Visions of balloons, big smiles and a brief respite bless the minds of many parents when a birthday party invitation arrives. But if your child has food allergies, that invitation may look more like a warning notice that the countdown of calling, planning, cooking and baking has officially begun.
For years, I dreaded those invitations, convinced that I had to make everything perfect for my son. I brought whole cakes and pizzas to the events, and went crazy trying to make everything look identical (or better!) than what the hostess was serving. This worked OK until he was 7, but then the gig was up. My son wanted the “real” treats, not my look-a-like substitutes. We transitioned to potato chips and my homemade donuts, but by age 11 he preferred to go incognito and opt out of the party fare altogether.
The behind-the-scenes work didn’t disappear, but it did diminish considerably as my son matured and as I learned that he can have a wonderful time without the excessive fuss. So how do you achieve the impossible: a safe, fun festivity for your child and finding your sanity intact when the confetti settles? Start by calling the hostess to discuss the following:
1. The Party Venue
Will it be held at a pizza parlor, laser tag center or Jimmy’s house? Each could pose challenges to consider, from a menu brimming with allergens to areas where your child might be out of sight. If there is no way the location will work (my son was once invited to an hour long boat ride in caverns!) offer to have the birthday boy or girl over to your home another time.
2. Your Attendance
Parents typically start dropping kids off at parties around 6 years of age, but this can be a bit premature for children with allergies. If you feel the need to stay for the festivities, offer to take photos or video, or to help with a game or craft. You’ll want to give the hostess a reason to agree to the request, and to blend in as a party helper so your child doesn’t feel singled out.
3. The Menu
Food is a focal point at most celebrations, and kids’ birthdays are no exception:
- Meals: Explore what’s going to be safe for your child and ask about heating or storing safe foods, if needed. In a pinch, a hot dog in a thermos with a few ounces of very hot water will stay warm for hours.
- Cake: Baked goods carry a high risk for allergens and cross-contamination. As a precaution, I kept a stash of my homemade cupcakes in the freezer during those peak party years. I could grab one and frost it the morning of the event.
- Ice Cream: Beyond milk, this dessert can contain wheat, egg, nuts, soy or other allergens. Fortunately, a serving of safe ice cream can be kept cold with an insulated lunch box and an ice block.
- Drinks: I’ll never forget the party when the supposedly safe beverage turned out to be kiwi-lemonade. Thankfully I saw the packaging before it was served to my kiwi-allergic son. After that, I began packing along juice boxes.
Games and crafts can involve food, latex and sometimes candy will be given out as a prize. With advance notice, you can bring a stash of safe candy and supplies for seamless participation. Now that the agenda is settled and the party is just around the corner, it’s time for final preparations.
5. Confirm a Chaperone
If you will be dropping your child off, make sure there is at least one adult who is trained to recognize and treat anaphylaxis, and that they have your cellphone number. If you need to train the host, it’s ideal to do so before the big day, when things are not as hectic.
6. Pack the Essentials
A cellphone, medicine bag with epinephrine auto-injector and emergency care plan need to be within reach at all times. Wipes are also a must for sticky fingers and tables. For younger children, consider a “don’t feed me” t-shirt to keep well-meaning adults from offering a taste of icing without asking first.
7. Prepare your Child
It’s hard to watch your child as the slices of gooey cake are being passed all around him. But if you discuss the scenarios in advance and include him in the baking, frosting and decorating of his own special treat, it often goes more smoothly.
Finally, be easy with yourself. Preparing for the first few celebrations can leave you feeling as deflated as the post-party balloons. But rest assured that with practice, birthday bashes will become a piece of cake.
Gina Clowes is a certified life coach and consultant who helps parents and schools advocate for children with food allergies. She is the founder of AllergyMoms.com, a support community serving thousands worldwide.