Managing harmful food allergies during the holidays

Fall is a wonderful time of year for celebrating family traditions and holidays, which definitely incorporate food. However, it is becoming more and more common to have a family member or friend with life-threatening food allergies, which need be avoided.

What is a food allergy? A food allergy is a medical condition in which an exposure to a food can trigger a harmful immune response. These responses can range from mild (itchy mouth, a few hives) to severe (throat tightening, difficulty breathing) symptoms. There are eight common food allergens that account for most food allergic reactions in the United States: milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, wheat, soy, peanuts and tree nuts. The only way to prevent a food allergy reaction is to avoid the problem food(s).

Be prepared

What can you do to prevent a possible harmful immune response at a family or holiday gathering? First, ask your family members and friends before the gathering if they have any food allergies or special diets that they follow.

Those with food allergies or special diets don't mind identifying allergens, as it can protect them. Base your menu on recipes or food items that do not contain the known food allergen(s).

Along with asking family and friends beforehand if they do have any food allergies, I recommend always providing one or two simple, nonfood allergen dishes to have on hand, just in case. This could be as simple as having a plain vegetable tray, fruit tray or plain sliced deli meat tray. You can also ask your attendees to bring a dish that they know will not contain their food allergen(s).

Another way to help prevent possible harmful immune responses is to have your guests list the ingredients in provided dishes, to help identify possible allergens to consumers.

Adapting recipes

If you'd like to make a family-favorite recipe, food substitutes can be used in place of a food allergen. I recommend for food substitutions. However, keep in mind that not all substitutes are created equal, and your recipe may not taste or look the same if using a substitute. When preparing meals for someone with multiple food allergies, be mindful not to replace one food allergen with another.

Don't hesitate to ask your family member or friend what food substitution, including the brand, works for them.

Food allergens can make creating a menu harder; however, the holidays are about gathering with those you love, celebrating the season, while remaining safe. Don't be afraid to create a simple menu with foods easily identifiable yet crowd-pleasing. Remember, ask questions about food allergies and stay informed in pursuit of a safe holiday season.

Make your own gluten (wheat) - free flour mix


4 cups white rice flour

1 1/3 cup cornstarch

2/3 cup tapioca starch

6 tablespoons xanthan gum


Mix well.

Store in an air-tight container.

This can be used as an all-purpose wheat flour substitute.

Rachelle Goebel, RD, LD is a registered dietician at St. Luke's hospital in Duluth, Minn. This article originally appeared in The Senior Reporter, Duluth, Minn.