A food-filled family gathering need not be a minefield for those with allergies. Here are six key steps to safe celebrating.
I grew up in a huge Italian family where love was spelled F-O-O-D. About a year after my son was diagnosed with more than a dozen food allergies, I hosted Christmas Eve. Every table of my house was filled with pasta, cookies and candy. But unlike past family gatherings, this was not a happy holiday.
One niece roamed the house leaking her bottle of formula everywhere; another toddler left a trail of Honey Nut Cheerios. My sister fed her baby a jar of green pea baby food – the very food that had caused my son’s most recent allergic reaction – and left a dirty spoon on my kitchen table. My home became a minefield.
Although I didn’t say anything, my family sensed my tension and anger. They watched me march behind them, picking up napkins, wiping down tables and cleaning up cookie crumbs before my allergic toddler could get to them.
It wasn’t long before my sister confronted me. “You’re so uptight. No one feels comfortable here anymore.” My emotions spilled over. How dare they be mad at me! They were being insensitive and endangering my son’s health. I didn’t speak to my sister for months.
That was over a decade ago. Today, I see things differently.
Back then, I expected my family to understand a lot more about food allergies than they did, and yet I never specifically explained to them what I needed. It’s our job to educate others on exactly what’s necessary to keep our children safe. We, not our relatives, have to establish boundaries and draw lines. Today, I put my son’s need for safety and inclusion and my own need for keeping a manageable stress level at the top of my holiday priority list.
Over the years, I’ve learned that my story is not unique; many parents have similar issues with family members. So here are my tips for creating safe boundaries in your home and theirs during the holidays:
Essential Tips for the Holidays
• Ask and you shall receive. People don’t like to come to a holiday celebration empty-handed, so address your concerns up front by saying something like, “You don’t need to bring anything, but if you plan to bring food, would you let me know? Nathan has food allergies and I want to be able to serve what you bring.”
• Safe haven. Don’t feel obligated to serve unanticipated food gifts, like the nut rolls, chocolate candies and cheese logs that are so common during the holidays. Put the unsafe offerings away, and use the situation as an opportunity to politely explain to guests why you choose not to serve these foods in your home.
• Model home. When guests are helping you in your kitchen, take the opportunity to educate them and build awareness. As you remove cookies from the pan, explain that desserts and candies are the foods most associated with severe allergic reactions and that even invisible traces can cause a severe or even fatal reaction.
• Tag team. Toddlers and preschoolers move from room to room quickly. Have a trusted adult’s eyes on them at all times. Take turns with your spouse or a trusted friend so you can enjoy your meal or a conversation, too.
• First in line. At another’s home, discreetly ask your hostess if your child can be served first if there is a buffet. This way, if there are a few “safe” items, you won’t have to worry about guests cross-contaminating them with shared utensils.
• Just say no. Teach your child how to politely decline food offered by well-meaning adults. When my son was little, our rule was: You can only take food from Mom, Dad or Grandma.
It can be hard to ask for what our child needs. Others judge us or say we’re going to extremes, and we don’t have the liberty of “proving” what can happen if they make a mistake. Ask with kindness and a positive expectation; anticipate mistakes, as they will occur; and model for your child how to come up with a Plan B or Plan C.
Rather than spending a holiday sad or angry, ultimately, you want your child to be empowered to stand up for himself, nicely, to make things right. So model this for your child this season, and show him how to have a happy holiday!
Gina Clowes is a certified master life coach who specializes in the needs of parents of children with food allergies She is the founder of the online support group AllergyMoms.com , serving thousands worldwide.
Related Reading: The Holiday Snack Tray and Allergies 
First published in Allergic Living magazine.
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