Food Allergies and Birthday Parties

Well, it finally happened. When my daughter was almost 3, she received a brightly colored envelope in the mail. To her excitement, (and my dread) it was an adorable princess themed birthday party invitation.

I’ll never forget my daughter’s eyes lighting up and her jumping for joy around our living room, chatting enthusiastically the entire time. I smiled and listened to her, all the while my own heart was dropping into my stomach.

I had known that a day would come when I would have to figure out how my daughter could attend a birthday party while also keeping her safe from her food allergens.

How would I talk to the host about her allergies? Would they desire to work with me, or would they be irritated with me for asking?

A whirlwind of questions raced through my mind, and I knew I needed to figure out our next steps.

My daughter deserved to have a normal childhood experience of attending a friend’s birthday party. And I wanted to have as much peace about the social outing as I could possibly have.

Can you relate to this?

Have you felt similar feelings? Have you ever wondered how in the world you were going to keep your kid safe at a birthday party surrounded by food? Or maybe you’ve questioned how you can talk about your child’s food allergies with the parents of the birthday kiddo?

If so, then you know all too well how much extra time and planning goes into making sure your child can attend these events safely.

Lauren and I have navigated these situations many times! This blog post will provide 5 tips for you that will hopefully make birthday party planning (or any party for that matter) more manageable!

1. Talking to the Host about the Food Allergy is Key

When your child is invited to a birthday party, try to connect with the host as soon as possible. Plan to be polite, but direct, about your child’s medical needs. I’ve found that being clear with our needs helps to greatly lower my anxiety and gives me enough time to plan ahead.

How do I bring up my children’s food allergens?

Typically, I reach out with a text message or a phone call. It looks and sounds a bit like this:

Thank you so much for the birthday invitation! We are excited to celebrate [child’s name] with you! I did want to connect with you and let you know that my children do have serious food allergies (eggs/peanuts/sesame seeds). Unfortunately they can be life-threatening so I really have to be on top of what they eat and if they will be in proximity to their allergens. Would you mind letting me know the foods and treats you plan on serving?

If my child cannot eat the food, I will bring a safe version of the exact same meal and treats for them so that you don’t have to worry about it.

I really appreciate your help with this. Is there anything I can help you with for the party? Let me know your thoughts.

If I know the family well, then the parents are most likely already aware of my children’s food allergies and medical needs. However, I still reach out to ask them what types of foods will be present at the party.

If they are using a lot of store-bought items, I confirm the brand and call companies myself or I ask for pictures of the food labels so I can confirm.

With very few exceptions, I do not let my children eat anything that is homemade by others. The risk for cross-contact, mistakes with ingredients, etc. is just too high for my comfort level. And this is not the host’s fault. The reality is, if you do not live with food allergies, you just don’t have to think about the same stuff that we do, and that’s okay.

What does “bring the exact same food & treat” mean?

I call companies ahead of time once I receive food label pictures from the host. If my child cannot eat the food due to risk of cross-contact, then I bring a safe meal and treat for them that is exactly what the other children are eating.

For example, if there’s a chance that the pepperoni pizza has cross-contact, I’ll bring my child their own safe pepperoni pizza. If the chocolate sprinkle cupcakes were processed on shared lines with sesame, then I bring a safe chocolate sprinkle cupcake for my child to eat.

Wondering about cross-contact? Check out our blog post, “What in the World is Food Cross-Contact?

Other food allergy moms have thought of this before me. It is just one way I can help my child still feel like they can “have” what the other children are having.

What if they are actively serving my child’s allergens?

For now, I choose NOT to take my children to a party where their allergens will be actively served. My daughter’s sensitivity to peanut butter and sesame, combined with the young age of her and her peers (aka little kids are really messy), is too risky for my comfort.

If I know the host is planning on serving peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, we just don’t attend and that’s okay. No hard feelings on either side.

