Allergy-Free Cooking: How to Host Guests with Food Allergies

I both love and dread being invited over to a friend’s house for dinner. As a social extrovert, I can never seem to soak in enough time with fun people; and my friends are pretty damn fun. But since food is nearly always involved in social functions, I am also apprehensive.

I want so badly to be the perfect, easy, laid-back guest, but the fact is I am one of the hardest people to feed on the planet. This isn’t because I’m unnecessarily picky. Although I’m a stickler about what’s on my own dining table, I’m not against trying new things or eating an ingredient that’s not my favorite when others are graciously hosting me.

Looks delicious...but will it kill me?

Looks delicious…but will it kill me?

That said, allergic reactions are about as much fun for a host as they are for me (read: not at all). What I’ve found is that my friends want to be good entertainers as desperately as I want to be a good guest. With prevalence of food allergies increasing at the rate it is, it’s likely that there are other people struggling with how to feed the allergic. So I guess it’s about time for us allergy and food intolerance-ridden invitees to come clean on how to accommodate us. I’ve seen some books on the market for $15-30. I’m going to tell you the basics right here, for free, because I (admittedly selfishly) want every home to be prepared for guests with food allergies.

As uncomfortable as it is for me to ask for special treatment, I’m going to put these top seven considerations out there as a means to help home cooks everywhere make all their friends comfortable eating from their kitchens.

  1. First, ask about the dietary needs of your guests when you invite them over for gatherings that involve food. It’s always awkward for the guest to bring it up on their own. I’ll do it, but I always feel more comfortable when my host or hostess takes the first step.

  1. Make sure you understand the extent of any allergies, intolerances, diet choices or aversions. I always tell people I’m “super allergic” to all nuts and poppy seeds. This is my way of expressing severity. In other words, if you mess it up I could be leaving in an ambulance.

Some people will tell you they’re “allergic” to something when really what they mean is that they have an intolerance. For those with intolerances, the details will help you to know what kind of precautions you need to take. For example, I don’t do milk or cream because they make me feel sick (damn lactose!), but I’m OK with butter or hard cheese. I don’t tolerate wheat well, but if a crumb cross-contaminates my food I’ll be just fine. This may not be the case for a friend with Celiac disease; in this instance you’ll likely need to up your kitchen smarts to make sure absolutely no gluten sneaks into anything.

Also, some people are so allergic that if they come into contact with the allergen via air they could have a reaction. I had a great uncle who couldn’t be in the same room as an open jar of peanut butter or he would break out in hives. This is rare, but does exist. If someone you’re hosting has an environmental food allergy, make sure you don’t have any offending food in the house while they’re there. At minimum make sure it’s sealed, airtight, and put away somewhere safe.

When it comes to food preferences, it will behoove you to ask if there’s anything they really dislike or if they’ve made any lifestyle choices you’ll need to consider in your menu planning (e.g. vegan, vegetarian, dairy-free, low sugar). If someone shares that they’re vegetarian, make sure you probe to understand what that really means to them. Is it ok to cook with chicken broth, or no? Fish or no fish? What about fish sauce? You get the idea. Bottom line is that it’s better not to assume anything.

  1. Once you understand any allergies, intolerances or preferences, it’s time to plan a meal that makes sense for the group. If you had some dishes in mind, go through the ingredients lists and make sure there aren’t any red flag items. Remember: everything with a label needs to be inspected for hidden ingredients or warnings that say things like “manufactured in a facility that processes tree nuts.”  Make it easy on yourself and serve food with simple, fresh ingredients rather than stuff that comes from a package.

Personally, I use a paleo meal planning platform (shout out to my boys at Primal Pal!) that allows me to highlight allergens so I know right away if a recipe contains nuts. Sometimes I can still make the recipe by leaving the nuts out, but I like the heads-up. This service also makes a consolidated shopping list of ingredients for me, so I can look at everything in one place.

Most people are fine if you make something that contains allergens, as long as you warn them that they cannot eat it and you follow appropriate precautions to make sure there is no cross-contamination with other foods. It’s also good form to offer an alternative to that guest. However, if they have a very severe or environmental allergy, go ahead and skip the dish entirely. It’s not worth the risk.

