How to Feed Guests with Food Allergies During the Jewish High Holidays
The High Holidays are a wonderful time of year to celebrate with your community – and we Jews love to celebrate with a grand feast! But sometimes, you extend an invitation to that friend from shul (synagogue) only to find out that she has food allergies.
You want to be a good friend and include her, but menu planning for a series of three-day chagim (holiday) is hard enough without dietary restrictions. As someone with a roster of food allergies that even shocked my allergist, I’d like to offer some Dos and Don’ts to hosts who are kind enough to open their homes to people of all eating abilities.
DO understand what allergies are
Allergies are not pickiness or a new weight loss fad. They’re not a choice, and they’re harder for the person who deals with them every day than they are for you while you’re cooking one meal. Allergic reactions can present themselves in a variety of ways including hives, nausea, dizziness, swelling, itching, and most severely, anaphylaxis, which is the loss of breath and potentially life.
Most allergic reactions occur within a few seconds to a few hours of contact with the allergen, and contact can mean different things for different allergens. In some cases, ingesting causes the reaction. In others, it’s as simple as touching the food. In even more severe cases, the allergen is airborne, which means if the person is even if the same room as the allergen, they risk a life-threatening reaction.
But DON’T be scared
Your guest with food allergies knows how to handle herself. She lives in the real world, full of food, and has secret tips that help her avoid reactions. For instance, one of my secret tips is that I don’t pass platters at meals if there’s anything I’m allergic to present. That way, if someone inadvertently touches the food I’m allergic to followed by the serving dish and some residue is leftover, I don’t accidentally touch the allergen residue and then my mouth, cutlery, or food.
I’ll also ask my host if I can take food first, minimizing any contact with troublesome ingredients. As long as you listen to your guest’s needs and share the ingredients with her honestly, trust her to take care of herself. She should be carrying Benadryl, Epi-pens, and other supplies as prescribed with her. You can always ask how they work in case of an emergency (hint: if she uses her Epi-pen, she needs to go to the hospital immediately.)
DO ask questions in advance
Many hosts think they’re being a pest when they reach out with too many questions about ingredients and menus. But food allergy sufferers are grateful for the questions, because it shows you’re really paying attention to their needs. Each question comes with a silent reassurance of “Anaphylactic shock is unlikely!” and “I won’t go hungry!” It also helps to take photos of ingredient labels or send along the recipes you’re planning, as that will ensure she catches anything that you might not have thought of.
Some of the unpronounceable ingredients in processed foods actually contain common allergens, and labels will also indicate if the product was produced in a facility where there might be cross contamination (when an allergen may accidentally wind up in a food where it wasn’t intended).
But DON’T ask questions throughout the meal
There is so much to talk about when you’ve assembled your friends for a festive holiday meal. Shul politics, real politics, words of Torah, the new television season. But it’s easy for the conversation to turn to your guest’s allergies if you keep bringing it up to the whole table.
Typically, when I join people for a Shabbat or holiday meal outside my home, there’s someone at the table who I haven’t met who finds it endlessly fascinating that I can’t eat everything. And while I’m not shy about my experiences, I also don’t want to talk about them constantly like some kind of bearded lady in a freak show.
If you want to let your guest know what she can eat during the meal, pull her aside and tell her quietly. Or speak more generally about the food, like a friend of mine once did, announcing, “There are one or more people with food allergies at this meal, so I’ll be saying what’s in everything so those people can determine what they can eat.”
No one needed to know what my allergies were or that I was the person with allergies – in fact, there may have been someone else in attendance who also had restrictions! We didn’t dwell on the topic, and instead enjoyed a delicious dinner and interesting conversation.
DO think of this as an opportunity
If your guest is allergic to an ingredient in one of your staple dishes, you can either make your staple, or seize the chance to try a new recipe that’s outside of your repertoire. There are so many meals, especially with a three-day chag, that spicing up your menu with something different may be a welcome change.
How much potato kugel can a person eat, after all? Feel free to ask your guest if she has any suggestions, leaf through those rarely-opened cookbooks, or finally take the time to make that cool dish from Pinterest. Maybe you’ll even find a new staple!
But DON’T worry about imposing on your guest
If you’re too busy to rethink your entire cooking process, don’t feel bad about asking your guest to contribute something to the meal that she knows she can eat. While you should do your best to make some options for her, she won’t be offended if she needs to bring some of her own food. If you hadn’t invited her, she’d probably be cooking a whole meal anyway! She’ll be grateful that you want to include her.
Sure, it might be easier to host a guest with food allergies on Yom Kippur when you don’t have to feed them. But with these tips, you’ll be able to host anyone in your community, regardless of their dietary needs. What better way to ring in the New Year than with some new foods and friends?
Cindy Kaplan is a writer and entrepreneur living in Los Angeles. Her work has been featured on Yahoo!, Defy Media, VEVO, and other digital outlets and film festivals. She co-founded Hollywood Resumes, a resume-writing service that focuses on job applicants trying to break into the entertainment industry. She loves all animals, from puppies to okapis.