We learned of my son’s egg allergy at 11 months old. He had only just begun to regularly attend those oh-so-sweet birthday parties of his neighborhood and daycare playmates.
We gladly attended as many as our schedule allowed, and I always brought along the “backup treat” for when birthday cake time inevitably rolled around. Seven years later, I realize just what I was getting wrong.
If you’re a food allergy parent, you can surely relate to the feeling of guilt at times for having to ask others to make accommodations for your child’s dietary needs. It’s the exact reason why I never used to mention my son’s allergy before the party. My thinking was: “I don’t want to inconvenience anyone.”
But birthday party after birthday party, I witnessed one well-intended host after another, melt out of utter humiliation for unknowingly leaving out a young guest. That slice of cake would be passed in our direction, and we would politely decline. I’d prep myself for the response as they slowly made the connection – Katie’s son is allergic to eggs and, this cake has egg in it.
No one was at fault; no one was trying to leave anyone out. But if I had to do it over again, I would have been more proactive. That way, no one would have felt bad on an occasion that should be nothing but fun. If hosts had been informed about my son’s allergy, I’m sure they would have made some attempt to be more inclusive of all the guests in attendance. And at the very least, any surprises, or adverse feelings on the subject could have been avoided.
But what I learned is that if they don’t know, they can’t make accommodations; and if they are not familiar with the world of food allergies, they won’t know to ask.
Birthday Parties and Backup Fails
Most of the birthday cakes were a store-bought variety made with egg, one of the sneakiest allergens that we quickly learned to love to hate. My party protocol was typically the same: I would present two as-attractive-as-possible options for my son to choose from, just as everyone was gearing up to sing and then dig into their slice of cake. It was an attempt to distract him from what he was missing out on, an attempt that failed nonetheless, 10 times out of 10.
I should add, there is absolutely nothing wrong with a store-bought birthday cake. After all, one of the key survival tactics in parenthood is practicality! The problem for us, was that most hosts aren’t typically thinking about the common allergens these kinds of cakes contain.
At the end of the day, it’s not actually about cake ingredients at all. It’s about what those ingredients represent, or in our case, didn’t represent: Inclusivity. I don’t care who you talk to, being the only kid in the room who can’t eat the same cake as the rest of their buddies is no fun, especially when you’re 3.
As the old saying goes, “it takes a village,” and it doesn’t apply any less when it comes to birthday parties. But food allergy families do have a responsibility to speak up, reach out, and educate.
So How Do We Make It Happen?
What can food allergy parents do to enable others to help us make our kiddos feel included? And not just for the next party, but over the long run, so we can stop having to skirt around this issue every time there’s a social event with food. There are very simple things we can do on a regular basis. But it takes persistence to get to the payoff.
1. Set the example: Always include a line in your own birthday party invitations about dietary restrictions. For instance: “Please indicate any dietary restrictions you have in your RSVP.” This will create a sense of inclusivity for food-allergic friends. But more importantly, it will serve as a reminder for non-food allergic families to make the same kind of request with their next invitation.
2. Broach the subject: You don’t have to wait until a birthday party invite is issued, you can broach the subject at the school fun run, or any other opportunity with other parents. And it doesn’t have to come in the form of a full disclosure either. You can use it as an icebreaker: “Does Sam have any food allergies, or diet restrictions?” Since 1 in 13 children in the U.S. today has a food allergy, you may just get a “yes.” If nothing else, you’ll create the perfect opening to share about the food allergies in your family.
3. Volunteer your information: What do you do if your host has no idea that your child has a food allergy, and the invite doesn’t address diet needs? Reach out! Send a text message as soon as that invite hits your kitchen counter. Something as simple as: “Thank you for the invite to Lilah’s party, Harper is excited to celebrate! Just as a heads-up, we will bring a backup treat since Harper can’t eat cake that contains egg due to her allergy.” Whether the host decides to make a menu change based on your message or not, the important part is that the topic is out in the open. At the very least, there won’t be any surprises when it comes time for cake.
Tips for Birthday Parties & the Allergic Child
There’s nothing sweeter than eating the same slice of cake as everyone else. However, I have found some “not quite as good, but at least better” alternatives over the years.
1. If there’s a bakery in your town that sells allergy-friendly items, make a special trip with your child to “pick out their own cupcake” the day before the party. Although I perfected my own egg-free cupcakes, there is something to be said for a child’s excitement in picking out something from a fancy pastry case.
2. Since my son’s own last birthday party started at 10 a.m., we bought chocolate-sprinkled doughnuts (which didn’t contain egg). They were just as delicious as a big, frosted cake, and involved a lot less slicing and serving too! Letting other parents know the reason why we chose doughnuts over cake was the perfect opportunity to spread awareness about food allergies.
3. While I’ve never tried this one myself, I recently heard of an idea to offer to bring a second full, allergy-friendly cake to a party, so that others may also try it. Whether you decide to offer this likely depends on how well you know the host, but it certainly seems like an inclusive option to me.
Katie Moreno is a devoted food allergy advocate based in Wisconsin. She has authored several articles for restaurants about the benefits of, and strategies for achieving inclusivity among food minority groups. Read about Katie’s journey as a food allergy parent here.
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