It's statistically likely that your child has at least one classmate with a food allergy. And so each year at your kiddo's birthday party, it's likely you'll be hosting a child with a food allergy.
• Inquire about dietary restrictions when sending out the invitation: To give yourself plenty of time to figure out the menu and arrange for special accommodations if needed, it's best to ask guests about any dietary restrictions well in advance.
[Read: Strange (but True) Food Allergies.]
Knowing ahead that we'd need to consider allergy-friendly cupcakes for several of our guests allowed us to research available options. In so doing, we discovered a vegan bakery about 20 minutes from our house that could provide allergen-free cupcakes for the guests who required them.
The day before the party, we drove there with our kids and let them pick out a cupcake for each of their friends on a special diet; they did so with excitement and pride. For us as parents, it was far from being a bother; rather, it provided a terrific teachable moment about doing kind deeds for friends and being a considerate host!
• Make a pizza plan B: Pizza is a fairly typical menu staple at kids' parties, but it's problematic for guests with dairy or wheat allergies, Celiac disease or who follow vegan diets.
If you're hosting a party at home, it's easy enough to pick up an allergy-friendly frozen pizza to offer – look for gluten-free options from Udi's or gluten-free/dairy-free options from Amy's Kitchen. Families who live in larger urban areas may even have access to local pizzerias offering gluten-free or dairy-free pizzas – in my town, a few of them even deliver! If you're hosting a party at an outside facility, however, you may need to get creative.
For my children's third birthday bash, the facility didn't allow outside food or drink beyond the cake, and its pizza purveyor didn't have a dairy-free option required by the littlest vegan in attendance. After talking to the staff, I learned there was a microwave on site and that they were willing to let me bring a bag of Daiya vegan "cheese" to sprinkle onto a cheeseless pie that they would provide. Problem solved!
[Read: Great New Foods for Restricted Diets.]
• Enlist help from parents of guests with food allergies: If you're concerned about being able to accommodate the dietary needs of a guest with food allergies, don't hesitate to reach out to his or her parents to ask questions or request help in ensuring appropriate options are available. Parents can help guide you as to what foods are safe and unsafe and where to buy appropriate options; usually, they'll volunteer to bring a special cupcake or other food for their child to help spare you the trouble. Not only will they not mind your request for support and guidance, they'll almost certainly be happy to help – and relieved to know that you've considered their child's safety as you plan a fun celebration.
• Emphasize fun over food: While food is expected at a birthday party, the folks at Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE) suggest that it need not be the focal point of everything from goody bags to classroom celebrations. Trinkets, toys, tattoos and stickers can be given out at school parties or in goody bags instead of edibles like chocolates and cookies that may pose a threat to dairy-, nut- or wheat-allergic kids. Alternatively, FARE suggests skipping goody bags altogether and considering alternate take-home favors like white T-shirts that partygoers can design themselves with fabric markers, glitter and bling as a fun partytime activity.
If you do choose to toss in a few sweet treats, consider allergen-free options that all can safely enjoy. Some of my favorites include Veggie-Go's fruit and veggie strips and Bare Fruit Apple Chips. For a constantly updated list of snacks that do not contain eggs, peanuts or tree nuts, many parents also consult the Safe Snack Guide put out by Snacksafely.com.
If you find party planning stressful enough as it is, it may be tempting to forego making additional accommodations for guests with special dietary needs. But try to remember what birthday parties were like for you as a kid – the most magical, exciting events of your nascent social life. Then, picture your child's friend with a food allergy showing up to the party, expecting to be excluded from some of the fun as per usual ... only to find that he or she can enjoy food, cupcakes AND a party favor – just like everyone else. While your own child is being showered with birthday presents, you'll have just given a gift that will be cherished by another child: the feeling of being included.
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Tamara Duker Freuman, MS, RD, CDN, is a registered dietitian whose NYC-based clinical practice specializes in digestive disorders, celiac Disease, and food intolerances. Her personal blog, www.tamaraduker.com, focuses on healthy eating and gluten-free living.
Please note that the author cannot offer individualized medical advice to readers who contact her via email.