from the party. Yes, these are a big hit with many family members, but see if you can bring an alternative snack. These are particularly dangerous because younger allergic children may grab these items and eat them before you can stop them. Also, people spread the nut dust and residue around with these snacks.

5. You bring (or make) dessert. Desserts are one of the top foods to cause allergic reactions, so don't chance it. You do the dessert. It may seem like a lot of work but honing your dessert-making skills is a must if you're a nut allergy caregiver. Also, everyone loves desserts, so if you make a good one you'll be one of the "heroes" of the dinner! :) Another thing I plan to do this year is give each child a chocolate turkey from Vermont Nut-Free Chocolate. A way to promote awareness, yes, but also a way to include your child and impress their cousins with a delicious treat. If chocolate is out of reach for you due to other allergies, any little "extra," whether a safe candy or even Thanksgiving-themed pencils, helps your child feel like they brought something special to the party and helps them cope with having to avoid certain foods.

6. If you're really concerned, bring a safe meal for your child. Sometimes, despite your best efforts, you may not feel the meal is safe enough for your child to eat. That's OK--it happens. Just bring something extra for them and serve it to them without a lot of fanfare. If anyone asks, use the situation to increase awareness: "Alex can't eat the dinner because of her nut allergy." You never know--this simple statement could result in more cooperation from others for the next celebration.

This is just a start. I'll have more tips as we get closer to the holiday, but if you have any that have worked for you or if you have any questions about managing this nutty holiday, let me know!


Elizabeth Gordon said...

Thank you for such a great posting! We've connected on Twitter before, but I really appreciated that your number one recommendation is to talk about the allergies. My parents still do not get the severity of my adult-onset (but pretty serious) allergies, and it makes eating at their home tough. I think you know, but if you need great dessert ideas, please stop by blog at to see cooking demos and recipes for gluten, dairy, soy, nut and egg-free dessert ideas. Thanks again-- I really enjoy your blog!

Jenny said...

Will do, Elizabeth. Always looking for good recipes. Thanks for your comments--I'm so glad you find my blog helpful! Also, it's helpful to hear from adults dealing with food allergies--all ages deal with this issue!