Navigating the holidays while managing food allergies can turn what used to be “the most wonderful time of the year” into the most dreaded and stressful time of the year. With proper planning and communication, the holiday season can still be fun and enjoyable for all.
Start at Home
It’s important to always keep in mind the emotional needs of your child. Be mindful to not draw unnecessary attention to his/her allergies, especially if your child is sensitive to the extra attention.
Make a Plan
Will you supply all of the food for your child? Will you allow others to make food for your child? Or perhaps a combination of both? This will depend on how many and what allergens you are avoiding, how educated your host(ess) is about food allergies, and what is your trust level with this person.
Include your Child in the Planning Process
If you are taking safe food to the holiday meal, ask what your child wants for his/her special meal or dessert. We often spend a lot of time and energy recreating recipes to be new safe versions. Many times we’re surprised to find out however that our child doesn’t care if he/she has a safe version of what everyone else is eating (and may not like what we’ve spent so much time preparing). Your child may actually want something completely different; something that is special to him/her. It is completely acceptable for your child to have spaghetti while everyone else eats turkey and dressing. Your child deserves to indulge in their favorite foods the same way the rest of the family does for the holiday.
Take Advantage of the Teaching Opportunity
Remind your child that he/she is in control. Each child needs to continue to learn how to be comfortable with his/her own individual differences. This will build the confidence that is needed to effectively self-manage food allergies.
Teach Your Child How to Safely Sit Next to Someone Eating his/her Allergens.
In my house this is part of my daughter’s “food rules.” She knows 1. to not touch anyone else’s food, 2. to not let someone else touch her food, 3. to never eat food that someone with unclean hands has touched. Rules such as these support the important strategy of no food sharing.
Communicate With Your Host(ess)
To communicate effectively you must do so with clarity. The first step is to start early. Attempting to explain life-threatening allergies to someone who is in the middle of entertaining dozens of family members for a holiday isn’t going to be a productive conversation, nor will it give the topic the attention it deserves. Education should not be rushed.
Approach your host(ess) when he/she has time to hear you and digest the information. This will allow time for follow-up questions. Explain the facts about food allergies, what can or cannot be eaten and what your plan is – such as, who prepares your child’s food. If you are going to allow your child to eat food prepared by this person, you will need to get very in-depth with them about how to avoid cross contact and what foods/brands are safe.
Food is love. We bond over it. It is possible to hurt feelings when refusing food that others have prepared but your child's safety is your top priority. If you will bring food for your child, tell your host(ess) ahead of time and fully explain why. Discuss any other strategies that are needed to keep your child safe, such as containing all food to the kitchen and designated eating areas.
Day of Holiday Gathering
Come prepared! Always carry two epinephrine auto-injectors and your emergency action plan.
Also, bring wipes for cleaning little hands and faces if there are small children attending the holiday meal. Don't forget to bring all of the necessary food items, snacks and a little extra. The last thing you want is for your child to still be hungry after eating the safe meal you brought from home.
Most importantly - always, always, always bring your epinephrine!
Before the Meal is Served
Find or create a designated food-free playing area for your child. Take a minute to quietly discuss with your child where the unsafe food is, how to avoid it, and remind him/her to not take food from others.
Depending on the age/maturity of the child (and how compliant your extended family is about not feeding your child) it may be necessary to provide supervision at all times. This may be an arrangement that you and your spouse agree to follow or possibly designate another family member (that is fully on board with food allergy management) to do so.
Time to Eat
Be sure that those sitting next to your child while eating know how to do so safely. It may be necessary to create a safe buffer zone. Surround your child with the family members that are most familiar with food allergies. Be cautious of young children who don’t understand allergies wanting to sit next to your child. In my family, we often suggest that they sit across from my daughter. This allows them to still talk and visit, but my daughter’s safe meal is out of reach.
After the meal, politely ask or remind others to wash hands.
Remember that learning about food allergies is a process - if you don’t live with it everyday, it can take a while to fully understand. Be patient with your extended family and provide them with resources to learn. If you still have family members that do not take food allergies seriously, know that your job as a parent is to protect your child’s life. That is much more important than pleasing family members.
Don’t Forget Community & Church Events
Contact organizers ahead of time and ask if food will be served, candy distributed, or crafts made with food so that you may come prepared with an alternative for your child. Take wipes – everywhere. You never know what kind of messy situation you may come upon. Be prepared!
What About School?
Holiday parties should be something that you address during your 504/IEP meetings. Be sure to do this before the school year starts. Before the holidays is a good time to check in with the teacher to ensure your child’s plan will be followed.
Remember the Meaning
Even though planning for the holidays with food allergies can be stressful and extra work, keep in mind that your child and YOU still deserve to enjoy the holidays. This is the perfect time to start new traditions. These traditions can be focused around cooking safe food or around activities that don’t involve food. Remember the holidays are a time to reflect on what we are grateful for and be with those that we love. And don’t forget that your child is always observing your behavior and response to the stress. Teach them how to find the joy in the holiday season, make memories to cherish, and create new traditions that will have the entire family looking forward to the next holiday season.
Happy Holidays from FACET!