Having friends and family over for the holidays is stressful enough as it is, but if any of your guests have food allergies, you may be especially worried. If you’re not sure if anyone in your party has allergies, this is a great time to stop reading and send out a friendly message (individually, or via BCC so no one feels put on the spot) and ask.
And if you get a yes back? Here’s what to know and do, according to Dr. Jeanne Lomas, a board certified allergist and the Director of Allergy & Immunology at WellNow Urgent Care.
Make your ingredients clear
As Lomas noted, there are so-called “hidden” allergy triggers that the average cook may not realize are triggers at all, like dairy and eggs, not to mention all the different kinds of nuts. Think about how much dairy or eggs you’re using in what you’re serving, from pies to cookies to mashed potatoes or mac and cheese—it’s a lot, I’m sure. Moreover, “many of these [dishes] are homemade,” she added, so they “don’t contain standard packaging with an ingredient list.”
Consider an easy fix here: Make some cute identifier cards for each dish and place by all the foods available at your gathering; make sure the ingredients are clearly and accurately listed on each.
In addition to asking guests about their potential allergies or dairy restrictions, follow up by asking if they have any preferences for swaps or alternatives. Guests with allergies will know more about what they can and can’t eat—as well as what they’d prefer to eat—so they should be a good resource for you.
Also ask your guest their comfort level when it comes to telling others about their allergy. It’s important to avoid cross-contamination, so ideally, this should be a team effort, but everyone is different in terms of what they want to share with the group, so you may have to work around their desire for privacy. And about cross-contamination…
Understand and avoid cross-contamination
If any of your guests have allergies, you should be extra careful about cross-contamination. This includes, per Lomas, cleaning dining surfaces, especially after food prep, but also thinking about other cross-contamination hazards that are less obvious.
“Certain allergens, such as shellfish, can be aerosolized,” she said, “meaning particles of the food enter that air in water droplets when the food is cooked.” This happens often when you’re boiling something like crab, lobster, or shrimp, and means that someone with a shellfish allergy is at risk of an allergic reaction just from breathing in their allergen while it’s been cooked near them.
This is less likely with other foods, like nuts, but you should check with your guests about their specific allergies and ask what an ideal prep situation looks like for them. In some cases, Lomas said, it might just be better for you to make those riskier foods before they arrive.
Stay on top of it
Your job as a host is to make the party great for everyone, so while having their epinephrine on hand is largely your guest’s responsibility, you should also stay on your A-game. Monitor your guests and be ready to “call 911 if any concerning symptoms develop,” urged Lomas.