I do not ask the host to change their meal plans for us. Remember, this is their kiddos’ birthday party. If they want a giant Reese’s peanut butter cake, they get to have a giant Reese’s peanut butter cake.

It is their right to serve what they want, but it is also my right to decide that this is beyond our food safety comfort level. Especially in a situation where I know avoidance of their allergen will be close to impossible.

Some families may offer to change the meal for you! If that’s the case, it is okay to soak in the kindness of others.

2. It’s Okay to Politely Request Certain Safety Measures

Once you chat with your host and discuss the food allergy with them, you will most likely still need additional information. Depending on your child’s developmental stage or age, your concerns might be varied.

For example, I know a lot of allergy families want to attend birthday parties with their children from infancy through upper elementary in order to help monitor their children and avoid potential emergency medical issues.

It is totally appropriate to ask if you can be in attendance. I would definitely offer to help out as a part of this!

Your child’s medical needs and the level of allergy severity will also play a role in this decision. You may want to ask the host a few more questions or even kindly request a few safety measures.

Some examples:

  • Can we talk about what food will be present?
  • Will there be any candy present at the party?
  • Is there a piñata? What is inside it?
  • Do you mind if all the kids wash hands before playing & eating? (I usually offer to help the host with this task.)
  • Could I help wipe down where the kiddos will be eating beforehand?
  • Would it be helpful for me to provide dessert for all the children attending? (NOTE: This is up to your personal preference. Some allergy families do offer this to make it safer for their children, but it also depends on how comfortable you are with the host and your financial capability. Also, for some families, making the cake is a big deal and they will want to do this. In this case, I bring a safe cupcake for my kiddos to enjoy.)

Depending on the host and the conversation, you might get fantastic information and great feedback concerning your safety concerns, or you might not.

The food being served will play a huge roll in your comfort level. Your decision to attend will ultimately rest on the amount (and quality) of information you receive.

Choosing Respect While Interacting

Remember, there is no harm in asking these questions. The worst that can happen is you’ll be told “no” after asking. However, most families respond well to these safety questions when asked respectfully. But if you are forceful or critical, the host may not be willing to work with you.

I remember reading a Facebook post in one of my food allergy support groups. The mother posted that she had asked the host of a birthday party to change all the food and treats the day before the party to accommodate her son’s dairy allergy.

She said she understood it was last minute, but it was only fair that her child be able to participate too. Well, you can imagine that the eleventh-hour demands didn’t go over well with the other parent.

Please do not do this.

When navigating birthday parties, both the host and the allergy parent need time to prepare. They BOTH deserve to be treated with respect.

Honestly, we can’t desire others to show compassion towards our food allergy struggles if we go around ordering non-food allergy families to accommodate us when we are invited to social gatherings that they host.

Remember that the birthday party is ultimately for another parent’s child.

3. Carefully Assess the Safety Needs

Once you feel like you have enough information about the birthday party, you can start assessing how you feel about your child’s safety at the party.

If you know the event will be held at that person’s home, determine what safety measures would have to be discussed in order for you to feel comfortable in that environment.

A good question to ask is if there will be any pets in the home. Pet food and treats can be hidden sources of allergens. Will the pet be put away for the party or actively playing with the kids?

Perhaps the party is at a play place or a jump park. Once you know the location, you can call ahead to let the business know about your food allergy needs.

Does the party location serve food? If so, you can further inquire about whether or not your food allergens are present in the kitchen. Or perhaps you need to know very specific information about the possibility of cross-contact with your food allergen.

Do they have an easy place for kids to wash hands?

Maximize the information you have and ask as many questions as you need to ask in order to feel comfortable bringing your child to that location.

Who is Responsible for Your Child’s Emergency Action Plan?

For the little kids, it is fairly common that parents would stay for the party. Still, this is good to confirm with the host. At the current age of my kids (1 and 4), I am uncomfortable not having my husband or I in attendance at the party.

