How to be a helpful host to your friends with food allergies this holiday season

I have food allergies and intolerances and I'd like to be invited to your gathering. Here's what to do

By Alison Stine

Staff Writer

Published December 22, 2022 1:15PM (EST)

Gingerbread Man and "Gluten Free" sign (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Gingerbread Man and "Gluten Free" sign (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

The molasses cookies were delicious, soft and chewy. But afterward, my lips started to feel strange, tight and stinging. They were swollen, I realized, my mouth itchy and burning. I was allergic to one of the ingredients.

It's cookie baking time, time for big holiday gatherings, usually focused on the food — gatherings I sometimes dread. Don't I like food? Yes, I adore it, especially consuming it and not having to cook it. Unfortunately, I also have developed allergies and sensitivities to multiple foods, including wheat, rhubarb and some common wheat substitutes like rice and buckwheat. I fear this makes me a downer, the one sitting awkwardly and hungrily at the table while everyone else enjoys dishes I can only stare at longingly.

But I'm not alone. Around 32 million people have food allergies in the United States. Some of the most common foods to cause allergic reactions include milk, wheat, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, sesame, soy, fish and shellfish. While we might associate food allergies with childhood, something a child could "grow out of," nearly 11% of American adults have them. It's even more common to have intolerances to certain foods, which is less serious than the immune system reaction of an allergy, but still an uncomfortable physical response.

And here's something important to note: allergies can change at any time, including food allergies and sensitivities. My allergies really accelerated after pregnancy, which is not uncommon, due to hormone shifts. What if you have a friend or relative on your guest list this holiday season who has food allergies or intolerances? Don't count them out. Consider some of these tips and reminders so that everyone can eat — or at least be — together.

Believe the person with food allergies 

Do I want to eat Christmas cookies? Yes, a million times yes. Can I do so without getting ill? No. Respect what someone tells you about what they can consume. We're not doing it on purpose. We're not doing it to make you uncomfortable. One of the things I hate about my food allergies and sensitivities is that it draws unwanted attention. I just want to eat off the regular menu or have what everyone else is having. But my body, through no fault of my own, reacts otherwise. Just like an allergy to ragweed or dogs, we can't control it.

Is it an allergy, is it an intolerance or sensitivity — or is it just a preference? It really shouldn't matter. If someone says they can't or would prefer not to eat something, you should never pressure them. Even if you worked hard on it. Even if you think they'll love it. I would love your strawberry rhubarb pie, personally. But it would also send me into anaphylaxis.

Ask, don't presume

I have to find foods that are wheat-free for myself, but I can still eat a lot of foods that contain other common allergens, including milk. Unfortunately, sometimes packaged foods take a one size fits all approach when it comes to allergens: cookies that are grain, sugar, and dairy free, for example.

Just because we're allergic to one thing doesn't mean we're allergic to all things.

Allergies are not one and the same. If you have someone with food allergies or intolerances coming to your holiday meal, the first step is to ask exactly what works for them and what doesn't. Just because we're allergic to one thing doesn't mean we're allergic to all things. A well-meaning friend kept ordering vegan food for me when in reality I just need wheat-free stuff. I'm not vegan. Give me the butter, please!

Offer options

Maybe it's tradition in your family to have Christmas cookies, but if you have a guest who can't eat those cookies, provide them with some other choices so they're not the only ones who can't partake. Some fancy chocolate or sorbet or after dinner drinks would be just as nice. Do you always have to have fruit cake? Why not offer a cheese plate too? The best thing about traditions is that they're changing and growing all the time. What's more important, to do what you've always done or to include everyone as much as possible? You can make new traditions to make sure your food-allergic loved ones aren't always left out.

Don't be offended

I really cannot express how much it pains me to not be able to eat pie. Or bread pudding, my favorite dessert of all time. I also feel doubly bad because I often have to turn food down. I worry that I risk offending someone who doesn't understand I simply cannot physically eat some things, no matter how delicious they look or how hard a person worked on them. This is especially complicated since some people express love through cooking. 

My child was born with a dairy allergy. When he was toddler, we went to a bakery to pick up a cake for a relative, and the kind woman behind the counter asked if she could give him a free cookie. I apologized but said he was allergic to butter. Her eyes filled with tears. And she slipped extra cookies into our box, which was very well-intended, but again, we couldn't eat them.

It's not about you. It's about your guest or loved one trying to keep themselves healthy and safe. 

Your food-allergic friend may bring some of their own food to your gathering. They may eat before coming over. That doesn't mean you're not an excellent cook or that they don't trust you. It just means they know what works for them, and they want to make it easier, to take pressure off the host and to avoid getting sick. It's not a reflection on your work as the chef. However disappointed you may feel that someone can't eat something you made, we feel more disappointed. It's not about you. It's about your guest or loved one trying to keep themselves healthy and safe. 

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Consider social options not focused around food 

I have a good friend with severe food allergies. Food is central to many social gatherings, but it doesn't have to be. My friend and I take long walks and hikes together. When we do eat together, I let her choose the restaurant or we bring our own food and eat at home. 

Food brings people together, but when you have food allergies or intolerances, it can make you feel apart from other people too. Listen to your loved ones and believe what they tell you about what is and is not possible for them. This holiday season and beyond, that's always the most loving thing you can do.


By Alison Stine

Alison Stine is a former staff writer at Salon. She is the author of the novels "Trashlands" and "Road Out of Winter," winner of the 2021 Philip K. Dick Award. A recipient of an Individual Artist Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), she has written for The New York Times, The Guardian, and others.

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Allergies Christmas Commentary Food Food Allergies Holidays