For many, the holiday season is a time to enjoy a variety of festive treats and dishes that only come once a year. For those with food allergies or special dietary needs, the holiday season can be challenging and frustrating. Whether dealing with a common allergen such as milk, eggs, tree nuts, and wheat, or a less-common allergen like food coloring, navigating the holidays can seem impossible due to the lack of control, knowledge, and supervision when it comes to food preparation.

Kimberly Mayer, registered dietitian-nutritionist for Rensselaer Dining Services, provides advice on how to keep holiday parties and gatherings accessible to those with food allergies or intolerances in order to ensure that everyone is able to enjoy the indulgences this time of year has to offer.

Do you have any tips for staying “allergy-friendly” at holiday parties?

If you are a guest at a holiday party, let your host know ahead of time that you have a food allergy or special dietary need so that they can plan ahead and have safe food on hand. You can also eat before you go to the party or bring your own safe food with you.

If you are hosting a party, tell your guests to let you know if they have a special dietary need prior to the party. Additionally, have food on hand that is free of the top eight allergens (milk, wheat, fish, shellfish, soy, eggs, peanuts, and tree nuts) such as veggies and hummus, fruit, or quinoa salad.

What are some ways to prevent cross-contamination from occurring when preparing for holiday parties?

Before you start preparing allergen-free foods, make sure that you clean and sanitize all surfaces, cutting boards, knifes, pots, pans, etc., wash your hands thoroughly, and dry them with a paper towel. Make allergen-free foods separately and never use shared oil or water. Cook all allergy-friendly foods first, cover them up, and store them on the top shelf of a refrigerator or shelf to prevent cross-contact with other foods as a result of spills or airborne allergens.

What makes it challenging for those with allergies to navigate holiday parties and what can people do to ease that challenge?

It can be difficult for people with food allergies to navigate a holiday party if foods are not labeled. Providing accurate labels and listing the top eight allergens on a label can make it a little easier for guests to know what is safe and what is not.

The host can also separate foods containing allergens from the allergen-free foods to prevent cross-contamination. For instance, keep fruit and a dairy-containing dip in separate containers; keep vegetables on a different platter than wheat-containing crackers. The host should also keep backup allergen-free food in the kitchen if it is a self-serve party because a spoon could inadvertently be placed back in the wrong dish and contaminate it.

What are some ways to ensure you enjoy holiday parties even if you have allergies?

Talk to your host beforehand to let them know that you have a food allergy. Offer to bring an allergen-free dish that you know is safe for you to eat. Say “no thank you” in a nice way if you are unsure of a dish’s ingredients. It is always better to be safe than sorry.