Dealing With Food Allergies As a Guest

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For whatever reason, your family, or at least some of them, ‘eat funny,’ that is, different from the norm.  How do you handle that when invited to somebody else’s home?

 

This kind of depends on your reasons for eating differently- most people can understand and respect a genuine food allergy- like nuts, or having celiac disease  People are less respectful, in general, of food preferences or even convictions, especially if they are inconvenient to the hostess, or if, for whatever reason, they come across as self-righteous. Sometimes that isn’t fair, sometimes we do have a bit of a superior attitude about our food changes.  When we’re the odd ones out, I think we just have to expect that sometimes this is frustrating to others, and we need to accept that reality and be as gracious as we can about it, bending over a little more backward to make up for our quirky ways.

We have a child who is allergic to wheat, corn, and eggs.  The results of her having these foods are not life-threatening, but they are utterly unpleasant for those of us around her.  Since wheat makes her downright mean and spiteful, I have inferred that it must make her feel pretty awful, since she’s usually a friendly, happy child..  However, even when a host/hostess does accept this with good grace, that doesn’t meant they know enough to avoid all the off limit foods.  After all, it took me years to figure it all out.

I’ve had somebody try to give my wheat-allergic child regular pasta because it only had ‘semolina wheat’ in it.  A bookstore employee offered us vanilla wafers at an event, saying they had no wheat, only flour.  And almost nobody knows all the forms that corn takes to hide in your food unless they have to deal with the same allergy.

Anybody can make a mistake. I once invited friends over who try to eat kosher and who were also avoiding regular wheat. I thought very carefully about the menu, worked hard at finding food we could afford that everybody could eat, made biscuits from Kamut flour especially for them- and at the last minute without thinking used lard for the fat in the biscuits.  I didn’t even know that lard is always from pigs.  So, oops.  Anybody can make such a mistake and I don’t think it’s fair to burden hosts with the responsibility.

So when we are invited over to somebody’s house for a meal, I just make the Cherub her own food to eat. I don’t ask ahead of time, I just bring it.  If there is food there she can have, well and good. Otherwise, we fall back on:

Baked potato (reheated, if possible, in their microwave), with cottage cheese and dill.

Rice cakes with cheese or natural peanut butter

Salads with dressing we bring from home

Any leftovers from our home-meals that she can eat, which we reheat there.

Fruit, cheese
Annie Chun’s Seaweed Snacks, Roasted Sesame and cooked rice from home.

Sometimes our hostess will ask in advance if we have any special dietary needs, and then I will inform them that I am bringing the Cherub’s food. I am firm about this- smiling, but very firm.  It’s just too much trouble for them to try to figure out how to feed everybody a wheat, corn, and egg free meal, and it’s too much trouble for us if they make a mistake- and too embarrassing and too much of a burden to place on others.

If more than one of your family has special food needs, you can explain that to the host and volunteer to bring a dish to share that your family members with complicated diets can also share.

Depending on which of you it is, you can also stash some snacks in the car or in your purse so that if the only thing served that you can eat is a vegetable side dish of your least favorite veggies, you can stave off starvation with your secret snack.

That’s how we handle it.  What about you?

Mama Squirrel shared a link to this post on dealing with food sensitivities and how hard this can be for the family. And the Common Room said, “AMEN.”
The need to read labels every single time? Yes. SO tedious and frustrating (and now really hard on my 50 year old eyes), and yet, so necessary because companies are tricksie.
The granola bar we’ve been buying the Cherub for years recently began adding corn meal, which I discovered AFTER the Cherub had her nasty reaction to corn- it is thankfully not life threatening, but she has loud and continuous belches that smell much worse than raw sewage, worse than any o’benjo ditch, to those of you who lived where benjo ditches are. It’s not fun for anybody near her, and it really can’t feel very good to have your stomach full of those gasses.

