When he was just shy of 3 years old, Alexander Prodan took a small bite of a cracker left out at their family’s Thanksgiving celebration.
Knowing he was severely allergic to even the smallest trace of sesame seeds, his mother, Kim, urgently asked him to spit out the bite.
Despite her quick thinking, that exposure was enough to cause Alex’s throat to close up. She rushed her child to the emergency department just as their extended family arrived for dinner.
This experience — and a few other scares throughout the years — has put Kim on alert when Alex is exposed to foods that have been prepared by others.
But that caution, she notes, makes it even more meaningful when family and friends make an effort to accommodate her son’s dietary needs.
Kim and a Michigan Medicine food allergy expert offered simple advice for hosts:
How to serve allergy-friendly meals
Plan ahead: If you don’t have experience with food allergies, chances are you’re unaware of the many precautions and steps needed to prepare an allergy-friendly meal.
It’s important to call your guest ahead of time to learn his or her specific needs — and make sure you’re up to the task. Understand the severity of the guest’s allergy; even a trace amount of an allergen can cause a reaction.
For Kim, this also gives her an opportunity to ask the host if she can drop off any needed ingredients in advance.
“Alex’s grandmother occasionally can’t find vegan butter or nondairy cream at her local store, so I ask if I can drop it off ahead of time,” she says. This ensures Alex, now 9, gets to enjoy his grandma’s best dishes alongside his family.
Understand the rules of safe food preparation: When you prepare a feast for a large gathering, you’re probably cooking multiple dishes simultaneously in the same kitchen. That’s often a recipe for trouble.
“All it takes is a trace amount of an allergen to trigger an allergic reaction for many people,” says Nancy Polmear-Swendris, M.S., R.N., clinical care coordinator and Food Allergy Clinic program coordinator at Michigan Medicine.
“So even a spoon dipped in a dish with an allergen and then used for the food-allergic person can lead to a potentially life-threatening reaction.”
Guests with food allergies should share these tips with their hosts ahead of time:
Thoroughly clean all surfaces and cooking tools (a dishwasher is best) before cooking, as the allergen may be in your kitchen from previous use.
Use separate or thoroughly washed utensils to cook allergy-friendly dishes.
Cook allergy-friendly dishes first; label and clean all surfaces and utensils after doing so.
Wash your hands before and after coming into contact with the allergen.
Keep foods covered to avoid cross-contamination through splatter.
When storing foods in the refrigerator, keep allergen-free foods on the top shelf.
Label dishes and clearly mark those that are not allergy-friendly. This is especially helpful for children with allergies.
Use separate labeled serving utensils for each dish.
Set allergy-friendly dishes in a separate area.
Invite your guest to bring his or her own food: Though it requires extra effort for the guest, this is often the safest route. One downside is that it can be isolating to be unable to enjoy the same foods as everyone else.
For years, this meant Kim prepared allergy-friendly versions of all the dishes being served at celebrations outside of their home. “I never wanted Alex to feel like he wasn’t able to enjoy the same things as the rest of the family,” she says.
Use alternative or allergy-free products: Many quality allergen-free products (such as special pastas, baking mixes and egg substitutes) have been introduced in the past decade. Often, you can prepare standard dishes using these ingredients.
“Instead of cooking special dishes just for Alex, we instead look for ways to use these allergy-free products to make the classic dishes everyone looks forward to at this time of the year,” says Kim.
Purchase premade dishes: Many bakeries and specialty stores offer allergy-friendly, ready-made dishes.
The Prodan family has found a gluten- and dairy-free pumpkin pie at a local bakery that all agree is the best they’ve ever had. It has become a staple at their Thanksgiving dessert table.
Involve your guest in planning and cooking: Many families with food allergies are fearful to try new dishes or eat outside of their homes.
If they are part of the planning and preparation, they may feel that the food is safer. Working collaboratively also gives you a chance to learn about allergy-friendly cooking.