When I was growing up, I was pretty much the only kid among my friends who had any kind of food allergy. (Back in the day I was lactose intolerant but have since discovered the miracle that is the lactaid pill; I unfortunately developed a pretty severe gluten intolerance as an adult which has no such pill to prevent the ill effects of gluten on my delicate constitution). Now, it seems like every gathering has at least someone who is allergic or sensitive to some category of food. Because of my own allergies, I am naturally conscious of food allergies. But for those who aren't used to navigating the world of food allergies, it can be daunting. It's different than cooking for a picky eater who may not like something, like onion, but can eat them if they're finely chopped and hidden in a soup or stew. A trace amount of an allergen can be enough to send someone with a serious food allergy into anaphylactic shock, which is really not the kind of endorsement you want for your mad cooking skills.
Peeps often ask me for advice when hosting guests with food allergies, so below is the list of things I usually tell people to make hosting a guest with food allergies easier. But before I dive into the list of tips for hosting guests with food allergies, I want to give a few examples of the things my friends and family have done over the years that have been beyond gracious in making sure that I always had enough to eat when they were hosting (because you all know how much I love to eat!). From my sisters who always make sure there's a gluten-free pumpkin flavored dessert for me (my favorite!), my mother-in-law who has learned to alter nearly every one of her family recipes so that I can enjoy them too (and my sisters-in-law who diligently look at every one of my mother-in-law's ingredient labels to make sure they are in fact gluten-free), to friends (like Elizabeth) who have notified restaurants of my food allergies before I even arrived for rehearsal dinners and other large events, my friend Josh who has cooked many a gluten-free meals for me over the years and went above and beyond by making a delicious meal containing no gluten, dairy or soy when I came home from the hospital after giving birth to my daughter (and had an even more limited diet due to breast feeding), to a ton of other friends in between, and most recently to our friends, Danelle and Matt, who had us at their beach house over the summer and used a gluten-free baking mix in their family-favorite oatmeal pancake recipe to make sure I could eat them too. I know it's an inconvenience to have to limit or alter a menu or beloved recipe for someone with food allergies, but when you do, I can tell you that it makes the person appreciate you even more.
So, without further ado....
Tips for hosting guests with food allergies
(1) Ask in advance about food limitations. I like to use the word limitations or preferences because it includes everything from food allergies to dietary preferences (i.e. vegan, diabetic, no pig). Asking in advance about food limitations is particularly important for a dinner party or holiday, where a meal is the center of the event. You can still serve a dish that not everyone can eat, but this way you can be sure to include other foods so each person has enough to choose from. If you aren't sure how severe someone's allergy may be, just ask them. Give a few examples to see if you understand what needs to be done to cook for them in a safe way. If your guest isn't comfortable eating something they didn't cook and they offer to bring a dish that they can eat instead don't be offended. After all, you'd rather your friend feel comfortable than have them decline your invite, right?!
(2) Serve at least a few simple dishes with only a few ingredients. When planning a menu for a larger event, where it isn't feasible to ask everyone about their food limitations (i.e. baby shower for your sister, engagement party for a friend), include at least a few simple offerings where the ingredients are readily apparent and not mixed with several other ingredients. Set out a platter of fresh veggies, cheese, dried fruit and cured meats, which are all good options to have in the mix for those who may be wary of more composed appetizers (like stuffed mushrooms) with a long list of ingredients that could include something they can't eat. Someone may not feel comfortable inquiring about ingredients at a larger function, and serving a few simple dishes or platters will leave them with some discreet food options. Also, be sure to prevent cross-contamination (more on that in #5 below) by keeping things like nuts and crackers in separate bowls; if they're touching other foods someone with an allergy will not be able to eat them.
(3) Save all food package labels. By law, companies are required to list major food allergens on commercial packaging (the list includes milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, wheat, peanuts and soy). Saving the package is a really helpful way for someone with a food allergy to scan the ingredient list and make an informed decision about whether something is safe for them to eat.
(4) Buy pre-made products or mixes that are specifically labeled allergy-free. If you aren't making everything on your menu from scratch, make it easy on yourself and use allergy-free products (free of whatever allergen you are trying to avoid). For example, look for a marinade that is specifically marked "gluten-free" because ingredients like soy sauce and barley malt, which are not obvious gluten ingredients, do contain gluten and are enough to cause someone with even an intolerance (rather than a full blown allergy) have an adverse reaction. With so many different stabilizers and additives in store-bought products it can be tough to spot a possible allergen, so it's easier to just find a product that is labeled allergy-free. Mainstream supermarkets now carry a range of allergy-free products, and specialty stores (like Wholefoods, Trader Joe's and smaller health food stores) specifically cater to allergy-aware shoppers and have even more options available.(5) Prevent cross-contamination. This is one of the trickiest things to stay aware of if you aren't used to cooking for anyone with food allergies. If you are using ingredients that are off limits to any of your guests, be sure to use separate cutting boards, bowls, knives and spatulas during food prep. For example, be sure to clean a knife that you used to slice bagels before cutting up any fruit if you are aiming for gluten-free. Also be aware of what other utensils you have dipped in any jarred ingredients (such as a knife with peanut butter residue in a jam jar) and use a fresh jar if there is a possibility of cross-contamination If you're setting up a buffet, be sure to put out separate utensils for each dish to make sure people don't use the spoon from one dish for another dish that contains an allergen. Also try to put the dishes that contain allergens a little further away from the ones that are safe for your guest (i.e. on a brunch buffet, put bagels and cream cheese in between the salad with candied nuts and the pasta salad that is nut-free). That way guests will be even less likely to cross-contaminate with serving utensils. I know it seems like a huge pain to keep all of this in mind while cooking and entertaining - especially onto of all the other things you are doing to take care of all your other guests. But the last thing you want is for someone to eat your food and get sick. If you can think of any other tips that would be helpful for hosting guests with food allergies please share in the comments! And if you're someone with a food allergy be gracious about any efforts that are made to accommodate you, even if they aren't sufficient, because someone cared enough to try. Don't look all down in the mouth (as my husband would say) because someone thought you could scrape the pumpkin filling out of the pie crust or eat the filling of a sandwich after peeling off the bread. Yes, for those with a gluten allergy or even a serious gluten-intolerance (like me), those modifications won't work. But someone cared enough to think of you and suggest it. Pre-game before an event if you are concerned, and be kind. Because everyone has a lot on their plate, even if it's full of things you can't eat.