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Food Allergies and Parties

What To Do When One of Your Guests Has a Food Allergy

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Updated September 23, 2008

Picture this: You're planning a bash at your place to welcome some old friends who have just moved to your town. You've bought drinks, shopped for snacks, planned to cook a few things the morning of the party, and gotten everything clean when a friend calls. "Do you mind if I bring one of my coworkers?" she says. No, of course you don't. "Oh, by the way, she's really allergic to wheat. Is that a problem?"

This is doable. A little advanced planning and a few day-of precautions can ensure that your party goes off without a hitch for both you and your guests, no matter their food allergies.

1. Make Contact

In the event that the allergic guest is a close friend, there's every chance that you're aware of his dietary needs and may have even gotten some help from him on coming up with suitable snacks. But in the friend-of-a-friend scenario above, it might be a lot more difficult for you to know what might be safe to provide. Give your mutual friend permission to pass along your phone number or e-mail so that the allergic guest can ask questions of you, or use your pal as a go-between to ask for suggestions that are safe.

2. Save Every Label

People with severe food allergies or celiac disease can't eat any food -- even if it's likely to be safe -- if there's the possibility that it could include an unsafe ingredient. So saving labels of any dips, dressings, chips, or ingredients for cooked dishes is a thoughtful gesture. It may even allow your allergic guest to enjoy some dishes she would have otherwise skipped.

3. Common-Sense Information

While you're generally under no obligation to go into great detail about what you're planning to serve at a party with a wide variety of snacks and drinks, or at a cocktail party with a wide variety of hors d'oeurves, it's common courtesy to let guests know if most of the food served at a party will be unsuitable for them. If you're planning a pizza party, for instance, guests with dairy or wheat allergies will want to know so they can eat in advance, leave when the food arrives or bring a little something for themselves.

4. Menu Changes

Are you under any obligation to change your menu for a guest with an allergy? Different people will have different opinions on this, and it does depend a little on the circumstances. (If you're inviting someone to a dinner party, you're taking on more of an obligation to feed them something suitable than if they're coming over to watch a football game, for example.) One thing I do suggest, however: because peanuts and mixed nuts spread their oils and dust so easily, don't have these items out if you're expecting a guest -- especially a child -- with peanut allergies or tree nut allergies.

5. Prevent Cross-Contamination

Cross-contamination can occur when an otherwise safe food touches a food containing an allergen. This can happen during cooking (on utensils, cutting boards, or serving dishes), at buffet tables, or if guests accidentally switch drinks. Making sure each dish on the serving table has its own serving utensil, keeping allergenic items separate (don't put fruit and cheese on the same plate if a guest has a dairy allergy), and having guests designate their cups with markers or wine charms can all help reduce the chances of an inadvertent reaction.

6. Simple Alternatives

Few people are comfortable with allergy-safe baking, especially given how difficult it can be to avoid cross-contamination on pans and baking dishes. Few people with severe allergies feel truly comfortable eating home-baked goods because of the potential for an inadvertent reaction. Yet at a birthday party, it's natural to want to fully include guests with allergies. What to do?

Consider buying a small allergy-friendly treat while making or buying the main cake as usual. A growing number of companies offer allergy-friendly cookies, ice cream, chocolates, and (in some cities) fresh allergen-free baked goods. Enjoy Life, Mi-Del, Pamela's, So Delicious, Tofutti, and Ener-G are among the brands available in supermarkets.

7. Don't Forget the Drinks

It's easy to overlook alcoholic beverages when you think about which foods might be problematic for your guests, but drinks can include significant allergens. Some conditions, such as histamine intolerance, may mean that your guests can't drink regardless of what you serve, but others (wheat or corn allergies, celiac disease) will allow your guests to drink certain beverages. See Alcohol Allergies and Intolerances for more information.

8. Take No Offense

While adults with food allergies generally feel comfortable navigating social situations, parents of severely allergic kids -- especially toddlers or preschoolers -- may forgo or only plan to stay a short time at parties where allergenic food is being served, no matter what precautions you offer to take. Please don't take it personally. Reactions can happen within minutes, and very young children (especially preverbal kids) are quite prone to putting things in their mouths. This goes doubly when they're around adults who may not know of or appreciate the severity of their allergies and who may feed them unsafe foods.

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