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13 Comments

  1. Steph
    Posted February 19, 2013 at 7:25 am | Permalink

    I have a milk allergy. It won’t kill me to consume milk, but it will make me very uncomfortable for a few days. I tell people what I can’t have (butter, cheese, cream, yogurt, etc.) and then, if needed I give some ideas (plain meat and veggies, no fancy sauces.) I also offer to bring a dessert or salad, because especially desserts are hard to find! We live in Switzerland, the country of dairy, so asking someone to prepare a DF meal here can be quite a challenge! My Swiss husband, a physician, thinks that I’m one of the first people he’s met with a dairy allergy.

  2. 6 arrows
    Posted February 19, 2013 at 9:19 am | Permalink

    I have what has been termed non-celiac gluten sensitivity, in addition to several other food sensitivities, so I do what you do with the Cherub — just bring my own food in case I don’t find enough other foods that I can eat at the place we’re invited.

    Back when I wasn’t sure whether or not I had celiac disease, but was gluten-free anyway, I tried explaining things to people about food issues, but there was lots of confusion about such things like wheat-free doesn’t necessarily mean gluten-free, gluten can be in something that is only labeled “natural flavors” on the food label, etc. One person I talked to thought “organic” and “gluten-free” were synonymous terms! And the whole cross-contamination issue (serving spoons bouncing from gluten-filled dishes to gluten-free dishes, wheat crumbs in the butter dish, GF crackers put on the same serving tray as wheat crackers, etc.) was lost on a lot of people, that I just found it much easier to forget about educating people and just stick to bringing my own food! :-)

  3. Lindsey in AL
    Posted February 19, 2013 at 9:35 am | Permalink

    We eat grain-free at home 90% of the time but we’re not purists here and if we go visiting we just eat what’s served and enjoy the treat (like homemade cinnamon raisin bread at great-grandma’s). Some of us will pay for it the next day or two (hay fever, bellyaches, grouchiness) but we get over it and are thankful that no one has a true allergy.

  4. Posted February 19, 2013 at 9:55 am | Permalink

    There are so many reasons for needing particular foods these days, that I think some really basic awareness SHOULD be somewhat expected of hosts. I’ve seen misunderstandings over a whole variety of food issues. Once we were at a church event, and one lady insisted that the dessert she had brought was “sugar free” and therefore okay for diabetics. Well, it was technically “sugar free,” because she didn’t add sugar–but the dessert was made out of packaged pudding, packaged cake mix, packaged topping–sounds funny, but she was serious. When my husband was seriously limited on sodium intake, we got a lot of a similar comments: “well, I didn’t add salt” or “I didn’t add much salt.” Except that the dish would be full of high-sodium cheese, canned soup, or other ingredients he couldn’t have. I know you (generic you) don’t fully realize the problems of a particular food limitation until you’re there yourself, but it seems to me that, these days, people should try to get a basic understanding of what “gluten free” or “low sugar” involves.

    And for a look at what parents of special-diet kids go through, especially trying to deal with the comments and misunderstandings of others, I think this is a great blog post on JamsideUp: http://jamsideup.ca/blog/?p=1484 .

    • Headmistress, zookeeper
      Posted February 19, 2013 at 11:19 am | Permalink

      I don’t know, M.S., I guess I just find the maze of food additives I have to watch for so confusing and frustrating that I just don’t see that it’s fair to expect somebody else to maneuver their way through it just for us, esp just for one or two meals. On the other side of that coin is that I am ultimately responsible for my family’s health, and I *know* that people are ignorant, lack common sense, and sometimes make dumb mistakes (like the one I made with lard), so it’s only going to bite me and my family in the end if I expect them to figure that stuff out to feed us once. I just don’t see any result but frustration will come of me expecting those who don’t have their own reasons to need to know this stuff even at a basic level.

      It’s *really* hard- here’s another example- for years there was one brand and flavor of granola bar that the Cherub could eat, and she loved them, so we often bought them for her as treats and as a reliable food for traveling. Only they recently added corn meal to the ingredients without noting that change except in the small print of the ingredients list. We found out when the Cherub had her usual unpleasant reaction to corn (loud and incessant belches that smell worse than raw sewage).

