4 Ways to Manage Food Allergies at BBQs

My awesome husband, Mark, is a legit carnivore. He loves meat so much that he was probably a T-Rex in his past life! Seriously! Hence, we are constantly grilling, smoking, and searing a variety of meats in our home.

For me personally, one of the toughest parts of living the food allergy life is not being able to go out to eat easily. Before we had kids, my husband and I were avid foodies. We loved trying new restaurants and different cuisines every weekend.

All of that came to a screeching halt when our oldest was diagnosed. We had our list of safe places to eat out at, but then our second child was diagnosed with a different allergy, and that further limited our choices.

Without a doubt, Mark missed BBQ smokehouses the most. One of his favorite things to do during the summer season was to rotate through his favorite BBQ restaurants. He’d load up his plate with sausage, brisket, pulled pork, chicken, and proceed to drown it in tangy BBQ sauce. He loved it!

Additionally, backyard summer BBQs are popular traditions in our families. Some of our fondest memories were shared with close friends and family barbecuing while kids ran laughing through freshly cut grass. Heaven on earth with a side of BBQ sauce!

For the love of BBQ!

Later, after food allergies came into the picture, we were overwhelmed and anxious about most food experiences in general. How would we manage cross-contact? Would people understand and take the allergies seriously? Could we even go out?

So Mark and I resigned ourselves to the fact that we’d no longer get to attend events or eat BBQ in the summer ever agin. We grieved that thought for awhile, but then realized we weren’t going to settle for that.

No way were we going to let food allergies limit our family fun! Thankfully, Mark is highly innovative and a lover of learning new things. He refused to give up on something we loved. We decided to up our cooking game and be devout in learning how to keep our children safe by reducing the risk of food cross-contact.

I hope this blog post provides you with some helpful tips in attending summer BBQs safely while also giving you some great additional resources!

What are common food allergy concerns at social BBQs?

Summer time BBQs and outdoor parties are an American past time. It has effectively become engrained into our cultural identity. But for food allergy families, it is not all fun and games. There are typically many concerns they have to consider before attending.

  • Who is hosting the BBQ?
  • Will a food allergen be actively served or present?
  • Could there be a chance of food cross-contact with any processed foods present? (BBQ sauces/seasonings/etc)
  • Will pets be around? (Pet food and pet treats are a common source of hidden allergens.)
  • Will people take the food allergies seriously?

If you read through this list and are wondering about cross-contact, check out our blog post, “What in the World is Food Cross-Contact?

To Go or Not to Go?

For now, our family feels the most comfortable hosting the BBQs ourselves. Very rarely do we go to another person’s home and let people cook for our kids.

Our children’s sensitivity to their allergens, combined with their young age and developmental stage (messy and objects in mouths), is just too risky for our comfort the majority of the time.

Now, there are some people in our circle that move mountains to host us safely. Lauren’s family, my parents, a few close friends, and my sister-in-law have worked with our family in the past and taken our kid’s allergens very seriously.

Not once have they dismissed our concerns or made us feel unwelcome. And there were many times that we brought our own safe foods despite their excellent attempts to keep us safe. And they understood and accepted us still.

Your family might have different comfort levels than we do. Depending on your child’s medical needs and developmental stage, going to the BBQ and eating the food might not feel like a huge safety risk. Or your family might not feel comfortable attending period. That’s all okay!

It’s about what is right for your family in this season.

When Food Allergens Are Present

Currently, one of our family rules is to not attend a function if our children’s allergens are actively served or present.

This is based on past stressful experiences of chasing our young daughter through a family member’s kitchen where boiled peanuts were set out along with a seed/nut mix that was being touched by everyone.

Our daughter is contact reactive. Though she didn’t eat the food, she developed an awful skin rash from coming into contact with her allergen proteins on something she touched.

This rule may change for our family as she gets older and her needs change.

That is why there is no “correct” way in how a food allergy family should respond or feel about food allergens being present in their environment. It is based on each family’s needs and comfort level.

How would your family personally feel about food allergens being served or present at an outdoor party? If you are okay with it, that’s great!

Here are a few additional things you might consider talking about with the host based on your needs:

  • Could we talk about what the food will be? It’s helpful for me to know what dishes contain my child’s allergens.
  • Just a heads up that I’ll wipe down her chair and eating area before she eats
  • At this time it’s easier if we bring my child’s own food that we know is safe. I wanted you to know in advance 🙂

But again, you might not be okay attending a party when the allergen is present, and that is 100% acceptable. No one should ever make you feel bad about keeping your child safe.

If you are not comfortable, maybe consider hosting the BBQ yourself so you know the environment is allergy free.

Cross-Contact at BBQ Get-togethers

There are many sneaky ways in which an allergen protein can be directly or indirectly present in food or on the surface of objects.

For example, someone attending a BBQ party might have a wheat allergy. If bread buns are set out on the same platter with sliced cheese or meat, those foods have come into direct physical contact with allergen proteins.

Another way this happens is if someone picks up a bread bun with their fingers, then proceeds to touch serving spoons or other objects that others will also be touching.

Do you see how quickly someone could accidentally be exposed to a food allergen just because of cross-contact?

NOTE: Lauren and I are not medically trained. We highly recommend discussing cross-contact with your allergist to determine your child’s specific needs.

Allergen Proteins Cannot Be “Killed”

Furthermore, there are many misconceptions that even if a food has come into contact with someone’s allergen, the allergen can then be “killed off” when the food is cooked at a high temperature.

Unfortunately, food allergen proteins cannot be destroyed by cooking the food with heat. Read this great explanation from Food Allergy Canada that discusses why heat does not get rid of the allergen protein.

