This post is from contributing writer Haley Stewart from Carrots for Michaelmas.
Food Allergies Are Isolating
Whatever the cause (or causes) may be, food allergies seem to be everywhere these days. If no one in your immediate family suffers from them, you probably know someone who does. When my oldest child was diagnosed with food allergies, it wasn’t the end of the world, but it changed our family’s eating habits, made dining out difficult, and complicated meals with other families.
Comparatively speaking, we’ve got it pretty easy. We just have to avoid gluten in order to avoid severe eczema and asthma attacks. But I have friends whose children are allergic to not only gluten, but dairy, soy, nuts, and tomatoes with reactions severe enough to land them in the hospital in order to avoid a tragedy. When talking to other families dealing with food allergies, I often hear….”It’s like our whole lives revolve around what we’ll eat.” It’s tough and what’s worse, it’s isolating.
Just think about how intimately human connection is tied to food. We break bread together when we celebrate any special event or milestone. And if you’ve ever been in the situation where everyone around you is eating, but for some reason you cannot join in….it’s a strange sensation. You are with everyone, but somehow looking in from the outside.
While we know that the rest of the world doesn’t revolve around our children’s food restrictions (and we’ll talk about how to be helpful and gracious guests in a minute), I cannot express to you how amazing it is to eat a meal that has been prepared with food allergies in mind.
To arrive at a birthday party and see that the host made gluten-free cupcakes so that my kids can eat them along with everyone else….it means so much. When we get together with friends for Sunday brunch and they made pancakes out of GF Bisquick and my kids get to devour them, that act of thoughtfulness says to them, “You matter. You’re important.” And their faces light up.
In college, one of our housemates suffered from fibromyalgia and her symptoms would flare up after eating certain foods. So if we were eating together as a house, we had to learn to cook in a way that would include her. And you know what? It was inconvenient. She couldn’t have onion or garlic, the typical beginning ingredients to all of our meals. She couldn’t have gluten or dairy. So most of our house meals consisted of various beans and rice and vegetable curries. We learned to make it work, because she was part of our community and it was one simple, practical way of loving her.
How to Love the Food Allergy Sufferers in Your Life
- Don’t be afraid to invite them over. They’re used to dealing with tricky food situations and can advise you. If their allergy is severe enough, bringing their own food may be the only option, but enjoying fellowship at your home will mean a lot.
- When you invite them over, just ask to be reminded about what their food allergies are.
- When you come up with your menu, if you’re anxious or unsure that the meal will match up with their food restrictions, just shoot an email with all the ingredients to make sure. They’ll appreciate it, promise.
- Never assume “a little” won’t hurt. For a severe food allergy, even a little can be devastating or even deadly. I’m not trying to freak you out, just remember that if someone says they are allergic to X ingredient, you have to believe that they know what they’re talking about.
- Instead of making your brain explode by trying out a bunch of new recipes with substitutions for all of the ingredients they are allergic to, simplify. Make an easy recipe with just a few ingredients that you know are safe. Don’t try to recreate a recipe that involves substituting.
- Try to stay away from anything out of a box (it’s just difficult to find allergy-friendly anything), but if you do use a processed food, keep the packaging so they can glance at the ingredient list to make sure it’s ok for them to eat. Sometimes ingredient lists can be sneaky and they’ll know what to look for.
- Don’t stress out. If you realize too late that you used butter in something and your guest is allergic to dairy, all is not lost. They are used to not being able to eat everything on the table, believe me. If there is even one dish they can enjoy, they will be grateful.
Ideas for Sides and Dishes That Are Often Allergy-Friendly
(Keep in mind there are many different kinds of allergies, these are just ideas to avoid some common ones.)
- A simple fruit salad
- Meat, veggies, and rice dishes
- Plain fruit/veggie trays
- Rice Krispie Treats
- Paleo cookies
- Spaghetti squash substituted for noodles
- Pulled-pork (but careful with any processed BBQ sauces)
- Roasted potatoes
- Simple Soups
- Beans and Rice
When you make the effort to cook for someone with food allergies, it’s inconvenient. It is a labor of love and it is SO appreciated.
On the Other Hand…
OK, let’s examine the flipside. As a guest with food allergies, you should do everything you can to make things easy on your host. They’re making the effort to accommodate you because they care about you, so be helpful and gracious.
First and foremost, you HAVE to tell them in advance about the food allergies in your family. They cannot read your mind. Cooking for food allergies is a skill that’s gained over time.
It might completely throw your host. And their anxiety or concern about cooking differently might mean that they simply can’t tackle it. That’s okay. It’s not because they don’t care about you, it’s because cooking for allergies is hard (you know that firsthand).
Come up with a plan that fits your circumstances when you’re invited over. Here’s what we usually say when we get a dinner invite:
“We would love to come over! Our kids can’t have gluten, but I know that’s tricky, so perhaps we could bring over a dish that’s safe for them so you won’t be inconvenienced?”
This gives our host an easy out if they are completely stressed out by having to cook a gluten-free meal. Sometimes a host takes us up on our offer. We just pack up a meal for our kids and enjoy an evening of good company. But if the host is a little more adventurous or familiar with cooking for allergies, they will often decline our offer to bring a dish and say, “nope! We have it covered! We were planning on making such-and-such with blah-blah-blah ingredients. Will that be safe for them?”
As our kids do not have mortally dangerous allergies, we have the luxury of just trusting our hosts that they have avoided the forbidden ingredients. However, if it were a life or death situation, I might navigate things differently and only let them eat food I’ve seen prepared or from friends who are VERY familiar with what they can and cannot eat.
Katie here – I have a list of tips to follow when starting a restrictive diet, especially when kids are involved!
But no matter the situation, I usually try to bring a side dish that I know my kids will be able to eat (and besides, I’m from the south and that’s just what we do).
Be sure to express your appreciation to the host for having you over and cooking for you, despite the difficulty and inconvenience. They will be pleased to know how much their efforts meant to your family.