Monday, December 7, 2009

'Tis the Season to Be Nutty

Five years ago when I discovered that my oldest daughter had a life-threatening nut allergy, I wasn't fully aware of the impact that this diagnosis would have on the holidays. But I should have been. Let's face it — a big part of any holiday is the food. Add nut allergies to the mix and you’ve got a recipe for a stressful situation.

It seems to me that the world becomes increasingly more infatuated with nut-containing recipes starting around Halloween and continuing until after the New Year. Food magazines, TV news segments and newspaper cooking sections are filled with nuts, nuts and more nuts. There appears to be a primal desire to stock up on foods that highlight walnuts, pecans, cashews and almonds, almost like a squirrel stocks up on acorns for the winter.

For example, as I flipped through current issues of my favorite magazines, I found recipes for caramel nut cheesecake, Roquefort salad with walnuts, kugel with pecans, green beans with almonds, broccoli casserole with pecans, pecan pie, peanut butter blossom cookies, bourbon balls with crushed walnuts, candied nuts, pine nut chutney and pecan-laced turkey stuffing. Also, a homemade front-door holiday wreath devised of walnut shells.

Yes, nuts are everywhere you look this time of year (that's not even including our nearest and dearest) and as the walnut wreath proves, sometimes tree nuts greet you at the door even before the hosts do.

Because of the recipes and nutty crafts floating around, holiday parties and dinners pose major challenges to the nut-allergic. Unfortunately those two warhorses of holiday entertaining — buffets and potlucks — can be a health hazard. Standard buffet fare such as complicated casseroles with 20 ingredients or cookie recipes with crushed pecans are off-limits. Sometimes the food doesn't even have to contain nuts but has come into contact with them. If we don't know for sure about a particular food, our daughter doesn't get to eat it, so often she doesn't get to partake of holiday treats made outside of our home.

Food isn't the only thing that's dicey about holiday dining with nut allergies. Since food is so deeply rooted in tradition and emotion, the potential to either offend or be offended during what I’ve come to view as “the nutty season” is endless. It’s almost inevitable that a nut-allergic family will encounter a friend or relative who just doesn’t believe that food allergies are real or who are certain that "just one bite" of their treasured recipe won't hurt, when in fact, it could. People who wouldn’t dream of questioning a child’s diabetes or asthma diagnosis may peg you as a “nut” for asking about every ingredient in a dish, or label your child as "picky" if you are obliged to bring them a separate meal for safety's sake.

For the most part, my family is able to focus on the fun aspects of holiday celebrations and not the food gaffes. We've been fortunate to have a lot of support from family members and friends. Plus, my husband and I enjoy entertaining at our home, which helps eliminate the need for others to concern themselves with the menu. When we do attend a holiday party, I'm always willing to whip up a nut-free side dish or decorated cupcakes.

Perhaps because an individual with food allergies is denied so many treats at this time of year, food allergies teach you how to appreciate the most important things in life. Family, friends and the good fortune to be eating a delicious dinner at all come to mind. Plus, my entire family has discovered newfound compassion for others due to our own struggles with a medical condition that affects every aspect of our lives.

Despite the fact that we sometimes feels as if "Life is a bowl of cashews," it's wonderful to be present at the table with those we love most. And even though my family has to be more cautious about what foods we place on that on that table, "the nutty season" is worth it.


Anonymous said...

Very timely! I never realized how "nutty" Christmas is until this year! It's unreal! Thanks for the encouragement!

Kim Lutz said...

Wonderful post...and how very true!

Missy said...

My 2 year old son was just diagnoseed last week with a PA. We are still learning about what is safe and what isn't. I will have to say it's much harder than I thought it would be. I was just wondering what you have been told about staying away from flavorings (artificial and natural). Our allergist told us to stay away from them since it's not specified what kind they are. This is very difficult as most things have some kind of flavoring in them. I am enjoying your blog and would appreciate any feedback you might have.

