Social Tips for Friends of the Food Allergic

Even when serving food allergy-friendly food, social events can be festive & fun.

Even when serving food allergy-friendly food, social events can be festive & fun.

Food allergies can be stressful for both the person diagnosed with them, and for the people around them. For many food allergic people, food is quite simply a stressor. We need to eat, we want to eat, we may even enjoy eating – but food poses a constant and real threat that is difficult to describe to people who do not have food allergies.

In this article I will attempt to provide useful information and tips to people who interact with those of us who have food allergies, so that you may navigate this difficult illness compassionately.

A brief word on food allergies

It’s important to start with a brief overview about food allergies.

First, food allergies are very real. Food allergies are a medical condition. In fact, for many people food allergies are quite literally a matter of life and death. Therefore, if someone tells you they have food allergies please take this information seriously.

Food allergies reside on a spectrum. On one end of the spectrum are food intolerances such as those to lactose, and on the other end are anaphylactic responses which include potentially life-threatening allergies to foods such as seafood and tree nuts. People can have multiple food allergies, and each allergy can reside at different points along the spectrum. For instance, I have Celiac Disease, which means that I have a very serious allergy to gluten, which resides closer to anaphylaxis than intolerance. While I do not have an immediate, anaphylactic response to gluten, I will fall ill quickly, and continued exposure to gluten puts me at an increased risk of diabetes, cancer and other life-threatening diseases.

For more information on food allergies, please visit the Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE) website.

Fears of the food allergic

Having food allergies makes one hyper-vigilant about every food and drink consumed. While most people can eat and drink anything they want, people with food allergies are constantly reading ingredients, watching how food is prepared and worrying about getting ill.  In addition to the most obvious fear of erroneously eating something to which we’re allergic, here are some of the other fears of food allergic folks.

Fear #1 –Cross-contamination:

One of the worst fears of the food allergic person is that their food has been cross-contaminated with an allergen. For example, cross-contamination may mean that their hamburger was prepared on the same grill used to heat up hamburger buns, and the gluten residue from the bun has contaminated the burger.

While this may not seem like a big deal to someone who doesn’t have food allergies, it’s a very serious risk and fear for those with them. Think for a moment about the methods used for preparing food at restaurants. In many cases, the food is cooked on a line, where the meal is essentially built piece by piece as it makes its way through the kitchen, and where any number of contaminants can come into contact with the meal.  In the case of gluten, bread crumbs can easily become airborne and end up in a meal quite by accident.  Or a well-meaning individual may add a condiment to the burger without realizing that it may contain an allergen.

Another form of cross-contamination occurs when even the most thorough cook inadvertently includes an allergen in a meal. This can happen at a restaurant or at the home of a friend. For instance, a lovely friend of mine invited us over for dinner, asked about my food allergies and then made a gourmet meal for us. I asked her about the ingredients several times, as I wanted to safely enjoy the beautiful meal that my friend had so graciously made. Thank goodness I did, because she had used margarine instead of butter, thinking she was keeping dairy out of the meal. However, the margarine she used contained trace amounts of casein, the protein in milk to which I am allergic, and it also contained soy, another allergen of mine.

Fear #2 – Social shunning:

Which brings me to our fear of social shunning, which is a fear that can bring us food allergic folks to our knees. [I may get a bit snarly and emotional in this section of the article, so please bear with me. ]

Social shunning is something that people with a variety of medical conditions endure every day, and it can manifest in innumerable ways. For those of us with food allergies, some of the more common examples of social shunning include:

  • Ignoring or minimizing our requests about how to prepare food (“The marinade only has a little soy in it, so I won’t put much on the meat.”;
  • Making fun of us for having food allergies, or commenting on how hard it must be (“Do you really have food allergies or are you just finicky?” or “You can’t eat dairy? No dairy at all? I think I would die if I couldn’t eat pizza.”;
  • Calling us out publicly for having food allergies (“Catherine’s here, everyone. Make sure you don’t spill you beer anywhere near her food. Ha ha ha.”).

Look, it’s my responsibility to make sure I have food I can eat; that responsibility doesn’t lie with anyone else. But it sure would be nice to feel like the high-maintenance medical condition that I have (and that I did not choose, by the way) is respected in social situations. If I had a broken leg, no one would expect me to run a marathon. But for some reason there always seems to be that one person at a party who insists I take a sip of their home-brewed beer or a bite of their award-winning cheesecake even though I have severe food allergies. It’s as if their own inability to understand or accept food restrictions has somehow offended them, like eating their cheesecake in spite of my limitations will make them feel less guilty for offering it in the first place. Stop the madness, people! I’m sure your cheesecake is exquisite and, in fact, I truly wish I could try it…but asking me “How allergic are you?” or “Really, you can’t even have one little sip?” is marginalizing. I came to this party because I want to be with friends, I want a fun night out…hell, I even brought a kick-ass guacamole to share…so please don’t make me feel badly about something I can’t control, and something that is difficult enough to live with on a daily basis. Okay?

Fear #3 – Not being able to eat:

The fear of not being able to eat can often go hand-in-hand with the fear of cross- contamination social shunning. Here’s an example:

Your company is having a sit-down dinner for select employees and customers. The event is semi-formal, the meal will be catered and the venue is an art museum. If you don’t have food allergies you’re probably thinking this sounds like a lovely night out. However, if you have food allergies all of your warning lights are flashing: this is not the kind of event where you can bring your own food, make a special order or have access to an alternate meal. No matter what you do in this setting, you will call attention to yourself, and this is the type of event where blending in is preferred. While you can certainly get your nutritional needs met by eating before or after the event, you’re still faced with what to do while everyone else is being served the catered, sit-down dinner.

Social tips for friends of the food allergic

As a general rule, I make an effort to alleviate my own fears and stresses about my food allergies by following some simple guidelines:

  • When possible, bring my own food and/or food I can eat myself and share with others
  • When dining out, call ahead and speak with the chef about making an alternate meal for me
  • Feed myself before or after a social event

But for those of you who would like to help your food allergic friends and family members, here are a few tips:

  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions. We would much rather you ask us 10 questions than go to the trouble of making a meal that we cannot eat, or that makes us ill. We love it when you call us ahead of time and talk through what you plan on making, and how to prepare the food so everyone can enjoy it.
  • Involve us. Invite your food allergic friend to bring a dish to share, and to bring serving utensils. Then, make sure the serving utensils are the only items used on that dish, and that they are not used anywhere else.
  • Plain (unseasoned, unmarinated, unsauced) versions of foods are usually a safe bet. For instance, plain chicken that is baked or grilled without any oil is likely to meet the needs of most food allergic people.
  • Create a salad bar rather than a tossed salad, so everyone can make the salad that appeals to them most.
  • Note that most people who have one food allergy have at least one other food allergy, and a food that is absent of one allergen isn’t necessarily absent of all. For instance, just because something is gluten-free doesn’t mean it is also free of other allergens.
  • Prepare foods carefully. For instance, slice tomatoes on a different board from where you recently sliced bread or cheese; toast gluten-free bread in the oven, not in a toaster where regular bread has been toasted or on a grill where meat is being cooked; place all sauces on the side, especially those that make contain an allergen.
  • Offer festive non-alcoholic beverages such as sparkling water.
  • Make menu cards that include an ingredient list for each item on the menu.
  • Lastly, have compassion. If you or someone you love had a food allergy, how would you want them to be treated? A little compassion goes a long way, and makes it possible for everyone to enjoy themselves socially.


Comments are closed.