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How to Safely Enjoy a Cookout with Food Allergies

Food allergy safety tips for barbeques and picnics


Updated May 23, 2012

grilled meat

Grills are a major source of food allergy cross-contamination.

Roy Mehta/Getty Images

End-of-school picnics, backyard barbeques, and holiday-weekend cookouts should be enjoyable, relaxing events. Unfortunately, they can be causes of anxiety for people managing food allergies. Grills can be a source of cross-contamination. Cookouts tend to have lots of food lying around that young children can get into.

Over the years, I have discovered strategies for navigating cookouts and big picnics. They are once again enjoyable events for me. Here is how I manage food allergies at cookouts at home or as a guest. Please share your own tips as well!

Allergy Safe Cookouts as a Guest

I try to bring a cooler full of food whenever attending a cookout or picnic because sometimes a lunch event can stretch into the evening. I usually go home with an empty cooler – just because our food is allergy-friendly does not mean that it is tasteless or unappealing. People without allergies often comment that our food is extra tasty, probably because almost everything is homemade with fresh, unprocessed ingredients.

What I pack when attending a cookout hosted by someone else:

  1. Safe hot dogs, chicken, or sausages wrapped in an aluminum foil packet and sealed. The entire packet should be able to be lifted and turned over without leaking. Sometimes I bring my own tongs, but as long as the food is well-wrapped in heavy foil, I feel it can be safely handled by the tongs used for the rest of the grill. (I have not had much success with grilling a hamburger or veggie burger wrapped in foil. They to burn and stick.)
  2. Homemade, safe hot dog buns.
  3. Single-serving packages of safe chips.
  4. My own salad dressing and any other condiments I think I will use.
  5. Fresh fruit, carrot sticks, salad, and other healthy items that I know my child will not eat at the picnic, but that I feel compelled to pack anyway.
  6. At least one dish to pass that I know is safe for my family, and a serving utensil. Because not everyone is as allergy-aware as we would like, serve yourself or your children first before anyone has the chance to stick another utensil into your salad or cake, causing cross-contamination with food allergens.
  7. A bottle of water. It is amazing how many picnics I have attended at which there is no water to drink – the only options being beer, lemonade or soda. If you are allergic to food additives, fruit, or wheat, bring your own drinks to make sure there is something you will be able to drink.
  8. Several safe desserts. Let’s face it. Parties of all kinds tend to be heavy on the sweets and picnics are no exception. One safe cookie can leave my child feeling deprived, as she watches the other children pig out on a dessert buffet, so I try to pack at least two special dessert items.
  9. Wet wipes. If the picnic is going to be in a park, away from a source of soap and water, wet wipes can substitute for hand washing after eating. Wet wipes have been shown to be effective at removing even sticky peanut protein.
  10. Emergency first-aid kit. I always bring my child’s epinephrine auto-injector, antihistamine, and bandages that I know she is not allergic to. I also bring a cell phone and check to make sure there is service if I am in a remote area.
  11. Safe sunscreen and bug spray. Many sunscreens contain soy or nut oils, which are common food allergens and may cause a reaction even in those who do not usually have contact reactions when rubbed into large areas of skin. Other people may be allergic to the chemicals that make up most sunscreens.

Allergy-Safe Cookouts at Home

If I am hosting a cookout, I try to balance having control over the food and making guests who want to bring food feel welcome and appreciated.

  1. I ask guests who want to bring something to bring either a side dish or a beverage. This way I have control over what goes on our grill, which I do not want contaminated with allergens. If someone does bring something of their own to grill, I wrap it in foil.
  2. Before the party, I ask guests for information about their own dietary needs. Since we are used to cooking for multiple food allergies, providing a meal for a vegetarian seems fairly easy in comparison. There are some diets that we do have a hard time accommodating, however, and I try to be upfront about that so that guests can decide if they want to eat from our kitchen or bring food from home.
  3. When I set out a buffet with side dishes and condiments, I place little cards next to each food with a list of ingredients.
  4. I make sure that each item of food has its own serving utensil, so that guests are not dipping a spoon into more than one item, causing cross-contamination.
  5. Once again, I try to make sure that guests with allergies are served first. Even the best attempts to keep a buffet clean and each food item separate are only attempts.
  6. I make sure there are lot of desserts that everyone can eat. I don’t want anyone to go home feeling deprived.

What do you do to make cookouts and picnics safe? Please share any strategies you use!

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