March is National Nutrition Month, when the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics reminds everyone to return to the basics of healthy eating. It is also the time of year when the Academy celebrates expertise of registered dietitian nutritionists as the food and nutrition experts.
Winter holidays bring cheer and abundant festive eating. While common food allergens lurk in many traditional Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas and Kwanzaa dishes, a little preparation and planning can help you — whether you're a parent of a child with food allergies or hosting guests with food allergies — glide through the holidays safely.
In fact, cooking with food allergies in mind can encourage healthful habits. "It forces you to make more things from scratch to prevent allergen exposure in processed and packaged foods," says registered dietitian nutritionist Kristi Winkels, RDN, LD.
Whether you're eating close to home or traveling to grandma's house, these eight tips will help you feed your child with food allergies safely and more nutritiously this holiday season.
5 Tips for Keeping Safe at Home
- Host at Your Home
Because you are in control what is served, this is the safest option. You can prepare only "safe" foods and let guests know what they can and cannot bring into the house. If you do serve foods containing allergens, designate separate areas where the allergen is allowed to help prevent cross-contamination.
- Focus on Whole, Unprocessed Foods
"Keeping it simple is best," says Winkels. "Allergen-friendly alternatives can be used to make many of our holiday favorites healthier." Swap complicated casseroles and packaged foods for simply prepared whole foods such as roasted vegetables with olive oil and herbs, whole-grain rice pilaf with beans and seeds, fresh fruit salads and lean proteins that have not been marinated or brined.
- Modify Traditional Recipes Using Allergen-Free Ingredients
"Many holiday treats can be made without common allergens by using healthy substitutes," says Winkels. "Swap in whole-grain, gluten-free flours for wheat; ground flaxseeds or applesauce in place of regular eggs; sunflower butter in place of peanut butter. These are all easy swaps that will yield similar results." You can also sub in non-dairy beverages in place of cow's milk.
- Always Read All Ingredient Labels
Even if you think a product is allergen-free, read the label again. Food manufacturers change formulas, which may introduce allergens into previously "safe" products.
- Keep it Clean
Prevent cross-contamination by encouraging frequent hand washing and placing hand wipes in several places throughout your home.
3 Tips for Staying Safe Away from Home
- Offer to Help the Host
If you help plan the menu or shop, you can choose items you know are safe for your child. If you cook, you can help ensure that dishes are simply prepared without allergens. And, don't hesitate to ask your host to keep labels from products to provide you peace of mind.
- Bring Snacks and Desserts
If helping ahead of time is out of the question, bring a few allergen-free options for your child. Bring allergen-free snacks and desserts, since baked goods tend to be the biggest culprit in food allergy reactions. Pack snacks such as fresh fruit with sunflower butter packets; carrots with hummus; popcorn; and homemade trail mix with cereal, seeds and chocolate chips. For easy festive desserts, melt chocolate chips as a dip for dried apricots or allergen-free cookies, or bake apples sprinkled with cinnamon and brown sugar and topped with allergen-free whipped topping.
- Communication is Key
Holiday gatherings are good opportunities to remind family, friends and others about your child's needs. When eating at parties or in restaurants, let your host or server know about your child's allergies. "Be sure to specify the allergens your child must avoid so your host or server can help guide you," says Winkels. "And, always pack a few snacks in case there are no safe options."