Allergic Cooking

Written by The Healthline Editorial Team on June 19, 2014

Learn to cook allergy-safe meals

Cooking for people with allergies can be challenging and stressful—but it doesn’t have to be! Learn how to stock an allergy-safe pantry, avoid cross-contact, and take action when faced with an allergic reaction. With the right knowledge and careful planning, you can prepare delicious, allergy-safe meals for your friends and family.

Make a plan that’s right for your family

For people with severe food allergy, even small amounts of allergen may trigger a potentially life-threatening allergic reaction. Some families cope with allergies by keeping certain foods out of their homes. Other families separate allergenic and allergy-safe foods, utensils, and cookware. This allows different family members and guests to enjoy different meal options. Choose one approach or the other, based on your family’s dietary restrictions, needs, and mealtime routines.

Read food labels every time

Allergens show up in the strangest places—like finding soy sauce contains wheat! Dodge dangerous mistakes by reading food labels before serving products to allergic diners. Avoid items that list their allergens in the ingredient list or precautionary statements, such as “may contain” warnings.

Never assume that a product will stay safe forever. Sometimes food manufacturers change ingredients or manufacturing processes. It’s important to check food labels every time!

Skip the bulk food aisle

Bins, scoops, and tongs used for bulk food products are prime suspects in the world of “cross-contact,” also known as “cross-contamination.” Cross-contact occurs when allergens are accidentally moved from one place to another. Reduce the risk of cross-contact by avoiding products from bulk food bins or buffet-style containers, even when they are labeled with ingredient lists. You never know what that bin or scoop held before! Instead, look for items packaged and labelled by an allergy-safe manufacturer.

The benefit of fresh ingredients

Easy-to-read ingredient lists are rare in today’s world of processed foods. Prepackaged items abound with hydrolyzed proteins, gums, and flavourings. Under current food labelling laws, common or “major” allergens must be clearly labelled in ingredient lists. This includes peanut, tree nuts, milk, egg, fish, crustacean shellfish, wheat, and soy. However, keep in mind that certain rare allergens—like garlic—may not be individually labelled, but included under a general term like “spices.” People with rare allergies to ingredients that don’t have to be individually listed on a product may find it safer to avoid processed foods. Instead, they can focus on fresh ingredients and homemade dishes.

Keep allergenic foods separate

While some families prefer to keep certain allergens out of the home, that’s not always an option. This is especially true for families coping with multiple severe allergies. If you decide to purchase, store, and prepare allergenic foods, keep them clearly labeled and separate from allergy-safe alternatives. This is particularly important where an allergic family member is at risk for an anaphylactic reaction. For example, label and store allergenic foods on designated shelves in your pantry and refrigerator. Moreover, keep them in a bin or tray to contain spills. Most importantly, make sure that every member of your home knows where to find and avoid allergenic foods.

Use allergy-safe dishes and cookware

When it comes to cookware, not all items are allergy-friendly, according to AllergyKids Foundation. Stock up on plastic, glass, and stainless steel utensils, which can be easily cleaned and well-scrubbed. Avoid wooden utensils, which are harder to clean and more likely to absorb food particles. You should also avoid cast-iron cookware, which is often seasoned with food residue. Some families prefer to keep two sets of dishes or cookware on hand. For example, families coping with wheat allergy or Celiac Disease may prefer to purchase two toasters – one for regular bread and one for wheat-free alternatives.

Wash hands, dishes, and surfaces

Before you prepare or serve food to allergic diners, AllergyKids Foundation recommends washing your hands and any dishes, cookware, and surfaces that food may touch. Friction is key to removing allergens, so don’t skimp on the elbow grease – scrub hard! Soap and water, antibacterial wipes, and many common household cleaners have been shown to be effective at removing allergen residue from hands and surfaces. Unfortunately, antibacterial gels and spray do not remove allergen residue.

Cook for allergic diners first

If you’re cooking allergenic and allergy-safe dishes for the same meal, prepare and serve food to allergic diners first. Cover or separate allergy-safe portions before handling allergenic ingredients and avoid using the same utensils, dishes, or equipment for both. Keep some allergy-safe seconds or leftovers separate, too. That way, you won’t have to worry about cross-contact between serving utensils at the table.

Eat food at the table

Keeping your kitchen and dining room safe is enough to worry about. You don’t want to start chasing crumbs or smears of peanut butter around the house! Establish a “food at the table” rule and discourage family members and guests from snacking in bedrooms, living rooms, or other spaces. Encourage everyone to wash their hands and faces well after eating. You should also clean up spills immediately to avoid tracking food where it doesn’t belong.

Dine out safely

Always call ahead before eating out. When you arrive, talk to the cook or manager to make sure that the restaurant knows about diners’ allergies and are able to prepare safe food options. Many people have limited knowledge of food allergies, including some members of the restaurant industry. It’s helpful to ask specific questions about ingredients and risk of cross-contact. For example, before ordering French fries, ask what they contain and whether or not they are cooked in the same oil as other foods. These steps can help to keep your family safe when visiting friends and family members, too.

Prepare for an emergency

Even with careful planning, accidents can happen. Learn how to recognize the symptoms of an allergic reaction, which may affect the skin, gastrointestinal tract, respiratory tract, and/or cardiovascular system. Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE), a non-profit organization devoted to helping people with food allergies, recommends asking your doctor or healthcare provider to help you create a “Food Allergy Action Plan.” This action plan may help you determine the best course of action if an allergic reaction occurs, which may include using anti-histamine medication, using an epinephrine auto-injector (e.g., EpiPen), and calling emergency services (e.g., 9-1-1).

No epinephrine? No eating!

Epinephrine can reverse the symptoms of anaphylaxis, the most serious type of allergic reaction. If you have suffered an anaphylactic reaction before and if prescribed by your doctor, epinephrine should be given at the first sign of a severe allergic reaction. Delayed use of epinephrine has been associated with death. To avoid the worst, people with severe food allergies and documented anaphylaxis should consult with their doctor and always carry one or more epinephrine auto-injectors with them – and never eat without it!

Involve allergenic diners

Eating food prepared by others can be nerve-wracking for allergic diners. Help allergic guests feel safe by asking them about their allergies. It’s important to include them in the meal-planning process. Take the time to respond to their questions and concerns with care. You can help allergic children develop important life skills by inviting them into the grocery store and kitchen with you. This gives you the chance to teach them how to read food labels, avoid cross-contact, and prepare safe food. These skills will help them stay safe and healthy as they get older.

Speak up!

If you’re not sure if something is allergy-safe, speak up! Call manufacturers to ask about food products and speak with restaurant cooks and managers before eating out. Take the time to teach family members and friends to follow food rules. And make sure to involve allergic guests in the meal-planning process. Allergic reactions are serious, but highly preventable. With the right information and careful planning, anyone can prepare and enjoy allergy-safe meals.

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