My daughter Abby just turned 7 years old and she’s looking forward to celebrating with her friends at a party this weekend. She has multiple food allergies, some of which are life-threatening. I’m finalizing the snack and dessert menu and I thought I would share a bit about what I’ve learned about serving food at a function where children with food allergies are present. My daughter won’t be the only child at her party with food allergies. According to the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network, 1 out of every 17 children has food allergies. Chances are good you know a child or two who has them too.
A few years ago when my daughter was younger, I made it clear that food containing the allergens were not to be served at an event or else we would not come. Everyone I dealt with was understanding and very accommodating. At the time it was easy for everyone to see why the food should be restricted around young children – they are impulsive and physical and can’t be expected to remember to wash their hands regularly or keep their hands to themselves if they were eating something Abby was allergic to. As for Abby, she was too young to be responsible for everything she was eating. It was just safer if the food she was allergic to wasn’t served at the party.
Back then I always thought that when she got older (the age she is now), I wouldn’t feel the need to restrict food at parties. I figured the children would be more responsible and that cross-contamination wouldn’t be as much of an issue. But here she is at 7 years old and I still find myself wanting to avoid parties where food she is allergic to is served. I’m talking about the food that is life-threatening, not food that only gives her hives or a stomach ache. For Abby, this includes everything dairy, like cheese pizza and cupcakes with buttercream frosting.
Why do I still want to restrict the allergens? It’s for social reasons now, not so much for health and safety. Children spend a lot of their play time learning about social rules. As they interact they show each other compassion by sharing toys, hugs or kind words; they test their social power by acting bossy or whiny; they practice team-building by working together to solve problems; and much more. A lot of their interaction is physical in nature, much more physical than adult social interaction. Children hug each other spontaneously, they push each other, they take things from and give things to each other. As they interact, they are finding out what feels good and what doesn’t; what is socially acceptable and what isn’t.
A child who has severe food allergies is always aware that they may become very sick and possibly die if they ingest certain foods. Abby is hyper-vigilant when she is around kids who are eating cheesy pizza and frosting-laden cupcakes. When those foods are present at a party, the social dynamics completely change for her. She is no longer comfortable interacting with her peers the way she normally would. Suddenly the child who looks like they need a hug after they have eaten a slice of pizza becomes a victim she cannot approach. The child who finishes their cupcake with frosting and wants to share their toy becomes a threat to her safety. She becomes powerless in the situation. It hurts her because she can’t act like the kid she knows she is, and it hurts her relationship with the other children because in her mind they are unsafe to be around.
None of this is the children’s fault: they simply eat what is put before them. It’s up to the responsible adults to make choices that make sense. Parents of the food-allergic child will probably bring safe foods for their own child. As the host, you can help too.
If you are hosting a party and a child with food allergies will be present:
- Find substitutes for the life-threatening allergen. There are many delicious recipes for kid-friendly foods – start your search here by checking From Scratch Club’s recipe database.
- Don’t serve the food they are allergic to. Sometimes it’s just that easy!
- If it’s really hard to eliminate the allergen without eliminating the food altogether, then go ahead and don’t serve food. Let the parents of the guests know in advance that they should feed their child before the party starts and plan to bring a snack to eat when the party is over.
If you do serve food that a guest is allergic to:
- Always let the parent of the child with allergies know they are welcome to stay for the entire party, and ensure they have a comfortable place to sit or stand near the table while the children eat.
- Be sure that all of the children wash their hands immediately after they eat.
- Serve food at the end of the party to minimize the stress level of the guest and their parent.
- Don’t be offended if the child decides not to come or wants to leave early. It’s their physical and mental health and safety that they need to protect, not your feelings.