  5. Posted February 19, 2013 at 11:43 am | Permalink

    I’ve got one who is anaphylactic to fish, and avocado tries to kill me. We’re fortunate that these are pretty easy to avoid. If there was a problem, we’d just bring our own food, like you do, rather than expect everyone else to adjust. I suspect that one of the reasons that no one seems to take food allergies seriously is that most people who claim to have them are awfully worried about making sure that *everybody else* watches out for their needs. If it’s that serious, we ought to be taking full responsibility for it ourselves instead of making it all about our special selves, and so we do. We carry our epipens and stay careful.

    We will, in the future, need to make sure that the girl he marries will be willing to not eat fish before kissing him, I suppose. That’s the only imposition I feel comfortable putting on anyone else. :-)

  6. Posted February 19, 2013 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

    Although we are not dealing currently so much with low sodium, we do have a number of other, somewhat “minor” food sensitivities around our house, and some are the kind you wouldn’t even think to mention until they turn up in the main dish. Like rosemary. And a lot of the things that people throw into salads: raw onions (especially green onions), raw tomatoes. Certain kinds of cooked tomato products, which turn up a lot in pasta dishes and potluck casseroles. Soy products, which vegetarians love to sneak in and then whomp you with later (Surprise! Bet you didn’t know that was TOFU. Um, yeah, that would account for the stomach ache and other unpleasantness…). Certain kinds of legumes, including ground chickpeas (falafel and hummus are definitely out). Peanut butter, but that one’s better understood these days. Some fruits. We have also found it easiest, at things like church lunch potlucks, to make sure we take enough of something everybody in our own family can eat and that we’re sure of–or just packing our own sandwiches.

    So even if hosts can’t be expected to know what guests can or can’t eat, I would appreciate it if they’d at least be honest.

  7. Amy
    Posted February 19, 2013 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

    We deal with extensive food allergies in our family, most of them being the life-threatening variety. It makes being a guest a little difficult.

    Since all of us have food allergies, I talk about it to the hostess ahead of time because I will be bringing our own food, and it makes a big difference in the head count if 4 or 5 of the 7 of us won’t be eating her food. My general rule is to pack everything that all of us eat, with the exception of my oldest who’s only allergic to cherries and my husband who is only allergic to bananas and melon. I don’t expect our host to navigate allergies to wheat (including kamut and spelt), eggs, dairy, sesame, and nuts (where same equipment food is off-limits). I do have one dear friend who cooks from scratch and wants to cook for us, and she doesn’t mind me grilling her about brands of the ingredients and so on, so we do eat some of her food. I always end up packing desert, though, because making deserts with that allergy list is something most people can’t easily do.

    We find it easier to host people in our home. That’s what we generally do. And while I never get my feelings hurt if food-allergic people bring their own food to our house, I like being able to provide a meal to people without any of their allergens. There are a few families who always pack their own meals to every house but ours, and I like being able to provide that experience to them.

    I wish that more people understood how serious food allergies can be and how significant tiny amounts of cross-contamination can be. We have some family members who don’t get it and get their feelings hurt that we can’t eat their food. Everything Thanksgiving we hear, “Well, what’s wrong with my turkey?” and other similar comments. I try to answer as graciously as possible, making them understand that it’s difficult to cook for a food-allergic person and that I don’t want to put that burden on them, but some people don’t want to understand.

  8. Lady M
    Posted February 19, 2013 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

    My own MIL was in denial about our oldest child’s dairy allergy when she was little. She did not get that no, she could not have formula if I left there – only the breastmilk. No, I could not have dairy, either. Yes, yogurt, cheese, ice cream, custard, whip cream, etc. etc. have dairy in it. Yes, I keep Benadryl on hand because you keep trying to give her dairy and she breaks out in hives – that is how we know you did give it to her. Yes, a little tiny taste counts just as much as a full serving. Yes, I am sure she has a full blown allergy (what did you think the hives were all about??). The doctor concurred with me (I figured it out before the doctor did). It took her seeing a full blown reaction in progress to understand that we were not joking around about the allergy. Ultimately, it was my MIL and my SIL’s fault that she had the reaction – we said NO to the cream filled birthday cake – it was only a little – right? and they gave it to her anyway when I was nursing her little brother & my husband was talking to me when it happened).

