Celebrating through food is a big part of our culture. Many festivals are either punctuated or dominated by food. Who could imagine Easter without the chocolate, a birthday party without a cake, or Halloween without sweets?
While celebrating through food is a sociable and very enjoyable activity, it poses challenges for those with food allergies – particularly children. It can make kids feel excluded when they can’t eat what everyone else is eating ,or if they have to forego treats such as chocolate because of an allergy. Children with food allergies often miss out on a day-to-day basis, but the exclusion can feel even more pointed at a wonderfully sociable occasion where food is central. We would like to share some tips on making these occasions just as enjoyable for children with food allergies, and stress-free for the parents who are often cooking or trying to keep their children away from potentially dangerous food allergens.
KEEP IT SIMPLE
There are lots of things you can do make sure your child is included in festivities. If you are hosting yourself, it is generally more straightforward as you can make completely allergy-free food that’s suitable for your child. Keep it simple, but add lots of flavour using herbs and spices. Why not try Jamie Oliver’s roast chicken with lemon and rosemary roast potatoes and gorgeous roast vegetables? It’s perfectly possible to create a delicious spread using everyday ingredients that’s completely free from allergens and your guests will be none the wiser.
BE PREPARED – BRING YOUR OWN
If you are eating away from home it can be a little more problematic. You don’t want to burden your hosts by asking them to make something special and, additionally, if your child has a severe allergy, it can be very hard to hand over that responsibility if you haven’t had a chance to check food labels and ingredients to ensure what’s being served is safe for you child. We always make food and take it along for our allergic children, and when we arrive we find out what is being served and how it was made. Then, if we are confident it’s suitable and safe for our children, they will go ahead and eat it and if we’re not sure that the food is allergen-free, they’ll eat the food we’ve brought for them. You can also offer to make and bring dessert (or a different course) for the whole party. This way your child can join in with everyone for at least one part of the meal.
Photo by Chris Terry
Easter is always dominated by chocolate eggs and bunnies. There is now an increasing choice of dairy-free chocolate on offer, some of which is produced in nut-free factories and/or is free from soya lecithin. You need to shop around to find a brand that suits your child’s specific allergies. Most supermarkets have a good range and we particularly like Sainsbury’s own brand as they have many products that are particularly appealing to children. In our experience, shopping online is a good way to find exactly what you want. The good news is that many brands are now producing not only Easter Eggs, but also bunnies. Last Easter, when Ellie’s daughter found a chocolate bunny she assumed it must be meant for her non-allergic sister, and was over the moon when she discovered it was dairy-free and intended for her. It’s also fun to buy small plastic eggs that come apart and you can fill yourself. We fill them with sweets and dairy-free chocolate but also with non-food items that the kids like such as stickers. They love finding them on Easter egg hunts and discovering what’s inside.
TRICK OR TREAT?
Non-food items are also big hits for our families at Halloween. Our kids really enjoy trick or treating, but are inevitably offered things they can’t have because of their allergies. If chocolates or biscuits or items with nuts are being offered, we swap them for something from our stash of safe treats instead. These include non-food items like keyrings , bubbles, pencils or other small toys similar to those you’d find in party bags. We’d also suggest you dissuade your children from eating their sweets as they go round knocking on doors unless you’ve had a chance to check the labels. We also discourage our children from dipping their hands into sacks or bags they can’t see into as there could be allergens lurking within. It’s also better to choose sweets or lollies in wrappers so you know they won’t have come into contact with allergens. If you’re careful and take a couple of sensible precautions, we see no reason why a child with food allergies can’t join in with the Halloween fun.
Photo by Chris Terry
ORGANISING A BIRTHDAY PARTY
Of all the events and festivities throughout the year, our children look forward to nothing more than their own birthdays. If you are organising your own child’s party you can make all the food free from the things he or she is allergic to and the other children will enjoy it just as much as the food at any other party. It’s very easy to put together a spread of crudités such as carrot and cucumber sticks, gluten-free and egg-free cocktail sausages, allergen-free crisps, fruit and jelly. There’s no reason whatsoever that your child’s cake can’t be just as spectacular as one made with butter, eggs and flour. Why not try our chocolate cake recipe? It has always gone down very well at our children’s birthday parties, and you can either serve it with the chocolate frosting or use fondant icing to create a cake to fit the party’s theme.
GOING TO A FRIEND’S PARTY
If your children are going to friends’ parties it’s always worth packing some party food in case the food being served isn’t suitable. We usually have batches of cupcakes in the freezer and we just defrost one to take along to the party. Our chocolate cake recipe can be used to make cupcakes that freeze well, complete with the icing on top. They keep well for up to a month and they work best if you use silicone cupcake cases rather than paper cases when freezing. We also tend to get in touch with the parents organising the party to explain our child’s allergies and, if we’re dropping the children off, we ask an adult at the party if they’d be happy to take responsibility for medication. It can seem overwhelming for parents whose children don’t have allergies to think about administering an epipen. Most allergy doctors will issue an emergency treatment plan that provides simple step-by-step instructions on which medication to give in an emergency and how to use it. We always keep this treatment plan with the medication and make sure that the parents or another adult at the party is familiar with it. This way, everyone has a happy birthday.
There is a tricky balance you have to strike as a parent of a food allergic child, particularly if the allergy is severe. On the one hand you must make sure your child is kept safe but, on the other, you want to allow him or her to fully participate in and enjoy all life has to offer. By adapting recipes, bringing our own food or cooking allergen-free food for everyone as well as taking sensible precautions such as always carrying medication, we feel our kids really don’t miss out much on big occasions or celebrations and they’re able to join in with almost everything. We hope that some of our tips will help make sure your children feel fully included too.