Food allergies and intolerances are no joke.
An estimated 15 million Americans have a food allergy, and 5.9 million of those are children under 18. That’s approximately two children in every classroom, so chances are you your child knows someone with a food allergy. An allergic reaction can range in severity from itchy skin to anaphylaxis, which can result in death. Food allergies are not only serious, they can be embarrassing for the affected child. Because there is so much stress around what they can eat, sometimes kids don’t want to eat anywhere but home. In the spirit of inclusiveness, asking a few questions before a party and educating yourself about the potential risks allergies pose can reduce a lot of fear associated with attending a friend’s birthday party.
The easiest way to determine if any of the invited children has an allergy is to place the question on the invitation, opening the door for discussion and allowing parents to come to you with some options regarding safety. Some parents may want to provide their own food options for their child. If you are using a caterer, offer the phone number to the parent so they can contact the company directly since they are truly the expert on their child’s food allergy.
Find out how serious the allergy is. Can the child accidentally eat the food and have only a mild reaction? Can the guest touch the food or even be in the same room with a food that may contain an allergen? What are the symptoms of the allergic reaction for the child? Does the child have an Epipen and can they use it themselves? Epipens contain epinephrine, which is the only medication that can reverse anaphylaxis. Some children know how to use the pen on their own. But it’s good to know where it is at all times and how to assist the child if necessary.
Know the Eight Major Food Allergens
The top eight most common food allergens are peanuts, tree nuts, milk, eggs, wheat, soy, shellfish, and fish. Some of these foods are easier to eliminate than others. For example, a peanut allergy is extremely common and can be easily avoided by reading food labels when buying food for the party. Asking a parent what brands they trust is very helpful as well. Some parents have already done the painstaking work of contacting various companies to determine the level of safety used in their food production. Cross-contamination using shared processing equipment is of great concern for individuals with a food intolerance or allergy. Cross-contamination occurs when an allergen is accidentally transferred from a food containing an allergen to a food that does not contain the allergen.
Use Paper and Plastic
Some people’s allergies are so severe that using even a washed plate or utensil that has previously touched an allergen, like peanut butter, can cause a reaction. The easiest way to alleviate this issue is to use paper plates and plastic utensils. If you are cooking for the party, prewash all the pots and pans before cooking with them. Clean counters and all work surfaces as well, including cutting boards in an effort to eliminate cross-contamination.
If you aren’t able to communicate all of the food ingredients ahead of time, save the packaging of the foods served so parents can read the ingredients themselves. Even with a trusted company, it is always important to read the ingredients on every package to be absolutely sure it is safe. In rare instances, a certain lot of prepackaged food may have been processed on shared equipment, meaning equipment that also processes foods containing an allergen. If so, it will be noted on the packaging.
Welcome Alternate Foods
In some cases, a child’s allergy may be so severe or so extensive, meaning the allergy is not limited to one food source, that it is easier to allow the parent to bring special food for that child. This option reduces a lot of the guesswork and stress about providing safe food options.
Arming yourself with the proper information and a strategy to prevent any food reactions is the safest way to go with any event you are hosting. Once the precautions are taken and risks are managed, it’s time to let the kids be kids and have a good time. A little preparation and prevention goes a long way in providing a fun and safe environment.