Before you hit send on that adorable birthday invite, take a moment to consider the safety of your littlest partygoers. According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, about four to six percent of children in the United States are affected by food allergies, peanut being the most common. Popular party foods and treats can pose a high risk to guests with food allergies.
“We hear all the time that accidental reactions happened at a party,” says Dr. Bruce J. Lanser, director of the pediatric food allergy program at National Jewish Health in Denver. Food allergies are becoming more common, as are all allergic conditions, he says. The most common food allergens are the big eight: milk, egg, wheat, soy, fish, shellfish, peanuts, and tree nuts like almonds.
Follow these tips when hosting parties for children with food allergies, or for preparing your child with a food allergy for celebrations outside your home.
1. Be a Great Communicator
When hosting a birthday party, ask in an email or the invitation if any children have food allergies. Then work with the child’s parent to come up with a plan for the party. If you’re the host and a party guest has a food allergy, clearly state those allergies in the invitation or reminder. Politely ask other guests not to bring foods that might contain allergens. “Try to give everyone a heads up,” says Lanser. “Good communication from the beginning really is important.”
2. Keep the Original Packaging
When possible, keep snacks in their original packaging so that parents of children with food allergies can clearly find the ingredient label and check whether ingredients are safe.
If you’re creating an elaborate tower of cupcakes or other display of food that’s part of the party decorations, make sure each variety is on a separate plate. Keep the packaging for reference and show it to the parent of the child with allergies when they arrive.
3. Label Foods and Their Ingredients
Label homemade foods by making signs and clearly listing out the ingredients, says Lanser. Point out or underline ingredients that might be one of the eight common allergens, such as eggs, milk, and peanuts, he adds. Ask at the bakery if they can give you a list of all ingredients used in any birthday cakes or treats.
4. Don’t Offer Foods with Common Allergens
This may seem like a no-brainer, but try not to put food allergens out at a party. For example, a bowl of mixed nuts isn’t safe for kids with nut allergies. Finger foods can be risky because some kids may have an allergic reaction just by touching that food. “If possible, get rid of any food allergens that kids could be exposed to,” says Dr. Haidi Demain, president and medical director of Allergy Safe Kids (ASK) in Denver, and parent of children with food allergies.
5. Provide a Special Treat for Your Own Child
For kids with multiple food allergies, it can be even more challenging to make sure all foods at a party are safe. You might have your child bring his own treat so that he can still enjoy the festivities.
“The family can provide their own cupcake or popsicle or whatever they do that is safe; some sort of treat, so they can be included at that time,” says Demain. Demain makes a dozen cupcakes at a time, ices them, and then puts them in the freezer so that she has the flexibility and convenience of providing a safe treat for her child.
If you are the host, and are close friends with the child who has food allergies, consider asking that family for one of their favorite recipes that is safe for their child. Use that recipe to make treats for all children at the party.
6. Inform the Host and Have a Point Person
If you’re sending your child with a food allergy to a party and you won’t be able to attend, make sure the host is aware of your child’s allergy. Designate an adult who is responsible for helping your child (the host or another adult at the party). The point person helps your child navigate questionable foods, knows the emergency care plan, and can use an epinephrine auto-injector, the most well-known of which is EpiPen.
“Having your child know who they can trust is very important for the child,” says Demain. This adult should also be comfortable using an epinephrine auto-injector, so offer a tutorial or review beforehand and remind them to call 911 after an injection. The newer Auvi-Q epinephrine auto-injector has electronic voice instructions to guide users throughout the injection process.
7. Remember to Send Medications
Kids with food allergies may carry a written emergency care plan and two epinephrine auto-injectors in their fanny pack or purse. Don’t forget to send these along with your child.
“What we tell all our patients with food allergies is that if you have a food allergy and you don’t have your epinephrine auto-injector available, then you don’t eat. And similarly, if you don’t know what’s in a food, you don’t eat it,” says Lanser.
The most successful parties are those where thoughtful steps are taken ahead of time. “There are two really important things,” says Demain, “keeping (kids with food allergies) included and keeping them safe.”
Eight Common Food Allergens
- Milk and Egg (most common in young children)
- Peanuts (most common in school-age children)
- Fish and Shellfish (most common in adults)
- Tree nuts