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8 Ways to Be Hospitable to Someone With Food Allergies - Modern Alternative KitchenModern Alternative Kitchen

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With food allergies on the rise, meeting someone who can’t have gluten or peanuts or dairy is not the anomaly it used to be. I’m fairly certain that all of us know at least one person with food allergies, and probably many more than that.

And since food is an important and necessary part of life, and a central part of culture and social activities, those of us who don’t have food allergies are left wondering how to live life alongside those who do.

Can We Be Hospitable?

Hospitality is a central value for my family, and as Christians I believe it is something God calls us to. But can we extend hospitality to those with food allergies or sensitivities? What does that look like?

As someone who doesn’t have food allergies, I have struggled to know just how to show love to my several friends who do. Can I have them over for dinner? How can I be sure the food I cook is safe for them to eat? If their allergies are severe or their diet very limited, how else can I be hospitable to them?

Let’s Give Them a Voice.

I posed those questions to a handful of people who have food allergies or sensitivities, some of whom I know in real life, some of whom I don’t. The information in this post was culled from their responses. My goal was to give them a voice. Many people with allergies are frustrated that people don’t understand and don’t seem to want to understand their situation. This post is one step towards remedying that.

Let’s learn, together, how we can love people for whom every day involves scrupulous effort to ensure that nothing that goes in their mouths will cause their sensitive bodies harm.

But first, the disclaimer.

I don’t claim to know very much about allergies. I’m probably using the terms “allergy” and “sensitivity” too loosely. The point of this post is not to teach you about allergies, but rather to help you know how to show love to those who have allergies.

5 Ways to Be Hospitable to People With Food Allergies

#1: Ask Questions.

Don’t be afraid of sounding stupid. Just ask.

Never assume you know all about allergies, or all about a particular person’s allergies. Also, allergies can change over time, so if it’s been awhile since you’ve shared a meal with someone, don’t be afraid to ask them questions again.

There is a huge range in the type and severity of food sensitivities. For some, it’s as simple as avoiding one or two ingredients. For others, any type of processed food is off limits.  People with Celiac disease, which is not technically an allergy but an autoimmune disorder, should really only eat off of cookware and dishes that have never touched gluten.

Here are some ideas of questions to ask if you know someone has allergies:

“How can I make sure the food is safe for you to eat?”
“How severe are your allergies?”
“Are there any ingredients I might not realize contain [x allergen]?”
“Is there something I can do to tweak a recipe to make it allergy-friendly for you?”
“What else should I look out for when preparing food for you?”
“Do you have any suggestions for meals I could make for you?”

It’s also not a bad idea to ask anyone who comes over to your house if they have allergies or sensitivities. I once had someone over without realizing that they were allergic to garlic. And everything I made had garlic in it! Oops.

#2: Then, Listen.

It doesn’t do any good to ask unless you plan to really hear what they have to say. Here are some things my friends with allergies would love to say, but don’t always have the opportunity:

“I think most people don’t realize how dangerous allergies can be.  Or how painful they can be.  I’ve spent days in bed after getting into wheat without knowing it.”  –Kacy

“People think of gluten as bread and crackers, not much else. Unless they are up on allergies and label reading, they usually don’t know that even seasoning packets, store-bought mixes of spices, mayo (some), and soy sauce are off limits for us.” –Nicki

“If I am going to eat at someone’s house, I wish they would talk to me about my allergies first, and then actually listen to what I have to say. I don’t eat often at other people’s houses because I have trust issues when it comes to food (my food allergies are very severe), but when I do eat at someone’s house, I have to be able to trust that they actually ‘get it’ when it comes to food allergies.” –Joy A.

Some people may not have an actual allergy but have found that they are sensitive to certain foods and have chosen to avoid them. Sometimes a nursing mother will cut certain foods out of her diet due to fussiness or digestive issues in the baby. It’s important to not overlook these sensitivities or view them as not worth working around! Sara (from A Joyful Mother) says, “People don’t seem to understand avoiding food for health reasons, unless your doctor tells you to.”

You know what’s the worst? When someone with an allergy feels like they have to justify their allergies somehow, or when they suspect that people think they are doing it for attention. So listen to what they have to say. And believe them.

peanut dust

image by Dan4th

#3. Understand Cross Contamination.

