On Holiday Gatherings And Maintaining A Social Life When Your Kid Has Food Allergies

Wanting to be able to eat isn’t demanding or rude. It’s our most basic human need. It’s how we celebrate together.

As soon as December hits, my phone’s calendar stops giving me notifications and instead just whispers “holy shit what the fuck” over and over and over. Like everyone else, I’m over-scheduled during the holidays, trying to find time for festivities with a seemingly infinite list of friends and family members. But in addition to juggling parties, gift exchanges, Christmas light displays, cookie-baking marathons, and budgeting for all the extra expenditures that pile up in December, every social engagement brings with it the added stress of having to plan well in advance what my partner and our daughter will eat.

Our 1-year-old is brilliant, gorgeous, and enthusiastic about the world. She wants to explore everything and learn all she can. She also has severe food allergies—she can’t eat anything containing milk, eggs, corn, soy, or sesame, or she’ll break out in a rash and be sick to her stomach. Since she’s still breastfeeding, my partner is limited by her food restrictions as well. At home we’ve adapted to her allergies and gotten used to life without omelettes or tofu. Going out, though, is a different matter. Every time we leave the house, it’s a minefield of allergens—not to mention the social expectations surrounding food.

Food is social. We seem to instinctively want to share meals with our friends and families, and it’s difficult to think of a social event that doesn’t involve food. From picnics in the park to Thanksgiving dinners, from meeting friends for apps to sharing sno-cones at summer street fairs, eating and drinking together nurtures both our bodies and our relationships. It’s so universal it’s easy to take for granted, unless you’re us.

Many of the holiday gatherings we’re invited to will happen at restaurants. Even in our big city with tons of culinary options, most of these restaurants don’t offer a single thing on the menu that fits into my partner’s and daughter’s diet—or if they do, it’s a side salad with no dressing. But everyone we know is sick of going to the handful of restaurants where we can reliably find tasty, filling, and allergy-friendly food, so our options are either stay home or sit through an uncomfortable hour of moving all the yummy things our daughter can’t have out of her reach.

Then there are the house parties, where it’s even more rare to find something that suits our needs. Usually, when I ask a host if they’ll provide any food that’s allergen-free, they reply that we’re welcome to bring our own. I understand why that seems like a reasonable solution, but consider that it means we have to bring everything we might want to eat, since there will be no supplementing what we brought with other people’s offerings. It’s a ton of extra work that no one else has to put in.

I decided to stop eating meat when I was 9. It’s easy to be a vegetarian these days, especially as an adult who’s in charge of her own groceries, but I remember so many parties and family gatherings as a kid where I ate nothing but salad—not a dinner salad, just a bowl of lettuce with some oil and vinegar—or a few slices of bread. I remember the feeling that I was being left out of something all the time, slightly disconnected from the people around me. I don’t want my daughter to feel that way.

If you’re someone without food allergies or dietary restrictions, this might all sound silly and overblown to you—why not just bring something of your own? Why demand that your family and friends cater to your needs? A few family members even suggest: Why not just let her eat that cookie, the popcorn, the chips made with soybean oil? And yes, every once in a while we do let her try something that’s usually off limits, but not because it would be more convenient for someone who doesn’t have to wake up with her in the night if she’s crying from gas pain.

It frustrates me that so many of our loved ones find it unthinkable to make even one meal that my partner and daughter can eat. Sure, it’s a challenge, but not an insurmountable one; my partner has followed this diet for every meal for nearly a year. It’s perfectly possible to cook something delicious without dairy or soy, and by refusing to try, you send the clear message that my family’s health is not a priority for you. If you’ve never arrived at a party and realized there is literally nothing here I can eat, don’t assume you know what it feels like or that people are overreacting.

There’s a symbolism to sharing food, to making food for each other. It says “I care about you and I want you to be nourished.” Ignoring the needs of people with food allergies and dietary restrictions does the opposite. And most frustrating of all is the knowledge that people will take offense if we choose to stay home rather than attend an event where our child will not be fed. Sitting through hours of watching other people eat when you can’t do so yourself is miserable. So is hearing people sing the praises of an elaborate four-course meal while you gnaw on dry bread and steamed broccoli.

This holiday season, I’d like to encourage everybody to think about each other’s needs and do what you can to ensure that nobody goes hungry. If you’re planning a meal out, check with the attendees and make sure the restaurant will have food available that everyone can eat. (Please understand that if you invite a vegetarian to dinner at a steakhouse and she says no, she is not the one who has ruined the evening.) If your guests can’t eat the traditional meal you like to make, consider developing a new tradition. Wanting to be able to eat isn’t demanding or rude. It’s our most basic human need. It’s how we celebrate together. Trust me on this: Everyone wants to be fed.

Lindsay King-Miller is a queer femme who does not have an indoor voice. Her writing has appeared in Bitch Magazine, Cosmopolitan.com, Buzzfeed, The Hairpin, and numerous other publications. She lives in Denver with her partner, a really cute baby, and two very spoiled cats. She is the author of Ask A Queer Chick (Plume, 2016).

Other Links: