As those living with food allergies, many of us have spent years becoming expert-level ingredient checkers. We know our ‘allergen-safe’ brands, what to avoid, and have grown to incorporate our ingredient checking into every grocery shopping trip. I try to follow the general rule of checking three times: once at the store, once when I unpack the groceries at home, and finally, when I am about to cook with the item. The large majority of the time I catch any issues at the store, but there have been several times where I have caught something last minute – often when a brand I have used before has changed their ingredient list or added a ‘may contain’ statement. A couple of my last-minute catches include plain white rice with a ‘may contain peanuts’ label and sausages that were labelled ‘may contain tree nuts’.
Our experience and awareness of hidden ingredients in food, make us the most effective people to help teach those around us what to look for when preparing food that we can safely eat. If someone is inviting me over for a meal, they want to ensure it is a safe experience. I have found that I can often play an active role in that process.
I typically try to stick with meals consisting of mostly fresh food with few ingredients, as this reduces the risk of cross-contamination. For example, unseasoned meat and vegetables is a reliable go-to meal for me. Pre-seasoned or packaged versions can sometimes have ingredients that you wouldn’t expect. When someone is making me a meal, I also find it helpful to give the person cooking some examples of where hidden ingredients or issues can be. For example, flour has many ingredients, and there are different varieties such as almond flour which would obviously be an issue for people allergic to tree nuts. I also remind everyone that I won’t eat ingredients bought in bulk since the risk of cross-contamination at the store is typically high. I find that people have a tendency to buy rarely-used spices or baking ingredients at bulk stores since they don’t need large quantities. Other items that non-allergic people may use without considering checking ingredient labels are condiments and sauces. As we know, even these can have unexpected ingredients. Finally, I also mention to a host that multi-use kitchen tools, such as cutting boards have the potential risk of cross-contamination if not properly cleaned.
Using my years of experience and first-hand knowledge to help others become aware of the different areas of risk that I face is important. The more they are aware, the more they will understand my processes and how they can help make sure the food is safe.
– Alison M.
The holiday season is now upon us! Along with shopping for gifts and pulling out your ski gear, this means holiday gatherings throughout the upcoming month and seeing family and friends. So often these events revolve around food which can be stressful for those of us living with food allergies. Here are some of the guidelines I’ve put in place for myself to help ease any uncertainty I may have in these environments and allow me to enjoy the event:
- Find out what type of event it is in advance. I find cocktail parties much easier to navigate as there is less focus on the food and whether or not you are eating. I try to speak to the organizer in advance and, if the event is at a restaurant, I will often contact the restaurant directly. I often end up not eating at all at these events, but it’s helpful to know if any of my most severe allergens are being passed around.
- Offer to host a dinner yourself! While this can be a lot of work, it will ensure that you know exactly what is being served and what you can eat safely.
- Get involved with the planning. For work parties, I have often been on the organizing committee and involved in the venue and menu selection. The ability to influence the decision on where the event is held and what will be served is key and you can also be an advocate for other people with dietary restrictions to ensure others are comfortable asking questions about the menu.
- Bring your own meal. If it is a gathering revolving around a meal (ie. a sit-down lunch or dinner), speak to the host/hostess about bringing your own food. I typically try to match my food to follow the same theme as what they are planning to serve and bring it in my own container that I can easily heat up.
- Eat first! If you are going to an event where food will be passed around, be sure to eat beforehand so that you don’t end up hungry by the end of the night.
- Be first in line. While it may appear rude to some, I have always felt more comfortable dishing my food early in the serving process when the serving utensils are not being passed between dishes and there is a smaller chance of cross-contamination.
- If you are attending a lunch or dinner, offer to bring a dish that is substantial enough that you can just eat that, if necessary. Also bring along a set of dedicated serving utensils to ensure that they are clean and not being passed between dishes.
If you feel unsure about something, don’t feel the need to eat or drink it. Those of us who are hyper aware of cross-contamination will know that guests or servers often pass around different food trays, mix & match serving utensils and even touch drink glasses without thinking about what they’ve previously touched or eaten.
The holidays and all the events associated with them can be a real time of stress and anxiety for those of us with food allergies, but if you can plan ahead, communicate well, and are comfortable with the fact that not all gatherings will revolve around the food, then you can enjoy them safely!
– Alison M.