The holiday season has begun, and I am so excited! There’s an undeniable magic in the air as the year draws to a close. Lights go up, work winds down, and everyone seems to collectively pause and enjoy the moment.
One of my favorite parts of the holidays is sharing traditions, especially at work. Everyone puts their own spin on the classics (like whoever knew there were so many different ways to make chocolate chip cookies!). But if you ask anyone, their recipe is the best and you have to try it. When you have a food allergy — like I do — that can be really awkward.
Navigating food allergies in the workplace is difficult all year long, but it can be particularly challenging around the holidays. It’s a delicate balance of politely declining the buffet and subtly grabbing the prepacked lunch you brought from home while silently being jealous that everybody else gets to eat Janet’s famous gingerbread cookies. It’s one thing to decline catered lunch at an occasional client meeting or office happy hour because people don’t really have skin in the game. But it’s especially difficult to consistently say no to cake, cookies, brownies and other delicious treats, especially when your coworkers put a lot of time and effort into making them and want to share them with you.
Since it can be awkward for people with allergies to have these conversations, I wanted to offer some advice to help minimize conflict and still keep those with allergies feeling safe and comfortable. Afterall, everyone knows the only thing we should be fighting about around the holiday table are politics and religion (or is that just my family?).
1. Be honest and open about your food allergy.
Yes, the old adage is true – honesty truly is the best policy. Most people are completely understanding and will back off if you say, “I have an allergy, so I am not comfortable eating that.” I found that also saying “but it looks delicious!” helps sooth any feelings of being rejected.
2. Know it’s okay to keep saying no.
Realize that people will still try to convince you, but it’s okay (and advisable!) to continue to say no. I often hear, “I made this myself and there are definitely no [insert name of your allergen here] in it. You’ll be fine!” with the expectation I will jump for joy and immediately reach for the cookie. Allergies, especially as an adult, come with a lot of baggage. I’ve taken risks and landed myself in the ER countless times, each reaction more severe than the last. It only takes a tiny bit of cross contamination to turn deadly for me, which leads to a lot of food anxiety. Instead of releasing 30 years of panic, frustration and fear, I usually just forgo eating things I’m unsure of and save myself the stress.
3. Advocate for yourself.
Food allergies are a huge part of my story, so I am constantly aware of ingredients and cross contamination potential when it comes to food. However, I don’t expect everyone to think that way. If it’s not part of your daily routine, it’s easy to simply forget that allergies are something you have to consider when feeding a crowd. If you have an allergy, try to get a seat at the table when the office is deciding on the menu for a holiday party. Using that forum to communicate your dietary requirements makes everyone aware of what ingredients they need to avoid in their recipes to ensure everyone is safe and able to enjoy the potluck.
4. Encourage people to bring ingredients lists.
Something really simple that can help put people at ease is just to bring a list of the ingredients used to make the dish, including the brands. This may not be common knowledge, but some brands are inherently riskier than others for people with food allergies. For example, I am only allergic to peanuts and I can freely eat all tree nuts. However, I will only eat specific brands of tree nuts and nut butters because they are produced in completely peanut free facilities (looking at you Blue Diamond and Barney Butter). I don’t feel comfortable eating bulk grocery store nuts or Planters brand because the risk of cross-contamination is too high for my anxiety levels. If you bring the ingredients list and list out the brands of flour, chocolate chips, etc. that you used, I can make an informed decision about my comfort level based on my own criteria.
In a workplace environment, it’s really important to be understanding, open-minded and compassionate. If you are the baker or cook, please know that if someone is declining your home cooking, it’s most likely not personal. Food anxiety is just one of many insecurities people face at work, and it only takes a little bit of thought to help us allergy sufferers feel safe.
Anna Albert has a lifelong peanut allergy and is also a vice president at Stratacomm in D.C. who will happily sample all of your nut-free holiday goodies.