Jenny said...

Hi Missy,

Artifical flavorings and/or natural flavorings are tricky because the ingredients are sometimes not "spelled out" for us on the label.

Just so you know, by U.S. law, companies MUST state if their food contains any peanut or nut products in the ingredients. If you ever have a question about a certain food, please call the food company directly.

Also, as you'll find it's a good option to feed your child "whole foods" that are minimally processed. That way, you know in the food.

I will post more about this topic at a later date. Thanks for the question! I wish you all the best. -- Jenny

Missy said...

Thanks Jenny for your feedback. I'm a little confused by what the law says. If they have to state whether or not their food contains peanut/nut products, shouldn't that include the flavorings? Like I said before we still have a lot to learn about this, so it's nice to have people like you to turn to with questions. We might be getting him tested for more food allergies as it seems like he is breaking out a lot around his mouth. I really hope it's nothing, but better safe than sorry. I have a hard enough time coming up with stuff to cook and this doesn't make it any easier. Thanks again for your input. I look forward to reading more in the future.

Jenny said...

Hi Missy,

I'm sorry I wasn't more clear in my answer. What I meant to say was that if peanuts or tree nuts or their deriviatives are included in a product as part of the ingredients, then they need --by law--to be listed on the nutrition label.

This would include natural flavorings. So if you see a bottle of Heinz ketchup and it says "natural flavorings" but nothing about peanuts or tree nuts, its safe to assume that those oils are not included in the recipe and the ketchup is safe for people with nut allergies.

I'll give you another example. Lea & Perrin's Worcestershire sauce also contains "natural flavorings." Recently, they began adding the term: "contains anchovies" on its ingredients list. Because fish is one of the most common food allergens, they are compelled to state this on their label. Because they make no mention of peanuts or tree nuts in this allergen advisory, that tells me that the sauce is OK to serve to my child, who only has a nut allergy.

Of course, if you need more details than the label will provide, you should give the company a call or drop them an e-mail.

Reading ingredients lists gets easier with time. I hope I've helped somewhat and will continue to discuss this issue on my blog.

Thanks again, Missy--many people are concerned about incomplete information on food labels and according to a news report, nutrition labels are currently undergoing a change. One of these changes will be clearer allergy warnings written in plain English.

I'm glad you brought up this issue! I will have more discussion about it.
Take care, Jenny

Missy said...

Hi Jenny,

Thanks again for all of your valueable information. Thanks for clarifying on the flavorings. That makes more sense to me, and was more on the lines of what I was thinking should be the case. Are you safe to assume the same with artificial flavorings? They have come a long way with the labels, and like you said hopefully it will continue to get easier.

Thanks again so much for all of your input. Sorry to keep bothering you with these questions. It sounds like you have really done your research. Thanks again and take care!


Brittany Thomas said...

I totally understand how hard it is around the holidays. My two younger cousins both have severe food allergies, including nuts, and when they were first diagnosed several years ago, I can remember the chaos of Christmas when we realized how many bowls of mixed nuts there were lying around the house. Since then, my family has definitely become more vigilant about it, but it was hard at first to realize just how deadly even a small nut could be if it was in the same room as they were. One thing I did find for this holiday season is a cookbook by author Lisa Lundy which is caesin, nut and gluten free that I am hoping will make a good gift for my cousin's mom. If any of your readers are interested I found it at and they have lots of other great information there, too.

Jenny said...


Thanks for helping your allergic family members. It means a lot to them, I'm sure.

I also want to recommend the Food Allergy Mama's Nut-Free, Egg-Free, Dairy Free Baking Book for a great holiday gift. Go to or to order!

Jenny said...

Hi Missy,

Please feel free to ask questions at any time--I will always answer to the best of my ability and if I don't know the answer I will find out.

To answer the artifical flavorings question--the same rules will apply.--Jenny

Missy said...

Thanks again so much for your help, I really appreciate it.
Take care ~ Missy