  1. Now that you have a meal plan, it might make sense to reach out to your allergic, intolerant (or perhaps just picky) guest again just to let them know what’s on the menu and make sure it will work for them. This informs them that you thought about their allergy during your planning and the gesture can help quell any of your guest’s concerns. It can be nice to know what to expect to ease anxiety.

This is also the right time to verify if it’s ok to serve other guests anything that they are allergic to or if they cannot even be in the house with it. For some people the severity of their allergy may warrant eliminating any possibility of contact or cross-contamination. Again, it’s best not to assume.

  1. Speaking of contamination, this is something worth paying attention to when you’re hosting people with food allergies. Think of the allergen(s) you’re avoiding like you would raw meat – don’t use the same utensils, bowls, board or pans with anything that comes into contact with any allergens. As soon as something touches an allergen it needs to be thoroughly washed with soap and hot water.

Outside of cooking, be aware of the possibility of other guests causing contamination issues. Family style serving or a buffet set-up is primetime for cross-contamination. All it takes is for one person to use the same spoon in the pecan-encrusted yams and then dunk it into the seemingly harmless steamed green beans; now you have a problem. Make sure every dish has its own serving utensil. If you have allergen-containing foods, place them on a separate table or serve them yourself from the kitchen.

Avoid serving finger food with allergens. I get a little paranoid when parties have big bowls of nuts everywhere because this means people are handling tree nuts and then touching everything else in the house including doorknobs, sink faucets, countertops, glassware, etc. Save your allergic friend the panic attack and skip anything that could involve allergens wiped all over every surface in the house.

Lastly for cross-contamination control, take the time to clean your kitchen before and after you cook. Use clean equipment and surfaces to prepare food. This should be true any time you cook, but it’s worth noting. If you have a toddler (or perhaps a teenager) who walks around with peanut-butter-fingers and rifles through the silverware drawer, it’s better to take care of that before you start cooking or serving people.

  1. If you cook with anything that comes in a package, set it aside rather than throwing it out or putting it away. Hold on to any packages from food or ingredients that you used and stash them somewhere in case your guest would feel more comfortable reading them. I’ve had to ask to read wrappers from out of the trash, which is gross but sometimes necessary. Save yourself the hassle and nastiness by not tossing them until you’ve cleared it with the people you’re feeding. Or save yourself even more hassle and don’t use stuff with ingredients lists.

For people who aren’t used to reading labels, this can be a tough one. When I say read every label, that means every label. One time my mom’s boyfriend lovingly made us an amazing meal from scratch, but I didn’t read the Trader Joe’s spice label quickly enough. The seasoning was “made in a plant that also manufactures tree nuts.” While the odds are slim that this would actually cause me to have a reaction, I don’t like to try my luck. I had to skip the homemade sauce all because of one spice, and we both felt terrible about it. Be on the lookout for warnings like these when you’re gathering ingredients, because it’s not fixable later.

  1. When your guests arrive, make sure you confirm with them that you got the details of their food situation accurate and offer to talk them through the menu and its ingredients if they’d like. Let them know they can read any and all labels, but that you’ve read them yourself already.

Try to have this conversation in a one-on-one setting, away from other guests. I really hate to be called out in a crowd; I get embarrassed this conversation always triggers a new deluge of inquiries about my allergies, which I’d rather avoid if possible. Talking about anaphylactic shock ad nauseum is enough to ruin anyone’s appetite.

With these tips you’ll be ready to safety host your friends with food allergies and you won’t commit the hazardous and frustrating error of telling a food allergy sufferer that you’re “pretty sure” there aren’t any allergens in the food. In my world, that means “don’t eat anything!”

I know I’m really hard to feed and that as much anxiety as I have about eating is usually just as bad for the host. I’m always grateful to my friends who are brave enough to ask me over to dinner, and I hope that simple steps like these will leave us all less anxious and more nourished and that we can all enjoy meals together without fear of allergic reactions.

Anything I forgot? Questions you have about inviting your allergy-suffering friends over to your place? Let me know in the comments.

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