This is because in the event of a food allergy emergency, we want one of us right there. We are simply not yet comfortable handing that responsibility over to another parent, especially while they are trying to host their child’s birthday party.

For older kids, or if you will not be in attendance for the party, it is important to have a dedicated person who is responsible for the emergency care plan. Ideally though, this would not be the parent who will be distracted with running the party. They just have a lot going on already and could easily be preoccupied.

Will the parent of your child’s friend be in attendance? The spouse? A trusted family friend or relative?

Whoever it is, it would be wise to review the emergency care plan. This Emergency Care Plan one is from FARE who is the trusted source of information about food allergies. It has a helpful chart with signs and symptoms of what to look for and when to administer epinephrine.

It is also helpful to walk through your specific auto-injector with the person responsible for administering it should it be necessary. This guide from FAACT explains the different types of auto-injectors available in the US with some videos to show how the devices work.

What if the Host Offers to Provide Safe Foods?

If your host offers to purchase foods/drinks/treats that are safe for your child, you’ve won the friendship lottery! Seriously, hold on to that friend!

One of my dear friends from our foster care journey had invited us to her daughter’s birthday party. I reached out to chat with her about a plan for my daughter.

The mom stopped me and said, “Katie, I’ll do whatever you need me to do. You tell me what to buy, and I’ll buy it. I just want you guys to be safe in our home.”

Ummmm…. yeah. I totally bawled my eyes out. Having that type of kindness is priceless for us allergy families.

So one easy thing I could do was give her a list of our safe food brands and restaurants.

In addition to that, I provided her with a custom snack list from Snack Safely. They are awesome! They compile a variety of guides that help you navigate which food brands meet the specific needs of your child. For example, if your child has a tree nut allergy, they have a guide to help you find nut free brands.

They are also organized by food category. So if you need to find desserts that meet the needs for your child with multiple food allergies, you can customize the guide to search for safe products.

Check out their custom snack lists HERE!

4. You Can Make/Buy/Freeze Birthday Treats Ahead of Time

Hosts will not always offer to provide safe foods or ask what brands are safe for your children. And that’s okay! Many of them don’t understand food labels or the risks of manufacturing procedures.

If you find out that your child’s allergen will be served at the party, you’ll need to decide your comfort level in attending the party based on your child’s medical needs. You might feel comfortable attending as long as you bring your own foods, or that party might get a raincheck.

Or maybe cross-contact on shared lines in food factories is an issue for your kiddo, so you still have to bring your own foods.

Whatever the issue, allergy families have come up with lots of great birthday party hacks over the years!

Here are some ideas for you:

  1. Bring a safe meal for your child that is similar to what is being served.
    • Keep the meal warm by transporting it in a portable food warmer.
    • Buy a cooler for cold foods that can be plugged directly into your car.
  2. Bring a similar birthday treat! Here are some birthday dessert hacks:
    • Make different types of cupcakes ahead of time and freeze them in ziplocks or individual Tupperware containers.
    • Buy cupcakes or other desserts from an allergy free bakery in your town, or state, and freeze them in bulk. We have several amazing allergy free bakeries in Colorado that we can rely on.
    • If the host is serving cake-pops, check out Better Bites Bakery products. They are Top 9 free! Their “bites” are cake-pop size. Other allergy families figured out that you can put sticks in them to make easy and safe cake-pops!
    • Make your own safe cake, cut, and freeze slices.
    • Buy (or make) your own safe ice cream. Our family makes our own ice creams to freeze. We use these storage containers. (not an affiliate link)
    • If the birthday party is donut themed, you could check out Kinnikinnick’s frozen donut boxes to see if they meet your family’s allergy needs.
    • Another idea: some food allergy families are safely able to buy allergy free cupcakes from their local grocery store and bring a container of those to birthday parties.
  3. Offer to help with the food at the party!
    • Birthday parties are a lot of work. The host might appreciate the help!
    • You can help with safety measures like hand washing and cleaning eating areas
    • You are there in the event of an emergency
    • This way you understand exactly what the food is and can plan accordingly

5. Know that You will Meet Some Awesome Parents and Some Not-So-Awesome Parents

In my experience, most people are very happy to help answer questions and provide me the necessary information needed to make safety decisions for my children.

