In most cases, my response is “Yes! You can do it.” (Depending on the location, there may be some that are not safe. Be sure you know your risk factors and what to avoid.) My "Yes" often gets the responses of, "How can we do that?" or "I'd rather just keep my child at home."
It takes some work, planning and communication but you can make it happen. Here are some tips for how to handle a birthday party.
Begin the conversation with education, not expectations.
Think of this as an opportunity to educate someone else about food allergies. Speak with the host and let them know your child would like to attend. Then briefly talk a bit about food allergies. This education doesn’t mean explaining all the details about labeling laws, skin tests vs. RAST tests, etc. This information can be about how to offer safe participation for your child for a couple of hours: clean hands, the basics of cross contact, the need for having epinephrine accessible and an adult trained to administer there at all times. This conversation should also focus on how you will assist and provide for your child to participate. Explain that you do not expect all the party food to be safe for your child. Instead, your child will bring their own food that is safe for them.
When you speak with the host, ask what food they plan to serve. When will the food be served? Beginning or end? Or out the entire time? Take this opportunity to educate about how serving food at a designated time will keep your child safe, as opposed to having a free for all buffet for two hours.
Explain the importance of hand washing/wiping. Offer to bring wipes to help clean messy hands and faces.
Help while you're there! Yes, supervising your child is the priority. But if you are able, offer a hand to the host. They will appreciate your help. Assisting the host will also help your child not feel that your only reason for being there is to hover over them.
What if the host isn’t receptive to what you have to say? Or not willing to have kids wash hands? I have personally never found this to be the case, but it could happen! Would you want your child to spend time in a home and with people that are not willing to do a few small prevention steps? I wouldn’t. Unfortunately, there are people who don’t “get it” and have no desire to figure it out. Sometimes we just have to walk away.
As with anything, it gets easier with time.
Start small, if this helps you. If your child is very young and the food will be served at the end, you could leave before the cake comes out. Build on this until you are more comfortable with your child staying for the entire party.
Older children probably won't want mom or dad hanging around the party with them. Educating the host parent will take more work in this situation. Treat this like you would when leaving your child anywhere else. Ask if the host is willing to learn how and when to use an epinephrine auto-injector. Take the time to sit down with them and go over instructions for caring for your child.
Lastly, don't miss this opportunity to educate your child. Their self-management skills are an important part of keeping safe when around others eating their allergens. Discuss with your child before the party what your plan is. Explain that allergens will be there. Show your child any items/rooms/areas to avoid once they arrive at the party. Assure them that they will still have a special treat (brought from home); it just may look a little different than what the other children are eating. Remind them to only accept food from you (or other designated adult). Role-play what they should say to their friends if they ask questions.
Living with food allergies takes additional work and planning. We all know this. But remember the LIVING part of it. Our kids want to go to parties and celebrate with their friends. Put forth the effort to find a way for your child to participate and educate others along the way. You will also build your child’s self-management skills that will help them navigate social situations when they are older.