Hope for the Holidays: Surviving the Fanfare with Food Allergies

By Julie E. Williamson

I’m not going to try and glaze over the truth: the holidays can be no treat for food allergy sufferers (and even those with less severe, but still annoying intolerances). There we are, surrounded by toasted seasoned nuts, flaky dinner rolls, fluffy potatoes, buttery cookies (a double-whammy for those of us with dairy and wheat allergies), festive mugs filled with eggnog…and the list goes on. It’s enough to turn us into a grumpy, stomach-growling Grinch.

Thanksgiving, at least for me, isn’t the problem, especially because I’m in charge of the feast each year. Turkey is on my “yes” list (I just buy organic, free-range varieties and hold the dressing and gravy because wheat’s a no-go for me), I can eat un-candied yams and I usually even slap a spoonful of my homemade (and pretty darn tasty, I might add) organic mashed potatoes, which I boil in homemade chicken broth, season with garlic sea salt (my favorite is from Napa Style – it’s DIVINE!) and top with rosemary or parsley straight out of my garden. I skip my cranberry-orange sauce (citrus gives me massive heartburn and can trigger a migraine) and let my guests have at it, along with the dinner rolls, dressing, whiskey-sweet-potato-apple casserole, traditional green bean casserole, and whatever else I decide to whip up that day. To fill out my somewhat meager, but delicious plate, I may steam and lightly season some broccoli and cauliflower, or savor a few of my balsamic-parmesan roasted Brussel sprouts (Check out my recipe!). Ahhhhhh. Pure joy on the end of my fork!

Dessert is where things can get tricky and disappointing. I love pumpkin pie, but can’t eat the crust (the best part, in my opinion, especially that pumpkin-moistened, melt in your mouth bottom layer). So while everyone’s topping off their already full bellies with a slice of pumpkin-y heaven that’s blanketed in downy whipped cream, I’m usually dragging myself to the kitchen sink to suds up some dishes and begrudgingly avoid the temptation. Hmphhhh! Some years, though, I plan ahead with an enjoyable dessert just for me: a baked apple topped with tart cherries, a dash of cinnamon and stevia, and slivered almonds (and sometimes, I swear, my guests look at MY bowl with envy).

Ho-Ho-Hold the sweets
Holiday parties are another thing entirely. Although my husband and I love to entertain and have thrown our own parties over the years, we’re also working a steady rotation of other holiday soirees into the calendar – and those give me little to no control over what’s being served. My husband’s corporate Christmas parties are the most challenging because they’re a dressier, sit-down affair with a fixed menu (usually some chicken meal drenched in sauce, a salad already saturated in oily dressing, buttery veggies, and a plump dinner roll saddled up next to it all. Not wanting to be “that girl,” I nonchalantly slip the roll on to my hubby’s plate and try my best to scrape off the mystery sauces mingling on my plate. The few bites of dry chicken that remain and the teeny scraps of unscathed vegetables I manage to conjur on the end of my fork aren’t enough to satisfy…but the towering dessert bar with its pinwheel cookies, tarts, biscotti, and blizzardly brownies dusted in confectioner’s sugar isn’t even a possibility for me. Thank heaven for that glass of Chardonnay or Pinot Noir, which I nurse the rest of the night.

Sound familiar?

I have learned a few tricks over the years to help me get by, though, and I’m happy to share them! While I know my suggestions may not work for everyone because, well, we all have different dietary restrictions, I believe we can all survive (and even thrive) during the holidays if we just think outside the glittery giftwrapped box.

