Anna Bechtel, MPH, RN, shares tips for celebrating the upcoming holidays while protecting family members with food allergies. Have a child that has been diagnosed with a food allergy and need more support? Anna facilitates a Food Allergy Support Group at Center City Pediatrics. Check our website for more information and to register online.
Food allergies at the holidays can be stressful for many reasons. Family and religious traditions are deeply ingrained in culture, and changing them or adapting them is naturally upsetting. However, both the Christian and Jewish faiths allow for the protection of children from harm through substitutions at the holidays. If you are unsure about a substitution for a symbolic item, consult your priest or rabbi. There are many guides to substitutions and activities for food allergy families at Easter and Passover, the highlights of which are included below.
The stressors that most families encounter at the holidays are the ones that permeate the lives of food allergy families throughout the year, such as family members who do not understand the severity of allergies, finding ways to include children in school or family activities, and locating and affording the substitution products that can help children feel included. Here are some tips to help you and your family prepare for Easter and Passover:
- Preparation: Start the conversation early with family, teachers, and friends. Include your children if they are old enough to participate. This helps to avoid surprises and gives everyone time to think about what is important at the holidays (Family! Inclusion! Togetherness! The children!) when emotions run high and there is conflict. It also gives you time to plan an alternative if the worst happens, and you have to skip your traditional gathering.
- Offer alternatives: The onus is on you, as the parent, to suggest alternatives. You have the most knowledge about your family’s allergies, and you know your child best. Be prepared with options: “We can substitute this,” “I can cook the kugel or bring ceramic eggs to dye this year so that we can have a safe version for everyone,” “We could do a food-free egg hunt for the kids or gluten-free Matzah houses instead and still have the fun of the tradition.”
- Resistance: If you do encounter resistance, remind family and friends of the take-away. What do we all want to remember about the holiday? What do we want to create when we gather as family or friends? Do we want Easter to be remembered as the day we had to take my child to the ER? Do we want to have the family split up for the Seder because we couldn’t come up with a safe meal for everyone? Focus on the “endgame.”
- The Long Term: If your child has food allergies, they may outgrow some of them. If you have to change a tradition, bring an alternative just for your child, or avoid an event, it may only be for a few years, whether it is because your child outgrows an allergy, or they are old enough that the risks are not the same (no longer crawling). Remind others that this may be a blip on the radar in 5 years, when you look back at the year you had a candy-free Easter, or a nut-free Seder.
- Pick a Focus: If you have to avoid most of the holiday celebration, pick one thing that you can manage and afford to do yourself for the holiday, and make a new tradition. Invite friends and family if you can. Children are looking for fun, company, and something to look forward to, year after year. You may find that the new tradition sticks around longer than your food allergies. A food-free Easter egg hunt or basket making, or a Seder crafting day of Afikomen bags and “plague of frogs” origami are sure to be hits with everyone.
- Consider the larger benefits: Taking the focus off food may be a boon for other family members as well. There are plenty of people who follow a special diet, struggle with their weight, or have a medical condition, such as diabetes, who will appreciate the focus off food.
In the end, as a food allergy family, you can control what you do, but you cannot control what other people do. The spirits of Remembrance and Joy are not beholden to your food allergies; go forth and celebrate!
Want to learn more? Anna facilitates a Food Allergy Support Group in our Center City office. If your child has tested positive for a food allergy, if you are following an elimination diet or if they have had a reaction to a specific food, this group can provide the support you need. Topics covered include: the law and food allergies, communication with childcare providers, educating family and friends, emergency plans, practice using (empty) epinephrine injectors, and financial needs. Visit our website for workshop availability, class descriptions and to reserve your space.