Top | Features

Feeding the allergic

(article, Zanne Miller)

[%pageBreakSettings nobreak=true] 

You've seen those slow-motion movie scenes, with someone screaming "Noooooooooo!" while trying to avert disaster? A few years ago, that someone was me, diving across a table and taking (er, ripping) a cookie out of my three-year-old daughter’s hand. 

Our hostess was a bit taken aback, I noticed, as I hustled my daughter to the bathroom to scrub her hands. But I figured mild confusion was preferable to having the medics pull up in front of the house. Wailing ambulances are never a good thing at a kids’ birthday party.

It wasn’t even a peanut-butter cookie; even at age three, Clio knew to let people know that she couldn’t eat peanuts. Rather, it was a chocolate-chip cookie that had been on a platter with peanut-butter cookies — close enough for possible cross-contamination. A little bit of peanut dust on the chocolate-chip cookie could have been enough to cause a reaction.  

I had been vigilant, as most parents of allergic children are, and our host had been careful, too. And then another guest had restocked the formerly safe cookie platter with some peanut-butter cookies, and, well, all’s well that ends well.  

With food allergies affecting more than 12 million people (including approximately 2.2 million children) in the United States, chances are good you’ll find yourself cooking for an allergic guest at some point. Some of these allergies can be very serious, causing anaphylaxis, a life-threatening reaction. This can be a nerve-wracking experience for a host trying to plan a menu, as strictly avoiding the allergen is the only way to avoid a reaction. But it doesn’t have to be a kitchen nightmare. With care, you can prepare a feast that even the most severely allergic guest can enjoy. 

Communication is key. Most of the time, a guest will let you know in advance if he or she has a life-threatening allergy. But just in case, ask: “Is there anything you can’t or won’t eat?” Once the party’s started, however, it’s too late to change the menu. 


h1.Allergy resources

The Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network  offers recipes and other resources.

The Food Allergy Initiative is another organization dedicated to raising public awareness about food allergies.

The magazine Living Without focuses on people with food allergies, sensitivities, and conditions such as gluten intolerance and celiac disease. Gluten-free recipes are available online.


“\[As a guest,\] if you aren’t clear about ingredients, say so,” says Anne Muñoz-Furlong, the founder and CEO of the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network. “Even small amounts of a certain food can cause an allergic reaction.” 

Keep it simple. The fewer ingredients in the dish, the more control you have. Lisa Bruckner, who is allergic to dairy and gelatin, says she offers to bring a “tiered” dish. "It's a dish that can be enjoyed by all because I provide the prepared ingredients and they assemble it themselves," she explains. "For example, fresh fruit, whipped cream, chocolate sauce, ice cream, sorbet, and shortcake can be enjoyed in so many different combinations." The same technique can work with salads or sandwiches.

“By making the most simple and beautiful food, using delicious, high-quality, seasonally appropriate ingredients, you can be sure that all your guests will have a great experience,” says Jessica MacMurray Blaine, who handles catering for Marché, a group of restaurants in Eugene, Oregon. “The allergic guest won’t have to feel like they’re being patchworked in. A lot of times people with dietary concerns are sort of shunted to the side.” 

Be realistic. It’s really about sitting around the table with people you care about, so if you know that one of your dinner guests has a shellfish allergy, it might be a good time to make something other than bouillabaisse as the main course. That goes both ways, though. If your signature dish (or, say, the guest of honor’s favorite birthday cake) contains allergens, you should go ahead and make it. Just be sure to take steps to avoid cross-contamination and let any allergic guest know what to avoid (see below). 

“I am only one of a group, and while I am very touched by the host's efforts to include me, it's really OK if they make dishes I can't eat,” says Bruckner. “As long as I know I can't eat them — that’s the key.“ 

Be open to suggestions (and substitutions). One of my favorite dishes to make is baked eggplant Parmesan with gooey ricotta and four kinds of cheese on top — and one of its biggest fans is my dairy-allergic friend Heidi. So I made a special version for her with tofu and sheep cheese. 

