It’s that time of the year when invites come from far and near to attend this reunion and that picnic, not to mention all those church potlucks! Of course, all of these events include food! Right? Various dishes will be served and passed around like it’s Christmas and that sounds like a lot of delicious fun! However, for someone with dietary restrictions, attending summer gatherings can sometimes (if not usually) induce a surging sense of fear. The reality for potential cross contamination, accidental ingestion of an allergen or even the social anxiety of having to explain to Aunt May why you or your child can’t have a bite of her famous macaroni salad is tremendous and paralyzing. The struggle is real and, as a family who has been managing situations like this for nearly two decades, we know the battle of food allergies at summer gatherings all too well.
This post is not a sponsored post, but does contain affiliate links. Please see my Disclosure policy for more information.
Food Allergies and Summer Gatherings
I can take our story back to the early 2000s when our oldest, who is now a young man and pretty much out on his own, was diagnosed with multiple food allergies. He was allergic to eggs, wheat, peanut and milk and his reaction was more skin related, though pretty significant. Fortunately, he grew out of his food allergies and is now able to eat pretty much anything without consequence these days.
Our youngest, however, has been dealing with anaphylactic reactions to various foods since infancy. Yes, THAT long! Sadly, he has experienced a handful of full-blown anaphylactic episodes over the course of his young life. In fact, his allergies have even had contact and airborne components in the past.
Now, THAT is scary stuff!
When each of them received their diagnosis, Hubby and I were initially devastated. We knew that life would look very differently for us in the kitchen and beyond and it was disheartening, frightening and depressing. Vacations, family gatherings, neighborhood picnics, etc ~ they would all have to be done with meticulous planning involved.
Boy, did that initially feel impossible!
I can’t tell you the number of times I cried my eyes out while researching venues and planning out menus. I worried about what to bring, how to protect our son, would anyone understand…and whether or not it was even right or safe to attend ~ ANYTHING! There have been many events we had to decline because the situation and environment were just not safe enough for our little guy.
Sad times….sad times.
We learned a few things along the way
We’ve had some time to get used to this and, over the years, have learned a thing or two. With due diligence and careful attention, we found ways to get ourselves out of the house to enjoy that party, that gathering and that event. We learned how to prepare and be creative, ultimately realizing that we didn’t have to keep ourselves locked up and away from people just because food allergies were a constant in our lives.
We learned to make life work for us.
When the invite first arrives
Whether it’s by email, snail mail or some social media platform, the wheels begin turning as soon as I receive that formal invitation. Now, years ago, I would be stricken with fear and admit that I would try to find a creative way to turn it down. I didn’t want to put the host in the awkward position of having to police everything and ensure certain “allergens” weren’t there.
That’ was a little unrealistic.
I also feared having to explain to everyone in attendance why we were being so hyper-vigilant about food with our son. Oh ~ I can see the stares now. I can even hear the whispers, “She’s one of THOSE moms ~ the helicopter mom who thinks her kid is too good for some foods.”
Ya know what? So what ~ if that were truly the case (which it wasn’t).
Now, if we really wanted our family to attend the event and I was feeling brave, I would feverishly try to find ways to approach the topic with the host so that we could come up with reasonable accommodations for our particular and (what used to be) tedious “health” situation.
Honestly, that was just as intimidating as the earlier scenario.
In time, however, we simply reached a point where we realized that WE were our son’s best chance at surviving the event. WE had to make the hard decisions and come up with the well-devised plans if we were going to be social again. Hubby and I came up with a strategy between the two of us that would allow us both the freedom of socializing, while the other is eyes fixated on our son’s immediate well-being.
People – THAT IS HARD!!!!
For younger ones with food allergies, they can disappear out of your visual range within seconds, so it is important to watch the littles like a hawk! You have to make sure Uncle Albert isn’t giving away a piece of his pecan pie and your little one blindly accepting!!
As they get older and are able to understand their situation, however, other steps can be taken and they become more responsible for their own well-being.
This is the stage we are experiencing as I write this piece.
Nine Tips on How To Manage Food Allergies at Gatherings
So – how did we get to where we are and what do we do now that our son is now a teenager? Well, communication is key!! Whether it’s talking to the person who is hosting the event or our son, we need to make sure that his health situation is effectively understood by those involved.
How We Prepare
Once we decide to attend and formally accept the invite, it’s time to start planning the intimate and intricate details.
1 – Contact the host to see what accommodations can be made.
I try to see what provisions can be made and if he/she is planning on having any foods lying around that are potentially dangerous for our son. For instance, will there be peanuts in candy dishes? If so, would she be willing to eliminate those and/or substitute them for something safer?
2 – Find out what is being served so that you can create your own menu for your child that may parallel.
If it’s possible, I find out what may be on the menu or what may be being served. Some hosts plan things out well enough that they know what they want everyone to bring. Someone brings a salad, another the dessert. Another person is responsible for bringing the chips or breads.