Here are my seven top tips:

  1. Don’t go to parties hungry. I know it’s not as fun as the thought of nibbling and noshing on crudité, sugar cookies, cheese cubes, crackers and savory dips, but I swear by eating a tasty, allergen-free meal or hearty snack at home – or even packing a little container of something delicious and guilt-free and fueling up on the car ride there. I happen to love baby carrots and goat cheese or a grilled or baked chicken breast with a slice of melted manchego (sheep’s cheese doesn’t bother me like cow’s milk) and mashed avocado.
  2. Plan in advance. If you happen to know the party hosts well, it’s easy: just call and ask what’s on the menu. My friends and family all know my allergies well, so they’re usually eager to add at least a couple can-eat items to their table. If you don’t know the hosts, or you’re roped into a work shindig where it’s uncomfortable to put in a “safe meal” request, you can sometimes solve the problem by arriving early and just politely asking the waiter or hostess to hold the sauce or dressing (I’ve had some success with this and it sure makes dinner more enjoyable).
  3. Stash some snacks. I have a dressy little holiday bag that’s just big enough for a compact, lipstick, mints and a little baggie of raw almonds. Those little tasty teardrops are a perfect mix of fiber and healthy fat, so they really have staying power. If nuts are your no-no, consider a baggie of sliced red peppers, baby carrots or even a few berries (I’ve definitely done this and no one looked at me like I had a third eye, I swear). If you’re not allergic to eggs, hard boil a couple of those, too, and slip them into your bag (or if you’re a guy, stash them in your glove box and pay a little visit to the car midway through the night). It may not always be convenient, but neither are allergic reactions, right?
  4. Offer to bring a dish. I may have the worst food issues of anyone I know, but I’ve learned over the years that many other people have some dietary restrictions – and you’re likely rubbing elbows with at least one of them at the party. If I’m heading to a friend or family member’s for the evening, I always offer to bring a yummy dish that a) I can eat and b) will entice others to dish onto their plate, too. I’m known for my salads (my mother taught me well) and my spring mix/kale blend topped with grilled chicken cubes, chevre or manchego cheese, diced veggies, avocado, snow peas, blueberries, and cranberries (which I can easily pick off, but look lovely next to snowy chevre) is always a hit. I’ll bring an olive oil dressing for others and happily forgo it on my greens.
  5. Bottle it up. If you want to imbide a bit, but aren’t sure what your hosts will have on tap or on the bar, it’s just easier to bring your own bottle of wine or spirit (okay, this won’t work for parties at banquet halls, hotels or fancy restaurants, but – don’t laugh – you CAN bring a can of naturally-sweetened soda, juice and such as a safe mixer. My husband would just say, “Bring a flask!’ and I suppose if you’re discreet enough, that could also work in a pinch. But if anyone catches you, don’t blame Jules!). As for house parties, it’s never a good idea to show up empty-handed, anyway, so that bottle of organic, sulfate-free wine or trouble-free bottle of divine Champagne – if you can have it – can really come in handy. Better yet, bring two bottles – one for the host, the other for you (and other guests, if you’re willing to share. Hey, it IS the season for giving, after all!).
  6. Pack the pen – and pop a mint. I’ve never had to use my Epi-Pen, thankfully, but I don’t like leaving the house without it, either. When you’re facing an unfamiliar menu, it’s wise not to take chances (anaphylactic reactions and a trip to the hospital isn’t how any of us wants to be remembered). Benadryl can also be helpful and can fit into a pocket or even the tiniest clutch. If there literally is NOTHING on the menu you can safely eat and you didn’t heed by previous advice, suck on a mint, if you’re able (I like Neumann’s organic wintergreen mints, which I practically buy in bulk from Whole Foods). A piece of gum (if you can tolerate it) can also work wonders at staving off hunger and helping you avoid temptation. If you can’t have mint, you can pop some frozen grapes or other small, discreet snack.
  7. Revel in feel-good fun. Holiday parties are meant to be spirited and joyful, so lean into it with all your might. Cut a rug. Mingle. Smile and laugh – a lot. When you’re having fun, people notice you…not what you’re not eating. And remember this: food allergies themselves are anything but fun, but we do get the last laugh when we’re able to slip into that suit or little black dress and not feel like a stuffed sausage – all because we haven’t been feeding our faces with every fatty, sugary confection laid before us. Frosty, put THAT in your pipe and smoke it!