As a side note, this is different from what some of you may be familiar with that are doing the egg or dairy ladder where heat is a variable in a child’s ability to tolerate the allergen. Not all allergens work this way and what we’re discussing is that many people commonly mistake that heat can simply “kill” an allergen thus making a dish safe when it is not.

I heard this “oh it’s fine” comment when we were at a family event. It was said in response to someone feeling like I was “overreacting” about not allowing my child to eat the food being served at a particular event.

I would not allow my daughter to eat chicken nuggets that were fried in peanut oil because we had not yet determined if she could tolerate that yet (some people with a peanut allergy do, some do not). Not just that, but my child’s allergens were elsewhere in the cooking environment.

Apparently, my concern about cross-contact warranted several unnecessary snide comments from others. *Insert shoulder shrug*

In addition, the boiled peanuts in that kitchen were being touched by everyone and there was no telling what else they had touched. I only let my daughter eat what I had packed for her because we couldn’t take a chance with the cross-contact.

The sheer stress we experienced at that function spurred my husband and I to adjust our family rules and boundaries. At this stage of our lives, and current allergy journey, we just cannot take the risk of having our kids at functions where their allergens will be served.

What About Cross-Contact in Processed Foods?

If you want to attend a BBQ, chances are there will be pre-packaged foods such as:

  • Sauce Condiments (ketchup/mustard/relish/BBQ sauce/etc)
  • Breads (buns/rolls)
  • Drink Mixes
  • Spices (used on grilled meats)
  • Packaged Sides (potato salad/macaroni/etc)

Any packaged product runs the risk of having cross-contact due to manufacturing procedures at production facilities. Most companies have strict cleaning protocols they follow and do acid washes in-between product changes.

However, it only takes one small allergen protein to cause an allergic reaction for some people. We follow our allergist’s advice and avoid all shared lines with our eldest’s food allergens.

Ask your allergist about whether your family should avoid shared lines. They know your child’s medical history and information well, so they are the ones that are best equipped to advise you.

But remember…

Companies are not required by law to label for shared lines. Since our allergist strongly recommends we avoid shared lines with peanuts and sesame, that means that our family makes it a priority to call companies to check for shared lines before feeding a manufactured product to our children.

If you are wondering how to reach out to companies about shared production lines, check out our blog post, “How to Call Companies About Food.”

If you have to avoid shared lines due to the risk of cross-contact, your family will need to decide how they feel about processed foods being present at the party. Maybe your child is old enough to understand the risks and can easily avoid consuming or touching those foods.

Or maybe you have little ones like I do, and the risk feels like too much. Either way, your comfort level is key. If you are not comfortable, then trust that amazing mama gut!

FARE is the trusted source of information about food allergies and you can check out their poster that really gets into the specifics of sources of cross-contact and how to prevent it.

4 Alternative Ways to Manage Food Allergies at BBQs

If your family is comfortable going to the summer BBQ party BUT does not feel comfortable eating the food there, here are a few great ideas you could think about.

  • Purchase a portable electric or propane grill. We got one of these for our family camping trips and we LOVE it! They are small and lightweight. You could bring your own food to the BBQ and grill it on your own equipment.
  • Purchase a portable smoker. If the BBQ party is an all day event (like some in my family), then it might be worth it to invest in a portable smoker. Doing this would also allow you to use your own food. Portable smokers are also fun for sports tailgating and camping! Check out this list of best portable smokers from the BBQ Guys HERE.
  • Bring foil or peach paper. If you don’t want to bring cooking equipment, but also don’t want your safe food to touch the grill/smoker, you could try wrapping the food with foil or peach paper. We have done that many times. We wash hands and wash counter tops. Then we prep the food and wrap it so that it won’t touch the grill rack or other foods.
  • Make your food ahead of time at home and bring it in a portable warmer! Hot Logic portable warmers are awesome! They even make ones that can plug into your car to keep warm! Check them out on Amazon HERE! (not an affiliate link)

Great Additional BBQ Resources

If you are like my husband, you might be pumped and ready to tackle the challenge of becoming a BBQ pro! If so, here are many resources that we used to help us make BBQs safer (and tastier) for our family.

  • Amazingribs.com has phenomenal tutorials on the science behind grilling and smoking meat. This website can even give you helpful tips on grill setup and even product reviews! They also include some unbelievable recipes. We follow the recipes as best we can and adjust to use safe spice brands for our family.
  • Enjoy Life has a great BBQ sauce recipe that you can make at home so that you know it is safe!
  • Forestlumps.com sells lump charcoal. They use 100% beechwood and their website goes into detail on the quality of their product. They are a great company! Reach out to them for your family’s specific food allergen concerns!

Your BBQ party will be fire!

It is completely okay to skip out on the party if something feels off or unsafe. That’s the perfect opportunity for your family to plan their own family backyard BBQ!

You can even get your kids involved in helping to plan the meal and even decorate with a particular theme in mind. Throw in some yard games and set up fun outdoor lights! It can be whatever you want and need it to be. Just have fun with it!

As always, Lauren and I are thinking of you all. Here’s to a warm and enjoyable summer season!


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2 responses to “4 Ways to Manage Food Allergies at BBQs”

  1. My daughter developed a peanut, tree nut as an adult! She also has a reaction if there is peanut/ tree nut dust in the air. I know I didn’t describe that right. She has had anaphylaxis a number of times.
    It breaks my heart to see how she limits social interactions. She is a pastor and even after the people are educated, some still don’t understand.

    1. It’s so scary. And yes so much more education is needed <3

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