Food allergies and the holidays

Help your guests avoid allergic reactions.

Approximately 15 million people live with food allergies, according to the Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE) group. The holiday season poses an interesting time to deal with food allergies. People are eating foods that they may be unfamiliar with; they are eating at different places, and with different groups of family and friends during this busy time of the year. It can be a challenge for many people to understand what an allergy is and what an intolerance or sensitivity is.

An allergy can be mild-to-severe for someone; symptoms can range from mild hives to breathing issues, even death in severe cases. A severe reaction is called anaphylaxis. Someone with an intolerance or sensitivity might experience mild to severe discomfort, and medical attention might be needed. Someone who is unfamiliar with how symptoms are described may not understand when a child is describing their symptoms.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lists the following symptoms as something to watch for, especially if a child is trying to communicate to an adult:

Symptoms Communicated by Children with Food Allergies

  • It feels like something is poking my tongue.
  • My tongue (or mouth) is tingling (or burning).
  • My tongue (or mouth) itches.
  • My tongue feels like there is hair on it.
  • My mouth feels funny.
  • There’s a frog in my throat; there’s something stuck in my throat.
  • My tongue feels full (or heavy).
  • My lips feel tight.
  • It feels like there are bugs in there (to describe itchy ears).
  • It (my throat) feels thick.
  • It feels like a bump is on the back of my tongue (throat).

The CDC have identified 8 most common food allergens, calling them the “Big 8”.  They are milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, wheat, soy, peanuts and tree nuts. 

Tips for restaurant hosts and servers

Restaurants spend quite a bit of time training staff on how to work with customers with special dietary needs.  But as a host, you may not have a clear understanding of what to do. If you are aware one or several of your guests may have a food allergy, discuss with them what they are allergic to. Determine if there are other menu items that can be prepared, ingredients substituted etc. If you are serving food buffet style, make sure you have labeled foods, or inform your guests what is on the buffet before they sample something they shouldn’t.  If you are having a potluck, ask your guests to provide labels for their food as well as utensils to avoid any mixing of food.

As you prepare dishes, try to keep each dish separate from others (avoid cross-contamination), wash cutting boards, counter tops, utensils and cookware between uses, as well as your hands between prepping different items.

Michigan State University Extension encourages you to prepare food safely and be aware of other’s dietary needs. There is no such thing as a secret ingredient. An allergic reaction, resulting in hives, itching, swelling, stomach pain, nausea or vomiting, diarrhea, sneezing, coughing or wheezing, shortness of breath, difficulty breathing or swallowing or swelling of airways is not how you want a get-together to end.  Be alert, know symptoms, and call 911 if symptoms warrant.

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