How to Host an Allergy-Friendly Holiday Gathering

June 2022   Linda Armstrong  |  ✓  Medically reviewed by: Gary Falcetano, PA-C, AE-C; Fabio Iachetti, MD; Rebecca Rosenberger, MMSc, PA-C

A licensed Physician Assistant with more than 25 years of diverse experience in emergency and disaster medicine, primary care, and allergy and immunology, Gary Falcetano is the U.S. Clinical Affairs Manager for Allergy in ImmunoDiagnostics at Thermo Fisher Scientific. Fabio Iachetti is a licensed physician with more than 15 years of diverse experience in several disease areas such as allergy, CV, pain, GI, rheumatology, urology, and diabetology. He is a Senior Medical Manager for Allergy in ImmunoDiagnostics Global Medical Affairs at Thermo Fisher Scientific. In addition to being a practicing Physician Assistant in the field of allergy and immunology for more than 20 years, Rebecca Rosenberger is the Associate Director for Clinical Affairs & Education, ImmunoDiagnostics at Thermo Fisher Scientific.

The holiday season is supposed to be “the most … wonderful time … of the year.” But if you’re hosting a gathering, the holidays can be hectic, particularly if an immediate family member or guest has a diagnosed or suspected food allergy. Catering to the needs of everyone—including both food-allergic individuals and guests that value rich holiday traditions—can suck the cheer right out of you.

But don’t start bah-hum-buggin’ out just yet. Take a deep breath. Grab some chai tea. And maybe chant an “ommmm” or two. We have the information and strategies you need to host an allergy-friendly holiday gathering. They’ll help get you and your crew through the holidays safely and with your holiday spirit firmly intact. 

Food allergy facts and figures may help lessen anxiety.

Most of us fear the unknown. And if this is your first holiday excursion through the food-allergy frontier, you’re probably having all the feels. But a few facts and figures can help you establish a barebones understanding of food allergies—and possibly decrease your distress.

You’re not alone when it comes to food allergies.

An estimated 2 to 5 percent of adults—between 220 to 520 million people globally—may have food allergies.1,2 That means myriad families successfully manage their allergies 365 days a year. (You and your family can too!)

Food-allergy reactions vary.

While life-threatening reactions are possible in some cases, food-allergy symptoms range from mild to severe. Symptoms can include:3

  • Hives
  • Swelling of the tongue
  • Tight, hoarse throat/trouble swallowing
  • Shortness of breath/wheezing
  • Repetitive cough
  • Weak pulse
  • Shock or circulatory collapse
  • Pale or blue skin coloring
  • Dizziness/feeling faint
  • Anaphylaxis (Potentially life threatening, anaphylaxis can impair breathing, impact heart rate, and cause a dramatic drop in blood pressure.)

And the common food-allergy suspects are …

More than 170 foods may cause allergic reactions.4 And for some people, even trace amounts can be dangerous. For example, steam from cooking shellfish or simply touching certain foods can cause reactions in highly sensitized people.5 That said, the following eight types of foods account for roughly 90 percent of all food-allergy reactions in the United States.3 (Outside of the United States, two more culprits are common triggers in some countries.3) If your family or holiday guests are (or seem) sensitized to any of these allergens, a host of information (including insights on potential “hidden” sources) is available via the following links.

(*Tree nut examples include cashews, pecans, pistachios, walnuts, macadamias, hazelnuts, Brazil nuts, and almonds)

Some seeds (such as mustard and sesame) are also common allergy triggers and are major allergens in some countries.3

10 Strategies for Managing Food Allergies During the Holidays

Since there’s no cure for food allergies and the only way to dodge a reaction is to avoid the allergen altogether, preventive practices are critical for your holiday gathering.6 Here are some expert-recommended tactics along with a few logical suggestions to help you, your family, and your guests maneuver the holidays safely and merrily.

Before you can accommodate individual food allergies, it helps to identify them. If someone in your immediate family has a suspected food allergy, consult with your healthcare provider to determine if allergy testing is warranted. 

When inviting people to your holiday gatherings, inquire about potential food allergies and what adaptations would be helpful. Try to include options void of the most allergenic foods and a few allergy friendly snacks.

Educate yourself about food allergies in general and about any specific allergens unique to your guests, and then pass on critical information to those in attendance. For example, you might explain that trace amounts of allergens can cause a reaction, identify potential hidden sources of a specific allergen, provide instructions for dealing with food-related emergencies, and warn about cross-contact via utensils, surfaces, and more.5,7,8 

If you’ve identified specific food allergies among your guests, consider a menu that includes some options void of these allergens and take the necessary precautions to prevent cross-contact. (See below.) But if specific allergens haven’t been identified, you can eliminate the most common culprits from at least a few of your offerings and/or ask guests not to bring anything containing these items. Foods most associated with reactions in children are milk, eggs, and peanuts. In adults, the offenders are fruits and vegetables (via a condition called Oral Allergy Syndrome), peanuts/tree nuts, and fish/shellfish.3   

To prevent potentially allergenic foods from contacting (and perhaps contaminating) “safe” foods, ensure such items are never in close proximity to each other. After preparing potentially allergenic food, wash related cutting boards, surfaces, utensils, and cooking pans/grills with soap and water. Consider using separate dishes and utensils for safe foods versus those that may cause a reaction.8   

When preparing food for your event, read food labels carefully to check for all forms of allergens, and label each dish with a list of its ingredients so guests can easily identify those that may cause symptoms.7 If you’re serving packaged food, keep the labels so food-allergic guests can inspect the items themselves. 

Keep in mind, alcoholic beverages may contain allergenic food items. For example, some types of beer can include wheat or pine nuts, and dairy items might be found in cream liqueurs and cocktails such as piña coladas.

If you’ve planned an allergen-conscious menu but your guests still want to bring something to contribute, ask them to provide plates, cups, napkins, or decor instead of food.7

Establish a plan of action for severe reactions and post it in a central locale for the gathering. 

To create the ultimate allergy-friendly holiday gathering, remove food from the event altogether. Rather, focus the festivities on an experience such as sledding, bowling, holiday movies, etc.7

Tools for Understanding Allergies


Track allergy symptoms and prepare for a visit with a healthcare provider.

Learn about specific allergens, including common symptoms, management, and relief. 

Are you a healthcare provider? Get comprehensive information on hundreds of whole allergens and allergen components.

  1. Iweala OI, Choudhary SK, Commins SP. Food Allergy. Curr Gastroenterol Rep. 2018 Apr 5;20(5):17. doi: 10.1007/s11894-018-0624-y. PMID: 29623490; PMCID: PMC5940350. Available from:
  2. Pawankar, R., Canonica, G. W., