How To Navigate Food Allergies During The Holidays


There’s no denying that food is one of the very best parts of the holiday season. From baking delicious treats around the kitchen counter to sharing long meals with family and friends, food plays a large role in the creation of memories during the holidays. Evoking feelings of warmth and celebration, holiday meals should be met with anticipatory excitement. However, when food allergies are in the mix, this is not always the case. Managing food allergies can be a huge source of stress and anxiety during the holidays, especially if you’re a parent to children with allergies. Instead of relaxing, you find yourself constantly worrying about ingredient lists or whether the host took the necessary precautions in a kitchen that may not even be your own. It’s a lot to manage under normal circumstances, but it’s especially difficult in a season where shared meals become the norm. To alleviate the stress, we asked food allergy experts, RedSneakers and Cynthia Bishara MD of the Southern California Food Allergy Institute (SoCal), for practical tips on navigating food allergies during the holidays. As they answer some of the most common questions around this topic, we hope you’ll gain the insight and confidence to celebrate the holidays without fear. Want to learn how to enjoy a holiday season that’s allergen-friendly and stress-free? Keep reading! 


  • Food is a huge part of the holiday season. What advice do you have for participating in holiday festivities, while ensuring food allergy safety for your kids? What precautions should you be taking? 

    According to RedSneakers, “Planning ahead and communicating with your hosts can help you and your family stay safe and prevent allergic reactions while celebrating this holiday season. Make a highlight of activities that kids can enjoy for holiday festivities.  (gift wrapping, decorating, fun crafts, etc.) Precautions will vary in extent taken based on the situation.” 


    Here are the top tips that RedSneakers recommends:


    1. Parents might prepare ahead by keeping a fun holiday gift tote filled with safe snacks and meals for on-the-go that can include a small fun surprise each time the tote is packed for the next outing. 
    2. Ask your host questions about the food they will be preparing, in advance. Talk to them about your food allergies and how they can create a safe meal for you. This way, you’ll feel more comfortable at the celebration knowing that they took the necessary precautions. Never eat anything you don’t feel comfortable eating, even if it upsets your hosts. If you can, eat safe food in advance so you aren’t too hungry and don’t feel tempted to eat a possibly unsafe food at the gathering.
    3. Teach your child to be his/her best food allergy advocate.  Based on age appropriateness and shared in a positive and nurturing approach, equip your child with the tools that will empower them to stay safe and communicate effectively.
    4. Volunteer to bring a dish or two. If you want an option that you know will be safe, make it yourself.
    5. Encourage your host to label all allergy-friendly foods.
    6. Give yourself peace of mind and remind your family and friends on how to use your auto-injector and where you keep it in case of an emergency
    7. To avoid cross-contact, serve yourself first


    1. What are the most common allergens to look out for during the holiday season? What foods include them that may not necessarily be the most obvious candidates? 


    Dr. Bishara of SoCal explains that “the most common allergens in the US, aka the "Top 9" are: milk, eggs, fish, Crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, soybeans, and sesame. In 2004, Congress passed the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004. At that time it was mandated to report milk, eggs, fish, Crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soybeans either as an ingredient or as an unintentional  containment . Recently, sesame has been added to that list and as of January 2023, companies are required to follow the same guidelines for reporting the food. However, until that time, companies are not required to list out sesame as an ingredient or potential containment. Other than these foods, there are many kids who are allergic to other grains, seeds, and legumes that are not required to be listed on packaging.” 


    She also notes that “many recipes and dishes in the holiday season may include butter and nuts, like Brussel sprouts with pecans, or mixed nuts in turkey stuffing, for example. So be on the lookout for these foods, and let your family know ahead of time to try to avoid cooking with these foods if possible.” 



  • How would you suggest preventing the risk of cross-contact, especially in a potluck or buffet-style setting? 

    According to Dr. Bishara, “it is almost impossible to completely prevent the risk of cross-contact in a kitchen that is not your own. Placement of the food is sometimes important. Placing non-allergenic foods in a separate table or room may prevent other allergenic food from falling down into a different serving dish. Having a designated serving spoon for each dish can help prevent using the same utensils for multiple dishes.” 


    Ultimately, Dr. Bishara emphasizes that “potluck or buffet style meals are very difficult to be allergy friendly. Please talk to your doctor to discuss your risk of a reaction with a small accidental exposure. It may be beneficial for some patients to bring pre-prepared foods to these types of shared meals.” 

  • How would you suggest navigating multiple food allergies at once?
  • RedSneakers explains that “navigating multiple food allergies at once is no easy task. It is a challenge for all involved - the allergic child, parents and the hosts.  Talk with the child and learn what might make things easier for them.  Planning ahead and communicating with your hosts can help you and your family stay safe and prevent allergic reactions while celebrating this holiday season.  Make sure they are comfortable sharing about their food allergies. That way the child can learn to become their own best advocate.” 


    “Making the food not be a primary focus and emphasizing favorite activities and time spent with friends can be a start. Also, it might feel best to have an allergy safe meal before the outing.  Parents can take safe snacks along and also assess the foods offered at the event for any that might be shared with their child.  Remember to bring the epinephrine!”


  • What advice do you have for communicating your child’s allergy to the host of the gathering? 

    RedSneakers gave us advice on how to communicate with the host of the gathering, depending on your relationship with them: 


    1. Close Friend or Family Member:  Close friends and/or family members will usually already have a fairly good understanding of your child’s food allergy.  However, this is not always the case.  Get together with the host casually and remind them of your child’s food allergy.  Ask about the menu plans and offer to bring an allergy safe dish to add to the menu.
    2. Acquaintance:  When accepting the invitation you might mention your child has a food allergy and that it would be helpful to know about the menu beforehand.  Based on the menu you can decide whether to serve a light meal at home before the event or bring allergy-safe food with.
    3. Public Event:  A large public event is the most challenging as there are usually many different vendors involved in planning and delivering the food, adding to the potential of cross-contact.  In order to best enjoy attending a public event with your child it is always best to bring your child’s favorite allergy-safe snacks along so that they can enjoy the event to the fullest.

    Ultimately, “educate the host about the dangers of cross-contact. This is not something that most people outside of the allergy world are aware of, yet it is a dangerous situation and crucial to safeguard against allergens.”



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