Food Allergy Etiquette for Thanksgiving and Holiday Parties

by Gina Clowes Patient Advocate

Thanksgiving and other food-focused celebrations can be a challenge for those with food allergies and special dietary needs.
Most dishes are made from scratch by cooks who don't have to think about allergens or cross-contamination on a daily basis.

Unfortunately, there is no rule book or etiquette guide to help us through these occasions so I've prepared a few tips that have helped my family navigate holiday meals with relative ease.

When You're the Host:
lan Ahead

Start with a list of everything you plan to serve including drinks, appetizers, and desserts.
Decide if the entire meal will be safe for your child or whether you'll serve some foods that are not. We've done it both ways, but for the past few years, I serve an entire Thanksgiving meal that is free of milk, wheat, eggs, peanuts and tree nuts.
And although Martha Stewart has not called for any of my recipes (yet) , we are much more relaxed during our meal knowing that everything is safe for our son.

Have a Safe Start
If you do decide to serve foods that are not safe for your child, I'd still recommend that you begin and end with foods that are safe. Veggies with safe dip and fruit kabobs (safe fruits cut, dipped in orange juice and then skewered) can be prepared ahead of time and are safe for a variety of special diets.
The added bonus is that you won't have to keep an eye on what your child is eating while you're preparing the meal.

Happy Endings Desserts often contain allergens or at least traces of them,
so you'll want to make sure that you prepare at least one special "safe" dessert.

I usually plan this part with my son so that I am sure that he is ending the meal with a treat that he enjoys.

Keep an Eye Peeled
If you are serving foods that contain your child's allergens, make it clear to well-meaning relatives that only you will serve your child. Grandma or Aunt Tracy may decide to give your child gravy, not realizing that you have a gluten-free version set aside for your little one.

Help Wanted
No one likes to come to Thanksgiving dinner empty handed so have a list ready of things you need. Do you have relatives or friends whom you can trust to prepare a safe side dish? Terrific. If not, don't feel shy about asking for wine, soft drinks, fruit, paper products, or perhaps some safe, prepackaged snacks.

Self Serve

Traces of allergens on utensils have caused severe and even fatal allergic reactions. Allow your guests with special dietary needs to serve themselves first at the buffet with clean utensils before there is any chance of the dishes becoming cross contaminated. You might also allow your guest to prepare their plate in the kitchen if they prefer, and you can offer to set aside some safe "seconds" for him or her.

Be the Change
Ask about other guest's special dietary needs. Let your guest know exactly what you plan to serve and stick to it. If you do make changes to your menu, let your guest know so that he can plan accordingly. Whenever possible, save labels and recipe cards and serve sauces and dressings on the side.

Point out foods that you believe will be safe and share all of the ingredients, including spices. Don't be offended if your guest refuses to try something you've prepared, even if you believe the dish would be safe for them. Better for them to feel safe and relaxed even if it means limiting the number of foods they can share.

When You're the Guest:
ell It Like It Is

Let your hostess know that your child has food allergies. Ask about the menu and offer to bring a "safe" dish to share that will compliment the menu. If there are little things that your host can easily do to accommodate your child, let her know. For example, if she serves salad dressing on the side, you may only need to provide a "safe" dressing.

BYOF:** Bring Your Own Food**
If need be, bring along a safe plate for your child. I highly recommend this for multiple food allergies. On several occasions, we have visited relatives who have promised a "safe" dish only to find out that they'd added a spice or ingredient that left the whole dish off limits for my son.

This may mean that you are roasting a turkey breast and making your own safe stuffing and mashed potatoes at home as well.
If that's the case, accept it and move on.
You may have a refrigerator full of leftovers on Friday, but you'll rest assured that your child will eat safely on Thanksgiving.

BYOD: Bring Your Own Dessert
Even if your child has "only" a peanut or nut allergy and you're certain that he or she can consume dinner safely, desserts are a high risk food category with the majority of severe reactions coming from this food category. You can almost never have too many desserts so bring along a safe one to share.

Mums the Word There are many opportunities to enlighten others about food allergies, but in my experience, most children do not like to discuss their food allergies or special food need on occasions like these. Gently let your friends and relatives know that there is no need to fuss over your child's special meal nor do they need to pity the child. Most kids just want to fit in.

_In Either Case:t's Not About the Food
Make the holiday about more than just food. Start a tradition of playing cards or board games, talking a long fall walk, watching family movies or looking at old family photos. My family has a tradition of going around the table and having each person share one thing that he/she is grateful for.
It's a simple way to get in touch with what's inside each person's heart and reminds us to give thanks for all the good in our lives.

Gina Clowes
Meet Our Writer
Gina Clowes

Gina is a life coach, speaker, author, and advocate at She wrote for HealthCentral as a patient expert for Allergy.