When your child has a food allergy, the excitement of birthday parties can also cause anxiety for parents. After all, party food is usually a big part of the whole experience. We’ve put together some practical tips for navigating kids’ birthday parties with food allergies. With a little preparation, your food allergy child can stay safe while they join in the fun with their friends.
What to do before the birthday party
Your child hands you a party invitation with great excitement – what now? When you child has food allergies, you need to do a little more than just RSVP and buy a gift for the birthday child. The best way to have a safe and enjoyable birthday party experience is to do a little preparation.
Speak to the party host first
You might be lucky enough to be friends with the family hosting the party, in which case they may already know about your child’s food allergies. Or sometimes the invitation will even ask you to let the host know of any dietary restrictions.
In times of email and text invitations and RSVPs, it can be harder to get hold of the party host. But if you can, just give them a call. Explain that your child has food allergies and what they are. We usually start by offering to bring our own safe food so that the host doesn’t have to worry. Often this is gratefully accepted, especially for those not familiar with food allergies.
The party host might have all the food planned to the last detail, and not have thought about food allergies. In that case, we opt to take our own safe food. We like to ask what the host is planning to serve, so that we can bring something similar (eg safe pizza for a pizza party). Or your host might love the idea of you bringing some allergy-safe food to share with everyone. (You can find lots of tasty treats to make on our recipes page.) And very occasionally you will come across the most amazingly accommodating people who are happy to cater a whole party free from your child’s allergens (often other food allergy families!) Having this first conversation will give you the best idea of what to do on the day.
Contact the venue if appropriate
Of course not all parties are held at a home or park. If the party is being held at another venue, such as an indoor play centre or bowling, ask the host if the venue will be providing food. Often venues ask the hosts to advise of any food allergies, but it’s a good idea to call the venue directly to find out if there are any allergy-safe options available for your child. If you aren’t confident that there will be safe options, you’ll know to take your own.
Talk to your child
Before going to the party, have a gentle talk to your child about what will happen with the party food. This of course will depend on your child’s age and whether they have been to parties before. In any event, it’s a good idea to talk about your plans before you arrive so they know what to expect. Let your child know if you will be staying at the party, who they can ask about food and drinks, and what you are planning to take with you on the day. If you are taking your own safe cake, ask them what flavour they would like to make it exciting and special for them too.
TIP: Make a batch of your child’s favourite flavoured cupcakes and keep them in the freezer. When birthday parties come around, you can just defrost a cupcake and add some icing/frosting ready to take to the party.
Staying safe at the party
Going to birthday parties with food allergies should be just as much fun for your child as everyone else. On the day of the party, don’t forget to take:
- your child’s safe food and birthday cake if you are taking your own; and
- any medications (including 2 EpiPen’s or other autoinjectors if prescribed) and your child’s action plan.
Never assume that any foods served are safe unless you’ve asked or checked the ingredients. And make sure your child knows this too. For example:
- your child might eat wheat free pretzels at home, but not know that pretzels at the party aren’t safe even though they look the same; or
- if your child can have milk and egg in baked goods, they might think cupcakes are safe. But there could well be butter in the frosting/icing which isn’t safe for milk allergy.
There can also be a real risk of cross-contact at birthday parties. Unless the person preparing the food is experienced with food-allergies, there could be cross-contact during the food preparation. And of course a group of excited children sharing food is a recipe for food allergy ingredients making their way into dishes that would otherwise be safe.
These are all reasons to take your own safe party food to avoid any mistakes. It also helps your child feel safe.
To stay or not to stay?
Should you stay for the whole party if your child has food allergies? This will depend on the age of your child, how confident they are at managing without you and also how confident you are to leave! We always used to stay when our child was younger. Both your child and the host will appreciate having you there to supervise, reassure and make sure that your child eats only safe foods.
As your child gets older, and can confidently manage safe food choices, ask questions and know what to do if they have a reaction, it becomes easier to drop and go.
If you do drop your child at a party and go, always make sure that the host has your emergency contact details and where you child’s emergency medications are and how to use them. This is where an easy to share allergy app like Allergy Pal is a great option.
When it’s time to go home
You’ve made it through the party food and the cake, but now it’s time go home and there is another food allergy minefield – the loot bag! While some people are opting for non-food party bag treats, more often than not generous party hosts will hand out treat bags filled to the brim with chocolate and candy treats.
If you’ve spoken to the host in advance about your child’s allergies, they might have gone out of their way to make a special allergy-friendly treat bag for your child. If you are lucky enough to have that happen, that’s fantastic. But it’s not something we ever expect.
How we manage party bags (and Halloween and any other occasions where treats are handing out) is to make an agreement with our child to do safe swaps. We take the party bag home, and anything that isn’t safe for our food allergies we swap with something that is. Like for like. (Chocolate for chocolate!)
Finally, don’t forget to thank your host. Especially if they have gone out of their way to accommodate your child’s food allergies. Every little bit of encouragement helps with food allergy awareness and keeping our food allergy children safe.
When your host is also food allergy parent
Very occasionally, birthday parties with food allergies are a breeze. On that rare occasion when your child is invited to a party for another child with food allergies who just “gets it”. They’ll ask about your child’s allergies in advance, and make allergy-safe food for everyone (and even keep the ingredient lists to show you). They’ll watch your child more closely than the rest, ask where their EpiPens and other medications are and assure you that they know when and how to use them. As an allergy-parent, I love being that host. Seeing the look of joy on another child’s face when they know ALL of the food is safe for them. And seeing the relief and appreciation on a parent’s face when they can relax just that little bit more. It’s the best feeling.
More practical tips for staying safe with food allergies
More practical ways to let others know about your child’s food allergies include:
- using allergy stickers on food containers and party RSVPs;
- putting an EpiPen bag tag or key chain on your child’s bag to alert others; and
- wearing a child-friendly allergy medical alert IDs.
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