There are few things more filled with love and community than sitting down to a giant holiday dinner or potluck with all your loved ones. But if your child or a loved one has a food allergy, a holiday that’s supposed to be about love and family suddenly takes on a far scarier note.
Depending on the allergy, exposure to the allergen can cause your loved one to be in pain or can even put them in the hospital.
I have celiac’s disease, which has greatly negatively impacted my ability to participate in meals cooked by other people. This has also had a negative impact on my mental health–often people with new allergen diagnoses are referred to a therapist to help them navigate the social isolation and severe anxiety that accompanies such diagnoses, and this is especially true for younger people who are diagnosed. It has also caused stress for my family, who want to be able to cook a meal that all of us can eat together, but don’t know how to do so safely.
But there are ways for you or your family members to learn about cooking for people with allergies, and to do so safely. Fortunately, protocols for many common allergens are very similar. Always double-check with your allergic loved one, but observing the following tips will start you in the right direction for preparing a meal that everyone can safely eat–without a nightmare trip to the ER after dinner. To make it easiest on yourself, skip to step 8!
Ask, ask, ask!
Whether your loved one has a peanut, shellfish, or soy allergy, always ask lots of questions before you begin cooking. There is no such thing as too many questions–your allergic loved one will undoubtedly feel reassured that you’re genuinely putting in effort to making this meal safe.
Questions to ask include level of allergen: is cross contamination okay, or an issue? (More on cross contamination below.) Type of allergen: if they say nuts, are they allergic to all nuts, or just tree nuts? Can they be in the same room as the allergen, or is airborne contamination an issue?
Cross contamination: what is it?
Cross contamination is when a food is technically allergen free, but it’s been exposed to the allergen inadvertently. If someone has a wheat allergy and you roll out croissant dough on your cutting board, casually wipe the board off when you’re done, and then chop veggies for a wheat-free veggie board, the veggies are definitely cross-contaminated: residual bits of wheat could have lingered on the board.
When purchasing food, you can see cross contamination in the food label where it says, “Processed in a facility that also processes wheat/nuts/other allergens.”
Some allergens aren’t sensitive to cross-contamination; some are; and some are triggered by the allergen just being in the same room.
Do your own research.
Google is your friend! If you’re cooking for a child who has a peanut allergy, google “how to cook for someone with a peanut allergy” and over 34 million results pop up. If you want to prepare a particular dish, research how to replace any allergen-containing ingredients with substitutes. If you want to purchase a meal, research which brands are safe.
For example, googling “gluten free dinner rolls” shows me that I could purchase BFree dinner rolls at Kroger or Udi’s rolls at Meijer or Kroger.
Purchasing ingredients: caution with naturally “allergen free” ingredients
Anyone who has a gluten, soy, or nut allergy will tell you that these allergens can live in anything. But even when purchasing naturally allergen-safe ingredients, caution is still necessary.
Vegetables, for example, are naturally nut free; but they could have been exposed to trace amounts of nuts when being shipped, displayed, or on the checkout conveyor belt, so scrubbing them when you get home is paramount.
When buying ingredients for your dish, check with your loved one if they have allergen-free brands they recommend. Dressings and pasta sauces often carry hidden gluten, for example, and it can be tough to figure out which ones are safe. Your allergic loved one has lots of experience in this area–ask them!
To determine yourself, google the name of the brand with the allergen you’re curious about: example, “ranch dressing gluten free”. This google search tells me that Hidden Valley has one Ranch that’s gluten free, and one that’s not.
In the United States, companies must state if their food contains peanuts, tree nuts, eggs, milk, wheat, soy, fish, and crustacean shellfish. However, cross contamination does not have to be labeled.
And sometimes allergens can be hidden in ingredient items such as “spices,” “natural flavors,” etc.
Prep before cooking: sanitize your space
When preparing to cook, everything is a danger in a shared kitchen. If your loved one’s allergy is airborne, it may not be possible to cook something safely in your kitchen. But for most allergies, including those sensitive to cross contamination, you can still cook safely for them.
- Designate a specific preparation area: you are more likely to be successful sanitizing a smaller, more contained space.
- Sanitize the counter and every utensil, plate, or cutting board you will use by scrubbing it three times: first with a regular (presumably contaminated) sponge, and then 2-3x with a brand new sponge. (You also have to sanitize your sink to make this cleaning process safe!) Although many allergens can’t be “killed” with soap or bleach, using these products can help loosen the allergen and ensure it comes off the surfaces.
- Make sure the kitchen you’re cooking with can be sanitized. There’s no way, for example, to safely de-gluten a pasta strainer that has been used on glutenous pasta. And most wood items (spoons, cutting boards) are porous and considered unable to be sanitized.
- Prep food only in the designated area. If you’re using the oven, cover your dish with aluminum foil so it’s not contaminated with allergens that may still be in the oven environment from previous meals.
- Ensure serving spoons and dishes are also sanitized, and keep this dish separate! All your hard work will go to waste if someone accidentally uses another dish’s spoon in your allergen-safe meal.
- Do the same sanitization process for your allergic one’s dish, utensils, and glass. Even better: let them watch you do it, to give them the peace of mind that their dish will be safe.
Let your allergic loved one serve themselves first
If the allergen does exist in other meals at the holiday table, cross contamination is a real worry during the course of the meal.
Anyone’s hands could end up contaminated, touch the serving spoons, and your allergic loved one could still get sick even while eating only their allergen safe meals. They should serve themselves first, so they know that their meal hasn’t been cross contaminated by anyone else on the table.
Make it easy on yourself: Purchasing allergen-labeled food is quite safe
Many foods can contain allergens and not list them. Saying, “This product was processed in a facility that also processes peanuts and wheat,” for example, is a voluntary disclosure. But the USDA and FDA have strict rules around claiming allergen safety. If a food is labeled “gluten free” by the FDA, it means it has been tested and is safe for most people with gluten allergies.*
The USDA also follows most of the FDA’s rules regarding their gluten free labeling. The same rules apply for other common allergens.
If you go this route, leave the allergen-safe food in its original packaging. I guarantee you that a separately packaged food item with a label they can read will be very anxiety-relieving to your allergic one. They’ll know that it’s safe.
*Something labeled “gluten free” can still contain up to 20 parts-per-million of gluten. Although this is usually low enough to be safe for celiac folk, double check with your loved one.
Cooking for allergies can be difficult, especially if you haven’t been exposed to the concerns of cross contamination and how allergens can truly hide in everything. But when it comes to sharing holidays together, ensuring everyone feels safe and is able to participate is worth it.
On behalf of your allergic loved ones, thank you for the care you’re taking in including them and making sure they’re safe.