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  • Aidan Wilbur

Birthdays and Food Allergies

Last week, I celebrated my 17th birthday. The whole day was kind of a surreal experience, being in quarantine and all, but something that stood out to me was that I didn’t have a cake, or any kind of sweet. Now, I still gorged, mind you, so there was no lack of celebrating. But not having that big centerpiece to a birthday was refreshing. In my experience, birthdays have always gone hand in hand with cakes, cookies or some other form of treat, and for someone who has grown up with food allergies, this association has hurt.

It all started in kindergarten. Every couple of weeks, someone in class would ascend to six years old, and with that came a party...and food. It was usually cake or cupcakes, sometimes cookies if the kid was really feeling wacky. But most of these foods had one thing in common - eggs. Growing up as a kid with an egg allergy, every one of these parties was another stake driven into my young heart. Looking back on my younger years, I realize just how little those snacks meant. But back then, it was everything to me. And the more I’ve thought about it, the more it makes sense. It wasn’t about the food, it was about being different. My condition meant that I couldn’t partake in a ritual. A rite of passage. I felt left behind. And although I could bring in a treat of my own (usually some overpriced Betty Crocker cupcake), it just wasn’t the same. I was different from the group, and because of that, during those parties, I felt like an outcast.

Reflecting on my time with birthday parties in elementary school, I wondered if there were steps I could take to help other kids escape this fate. So I thought about it and came up with a list of ways that anyone can help their friends with allergies feel more a part of the group during birthdays, or any kind of celebration.

First, take the time to find out if anyone you’ll be serving has any food allergies. Just a quick conversation can clear it up, so it isn’t a huge time commitment. Plus, it’s a great conversation starter. Compile a list of all the food allergies that came up so you know what kind of foods you need to avoid. Next, do some research on different kinds of foods you can bring that are friendly toward people with allergies. If someone has a dairy allergy or is lactose intolerant, try not to bring chocolate. But if they have a wheat allergy, that might be a perfect solution. Every situation is different, so make sure that the treat you bring fits your circumstances.

Another important step to take is to make sure there is no cross-contamination. This can be just as dangerous for some people as directly ingesting an allergen, so make sure there isn’t any risk, especially if the food isn’t pre-packaged. If you get it from a bakery or similar shop, check with the manager before you buy. If you make it yourself, make sure all the dishes and utensils you use to make it are sanitized and free of allergens before you start baking. Decontamination is a step a lot of people forget about, so it’s extremely important to remember in order to make sure everyone can enjoy your treat.

Once the food is prepared, don’t let anyone else touch it until the people with allergies can get to it. Kids are gross. You never know what they’re going to have on their hands, and they could have something that could trigger an allergic reaction. So if the people with allergies can make first contact with the food, this risk is minimized. In addition, make sure no one is sharing food, because this is another way for potential cross-contact to occur, which increases the chances that someone could have a reaction.

It may seem like a bore to have to give up your favorite food on your birthday. But if doing so can save a life, I think that’s a sacrifice we should all be willing to make. These steps aren’t very hard to implement, and not only do they make people safer, but they allow everyone to be included. Whether you’re a kid or a parent thinking of a snack to bring to school, or an office worker planning a retirement party, these simple tricks can make sure your fun doesn’t end in a hospital visit. And if you’re not sure, maybe don’t bring any food at all. It’s really not all that necessary to have a good time. But if you do, make sure you do so responsibly, so that everyone around you can have the best possible experience.

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