With nearly 1 in 13 children under age 18 suffering from food allergies, birthday parties can pose problems. Many common food allergens — including milk, eggs, wheat, peanuts and tree nuts — lurk in store-bought cakes and other birthday treats. But hosting a food allergy-free birthday party may be easier than you think.
"With all of the communication methods that we have today, parents can easily plan with other parents attending the party how to create a celebration with food and drinks that every child can have," says Wesley Delbridge, RDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. "Reach out to the party's host if they have not brought up what food will be served at the party and see if you can bring items or give ideas to help create an environment that is inclusive to everyone."
Follow these five tips to host an allergy-friendly birthday bash that's fun — and safe — for everyone.
- Ask about Allergies
Ask parents to list all their children's food allergies when they RSVP. This is an easy way to start a dialogue with other parents about what foods to avoid serving. While the responsibility ultimately falls on the parents of the food-allergic child to broach the subject, no one wants a child to have a reaction. "Be very clear with other parents and the hosts about what your child can or cannot have," Delbridge suggests. "This is a great time to educate other parents on cross-contamination, how to read labels and how to know what ingredients to look out for."
- Favor Non-Food Prizes
Avoid guesswork about allergens by giving out non-food goodies such as small toys, books, trading cards, bubbles or glow sticks. Besides being free of allergens, non-food treats also are free of added sugars, which likely are already being served in the birthday cake and other party sweets.
- Manage the Meds
For drop-off parties, talk to parents of kids with food allergies to ensure they'll bring an action plan and medications. Ask parents how comfortable their child is with administering epinephrine. Then, on the day of the party, ask the parent or child where the medication can be found in case of emergency.
- Accept Help
If parents of children with food allergies offer to bring a safe snack or treat to share, accept it graciously. And, don't be afraid to ask for help or consider inviting parents of children with food allergies to ensure their safety.
- Keep Foods Safe
To prevent cross-contamination, follow these simple rules: Keep "safe" foods safe by storing them in a separate, clean area away from foods with allergens. Use separate dish cloths and utensils for "safe" and "unsafe" foods. And insist that all guests wash their hands before and after handling and eating anything.
Other ways to keep food allergies in mind at a birthday party include serving whole foods such as fruits and vegetables and researching brands that are safe for attendees with food allergies. "The more you educate, the more parents will understand the challenges that can come with following a special diet for a child," says Delbridge. "Friendships and community involvement are key to creating a fun environment at birthday parties where kids can eat safely and parents can relax knowing their child is safe."