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. "When you think in terms of cooking for those with food allergies, you really get to the heart of what cooking is all about – creating meals using wholesome ingredients that you and your loved ones can truly enjoy together," says Jennifer Bruning, MS, RDN, LDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
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 Avoiding Food Allergens at Home
- Host at Your Home
Because you are in control of 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
Bruning points out that while cooking from scratch may seem like more work, it helps ensure food and prep areas are free from food allergens. "You might even find that you save time in the long run because you don't have to scour every ingredient list. There's only one ingredient in an apple, for instance. Scratch cooking may mean more chopping, peeling or blending of whole foods, but it's worth it in the end."
- Modify Traditional Recipes Using Allergen-Free Ingredients
"Once you have a few simple swaps under your belt, you’ll realize just how easy it is to modify your recipes," Bruning said. "Focus on 'like items' when considering swaps: non-dairy milks for cow's milk (or vice-versa), or naturally gluten-free grains for wheat. Eggs in recipes often can be substituted with ground, rehydrated flax or chia seeds."
- Always Read All Ingredient Labels
Even if you think a product is allergen-free, read the label. Food manufacturers change formulas, which may introduce allergens into previously "safe" products.
- Keep it Clean
Prevent cross-contamination by encouraging frequent hand washing.
3 Tips for Avoiding Food Allergens Away from Home
- Offer to Help the Host
If you help plan the menu or shop for ingredients, you can choose items you know are safe. If you cook, you can help ensure that dishes are 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. 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
"Be clear: if a host is unfamiliar with how to handle food allergies, they might fall victim to the 'a little bit won't hurt' mindset," Bruning said. "Tell them at the start that a little bit can hurt, and that you'd be more than happy to help with shopping or prep so that the host can feel comfortable and you can feel confident in the foods served. It's likely you're used to bringing allergy-friendly snacks along, and the holidays are no exception."