Ready to be the most popular mom on the block? Kathleen O’Hagan, writer, foodie and parent to a child with food allergies, has all the ways to make your next party inclusive and safe for all children — from the planning stages to the after party.
Make sure your child’s next party is allergy-friendly: Here’s how.
So you’ve recently learned your little one has befriended the food-allergic kid at school. You know, the one whose mother is always making special requests (more like demands) when it comes to bringing food into the classroom. From the sound of things, they may even be BFFs. And to make matters worse, your child’s birthday is just around the corner. As if planning and hosting an event with a bunch of kids that have overdosed on sugar isn’t stressful enough… now you have to accommodate some kid who can’t eat foods you’ve served at every single party in the past.
Hey, I get it. As a peanut butter lover who used to lament what feels like a province-wide peanut ban, I understand how frustrating it can be to re-think your traditions because ‘some kid’ happens to be allergic to nuts. Fast forward a few years later and I have a whole new perspective on things. Yup, I’m the mom of a kid with life-threatening food allergies. So take my word for it, we really don’t mean to be an inconvenience, we just have to be extra vigilant in keeping our kids safe. And we love it when other parents understand that.
Party Planning – Step 1: Play Detective
If you’re not sure if any of your child’s friends have food allergies, the safest thing to do is find out in advance. Include a note on the invitation that asks parents to include dietary restrictions when they RSVP. Then hop on the phone to find out what it would take for the parents to feel safe leaving their child in your home. This is largely dependent on the age of the child, the number of allergies they have, and what the parent’s comfort level is. Here are a few questions to ask:
- Are they old enough to advocate for themselves?
- Are they too young to understand why they aren’t being served the same food as everyone else?
- How many allergies do they have?
- Do the parents expect you to remove all allergens from the picture, or are they comfortable with you enforcing strict hand-washing rules during the party?
One question to never ask, however, is how serious are your child’s allergies? Each reaction is different and can range from minor (rash or hives) to severe (swollen tongue, difficulty breathing). There is always the possibility of anaphylaxis, which means all food allergies are potentially life-threatening (read: serious).
Step 2: Sharing is Caring
Start by sharing what’s on the menu, and be open to any questions they might have. If you’re quite certain that a snack you’ll be serving is free of the allergens in question, don’t be offended if the parent asks to see the ingredient list. It’s not that we don’t trust your reading skills, it’s just that we are seasoned label readers. We know the other terms for our child’s allergens, and our eyes are drawn to the “may contain” warning that you may not typically notice. So do the allergy parent a favour: Snap a shot of the ingredients with your smartphone and share it with them over text or email. They’ll be eternally grateful, believe me.
Step 3: Two Heads are Better Than One
If, after speaking with the parent, you are feeling overwhelmed (and a little bit terrified), think of ways they can help make this less stressful for you—then don’t be afraid to ask for help. In most cases, allergy parents are just happy that you are doing what you can to make their child feel safe and included, so they will jump at a request for help. If you feel it is impossible to bake (or buy) a cake that is free of their child’s allergens, ask if they might consider making the cake themselves… if you supply the ingredients. Or, if you love to bake, ask them to share their favourite allergy-friendly recipes and allergy-safe ingredients with you. (They may even supply you with a bag of those expensive, hard-to-find chocolate chips! Anything for our kiddos, right?) A simpler option would be to have them bring a safe cupcake for their little one so that you can bake and serve what you want, but this is typically easier with older kids who understand why they are eating something different and don’t feel too bad about being left out.
Other ways an allergy parent can help: suggesting safe party snacks, creating a sign for the door alerting other parents about the allergy, staying at the party to help monitor things. Just ask!
On The Big Day – Out of Sight, Not Necessarily Out of Mind
A simple way to put an allergy parent at ease is to get any obvious allergens out of their eyesight. So if you typically keep a bowl of nuts on the table, put them away. If you eat sesame bagels every morning, make sure to get rid of any crumbs that would give away your bagel of choice. If your guest is allergic to mango or kiwi, get them out of your fruit bowl. Another thing to think about is something called cross contamination. While the allergens may be hidden away, they still have the power to do harm in cases where they’ve touched a surface that is going to come into contact with a person with food allergies. So take a moment to sanitize kitchen counters or tabletops, especially if you think they may have come into contact with an allergen. And what about things like the butter knife? If it touched that sesame bagel from this morning, it isn’t safe for your allergic guest to use. So make sure all cutlery and dishware are newly washed when serving.
The issue of cross contamination is a tricky one. I highly recommend bringing it up with the allergy parent before the party to see if there is anything in your kitchen (or home!) that might cause an invisible issue.
Communication is Key
Whether or not you’ve previously assured the parent that the cake is peanut-free, it never hurts to reiterate that is is, in fact, safe when serving their child. You don’t have to make a huge deal of it, but try to casually repeat what they already know. For example, when you pass the allergy kid their slice of cake, you could say something like “Here’s a slice of yummy, nut-free cake for you!” Did you pick up any last minute snacks before the party? Now’s a great time to pull the parent aside and let them take a look at the ingredients. If they deem it unsafe, err on the side of caution and leave it out of the rotation. The more empathy and compassion you show, the better for everyone. Plus, you can snack on those after the kids go to bed!
After the Party
You’re probably exhausted after hosting a number of screaming, giggling little ones, so this step is completely optional. But it will come in handy if you think a child with food allergies will be attending any future parties in your home. So total bonus points if you follow up with the parents to get their feedback. Find out if they felt the environment was safe, and if their child felt included. Ask if there was anything you could improve for next time.
I know, I know. There’s a lot involved in keeping a kid with food allergies safe. (We live with that inconvenience every single day – so we get the pressure you’re under.) But as the mom of a toddler with multiple life-threatening food allergies, I have to ask: What if it was your kid?
As the mom of a toddler with 6+ food allergies, Kathleen O’Hagan knows how isolating it can be to be “that mom” — the one who asks a million questions about what snacks are being served or which ingredients are being used. She also knows how time-consuming it can be to find safe products and accommodating spaces for kids with food allergies, which is why she created AllergyBites, whose mission it is to be the go-to spot for allergy-friendly eats and treats, places and spaces.