Celebrated food writer M.F.K. Fisher said, “First we eat, then we do everything else.” Whether it’s a client dinner, a date, or brunch with the girls, a shared meal can be a place to nourish body, mind, and soul.
But for the 15 million Americans living with food allergies, mealtime is full of alternatives.
Chances are you or your friend is one of these people. Food allergies are on the rise in children in the U.S., but sometimes food allergies appear for the first time in adulthood. A medically diagnosed food allergy is not the same as a conscious choice to remove a food or group of foods from one’s diet. Those in the latter group will not endure the same reactions as those who are allergic.
“Even the spatula for flipping a burger [can cause problems]; any trace of cheese on it will send me to the ER,” says Lauren Gralton, a performer in New York City with a severe dairy allergy.
An allergic reaction occurs when the body identifies something it has consumed, inhaled, or touched as a threat. While reactions need to be treated as serious, they must also be understood as manageable.
Researchers don’t yet know why food allergies affect some people and not others. Treatments like oral immunotherapy (OIT)—where small, increasing doses of the allergen are consumed under medical supervision to decrease responsiveness—are currently being tested. The trials are promising, but not decisive. For millions of children and adults, the only option is to diligently avoid the foods that instigate reactions.
But that doesn’t have to mean avoiding social situations! When understanding is combined with thoughtful preparation, food allergies can be more easily managed. And if your friend has food allergies, you can help her feel at ease with just a few simple steps. See what the experts had to say below.
01. Plan activities that don’t revolve around food.
A cup of coffee or dinner out can cause more trouble than it’s worth for someone with food allergies. “The things I can order off the menu are so plain, I can make them just as well and cheaper at home, without running the risk of cross-contamination,” says Cindy Kaplan, a writer in Los Angeles. “It’s hard to be fully present in any conversations when I’m examining every single bite of food.”
Next time you plan to meet up, get creative! Suggest a dance class, a hike, a run, shopping, a show, or an impromptu session at a paint-your-own-ceramics studio. If the two of you would rather do dinner, why not cook together? You'll be able to keep a closer eye on the food and have plenty of time for girl talk as you're preparing everything.
02. Be informed.
“What can you eat?” is not the right place to start. Tell your friend you’d like to better understand her allergies. Ask, "What foods are you allergic to?" She may be able to tolerate eggs when baked into a muffin, but not scrambled. Make notes where you’ll be able to find them later, perhaps in your email or telephone contacts.
Also note that certain cuisines may be easier for your friend to negotiate. Sandra Beasley, author of Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life, says, “Over the years, I’ve solidified my preference for certain ‘Sandra-friendly’ cuisines—such as Thai, sushi, or Spanish tapas—and learned to steer around the impossible pizza joints, diners, and delis.” Let your friend take the lead when ordering, and try to stay positive. “Everyone is better off when operating from a place of knowledge and optimism, rather than fear,” says Beasley.
03. Learn to read labels.
The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 guarantees that the top eight allergens (peanut, tree nuts, milk, egg, wheat, soy, fish, shellfish) be noted on food labels when present in a product. It may take some deciphering to understand which allergen is included. Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE) offers a fantastic online resource so you can understand how each of the top eight may appear on a label. If you bring a snack somewhere, show your friend the packaging and let her decide if it’s safe. Then offer to let her take the first portion, to be sure there’s no cross-contamination by other guests.
04. Learn to use an epinephrine auto-injector, such as an Epi-Pen or Auvi-Q.
Chances are your friend with food allergies carries epinephrine and an antihistamine in her purse at all times. She may be able to self-administer the medication, but immediately afterward, someone needs to call 9-1-1. For less serious reactions, Benadryl may be all that’s necessary. Either way, understand that after the reaction subsides, your friend may feel off for the next few hours, or even the next day. Offer to take her home or sit with her until she feels well again.
05. Don’t be offended.
Many people with food allergies will not consume a food unless they prepared it themselves. Using a knife that was simply wiped on a towel shared with a dangerous food could be enough to cause a reaction. Being careful takes time, so know that a special order at a restaurant may take longer to prepare. Your friend may prefer to bring her own food and just order a drink. If she has airborne allergies, look to dine al fresco to lower the likelihood of a reaction.
Each person and each relationship is unique. Follow your friend’s cues and be flexible. The important thing is that she remains safe and healthy and that you show her you appreciate her for who she is—allergies or not.