Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Entertaining with Food Allergies

(All photos are from PetitPlat by sk's photostream on Flickr. Check out her wonderful blog and more of her stunning polymer clay creations.)

It seems like everyone has a food allergy these days, and that makes entertaining difficult. A good hostess instinctively knows that poisoning one’s guests is a no-no, but with so many different allergies to navigate, how can one plan an inclusive menu? And on the other side of the equation, if you’re a guest with a food allergy, how do you inform a hostess about your allergy without coming across as bossy?

It doesn’t help that the word “allergy” is thrown around a lot. The American Academy of Allergy Asthma &Immunology defines a “food allergy” as specifically involving immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibodies. Symptoms such as hives, swelling of the lips and tongue or vomiting often occur shortly after ingesting the offending food. Anaphylactic shock is when an immune response is so severe that blood pressure drops suddenly and airways narrow, blocking normal breathing. If someone in anaphylactic shock doesn’t immediately use an EpiPen (a one-shot dose of epinephrine) or go to an emergency room, they could die. The World Allergy Organization estimates that each year 150 Americans die from food-related anaphylaxis. Peanuts, tree nuts and shellfish are the most likely to trigger such a severe reaction.

If eating a certain food causes an immune response that does not involve IgE antibodies, it is not considered an “allergy,” but an “intolerance” — although when someone is experiencing several hours of “digestive distress” (nausea, vomiting, diarrhea), medical definitions of “allergy” seem rather quaint. Some food intolerances cause chronic health issues, such as the inability of the body to absorb certain nutrients (which is often the case when someone is allergic to wheat).

If the biology behind food allergies and intolerances hasn’t convinced you to hang up your apron, then take heart — the best advice for dealing with a food allergy is the simplest. Your Momma was right: everything comes down to good manners. Whether you’re a hostess or a guest, put yourself in the other’s shoes for a moment and consider how both your assumptions and requests might sound.

For a hostess, knowing what to do means understanding why you’re entertaining in the first place. It sounds strange and anthropological, but think about it — the purpose of having people over for a meal is about creating a group experience centered around sharing food. If someone can’t share the food, they can’t share the experience. The smaller the group, the more obvious it is that someone is not eating the same thing as everyone else. It changes to chemistry of the gathering by making the guest with the allergy feel left out and the hostess feel inadequate, and that’s not good.

So by all means, if you are hosting less than twelve people ask your guests if they have food allergies. If someone does, ask for menu suggestions or if there’s a dish they would like to bring. By getting input before the event you can be sure there are foods all your guests can share. And unless you have an allergy to something a guest brought, make a point to try it — it’s an inclusive gesture your guest will appreciate, and you might learn a new recipe.

If you are hosting a larger meal or a party with a buffet, assume you will have one or two guests who have food allergies and plan accordingly. The most common allergies are eggs, milk, nuts, peanuts, soy, tree nuts and wheat/gluten, but this is hardly a complete list! When planning the menu, remember that less-processed food is better than pre-packaged and simple is better. If the food is catered, talk to the provider and explain the need for options. If at all possible label the foods or be sure that the servers are aware of which dishes contain what and are prepared to answer questions.

You may not learn about a guest’s allergy until the event itself. Take a guest around and discreetly point out safe foods for their particular concern. Save containers and packaging for ingredient lists so if a guest asks a question you can read labels and be certain.

No matter what size the gathering is, do not telegraph to the entirety of the party that the reason Jane isn’t eating the green goddess salad dressing is because it will put her in the powder room for the next three hours if she has so much as a forkful. That’s Jane’s business, so let her tell if she chooses to. If other guests want to know why Jane is only eating vinegar and oil dressing, breezy, evasive answers are all you need give — and then offer to pass the vinegar and oil.

If a guest asks you to provide detailed explanations of ingredients, do not take it personally. Eating away from home with food allergies is difficult. If you’ve never dealt with a food allergy yourself, you may not realize the consequences of eating certain foods or the level of care required to ensure that a food is “safe.” When a guest asks you questions, remember that undoubtedly this is someone who has suffered “digestive distress” (or something worse) in the past and wants to avoid it in the future. If a guest’s behavior seems particularly dictatorial or unreasonable, remember: you have the option of not inviting them to the next function, but ignoring food allergies is not an option for them.

If you have a food allergy and are invited to dine at someone’s home, you need to say something. Your friends probably already know, but co-workers and casual acquaintances may not. Telling a host you have a food allergy isn’t being pushy; you’re helping him avoid potential embarrassment and giving yourself the opportunity to dine safely. It doesn’t matter how many times you say, “No really, I’m fine” — no host will feel good watching you consume only a glass of chardonnay and a lettuce leaf.

As soon as you receive an invitation, give the host a call or drop an email and explain the situation — simply. Unless anaphylactic shock is a serious possibility there’s no need to go into deep biological detail; just say that an allergy to a particular food is a concern and you wanted him to be aware of it. Some allergies are easier to work around than others; by speaking up you may assist in his decision to serve shrimp or chicken.

However, do consider that your host may already have very definite ideas about the menu and your food allergy may put an unexpected kink in those plans. So instead of just saying what you can’t have, offer to bring a dish you can have that fits in with what’s being served. You might even make the offer to arrive early and help prepare dishes with alternative ingredients so you can eat them, too.

If the gathering is at a restaurant, call ahead or check the Internet to find out what options you have and make arrangements with the kitchen staff ahead of time. More restaurants are becoming aware of allergy challenges and work hard to come up with suitable menu items that eliminate offending foods. If an event is catered find a member of the staff and ask questions, and although it may seem forward, be one of the first in line to avoid cross-contamination from misplaced serving utensils.

As a guest with a food allergy someone will certainly offer you something you cannot eat. Some people are comfortable being the ambassadors of their particular allergy and enjoy educating others, while some people wish they didn’t have to deal with food allergies and don’t want to talk about it. Decide beforehand how you want to respond, and learn to say a simple “No, Thank-You” gracefully. Even if you are asked specifically “So what happens when you do eat eggs?” keep in mind that while everyone is eating is probably not the time to discuss the biological details of your particular allergic reaction.

Accept that your host may not really understand the level of attention required to insure that foods are safe for you and do not push the issue is he seems reluctant to change plans or accept help. Some people don’t understand how limiting a food allergy can be and they just don’t want to. Unfortunately, there may be times when you have to bring your own snacks or eat before or after a function.

Sharing food with friends is a basic human pleasure that gives us a common experience; allergies make sharing that common experience challenging, but not impossible. By being willing to communicate thoughtfully and accommodate some changes, everyone can feel welcome and relaxed — which is why we share meals together in the first place.

And send your Momma a Thank-You note.

For more information about food allergies, check out The site contains resources and recipes for all ages.
The statistics for this article came from the following sources:
The American Academy of Allergy Asthma &Immunology web site
The World Allergy Organization web site

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