What does knowing this do for a food allergy family? It allows me to create a menu that can parallel what is being served. That way, my son doesn’t feel left out or as if he is missing something he would have really enjoyed. (see the story below)
3 – A week before (if you have that luxury), make sure you have enough wipes, epinephrine auto-injectors are up to date, gloves are in the backpack (travel bag, medical bag, etc) and you know where the nearest emergency facility is located near the venue or home.
Our son has a black backpack that is literally a part of his daily attire. Inside that bag, we have everything we think he may need in case of an emergency.
- epinehrine auto-injectors
- antihistamine tablets
- gloves in case of contact concerns
- wet ones for surface cleaning
- baby wipes for hands
- an information sheet that details his allergies and my immediate contact information.
It’s important to make sure that this bag is checked regularly so that there are no surprises in the event of an emergency.
NOTE: Your bag may have more or less depending upon your medical situation.
4 – The day before, begin prepping any food that can be made ahead of time.
We were going to a family event where pulled pork was the main course. Our son LOVES pulled pork and did NOT want to miss out on this. So, I went ahead and made some the day before. I threw some pork shoulder in the crock-pot, added some cola to help break it down (my brother-in-law gave me this tip!), seasoned it and let it cook on low for about eight hours. Once done, I had Hubby shred it for me and we let it cool down before putting it in the fridge overnight. The next morning, I threw it back into the crock pot with some of my son’s favorite barbecue sauce.
Once it was heated through, we put it into a travel thermos that would keep it warm for him until it was time for him to eat it. I also made sure to bring buns so he can have open faced or fully closed sandwiches.
5 – Be sure all ice packs are being frozen in the freezer.
Oh, please remember this!!! There have been times my sons have forgotten to place the ice packs back in the freezer and we had none to use for an event. I don’t like using ice cubes – it’s a personal thing, so ice packs are life for me. You want ice packs so that you keep epinephrine cool and refrigerated foods fresh.
6 – On the morning of the event, begin packing necessary foods that you will be bringing.
Leave foods that need to remain cold in the refrigerator until the last ten to fifteen minutes prior to departure. Cooked foods should be prepped close to leaving and then placed in a heat-insulated thermos. We absolutely love our thermos!!!
Don’t forget to take these into consideration: condiments, breads, plastic ware, napkins, sides and desserts (to name just a few things).
Pack everything designated for your child with food allergies in one or two coolers (in case you have hot AND cold items). Don’t forget to add the cold packs to the coolers that will be holding the refrigerated items.
When You Arrive
Now you’re sitting in your car, getting ready to unpack the goods and present yourselves as a family to the masses. Your heart is telling you that there a few more blocks to check before leaving your vehicle.
Yup – there sure are!
7 – Once you arrive, have a final chat with your child (and family) if he/she is old enough to understand the situation.
Remember I said that COMMUNICATION IS KEY!! Remind your child of the significance and severity of the situation (in a loving, non-frightening tone, please and thanks) and the why behind their needing to be overly cautious and careful. For my son, he knows to never eat anything from a bag that has been opened or anything someone wants to offer him. He can only eat what we brought and only what we have approved (for instance, being the first one to take from a bag that was opened by him, me or his father ~ after reading the ingredient label, of course).
8 – Once “at” the party, it is important to remind the host of your child’s food allergies, so that they are just aware of the situation.
I know, for me as a host, I still like to make sure that my guests are as safe as possible ~ even if not my child.
9 – Do not be afraid to tell someone “no.” Your child’s life may very well depend upon it.
If they don’t get it ~ that’s their problem, not yours. Your child is far more important and his/her life is more precious than their bruised egos. However, please try to communicate it with respect and kindness. There is no reason to be rude or nasty about it. You simply need to stand strong with a smile on your face.
So – let’s talk about that a little more…
The family members that just do not get it
This is all too real and we’ve had to manage family situations many, many a time. It gets old and it gets frustrating. When our oldest was a toddler and struggling with allergies to eggs, wheat, peanut and milk, we could not get family members to understand why they could not give him a bite of their ice cream or serve him something on bread. We were ridiculed, judged and criticized. Now, granted ~ food allergies were not as well known or prevalent in the early 2000s. However, it was still a real medical condition and we wish they had trusted us more.
Fortunately, our oldest never suffered terrible consequences.
The youngest, on the other hand, required us to be more diligent and adamant. He went anaphylactic on his very first birthday with the smallest ingestion of scrambled egg ~ out in public, too!! His allergies and reactions were more severe, more intense. We HAD to stand up for him with greater determination.
Ultimately, we had to learn not to care what family thought.
Our son’s life meant more to us than any criticism, judgement call or insult that was hurled.
For example: A family member of mine passed away and we were gathered at another family member’s house the morning after the funeral. As my goal is not to single out my family members, I’m just going to say this family member was making scrambled eggs in the kitchen. At the time, our youngest had an airborne component to his allergies ~ not to mention he was only 18 months old at the time. He was completely unable to protect himself.
We mentioned this to the said family member, who proceeded to lack empathy and continue doing what he was doing. He then gave scrambled egg to his own toddler who went walking around the house with it smeared all over her face.
