Panic at the Potluck: My Lessons Learned About Food Allergy Risks

in Food Allergy, Managing Allergies
Published: October 20, 2021
Photo: Getty

Just hearing the word “potluck” gives me a knot in my stomach. Ah, that timeless event where everyone brings their favorite dish to share with others. I used to enjoy them, but now I see through a different lens: the food allergy lens. As we in the food allergy community know, any dining away from home can be tricky. But the potluck and its tradition of sharing take risk to a whole new level. 

At first, I tried to take on the potluck in the most prepared and safest way possible, but I failed to understand an important reality. The foods people bring are based on treasured family recipes that have often been handed down from generation-to-generation. Those attending aren’t grabbing premade items from the store, their dish is made with love for others to enjoy. People want to put their unique spin on even the most classic dishes. One thing they aren’t thinking much about is the list of ingredients.    

The first potluck event we attended back in 2010 started out fine. We brought turkey for our son Alex, who was then 6, and others to eat. We were told one of the mashed potato dishes was made with olive oil, salt and pepper – perfect for my son’s dairy allergy! Before his first bite, the host added that she had mixed in Greek yogurt for the extra creamy texture. 

That was a close call, but no harm done. My son ate turkey and all was fine. I made a mental note to bring allergy-friendly potato chips as a side in the future. 

The second scare came in the form of dessert. The apple pie was supposed to be allergy-safe, but our plan was to have Alex avoid the crust, just in case. He would only eat the sweet apple filling. As my son lifted the first bite toward his mouth, the friend who prepared it murmured, “it does have a pecan crust .…” 

My son put down the spoon and I sent him to wash his hands. That was too close for comfort considering Alex’s life-threatening allergies to peanuts and tree nuts. 

Candy-Happy Party

By the third potluck, we understood that we couldn’t trust people’s accounts of the ingredients they used in their beloved dishes. We’d also learned by then that our son had many more food allergies, and would eventually be diagnosed with EoE (eosinophilic esophagitis). With a long list of allergies, eating any homemade dishes in a group setting was now simply unsafe. 

Alex at a potluck with a turkey leg.

Still not wanting to miss a fun gathering, I fed my son a big meal before the potluck. I thought it was a solid plan: he wouldn’t even need to eat. What I didn’t anticipate was that it was winter, the potluck was indoors, and that left very little to do other than eating and talking. 

You’re thinking: bored child. But no, a bigger allergy problem became immediately evident.

The moment we walked into the house, I spotted a huge bowl of peanut M&M’s greeting everyone. As other guests entered, I noticed a few people dipping their hands into the bowl. I made polite conversation as I pushed away the feeling in my gut warning me this couldn’t be good.

After a few minutes, I managed to discreetly move the bowl of candy behind a lamp. Feeling like I’d solved the problem, I returned to visiting. As time passed, I noticed people were holding the colorful candy shells again, even though they also had plates of food. I returned to the entrance of the house to find the bowl had been moved back to its original location! 

Friends, I do not recommend what happened next .… I dumped the entire container of M&M’s into the trash. I admit it, I panicked.

But it didn’t matter, a few minutes later the bowl was refilled and another bowl appeared on the coffee table in the living room. They were multiplying. I scanned the room, watching as people held the candy in their hands. As we all know, hands touch everything. Doorknobs, finger foods, utensils, tables. I realized we had nowhere to go, and there was something akin to rat poison everywhere. 

I sent my son to wash his hands and we raced out the door without a word to anyone. It was years before we attended another potluck gathering. 

Potluck, the Sequel

When my son became a teenager, I reconsidered our options on potlucks and set a personal boundary: My son cannot be in fear for his life. If we accept an invitation, there has to be a secondary activity away from the food. It can be as simple as people sitting outside visiting, shooting baskets, swimming, etc. 

If the potluck takes place inside someone’s home during winter, we don’t attend. When we do take part in one, we bring a safe entrée to the potluck and dish out a portion for Alex before guests dive in, using our own serving utensils. If it’s a celebratory occasion with treats as a focus, he brings a favorite dessert with him. 

We’ve learned that people who know about the peanut and nut allergies will still put out snacks with those allergens and, even if they don’t, the host can’t police what people bring to a potluck. There are too many who don’t understand food allergies, who will bring whatever dish they want.   

Most people try to understand, and we make a point to give grace to those who don’t. Since it was a hard road learning how to navigate food allergies, I can’t expect people who don’t live in our world to understand it. At the same time, we can take steps to stay safe when we attend – and also not feel guilty when we choose to take a pass.  

Fun Over Food

When I decline an invitation, I’m careful to respond in a positive way that assigns no blame. I offer a new date to get together, to show we do want to spend time with the hosts. I explain that we don’t go to buffets either because of the allergy risks, and wish them a great time at their event. 

When anyone thinks I’m overreacting, I share with them a few incidents I’ve seen with my own eyes. I’ve watched as milk was added to hamburger meat and butter put on steak. I’ve discovered peanut butter hidden inside Rice Krispie squares and learned that peanut oil was used in no-nut cookies. Allergy-friendly snack bags have been made with Goldfish crackers (dairy, wheat) because “they’re natural.” 

Any restaurant we go to will have staff trained in allergy protocols. But with the potluck, too many cooks tend to spoil the allergy safety. So my advice is to be certain you can trust the ingredients if your child is going to try another’s potluck dish. 

And more often than not, attend simply for the company and the activities. If it’s not safe for your child to try a neighbor’s famous dessert, it’s no big loss. Your family is there for a party, not to risk a life-threatening reaction.

Caroline Fleur is the author of Destiny and Other Dilemmas, a novel with twist, turns, romance and a dash of food allergy perspective. The former bilingual and special education teacher has a son with multiple food allergies and EoE, and she is dedicated to raising food allergy awareness. Caroline and her family live in the Dallas area.

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