As the holidays approach so do parties, dinners, and events for families and friends. They may be at home, the office, or your kid(s) schools, but in any location you could encounter a person with dietary restrictions or food allergies. As someone who has multiple food allergies who has also entertained people with allergies different than my own, I like to think I’m somewhat of an expert on the topic. I’ve compiled a list of my top tips for cooking for people with food allergies. In the case that the person with allergies is a child, simply follow these same rules but consult the parent/guardian instead.
Asking for detailed lists will make you both feel more comfortable
The two main points to keep in mind when cooking for food-allergic friends are communication and transparency. Let them know what you’re planning to make ahead of time and ask them for a detailed list of their allergies for reference. Ask them if they use or avoid any specific brands to help you navigate the grocery store.
Keep packages/ingredients labels
It’s advisable to hold on to the wrapper/package of any packaged/prepared food or anything with an ingredient list for in case your guests want to take a look or you’re feeling uncertain. You may have questions or they may feel more comfortable reading it before taking a bite. If they do ask to read the package know that it’s not personal, it’s just common protocol.
If you’re unsure, just ask
When your daily life doesn’t involve exposure to allergies it is difficult to understand how to handle allergies to the extent of someone who lives with them every day. So if you’re unsure about an ingredient, if cross-contamination occurred, or if any concern comes up, don’t be afraid to seek clarification. This doesn’t just apply to the cooking/preparing portion of entertaining. Don’t be shy to take a snap of a label or ingredients list at the grocery store and text it to your guest for approval.
Do a quick online search
Allergens can often go by a number of different names so it’s a good idea to take a look online and see what other ingredients you should look out for. For example, dairy can also be called casein, whey powder, or lactose, among other things. Even though these may be additives or only contained in small amounts, it can still be enough to cause a serious reaction so always exercise caution. There are some apps you can download to help you determine what’s what, like AllergyEats and Content Checked.
Don’t take chances with “may contain” or un-labelled foods
A lot of packaged foods have disclaimers stating that the product was either processed on the same equipment as or may contain allergens. In fact, it’s often difficult to find packaged foods (especially breads and baked goods) that don’t have this disclaimer unless they’re specifically allergen-free brands.
Although it can be discouraging when shopping for a certain type of bread or other recipe component, don’t cave and buy something with a disclaimer on it. It’s very likely that the allergic person wouldn’t trust the brand themselves, so avoid leniency even when it’s tough to find what you need. The person with allergies may prefer to just forego that component of the meal altogether as opposed to risking it. I commonly eat burgers without a bun because it’s so hard to find burger buns I can eat. I would rather do that and enjoy my meal freely than take a chance on something I’m not sure about. If you’re unsure just remember to communicate the issue with them and be transparent about it, because they can help guide you in the right direction.
When it comes time to prep the meal you’ll need to be very careful about what comes into contact with what. Cross-contamination occurs when a utensil, hands, or food, or anything that has allergens present on it comes into contact with the intended allergen-free food. For example, in the case of a dairy allergy, using the same knife to slice cheese and then to chop a salad would render the salad unsafe. Something as simple as sharing a cutting board, spoon, ladle, or even the splashes of one pot into another can cause cross-contamination. My first suggestion is to wash all your materials with a clean sponge or run them through the dishwasher on sanitize cycle even if you think they’re already clean. Food residues that stick after the washing cycle can still cause a severe reaction. One should also consider whether the ingredients have been cross-contaminated in the pat. For example, has a measuring cup that’s generally used for butter also been submerged in the bag of flour you intend to bake with? Make sure you consider everything, and if you’re unsure just use a fresh utensil, pot, etc. It also helps to prep the allergen-free food ahead of time and set it aside to avoid confusion while cooking.
Cooking for people with food allergies may seem scary and even daunting at first but by following these steps it can be made simple and less stressful. If you have any additional suggestions please let us know in the comments section.