At that point, I had to make an unpopular decision. We were leaving. Bags packed, time to go.
It happens – it’s sad, but ~ yeah ~ it happens.
PS – We have not seen that part of the family in person since that event.
What to do in case of a reaction
So, I’m going to start off this section by stating the obvious. I am not a medical professional, nor do I play one on TV (had to say that). I’m just a mom who has been managing life with a child who has had food allergies pretty much since birth (he’s a teenager now). I think I’ve learned a thing or two (but will never claim to know everything). That being said, we also know that it would be irresponsible for us to believe that our practice is iron-clad. Things happen and allergens find their way into situations from time to time. It is never wise to let your guard down, though the routine does get easier to carry out.
Let’s say any one of these scenarios occurs:
- Child tests the limits and ingests an allergen.
- Someone gives your child something when you are not looking (it’s impossible to keep an eye on them every single second).
- Cross contamination happens.
- Someone touches them with an allergen on their hands and it causes a reaction.
First and foremost – stop what you’re doing ~ and breathe! If you’re not breathing, you will not be able to help your child.
From there, here’s the plan of attack we have in place:
- Get the food containing the allergen out of the mouth, if still there.
- If our son is experiencing any combination of reactions (hives, swelling, breathing difficulties, vomiting), WE WILL ADMINISTER EPI!!!! Do not be afraid to do this if only one of these reactions is occurring. You never know what is going on inside the body where you can’t see the affect the allergen may be having.
- Call 911 so that further proper medical attention can be administered . You just gave the child a shot of a controlled substance.
- We would also give our son the antihistamine we have on hand. Epinephrine is pretty much just adrenaline.
- I’ve heard that some will induce vomiting to get the allergen out. We haven’t had to do this because our son usually throws up anyway with a reaction.
Don’t think the reaction is epi-worthy?
If the allergy or reaction is not that severe, some parents will just give an antihistamine, wash the child’s hands and face and then proceed to watch very closely (possibly for a few hours). We’ve done this with contact and airborne reactions (versus ingestion) and have been okay. However, you have to know your own situation and not be afraid to administer epinephrine.
The point I’m trying to make is that you need to be prepared to take action one way or another. At the least, have epi and an antihistamine on hand at all times. Wipe down the contaminated body parts (mouth, hands, face). Monitor and be ready to call 911.
Enjoy the Festivities
There will be events you do not feel comfortable attending. There will be times when you will have to “adult” and leave a party because it’s not safe enough for your child. That’s okay. It really is. There is no shame in having to walk away because an environment is not optimal for your child’s medical conditions.
However, my reason for writing this piece was because it literally took years for us to feel comfortable with attending social gatherings. If, by chance, I can change that for someone by providing just a few tips on how to potentially manage situations like this, then I’ve done the job I set out to do. Please remember, however, that YOU are ultimately responsible for the decisions made with regard to food allergy travel, dining and management. We all know that food allergy situations differ among the members of our community, so my best advice is to stay well-informed, be discerning and always aim to be safe!!!
BONUS!!! More alternative food ideas
Here’s a salad idea….
Macaroni, pasta and potato salad are popular sides at summer gatherings. However, our son is allergic eggs, so having whatever is served at a picnic or gathering is likely going to be out of the question. Because – well, mayo.
I found a great way to make salads so he can enjoy them, too. Now – this is not a sponsored post. I just want to clarify that right off the bat. However, I am sooo grateful that Wishbone has made a Ranch dressing that does not contain egg**!! My son LIVES on this stuff. He is all about the Ranch and BBQ sauce combination. If he is looking for more of an Italian dish, we use Italian dressing with spiral pasta and various add-ins.
Oh- let’s talk burgers for a second!!!
It’s hard to deny a growing boy his big, juicy hamburger, right? Well, as long as red meat is not on the allergy list. I prep our son’s burgers ahead of time (special mama seasonings and everything), wrap each individually in foil and keep it refrigerated until it’s time to grill or leave for a gathering.
When it’s time to throw it on the grill, we try to place it on a clean part of the grill. The tongs or spatula should only touch the outside foil (if the foil rips, yeah – that’s an issue. Try not to do that). When the burger is done, place the foiled burger on an uncontaminated plate and open carefully with clean fingers or forks. Take a clean fork and transfer the burger from the inside of the foil directly onto the plate or hamburger bun.
Voila! Safe and ready to go!
Chips? That’s easy!! We either bring our own bags or request that he have the very first serving from a freshly opened bag.
Beverages? We bring our son individual bottles of soda. When we shop, we purchase a six pack and use those for events just like this. That way there is no question as to what may have touched the beverage containers at the party.
Sending you a food allergy mama bear hug and praying that all your summer activities are fun, enjoyable and food allergy-safe!
**always double check labels in case of ingredient changes or changes in manufacturing practices
To read more about Food Allergy Travel, check out these posts!
To read more about Food Allergy Dining at Walt Disney World, check out THESE posts (just to name a few)!