Substitutions for major allergens such as dairy, egg, and wheat are fairly easy to find online. Or ask the guests themselves for suggestions. They (and you) will feel better talking about what they can eat. 

Diversify. Although it’s true that most guests with allergies usually have a plan in mind — eating only the fresh fruit and veggies, eating ahead of time, or even packing along their own food (one peanut-allergic friend says she never attends a party without a safe snack in her purse) — you can still plan enough of your menu to be completely allergy-free so that an allergic guest can find something on the buffet. Blaine suggests making vegan salads as side dishes. 

Also, accept offers to bring food. “Often guests with a food allergy will volunteer to bring a ‘safe’ food as a contribution to the meal,” says Muñoz-Furlong. By all means, let them. They’ll feel like less of a burden, and it means less work for you, too.

Read labels closely. You might not think that the flour you used to whip up that amazing nut-free dessert contains, yup, nuts, but it might. Read the entire list of ingredients, and look all over the package for warnings such as “May contain traces of peanuts” or “Contains wheat.” Since 2004, the FDA has required all food manufactured in the U.S. to be labeled for the eight major allergens (milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, soy, fish, and shellfish), but this isn’t the case for the food you pick up at the Asian or Mexican grocery store. 

[%image reference-image float=left width=425 caption="Can your guests eat the food you serve?"]

And save the labels, too. Bruckner, whose son, Cosmo, has a life-threatening peanut allergy, says she appreciates this: “Once we are at the party, I carefully look at the labels and let Cosmo know what he can and can't eat.” 

You can also make your own labels. Whenever I go to a potluck, I make my famous rice salad (stolen unabashedly from my friend Michelle), which includes sesame oil, almonds, and whatever seasonal vegetables appeal to me at that particular moment. And then I add a sign — using a skewer with a small card taped to it — listing the ingredients. It might seem like overkill, but you wouldn’t believe how many times I’ve been thanked for this by total strangers. 

Avoid cross-contamination. Bulk foods may indeed be fresher and cheaper than prepackaged goods, but there’s no telling whether that bulk bin full of rice once contained nuts. Ask questions at the grocery store if you’re unsure about ingredients or baked goods. 

At home, take necessary precautions: With a shellfish allergy, for example, a spatula used to remove shrimp from the grill shouldn’t be used for anything else. Prep allergen-rich foods, such as walnut stuffing or shrimp cocktail, away from other foods, then wash your hands, the knife, the board, the dish, and the counter with hot soapy water before you move on to the next menu item. You might even change aprons.

When in doubt, leave it out. My friend John has a milk allergy, but he eats certain kinds of cheese — or wait, maybe he doesn’t eat cheese, but can have ice cream? You get the idea. If John’s coming over, I try to avoid dairy, period, so that neither of us has to worry about it. 


h1.Featured recipes


Enjoy the creative challenge. Rather than see a guest’s allergy as a limitation, view it as an opportunity to try something new. My friend Karen bakes incredible pie, using her grandmother’s recipe for a buttery, flaky crust. But Karen’s new daughter-in-law, Morgan, is allergic to wheat. After a few trials (and a few pies that were served as cobbler), Karen has finally perfected her recipe for gluten-free crust.

“The bottom line is that managing food allergies requires a partnership between the allergic individual and others,” Muñoz-Furlong says. 

It’s possible your allergic guests will appreciate your efforts even more than your fabulous cooking. “Cosmo is always so excited when he can eat the food being served,” Bruckner says, “and I am so surprised and honored at how hard our friends work to ensure his safety.” 

“Really, making food is about making people happy,” Blaine says. “You want to be gracious and hospitable, and be sensitive to your guests’ needs.” 

p(bio). Zanne Miller is a writer living in Eugene, Oregon. She's also a mom to two great little girls, one of whom has a life-threatening peanut allergy.

reference-image, l