Pumpkin and sweet cinnamon spice, turkey and stuffing, cranberry sauces and warm apple pies float through an imaginary cloud of alluring aromas in my mind as I think of celebrating Thanksgiving with food allergies. Even though the primary focus on Thanksgiving is food, it remains one of my favorite holidays. A grin still easily spreads across my face, filling my cheeks, as I visualize how we spent this holiday during my childhood.
The car was loaded with groceries, luggage, and kids. We had a two-hour car ride, followed by a two and a half hour ferry ride, and then the home stretch of a half hour drive on bumpy, dirt roads to our beach home. Thanksgiving travel is always hectic, but with the ever-changing, unreliable New England weather and traffic, arriving at our island destination was unfailingly that much more of an adventure. Each year we arrived with allergy-safe food and all of the necessary ingredients to cook up a Thanksgiving Day feast. The essentials were covered: family, food, and ocean.
Happy Thanksgiving Memories
I am thankful that my allergies are not what come to mind when I remember past Thanksgivings. Memories, cherished moments, and precious, precious time together are much more meaningful to me. Even as someone who has grown up with life-threatening food allergies, as well as environmental allergies, and asthma, they were always my “normal” and no matter what occasion, they join me in the experience, whether I want them there or not. I never considered my allergies as their own separate entity. This is not to say that I find my allergies to be effortless or that I don’t envision the freedom that life without them would bring. Of course I have moments of frustration like anyone else, but overall I don’t allow my allergies to hinder my happiness or take over the joys of holiday celebrations in any significant way.
I also genuinely love food. I will happily try anything that I know is safe. I like to explore flavors, tastes and textures. I enjoy the feelings of satisfaction, contentment, energy and happiness that embody a delicious meal.
Thanksgiving does bring about a particular challenge though, since the day is centered around food, which is both traditional and enthusiastically anticipated by most. Often the dishes are cooked and prepared in multiple kitchens by a number of different family and friends. This adds a significant amount of difficulty for identifying the safety of both preparation and ingredients, with a much higher risk of cross contact. This creates an added challenge of appreciating what food is safe, while also trying not to feel left out from the remaining feast.
For moms and dads, you have the tough challenge of going through each and every ingredient for your child, while also making sure your family is careful with ingredients. It is an arduous job. You are likely playing the role of mom, cook, baker, ingredient reader/detective, cross-contamination guard, as well as trying to be kind, fun, and patient at the same time. Mamma mia! Your children may not realize it yet, but they will someday feel both indebted and grateful to you for all of these roles you play for them.
Four Strategies to Navigate Thanksgiving
There are four main strategies we used when I was growing up and still use to this day to navigate our way around Thanksgiving and the holiday season.
#1: Plan ahead
Make sure there will be safe foods for snacks, dinner, and dessert. Always bring extra food just in case! If your child has multiple allergies, it may be helpful to e-mail a list of their allergies to anyone bringing or making food. Even if you don’t feel comfortable having your child eat the food, at least you know they can be around it safely.
#2: Bring awareness
Make sure your family/friends are aware of the allergies, the severity, and your comfort level calmly but firmly. They should know that your child only eats what you deem safe and that everything must be checked ahead.
Be prepared with all medicines, including multiple epinephrine auto-injectors, inhalers and anti-histamines. Depending on where you are headed, take travel time into consideration. It is always better to have too much medication instead of too little.
#4: Create non-food traditions
Since the day is centered around food, it is nice to take time to bring joy to the day with other non-food traditions that your child can also look forward to as part of the holiday. Give your child a special job to focus on that doesn’t involve food (i.e. making festive decorations for the table).
In the spirit of Thanksgiving this year, put your energy and focus on the gratitude in your life that brings joy and allows your child’s allergies to become a part of their “normal” and yours. Go make treasured memories with your family that are not guided by food allergies!