Thursday, November 13, 2014

Coping with Food Allergy Dilemmas at Thanksgiving

Just before Halloween, I read a post on a local parenting magazine Facebook page that went something like this: "I'm concerned about Thanksgiving and I need advice. My two-year-old is severely allergic to nuts and my mom insists that she have out bowls of nuts placed around the house and also in the foods served at the table. She won't listen to me when I explain the dangers. What can I do?"

My heart went out to this woman because after all, it's her own mother that is telling her "No, I won't accommodate you or my grandson." Ouch. Many commenters (myself included) told her that she's not alone in this whole food allergy holiday meal thing and that she has to do what's in the best interest of her son. Other parents on the page (guessing not those who have kids with allergies because, of course, it seems simple if you don't deal with it yourself) said things like "Your mom's house/her rules" and "Just don't give the kid any nuts and it will be fine."

Sound familiar? Therein lies the dilemma. Not everyone is going to understand your Thanksgiving food allergy concerns and most of us don't want to live in a cave far away from everyone. Is there a happy medium? More on that in a minute.

Getting back to the parent of the two-year-old's question "What can I do?" Well, here's the thing. If she's spoken to her mother, which we can assume she probably has, what can she do? You can't force someone to listen to you, understand or accommodate you. You can't enforce rules in a house not your own. So, sadly, that parent may have to keep her son away from this gathering simply for his own safety -- and her sanity. 

I don't suggest this lightly, because I know that Thanksgiving is a time for the family to be together. However, nuts in a bowl is a deal-breaker if you've got a two-year-old. Two-year-olds think they're supposed to put everything in their mouths, even dishwasher pods. And you can't reason with them -- they don't have a good enough understanding of their allergy at this age. Even with older kids and adults/teens with allergies, nuts in a bowl is easily transferable from the hands of the person partaking to surfaces and edible substances. If you bring a separate meal from home for the allergic person (a not-so-great but feasible solution if you want to be with the entire fam), there is still danger if lots of nutty stuff is around. 

What if your family doesn't understand this and doesn't want to? Then it's up to you to do the right thing to keep your child out of the ER that day. In cases such as these, I know there is no perfect solution. Nobody is perfect -- not your family, not you. So why do we expect the holidays to go perfectly smoothly -- especially with a medically necessary food restriction like life-threatening nut allergies? It's too much pressure. Take it one meal at a time, one day at a time. As you learn the ropes and your family begins to understand what's at stake, it will get easier.

 If you're new to nut allergies this Thanksgiving, I suggest you take a deep breath and be good to yourself this holiday season. State your case, of course, but stay cool. You don't want your child to associate holidays with negativity -- it can create anxiety later on. Offer to bring food and offer to help figure out the menu. Many times, families are reluctant only because they don't understand how to make things "safe" for you. Let them know how they can help and make sure they know that you will do all you can, too.

But what if, like the mom in the example above, you just can't get through to your family? Most of the time, if close family doesn't want to give a nod to your food allergy needs at the holidays, it points to a deeper issue going on with your relationship. Don't expect this to be resolved overnight and never let your child be endangered. Be strong and firm; be kind to yourself and to your family members. Food allergies are what they are; fighting won't make them go away. I have chapters devoted to communicating food allergy needs to others in my e-book, The New Nut-Free Mom. Click here to find it on Amazon; you can find other options for getting this book by looking at the right side bar of this site.

I recently came across this cartoon online. I think it sums up how those with food allergies feel about any family meal: "It's not so much what's on the table that matters, as what's on the chairs."

I say amen to that, but keep in mind that Thanksgiving foods are emotional for people. They want to be served what they remember and what they see as tradition. That's understandable but can be difficult to cope with when you're navigating a life-threatening food allergy. So if you find yourself in a situation like that, maybe you can start a new tradition of having people over during the Thanksgiving weekend, where you host and control what's served. Again, it's not perfect, but it's something.

Now, the bright side. Many of us have understanding families that help keep our kids safe at family meals. I'm fortunate that I'm one of those people, but it didn't happen overnight. It takes conversation, effort and time. So don't be hard on yourself if you don't have it all figured out immediately. Nobody does! :)

I have many posts about food allergies and Thanksgiving/holiday meals and I'll share those links at the end of this post. Plus, you'll find some of my favorite nut-free Thanksgiving recipes. Follow me on Pinterest to find more of those.

What about you? How have you found ways of juggling Thanksgiving food expectations with food allergies?

For all of us dealing with the imperfections of life with a food allergy at the holiday, remember: you're not alone. Do the best you can and try to celebrate the joy of the season. Be grateful for the food you can eat and the health of your loved ones. I wish you all a wonderful Thanksgiving! 

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Jenny said...

This is tough. When my 4 year old peanut/tree nut allergic son was younger, my mother-in-law used to have glass containers of nuts sitting on her counter. My son's aunts would eat the nuts and then kiss his cheeks and he had a skin reaction. Luckily, my mother-in-law now understands the seriousness of the allergies and is very accommodating.

My motto is that my son's safety always comes first. We are tactful, but if people choose to have hurt feelings that is their choice. If she were not willing to take his allergy seriously, we would not be visiting her. It's as simple as that.

Jenny said...


Very well said. Thanks for your comment! Happy Thanksgiving!