Ask a UCSF Benioff Oakland Children’s Hospital Oakland/Walnut Creek Expert:

Ask a UCSF Benioff Oakland Children’s Hospital Oakland/Walnut Creek Expert:
by Vivien Nguyen, Pediatric Gastroenterologist

With the holidays fast approaching and more and more children and adults having food allergies and dietary restrictions, how do you get ready for a holiday meal? Food allergies are much more common than they were fifteen or twenty years ago. Although they are being diagnosed more frequently and earlier, the good news is that there is a lot more awareness of them now. So when hosting a holiday party, you have to be mindful that there can be many food triggers in a holiday meal. The most common food allergies are milk, eggs, soy, wheat (gluten), nuts, fish, and shellfish – many of which can be found in a holiday meal. And even foods that seem harmless could be a reason for concern. For example, turkeys can have ingredients such as soy, wheat or diary in the baste or the brine. Even if allergen isn’t in the food, the food item might have been processed in a plant with other foods that might cause allergic reactions.


Q: Is planning ahead important?

A: Yes, definitely. First, ask your guests what their specific food allergies or food sensitivities might be. Then you have a good idea of some of the foods you might want to avoid. Send a menu to your guests ahead of time. You can also get a hold of the labels for what you are cooking and send copies of some of the labels ahead of time to your guests to see if anything might be problematic. If guests are bringing items for the meal, ask them about their ingredients or for a recipe to ensure that no one else will have a problem with a dish.


Q: Do you have any tips for preparing a holiday meal?

A: It goes without saying that whole foods, like fruit, vegetables, and organic meats, are preferable to processed foods for a number of reasons, but they are especially important when trying to avoid food allergies because they are not processed with other foods. Also, when actually cooking the holiday meal, avoid cross contamination. For example, if you’re chopping nuts, it’s not enough to just rinse a knife and then go to next food – you need to wash the utensil thoroughly in soap and warm water. You can also ask a guest who has a food sensitivity or allergy to prepare a dish that they can eat and share with the group.


Q: If there is an allergic reaction at your meal, what should you do?

A: If your guests have their own emergency medicine, such as an Epipen, then they should use it, but if there is no emergency medicine, call 911 right away. Some severe reactions might include swelling of lips, difficulty breathing, or swallowing. This is anaphylaxis. These type of reactions are generally rare. If someone has a sensitivity or mild allergic reaction, they may experience digestive discomfort or diarrhea.


Q: What is you are travelling or eating out during the holidays?

A: It’s important to stay a step ahead and plan for any unknowns. If you are having a holiday meal at a restaurant, call ahead and ask for their menu. Or go over how foods are prepared and what measures they take to reduce cross-contamination. If you are on a trip, ship allergy-safe foods ahead of time. And of course, if you or your child has emergency medicine, you should always have it on-hand. Also, if you are at a friend or relative’s house, keep an eye on your kids so they don’t reach out for something they could be allergic to – or just watch them so they don’t have too many cookies before the meal!