My youngest brother has a tree nut allergy. Over the years, and through countless family holidays, vacations, and when he visits my home, I’ve seen how anxious he is around food—and how challenging it can be for my family to make sure he’s well fed.
I can’t help but think back to our childhood and the many Thanksgiving holidays spent at Grandma’s. We knew nothing would be guaranteed safe for him to eat, so my mom brought his food for the whole trip rather than take a risk on homemade goodies. As an adult, when I moved into my own place, I wanted to make sure I did everything I could to ensure my teenage brother felt comfortable staying with me.
I know I’m not the only person out there wanting to ensure they’re a good host for their family or friends with food allergies. For that reason, I’m sharing some of the steps I’ve learned over the years from hosting my brother to help make sure he’s comfortable when he visits. It’s much easier to enjoy quality time with him when I plan ahead, and easier on him if my house is already an allergy-friendly environment before he arrives.
Getting my kitchen in order
A few days before he arrives, I get my kitchen in order. I put away foods that may contain his allergens or might involve cross-contact. This means putting away containers of nuts, store-bought cookies and breads, and foods without their original packaging.
My kitchen is usually tidy, but I make sure countertops and eating spaces are sanitized and clean. I try to alleviate added stress by creating an environment where my brother doesn’t have to check the ingredients in everything he eats and doesn’t see a bunch of foods out that he knows he can’t touch—just like he would feel in his own home. You wouldn’t keep your bleach in the cereal cupboard, would you? I likewise make sure the jar of almonds is not next to the nut-free bread in my pantry.
I also check my refrigerator and cabinets for unsafe foods and toss out or segregate anything that’s questionable. I usually gather all the snacks and pantry foods that contain tree nuts and put them in a harder-to-reach cabinet in the kitchen so my brother doesn’t have to worry as he’s rummaging through the pantry.
This diligence process also includes reading labels of foods I THINK are safe, but don’t check every time I go to the store (in case the ingredients have changed). For example, take a look at these Hershey’s chocolate bar packages. Some bags or special holiday versions have tree nut label warnings, and some don’t.
I also buy new condiments to replace the ones in my refrigerator that might have touched tree nuts, like butter and jelly, and put my previously-used condiments in the back of the refrigerator so I can use them after he leaves. I also stock some of his favorite foods that he’s familiar with like Cheerios, strawberries, and Arizona tea.
Meal planning and knowing what questions to ask
It’s important to plan meals ahead of time. For example, I make a list of the desserts we might consume to ensure they’re nut free. I also let my brother know what the meal plans are so he can provide input.
In case we want to dine out, I’ll usually call a handful of restaurants ahead of time and ask about food allergy-friendliness so we have options. I always try to preview a restaurant’s menu online to get a preliminary idea of how easy it will be for my brother to safely eat there. Usually, I don’t get much information when inquiring about allergens on the entire menu, so I follow up with specific questions about menu items I know more commonly include tree nuts or are processed in a facility with tree nuts (e.g., breads, desserts, and whether nut oil is used in the fryer).
I recently called a restaurant to ask about nut safety and was met with, “Just a few dishes have nuts, it should be fine.” This is NOT the level of confidence my brother needs to stay safe. I then took a deep breath and asked, “Is there any potential for cross-contact?” That question caused the employee to check with the chef on kitchen procedures, and I was able to get the information I needed. Don’t be afraid to ask the questions you need answers to.
During the visit
I’ve found it’s a great best practice to ask your guest with food allergies what you can do to help them feel more comfortable, because allergies and allergic reactions can vary widely. Since I grew up in the same house with my brother, I know how severe food allergies can be. His tree nut allergies are very serious.
It’s also a good idea to give the person with a food allergy a quick tour of the kitchen, and offer a trip to the grocery store. When my brother visits, I also invite him to take part in cooking and shopping so he can feel more comfortable with the food we prepare at home—my secret secondary mission is, of course, to help him learn to cook.
My last piece of advice about hosting someone with a food allergy is to not be offended if your guest doesn’t eat your food. It can be disappointing when someone refuses food that is an integral part of your family culture (or simply your favorite dish), especially if you’ve gone to extra lengths to make it safe for them to eat. At the end of the day, all you can do is try to make your guest as comfortable as possible—and besides, it’s not about the food, it’s about the company.
– Paige Burdick Blazei
Paige Burdick Blazei is an entrepreneur with experience in user research, go-to-market strategy, and operational efficiency in technology and food & beverage industries. She spends her time baking sourdough bread, reading mystery novels, and biking around Madison, WI, where she currently resides. Her youngest brother has a nut allergy, which is why she is excited about the Allergy Amulet.
Paige Burdick Blazei