Cross contamination happens when a food that is safe to eat comes into contact with an allergen. So it’s not enough to simply serve foods that, by themselves, will not cause a reaction; you have to make sure that no particles of allergen-containing food have come into contact with the food you’ll be serving. Here are some tips:

(Note: most of these examples refer to gluten because it is the most pervasive, but keep these things in mind no matter which allergens you’re trying to avoid.)

  • Wash all the dishes, pots, measuring cups, etc. that you will be using with hot soapy water before cooking or serving on them.
  • Watch out for cast iron pans, non-stick pans, and wooden cutting boards and spoons: they all harbor allergens.
  • If you are making a gluten-free dish and a non-gluten-free dish, make sure that separate serving utensils are used.
  • “One thing that bugs me is when there are two dishes, one GF and one not, and the GF one is in front of the non GF dish.  Then, when people scoop their wheaty food, they drop crumbs into the GF dish.” –Nicki
  • If you’re serving sloppy joes or something that people will be putting on buns, set aside some meat in a separate bowl for those who can’t have gluten. Otherwise, someone who accidentally touches the spoon to their bun and then puts the spoon back in the meat has contaminated the whole batch.
  • ”Was your sugar bin sitting open when you turned on the mixer and the flour ‘poofed’ everywhere?  There is now enough flour in your sugar to make someone with Celiac Disease or a wheat allergy very sick….Ideally, in a perfect world, I would get to cook with someone learning to cook for allergies to be sure they understood cross contamination.” –Joy A.

#4: Be Willing To Accommodate.

My friends with allergies are always telling me that they do not want to hassle their hosts or have anyone go out of their way for them. I usually tell them that it’s not a hassle, it’s a joy!

Here are some simple ways that you can accommodate, without going crazy. 🙂

  • “The main thing I ask is that when dining out with friends is to avoid pizza places that don’t have gluten free pizza.  Pizza is his favorite food and he will be very sad if everyone but him is eating it.  At any other type of restaurant he is fine with a substitution.” –Katie P.
  • “A lot of the time you can give a recipe just a little tweak and make it safe for us to eat and it still tastes just as wonderful!” –Kacy
  • “I prefer to know ahead of time if there will be bread/muffins/etc. on the table so that I can bring a comparable something for Anna.  I have no problem “passing” foods I can’t eat, but it’s too hard for a 2 year old to understand why she can’t have the cookie everyone else is enjoying.” –Nicki

#5. Don’t be offended.

It’s really hard when you try to cook something that is safe for someone, only to find out that you forgot to check what was in your chocolate chips or chili powder. As difficult as that sort of thing is, those with allergies don’t want us to get offended by their requests. Joy A. put it like this: “I want them not to be offended by me questioning every ingredient in every dish – it’s how I stay healthy and alive.”

So don’t take it personally or be surprised if someone with allergies does any of these things:…

  • Asks you what brand of seasoning or sausage or mayonnaise you used. Some brands are free of allergens, and others aren’t.
  • Brings their own food. Depending on the severity of their allergies, it might not be worth the stress of making sure food someone else prepares is safe.
  • Asks you to line your pans with foil or asks if gluten might have gotten into your butter.
  • With children, if you go out of your way to cook something safe for them, and then they don’t like it. Even kids who aren’t picky eaters have their moments! You could try sending some home with them to try again later, or just ask for suggestions for next time.

#6: Think Simple.

When cooking for someone with eating limitations, the easiest thing to do is make simple, real food. Here are some suggestions:

  • “…if someone brought me freshly washed and peeled carrots, or lettuce and veggies in a salad without dressing, or a fruit salad, or hard boiled eggs, or whatever, it’s just another easy thing for me to eat and would be so appreciated.  I’m not the type that needs fancy meals.  I like it simple. ;)” –Nicki
  • “If it’s meal time and you’re unsure what to serve me, ask!  Simple things like a meat and cheese tray with veggies works great!  For me, it’s about the company not the food!” –Kacy
  • “If people want to make something that my son can eat I ask them to make rice or potatoes, meat, vegetables, and fresh fruit (no citrus.) If there is one item that my son can eat when we go to someone’s house it is very nice because he then feels like he is part of things.” –Katie P

prepare in their kitchen

image by Dinner Series

#7: Prepare food in their kitchen.

