Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Holidays, food and allergies

It's that time of year again. The dreaded, *ahem* I mean Much Anticipated holidays. Complete with holiday parties, potlucks, cookie exchanges, and other winter celebrations.

Every one of them seem to involve food.

And again, support boards are filling with questions. They run along the lines of "I want to make this particular kind of recipe for my child's class/neighbor/church group. But, we have a very strict no (insert allergen list here) because so and so has a severe allergy. I really want to include so and so. Will this be safe?" Sometimes there are addendums about overprotective parents. Sometimes there are addendums about being knowledgeable because of personal experience. But it all boils down to the exact same firm answer.


First things first: Don't assume that someone is overprotective or overcautious. Only the intolerant individual (or their parents) really know the extent of their personal risk. And if you've ever seen an anaphylactic reaction, especially in a young child, you will do anything at all to prevent it. (From banning peanut butter to chopping down walnut orchards.) Worst case scenario in the case of anaphylactic allergies really is death. It may not be likely to happen, but it certainly spoils the holidays for the unlucky few. And for those who simply experience food "intolerances", shall we say that some believe in fates worse than death and leave it at that? Their holidays might not be much fun even if they DO survive buttered muffin tins.

The point I'm trying to make is that even if you do go the extra mile to ensure that your food offering is safe, accept the possibility that the recipient will still politely decline it. After all, they are the ones who will deal with any consequences.

The less severe the potential reaction is, the more likely a person is to risk "other people's food". Especially in classrooms. (everyone wants to feed kids sugary treats.) And the younger the kids, the more important the difference is.

Before going the extra mile, it's important to know how "allergic" the potential reactor is. There are 3 general levels of food avoiders. Level 1...Will break out in hives and need benedryl if someone opens a jar of peanut butter in the same building. (Okay, I'm exaggerating. A lot. But Level 1 has a severe allergy, and will not be allowed to eat your cookies no matter how safe you think your kitchen is. Mom will need to actually supervise any food prep. Bring fruit if you really want them to be safe, unless they're anaphylactic to it, too.) Level 2 has an allergy, may carry an epi, but can tolerate low levels of cross contamination. This means they might eat a box of crackers that carries the statement "Made in a facility that also processes: XYZ" but can't eat a cracker off the same platter that has cheese slices on it, even if the cheese slices aren't touching. Level 3 is the tricky gray area of intolerance and potential allergens. Usually these parents have been advised to avoid the offending foods for a variety of reasons, and left to decide how cautious they need to be. Some will make exceptions for special occasions and deal with the ensuing reactions. Others will be super vigilant. Most will permit food that doesn't contain the allergen (or obviously contain the allergen)

The best thing you can do is talk to the parent or the sufferer ahead of time. Ask what their comfort zone is, and see if you both are comfortable accomodating their needs. Of course, this isn't always feasible, and sometimes you get vague answers. Hopefully the vague answers will lead you to an approximate reaction level (1, 2 or 3) and you can proceed with the following in mind.

For a level 1 reactor, make sure to avoid their allergen in the actual food product, bring recipe or product labels just in case, but make your peace wit the fact that the kid in question probably will skip it. Your part is to avoid putting them in the hospital just by being in the same room.

For a level 2 reactor, start with safe ingredients (preferably from a new package, since it's easy to cross things like flour and sugar by using the same measuring cup) And make sure your tools are all doubly clean. Avoid wooden spoons, which have deep crevices that may not grow bacteria but certainly make good hiding places for allergenic substances. Keep all of the potential allergens covered and put away during the prep process. (In other words, don't let your husband scramble eggs while you're carefully preparing eggless cupcake mix. The chances of cross contamination are slight, but they disappear when the eggs stay in their shell.) Think out each step of the process. It won't do to grease the pans with an allergen after you've carefully avoided it. Consider decorations, too. Powdered sugar can have wheat or cornstarch. Sprinkles, chocolate chips, frosting...all have potential red flags. Bring ingredient lists with you. Cut them out or take a picture with your phone/digital camera just in case there are questions later.

For a level 3 can relax. Read ingredients. Bring labels if you can, and try to remember brand names. But don't gnaw your nails off worrying about the cup of milk your son was sipping as he watched you whip up those top 8 free brownies. Knowing your kitchen isn't allergy friendly, but that the brownies are (and having the ingredient list) is all the level 3 person needs to make a decision. (I wish we were all level 3's)

Of course, the best thing you can do for allergy families is take the focus off of food. Bring stickers, boxes of crayons, or junk jewelry. Or jump on the healthy food bandwagon and look for healthy alternatives. Fruit skewers, veggie platters, meat and cheese platters will all help to avoid the mystery ingredient issues and they lower everyone's stress levels. No one worries if veggie trays will crumble without the egg, if fruit skewers will taste wrong without real butter, or if the crackers will fall in the middle. There's also the benefit of having "real" food available. Most kids are too excited to eat before parties...but will happily devour anything that ends up on their plate and looks appealing. Even if it's healthy. And when you've had 4 other class parties in the past week, anything that isn't covered in frosting will appeal to all the parents.

Everyone wants their goodies to get rave reviews. Everyone wants to be "That Mom". They want to provide the eye popping experience, the awesome dish that gets raved about for weeks to come. But food really does add stress to the lives of allergy sufferers in ways that "normal" people can't imagine. Kids have to be trusted to have willpower beyond their ears. Adults have to walk a fine line between precaution and courtesy. And everyone wants to sit back and enjoy the holidays.

So if you really want to do something nice for someone with allergies...relax. Make your favorite signature dish, taking reasonable precautions. Give details of the ingredients in minute detail. (Even cooking spray has potential allergens) And then turn a blind eye to those who choose not to partake. They aren't trying to spite you. And they are just trying to enjoy the holidays as much as you.

Maybe it would help if we think of it this way. Allergy sufferers aren't just trying to avoid a nasty reaction. They're also protecting the baker from the guilt of causing one, and the other guests from witnessing it.

1 comment:

Connie said...

Thanks for this info. We made some yummy top 8 allergen free food for L's Thanksgiving feast, but since his classmate has what you describe as the type one kind of allergies, her family decided to skip the festivities alltogether. Which was unfortunate, but understandable. I'm still glad I stretched my cooking muscles!

His classmate's mom brought in new utensils when school started, does the food prep every Tuesday and Thursday and cleans every surface in the school at every opportunity. This is completely understandable and we all do our best to keep the risks of contamination low, but no one can truly understand unless you have to deal with it every day. What a tough role.