    Thankfully, she has partly outgrown it and can tolerate some dairy on occasion, particularly hard cheeses (this makes pizza a go!), yogurt, & frozen custard (and the more rare ice cream). She does not break out into hives or have screaming fits anymore when exposed. But, we know she has reached her limit when the eczema shows up (typically after a holiday over-dose of chocolate, lol). But, our dd is old enough now to know what/when to say know and if she gets too much, then she knows she will have to deal with the consequences.

    We are the lucky ones though. Hers is not life threatening (particularly now – we used to not be sure). I have friends with children who have life threatening allergies and I go the extra mile for them. In fact, we actually stopped using peanut butter at our house for a few years because of one friends child’s allergy. Because we spent so much time with them at parks days, play dates, etc. I was paranoid about the potential exposure from missed spots on my childrens hands, the tables, etc. I had seen the child’s lab results and knew exactly what the results meant. I learned how to use an epi-pen from her old expired ones.

  9. Posted February 19, 2013 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

    When we get invited over, I will kindly let our hosts know that I have Celiac and what all that entails. If they ask, I suggest meals that are easy to make GF so that they don’t have to go through too much extra trouble (and so they don’t have to buy to many expensive ingredients that they’ll only use for that one meal). I know I’d feel embarrassed if I invited friends over and they couldn’t eat anything I served! That said, if I could eat “regular” food and I had a child that had to eat GF, then I’d just do as you do; bring “back-up” food for the child and go with the flow. Most of my friends now know that I have Celiac disease and will ask what I can eat before they fix anything. I do sometimes feel rather rude having to say “Hey, cook special food for me!” but I try to offer to bring food to share or for myself if that’s necessary.

  10. Posted February 19, 2013 at 9:48 pm | Permalink

    I never ever expect anyone to feed my son who is allergic to dairy, egg, peanut, beef, and pork. His allergies are all life threatening and no one wants a dead guest on his or her hands. Actually there are people who try and succeed in feeding my kid because they chose to. There are others who will NEVER try and put all his allergens in every dish then tsk tsk when he has to eat his own food. It’s like this. He has to eat, and he has to stay alive. I have no trouble making sure that happens

  11. Kimberley
    Posted February 20, 2013 at 11:31 pm | Permalink

    I appreciate this post and I completely agree with your stand. I have one who is intolerant to dairy protein so it totally confuses people that she can eat heavy cream and butter since those products don’t contain the protein. It’s a very strange reaction too. It’s is like she has been given speed. She doesn’t sleep and she becomes this in-your-face giggly girl. She even had the reaction to my breastmilk long after I had cut all dairy from my diet. Suffice it to say we had a VERY rough first year of parenthood!
    My favorite reaction of people though is when she is eating eggs and they comment, “Oh, I thought she couldn’t have dairy.” Ummm…..cows don’t lay eggs, actually.
    We always bring our own food. So much easier!

    • Steph
      Posted February 21, 2013 at 7:58 am | Permalink

      Oh, it’s so much fun to educate people about a dairy protein allergy!

      ‘No, it’s not lactose intolerance. No, I cannot just take a pill and eat it.’
      ‘Yes, it’s true that I do not know what cheese tastes like.’
      ‘No, just because it says non-dairy does not mean it is DF. (Hello Cool Whip!)’

      As a guest, I do so appreciate it when someone tries to come up with a substitute instead of just having me skip a course. (Although I’d rather skip a course than end up with a reaction!) Even if it’s just a suggestion of fruit for dessert instead of crème brulée, it’s nice to feel included, not just sitting with an empty plate while everyone else regales on something chocolat-y. I also love it when the host offers to let me read the labels. They may not know that casein is milk protein, but that’s exactly what I’m allergic to!

      Basically, for a host to the allergic guest, I would just give the simple advice of communication! If you’re overwhelmed with the idea, admit it! Most of us are happy to provide our own food. And offer what you have, or ask what we can eat. We cook this way all the time, we can probably give you some ideas.

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