As much as we all want to invite people into our home, sometimes it’s just not practical, especially for someone with life-threatening allergies. So how about asking if you could come over and cook for them at their house? This is one scenario where it might be okay to invite yourself over.  🙂 If you are at their house, using their ingredients, then they won’t have to worry about cross contamination, but you still get to share a meal and fellowship together. Plus, it’s always fun to cook with other people!

“If I were pregnant and going to have another baby I would love for people to offer to come help me prep freezer meals before the baby arrives instead of bringing meals afterward.  I would love for them to call and say that they’re at the store and ask if there is anything they could pick up for me.  I would love for them to come help me prepare a meal some night.” –Katie

#8: Bless them in a non-food way.

If food is just too tricky, here are some other ways you can be hospitable to someone with allergies that don’t involve food.

  • “If they’d like to bless us with non-food and hospitality, just invite us over and serve drinks!  I think people today are too used to eating all the time.  It’s okay to socialize and not eat.” –Kacy
  • “If they are trying to bring a meal after a baby was born, or a surgery, or illness or something – instead of food I would have loved someone doing dishes, laundry, light cleaning, or errand running.  Cooking things from scratch takes time (as I’m sure you and all your readers can attest to!) and therefore taking some of the other things off my list would help.” –Nicki
  • Want to brighten someone’s day? Bring them flowers or a handwritten card!
  • “…other ways to be hospitable without involving food are coming over for a cup of tea or coffee, going for a walk, helping out with baby or other kids so that mom can cook dinner or go grocery shopping (another area people with food allergies are generally very protective of).”–Joy A.
  • If you are a teacher or work somewhere with kids where food plays a large role, do what is in your power to make the environment more allergy-friendly. For birthdays, suggest parents bring toys or stickers instead of treats. Everything doesn’t have to be food-centered!
  • Another kind thing you can do for someone with allergies is to learn how to use their epi-pen. The will most likely be able to do it themselves, but it wouldn’t hurt to learn how just in case!

It’s Not Easy. But It’s Worth It.

A couple Christmases ago, I made cookies for my cousin’s four year old who couldn’t have gluten, dairy, eggs, or almonds. I couldn’t give them to him in person because their family was sick on Christmas, but when he got them, he asked his mom with a look of wonder, “Why would anyone do that for me?” She answered, “Because she loves you.” All the work of getting educated, finding a recipe, buying special ingredients, and carefully washing everything that was to come into contact with what would become those cookies was worth it.

Are these suggestions overwhelming to you? Keep in mind these words from Joy:
“If providing food to someone with food allergies is too daunting for you, remember that we get that a lot.  Just because we do it everyday doesn’t mean we don’t remember or understand how hard it is to start doing it. We understand and are willing to help you, if that is what you want.”

If you have allergies, do you have any suggestions for those of us who don’t? How can we be hospitable to you?

**This post has been entered into Fight Back Friday and Fresh Bites Friday**

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9 Comments

  1. […] 8 Ways to Be Hospitable to Someone With Food Allergies […]

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  2. Great post Joanna. I am so glad you took the time to put this list together!!

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  3. Coming from someone with food allergies, this post is excellent. I just shared with friends, now hopefully they listen! #5 really hit home. I tend to either bring my own food or eat before a certain event and people get SO offended that I’m not eating their food! They will say things like, oh it’s only fruit. Yeah but you covered it in who knows what and I don’t know how it was prepared.

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  4. When discussing this article with a friend (who also wanted a refresher on epi-pen use), she asked about cookware and allergies.
    When it comes to cooking for someone with allergies cast iron is not an option unless you know exactly what has been cooked in it before. Once a cast iron pan has been used it is impossible to get completely clean again…it’s just the nature of cast iron. I have an egg allergy (and others) so my cast iron will never have eggs fried in it. If my husband wants fried eggs in cast iron, he has to have his own cast iron that I will never use.
    Non-stick cookware is usually okay (depends on the person and the severity of the allergy(s)), but the gold standard is stainless steel. There is a reason stainless steel is often used in commercial kitchens – it can be cleaned completely. Class and glazed ceramic is also okay as are most plastics.
    Wood (cutting boards, wooden spoons, etc) is out for the same reason that cast iron is – it cannot be cleaned completely.

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  5. Thank you so much for this! SO good to know someone cares!

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  6. […] read the great ideas in 8 Ways to Be Hospitable to Someone with Food Allergies, also from Modern Alternative […]

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