|You can learn to manage food allergies at Thanksgiving...|
and you can eventually even have fun. No, really.
Dealing with food allergies at Thanksgiving for the first time this year? This can be a tricky business, but take heart: you can manage it and you are definitely not alone. As you sit down with the family this year, just keep in mind that millions of other parents are in the same situation.
Any holiday with a food allergy is difficult, but since Thanksgiving is focused almost entirely on the food served, this one is particularly challenging for families facing a new food allergy diagnosis. Any type of food allergy is cause for concern at Thanksgiving, but peanut and tree nut allergies can give you some heartburn as these foods show up with more frequency and as part of "secret ingredients" in recipes at this time of year. Autumn, especially, equals "tree nuts" so be careful!
Once you've been through a couple of holiday meals with the family, you will be better able to anticipate some of the pitfalls. However, if you are just starting out, both you and your family are still learning what it means to create a food allergy-friendly meal. The best policy is caution. Don't feel pressured to serve your child anything you can't verify is safe for them. A food is never worth risking your child's health for, so don't feel compelled to feed your child anything you have doubts about. This is a good policy to maintain at all times, and especially at the holidays where such a huge variety of different foods may be on offer.
While you are getting used to food allergies and family meals, it is always a good idea to bring a separate meal or at least some food items that you know are OK for your child to eat. This is much easier than trying to determine if every food you didn't make or bring is safe. The fact is, many times you have no way of determining that. Not having nuts as an ingredient is only one piece of the puzzle. A recipe may have no actual peanuts or tree nuts, but it may have had cross contact with these allergens during the preparation process. Sometimes even the cook is unaware that there may have been cross contact, or what that means, especially if they are unused to dealing with severe food allergies.
Unless a food has a label or you made or brought the food yourself, there is a risk factor there. Avoid the ER and avoid these unknown foods.
What else to watch out for while navigating Thanksgiving with nut allergies?
Turkey stuffing. Turkey stuffing often contains tree nuts such as walnuts or pecans. If a turkey has a nutty stuffing, this renders the entire turkey unsafe to eat because the stuffing can permeate the meat. Some breads are unsafe for those with nut allergies, too. If you are not hosting, you will want to be careful of stuffing.
Sauces and gravies. These often contain hidden ingredients, so be careful!
Buffet-style meals. A family favorite, but if utensils are used for more than one dish and anything contains nuts or other allergens, the other foods can be cross contaminated.
Desserts. Desserts are high-risk for nut allergens and other food allergens. Bakery desserts may be cross contaminated due to the environment in which they are made; the same goes for homemade desserts. Bring a dessert for your child to make sure they can have a "safe" sweet treat with the other kids; even better if you bring enough to share.
Any food with unknown origins, or catered foods. If you don't know what's in something or how it was prepared, don't serve it to your child.
Occasionally, you may have to do some fancy footwork to deflect a difficult situation while celebrating the Turkey Day feast. Here are a few common scenarios and how to handle them:
Friends or family who baked something "nut-free" especially for your child. Awkward! Unless you have personally schooled this person in detail on allergy-free baking and they have a kitchen that never sees peanuts or tree nuts cross the threshold (hardly anyone, in other words) anything home baked by others is at risk for cross contact. And keep in mind that many people believe that "nut allergies" mean peanut allergies, only! If you must avoid tree nuts as well, you run twice the risk of cross contact from a home baked item.
What to do if offered a treat "that doesn't have nuts in it"? Not everyone is as invested in your child as say, grandparents are, so if this is a relative or friend you don't see often, you can just sidestep the baked treats. Say something like, "Thank you so much. That was so sweet and thoughtful. I'd love to try one of your cookies." Then don't give any to your allergic child, whatever you do!
What if this is a close friend or family member? You can be a little more detailed, especially if this is someone you see often. Explain that because of cross contact risk, you are under doctor's orders to avoid any homemade treats but that you love the thought and you appreciate the effort. Offer to have them over to bake a treat with you and your child if this is an activity they would enjoy.
Questions about "why so many kids these days have allergies?" or "what will happen if little Susie eats peanuts?"
Let's face it: discussing life-threatening food allergies doesn't exactly make for appetizing table talk. If people are truly interested and are sincere in wanting to help you, offer to discuss your family's personal situation at a later time. You can always tell others that no one knows why there are so many allergies these days, but in the meantime you are following your doctor's advice on keeping your child safe. Then change the topic to a light hearted subject--or switch the discussion to politics or religion. Whatever it takes! (Just kidding, don't do that). A simple answer and subject change usually do the trick.
Resentment from others about a food item banned from the meal. This is a tough one, because many people don't understand that the mere presence of certain foods might pose a risk. Thank your family and friends for avoiding anything on your child's behalf and offer to work together in the future so that everyone can be happy with the meal while also keeping it allergy-friendly.
If this type of thing is a big problem for those in your circle, you can always host the meal yourself and make it clear that it is "free from" whatever you need to avoid. Then anyone who attends has fair warning and can make other plans if they would like. After dinner or the day after Thanksgiving might be a better time to gather if prohibited foods become a big issue for family members. Thanksgiving is about tradition, so many people have strong ties to foods. If everyone communicates and realizes there are no "perfect" solutions, you can usually work out some sort of compromise.
For more information on educating others about allergies and navigating life in general with nut allergies, check out my e-book The New Nut-Free Mom: A Crash Course in Caring for Your Nut-Allergic Child."