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Holiday tips for families with food allergies

Beatrice Povolo

Beatrice Povolo, the Director of Advocacy and Media at Food Allergy Canada, and a mother of a child with peanut and tree nut allergies, offers some advice on how families with food allergies can enjoy the upcoming holiday season.

Q: What tips can you give parents of a newly-diagnosed child about preparing for the holidays?

A: Food is generally the one common factor when it comes to celebrating around the holidays and unfortunately it can be quite daunting for parents of a newly-diagnosed child, especially as they start learning about how to keep your child safe.

With a bit of planning, your family can continue participating in different events, whether it’s holiday parties or family gatherings. Communication and understanding how to manage food allergies within your own family is essential. Before attending any functions, make sure you and your partner discuss how to manage your child’s allergies to make sure you are on the same page. This allows you to be united in your approach when facing offers of grandma’s cookies and Auntie Linda’s casserole that they insist is safe for your child (even though they don’t really understand the severity of your child’s allergies and how to avoid cross-contamination).

If the family rule is that your child only eats foods that you have brought, then having this discussion ahead of time and having a planned response can help you navigate family gatherings with minimal conflict and stress. There are many other tips like always bringing safe food options for your child, and talking to the host ahead of time to discuss the menu in advance, giving them tips on safe food preparation and safe food options. You can also ask that allergenic food (e.g. trays of peanuts and nuts, shrimp rings, etc.) be kept out away from toddlers who may reach for these foods.

What really helped my family was not saying, “We’re coming over for dinner. Do you have something that’s safe for my son to eat?” Rather it was, “Thank you so much for inviting us. As you know, my son has food allergies, and if it’s okay with you I’ll bring his own snacks and food.” Always offering to be part of the solution is the best advice I would give.

Q: How can parents raise food allergy awareness among family and friends during the holidays?

A: Although there is more awareness of food allergies nowadays, they’re not always top of mind, until they affect you personally. The key is to not be afraid to speak up and say something – whether it’s to family, friends, co-workers, or at school. Generally, people are willing to help, especially when it’s a family member or a friend.

Tell others about your child’s allergies, what they can and cannot eat, and how severe the situation could be if your child is exposed to their allergy trigger. You want to keep a balanced approach so that people aren’t afraid to include your family. But at the same time, they do need to understand the seriousness of the allergy and how they can help reduce the risk of a reaction.

Ultimately, managing your child’s allergy is your family’s responsibility (you as a parent and your child) however, having the support of friends and family goes a long way in making it easier for you and your child.

Q: How can parents empower their child and prepare them for the holidays?

A: The level of preparation really depends on the maturity of the child and having age-appropriate conversations with your child before you go to a function is very important.

Help prepare your child ahead of time by practicing how to ask questions about ingredients and food choices. Encourage them to talk to the host themselves to find out what options are safe. And let them know how proud you are of them for learning how to manage their allergies on their own.

Remind your child that the same day-to-day rules still apply:

  • They should always ask you before eating anything.
  • They should not share any food, cups, or utensils.
  • They should always carry their epinephrine auto-injector with them – if they don’t have it with them, they can’t eat.
  • They should tell you and others immediately if they are feeling unwell or think they are having a reaction.

Check out additional tips on making the holidays easier to manage.