*The information below is not medical advice. Always use your best judgement when accommodating someone with food allergies, as there may be additional steps or considerations required outside of what has been provided in this list.
Have you ever invited friends over for dinner, only to realize that someone has a food allergy (or more than one) and you’re worried about cooking for them? The feeling is not uncommon. With over 2.5 million Canadians living with food allergies, it seems like everyone either has or knows someone who has an allergy.
Food allergy is an autoimmune disease that can cause a severe and even life-threatening reaction called anaphylaxis, which is treated with epinephrine and hospitalization. A reaction can be triggered by even a miniscule dose of an allergen, such as from cross-contact on a cutting board or unclean hands.
There are 8 top allergens recognized in Canada (peanuts, nuts, dairy, soy, egg, wheat, fish, shellfish) however any food can be a potential allergen. The “top 8” have been identified because they are the most common.
So what measures do you take to ensure your guest’s safety and comfort in your home? Let’s look at some basic strategies.
Identify allergies ahead of time
Ask the simple question, what are your guests allergic to? Write it down, or ask for it in a text or email, for your own reference. Clarify where these allergens are found, foods to avoid, other pseudonyms it goes by. For example, if there is a dairy allergy, some foods it is found in include cheese, butter, ghee, yogurt, packaged cookies and desserts, etc. It may also go by names such as whey powder, casein, lactose, lactic acid, etc. It’s important to know this information before you begin preparing food because once it’s in process it can be difficult to look back and identify any missteps.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions; you can never ask too many! The more information you have, the better.
Share what you will be making and which ingredients you will use
Tell your guests what’s on the menu. They will likely ask you ahead of time anyways! Provide as much detail as possible, including oils, flours, spices, seasonings, marinades… basically any and all ingredients that you plan to use. Then, stick to that list. Your friend may have questions about the brand names as some brands may not be allergy safe for them. Avoid using ingredients from bulk bins as they could be at risk for cross-contamination. If a product has an ingredient list, send it to them by text or email for verification. Read every label. Stay away from products that have a “may contain” or “processed in the same facility/equipment” as disclaimer. If there’s an ingredient you’re unsure of, don’t take the risk.
Clean and sanitize
Run everything through the dishwasher to sanitize before cooking and serving. Put on a pair of gloves and clean down your counters, cooktop, handles, knobs, and sink with warm soapy water and a sanitizing kitchen cleaner. Use a new sponge. Old sponges may be holding on to allergen residues or clumps of food (we know how nasty those kitchen sponges can be!), meaning you’re just smearing the allergen around. Avoid cleaning plates, bowls, utensils, and cookware in a sink full of water. The sink itself may have allergen residues on it, even if they are not visible, and if there were any contaminants in the water they will be transferred to the items you’re trying to clean.
Cross-contact, or cross-contamination, is when an allergen is transferred on surfaces, foods, hands, splashes, etc. For example, if you use a cutting board to chop walnuts and then use it to slice cucumbers, there will be nut residues left that have “contaminated” that surface and knife. This residue could be enough to cause an allergic reaction. The same goes for sharing a spoon to taste a sauce or stir a pot. The list of situations in which this can occur is endless.
Be mindful about using clean surfaces, cookware, and utensils. Consider spices, flours, jarred pickles, and other packaged foods that may have been contaminated by dirty measuring spoons and cups, or utensils. Did you dip a peanut butter covered knife into the jam jar? What about that pinch bowl of salt? It can also occur due to contact with non-food items, such as hand lotions or powdered sani gloves (ex. Corn starch coated latex gloves).
Consider finger foods
What else will you be serving, aside from the main meal? Bowls of nuts, chips, popcorn, candy, and other snacks can be unsafe for those with allergies. And when other guests start snacking, allergens can spread between foods, on to surfaces, and around your home.
Cook the allergy-safe meal first
If you are making a separate meal for the person with allergies, consider making it first. This will allow you to have a fresh work surface (and clear mind) after sanitizing and cleaning, and minimizes the risk of cross-contact.
Consider alcohol and beverages
Alcohol is not subject to the ingredient and allergen labelling regulations that food is, so check in with your guest about specific brands. Wine, for example, can contain fish, egg, or dairy. Beer contains wheat, and flavored beers may contain dairy, nuts, or other unexpected ingredients. Liquor can be a bit of a minefield for potential allergens. Cocktail shakers and shot measures are often just rinsed and may contain residues. As with food preparation, ensure all tools are cleaned, labels read, and verified before serving.
My final suggestion is to be positive! This is a lot of information and understandably, can feel overwhelming. No one wants to accidentally harm someone they’ve welcomed into their home. But with thoughtfulness and preparation, a safe and comfortable meal can be achieved. Keep an open mind and a positive outlook! Sharing a meal in your home is an act of generosity. Your guest with food allergies certainly appreciates and understands the efforts you’ll have gone through to ensure their wellbeing, and will probably extend the same hospitality the next time they have you over.
Freelance writer and photographer living in Toronto. She is the author and photographer of two cookbooks, Everyone’s Welcome (2019) and Allergen-Free Desserts (2015).