Navigating Birthday Parties + Food Allergies

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It’s officially birthday season! We are smack-dab in the middle of our big birthday season – March through June are months full of birthday parties, which I LOVE – which means navigating lots of food in a variety of settings.

Attending friends’ birthday parties fills kids with great memories and a real sense of belonging. If you’re new to food allergies, I promise that it is both absolutely possible to allow your kiddo to attend these parties, and important for him to feel independent and confident in navigating the world outside of your safety net (home). It’s worth some effort on your part to set your child up for success on the birthday party circuit.

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Having navigated food allergies for the better part of a decade now, our party prep is pretty well down pat. Here are some things I’ve learned along the way to allow Zachary to join in the fun without me there (yes, it’s possible!):

Contact the host parent. As soon as we receive an invitation, I use the RSVP method given (phone or email) to contact the host parent to discuss the party. If I don’t know the parent, I introduce myself and mention that we would like for Zachary to attend the party. I go on to explain that he has multiple food allergies, so I’m hoping to ask some questions and see how I can help to make sure he has safe food to eat in a way that does not require any extra work on the host parent’s part.

Ask questions. The questions I ask include (in this order):

Do you have any gift ideas for your child?
Will there be food served? If so, what kind?
If it is being catered, may I contact the caterer directly?
If the food being served is unsafe for my child, may I bring his food separately?

I always assume that, at minimum, cake will be served and make clear that Zachary will be bringing his own, safe cupcake. If I have extra time on my hands (ha!), I may ask what kind of cake is being served so he can have the same flavor; if there is a particular theme, I try to decorate his cupcake along the theme as well.

(NOTE: It is important to note that I never assume that the host parent will be able to accommodate Zachary’s multiple allergies. It wouldn’t be fair; it took me years to be able to understand safety from cross contact and how to actually bake a cake without eggs that doesn’t taste like cardboard, and I can’t in good conscience place such expectations on others.)

Do your due diligence. Once I have the answers to all of the questions above – and any that are spawned from the course of the conversation – I spend some time in recon to see what is safe for Zachary to eat and determine what alternatives I need to provide. I then connect with the birthday child’s parents and update them on what Zachary will be bringing to the party that he can safely eat.

Prepare to be overwhelmed—in a good way. There have been multiple instances in the midst of these planning conversations that parents have asked what kinds of foods will be safe for my son to eat and offer to purchase those foods for the whole party. Every single time I’ve been overwhelmed by their kindness and desire to be fully inclusive. Again, this should not to be an expectation placed on others. These allergies are our lives and we can’t expect others to fully accommodate the allergies that we live with on a daily basis.

Plan and prepare your child. Before taking him to the party, I walk Zachary through what to expect there. This includes who’s in charge, what alternate food options he will have, where his EpiPen might be, and a refresher on what to do if he feels a reaction coming on.

Drop off and go enjoy yourself. After touching base with the host parent to ensure both sets of parents and Zachary all know where the EpiPen is (+ ensuring important stuff like everyone knows how to use it and when to use it), I drop him off and walk away. I did not leave him at drop-off party until he was six years old, so this piece of party planning may or may not fit for your stage of life. If you don’t feel ready to drop off your child, stay and lurk in the form of offering help to those in charge.

Navigating birthday parties with food allergies is absolutely possible—all we need is a willingness to prepare, communicate, and to be positive about our child’s experience at the party. It teaches our kids freedom, responsibility, and helps them feel like one of the gang.

Do you have any further tips on navigating birthday parties with food allergies? Share them in the comments below!

Tiffany Self

Tiffany Self is a wife, mom to "Z", and a lover of words. In an ironic twist, she is an English class dropout who now writes for a living. Tiffany is a freelancer in the Chicago suburbs by way of Seattle and Southern Oregon. She writes about her journey of parenting a child with multiple severe food allergies, asthma, and environmental allergies. You can follow her on Twitter or Instagram.

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