Many families have offered to help us by asking what foods they could buy and serve to our kids. Or they ask if there is anything else that they can do to keep my children safe.

BUT there have been some interactions that have been uncomfortable.

We were once invited to a birthday party for a little one of a family we knew quite well. The mother called me far ahead of time and provided the food information without me even asking.

She had researched safe foods for our kids and sent me ingredient label pictures. I was able to call companies and confirm that all the food being served was safe for our children. Sounds fantastic, right?

Well, the day of the party arrived and we double checked again on the food. Good to go! But it was the unexpected interactions we had with the adults that blindsided us.

Upon arrival, we had thanked the mom for going out of her way to include our children. She really had gone above the call of duty to keep my children safe!

Enter the Not-So-Awesome Parents

Since the mother was so gracious, we decided we needed to go find her husband. We lavished him with appreciation! He looked at us, folded his arms, and said, “Yeah. Well, it was really important to my wife, so it had to be important to me too.”

Ouch. A simple, “You’re welcome,” would have sufficed. We awkwardly said “Oh, okay, thanks” and proceeded to try to avoid him for the rest of the party.

Later, when treats were being served, a dad asked our host why the cupcakes looked so funny (we thought they looked normal). She replied, “We got these from an allergy free baking company since one of the kiddos has food allergies.”

The dad rolled his eyes and snickered, “So since some kid has allergies, we all gotta eat cardboard?”

Girl, I almost clawed his eyes out. I could feel the horde of angry phrases (give or take a few cuss words) rising up in me. I literally had to walk away from the table to keep from spewing them out on that thoughtless man.

Not something I wanted 10 or so toddlers to remember about that party.

I don’t tell you this to scare you. I just want you to know that there will be unkind people that you eventually will encounter. They may not intend to be that harsh, but their words can feel like a sucker punch. Prepare yourself for those interactions, sweet parents.

Nevertheless, I promise that MOST people more often than not will choose to treat you and your children with kindness.

It Ultimately Comes Down to Your Comfort Level

My husband and I know that we are responsible for advocating and keeping our children safe from their food allergens until they are old enough to understand it themselves.

If we are not comfortable with the information we receive about a birthday party, or we aren’t sure we can handle all the safety needs, we choose to pass on that party.

It’s Ok to Skip this One

I just want to put this out there. It’s okay to skip the party sometimes. If your gut is telling you it isn’t safe, then trust that. It doesn’t mean your child will never attend a birthday party. All it means is that at this specific season in your allergy journey (young kids, brand new to food allergies, recent diagnosis of a new allergy, developmental stage for your kid, etc) birthday parties just aren’t a fit.

One thing you could do if you need to pass on the party would be to schedule something special to do with this friend to celebrate the birthday. “We can’t make the party but we would love to celebrate with you another day!”

That would allow you the freedom to provide allergy free treats and a safer environment more within your control.

Let your kiddo be a part of the planning. Get them involved in how to celebrate their friend or relative. If you would have purchased a gift, still get a gift! The party isn’t the only way to celebrate and help your child build that friendship and experience what it is to celebrate a friend.

There is no “right” or “wrong” way to decide your own family’s comfort level. Rest in the assurance that you are a great advocate for your little one and make the best decision you can with the information available to you.

Like always, please remember that you’re an amazing human being and give yourself ALL the grace.

Food allergies are ridiculously hard. You and your family will continue to grow your knowledge and make decisions that work for YOU. 🙂

– Katie

What to Read Next: Food Allergies and the Playground

One response to “Food Allergies and Birthday Parties”

  1. […] What to Read Next: Food Allergies and Birthday Parties […]

Leave a Reply