Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Etiquette of Allergies

On Tuesday, I hosted a Valentine's Day party for my daughter's preschool class (a house full of three and four-year olds, my how the romantic holidays change once you have kids...). As I set out the bowl of Valentine's Day Chex Mix that I'd found on Pinterest, it dawned on me that it contained peanut butter. Crap! There would undoubtedly be at least one kid there with a peanut allergy. While I'd been busy congratulating myself on serving a gluten-free snack, I'd totally spaced on the fact that it had peanuts in it. I grabbed a heart-shaped doily and scratched out a note to set in front of the dish, declaring it to be gluten-free, but laden with peanuts. (Here's a picture of my epi-pen-inducing spread)

Growing up, I don't remember anybody having food allergies. Our moms had it so easy. Ants on a log? No problem. Pizza for the class? Sure. Now, you can't swing a Tickle Me Elmo doll without hitting a lactose intolerant, nut allergic toddler. I feel extremely fortunate that neither of my kids has food allergies and I sympathize with the moms whose kids do. It must be a constant source of stress, worrying about what they could be served or handed at any gathering.

I'm fairly new to this game of hosting kids I don't know that well at my house. Prior birthday parties and events had always included my friends' kids. I already knew any allergies and sensitivities they might have had and knew their moms well enough to discuss it with them ahead of time. When you don't know the kids or their parents as well, it's harder to know how to handle it.

For this party, I was all excited to use the new Cake Pop pan I'd gotten for Christmas. Once I snipped the nips off those bad boys, they'd be a really cute toddler treat. However, after making about five dozen of them, I remembered that one of the girls in the class had a gluten sensitivity. I felt terrible, she wouldn't be able to eat them and I hate making kids feel left out. But, I was in it too deep to turn back (although I probably should have stopped then, as I have two dozen cake pops left over from the party). So, I added Pirate's Booty and the before-mentioned Chex Mix to the menu, to ensure she had some things she could eat.

If you're hosting a gathering, you want all of the kids to feel welcome and at ease, but sometimes it's hard to predict what might be a problem. Also, depending on the severity of the allergy, even your best efforts might be in vain -- that granola bar might not have peanuts, but maybe it was made in a factory that processes peanuts. I've also learned that not all gluten-free foods are the same. So, you might try and get something that will accommodate everyone, but maybe it's not as good as you thought it was.

So, here's my question -- What is the etiquette involved when serving meals (or party snacks) to kids? This is an etiquette question that is unique and new to our generation. Have we decided the right way to handle it yet? Generally, I'd avoid anything containing peanuts (except when I forget...). But, what about the other allergies and sensitivities? Do parents of allergic kids expect to pack a separate snack? I have one friend who will often call ahead and find out what they're serving so she can bring alternate food for her daughter. Should a party host just label anything that's likely to cause a problem? Should she send out an email to the group ahead of time, informing people what's on the menu? Should she ask in the invite if anyone has any allergies? How does everyone else handle this?

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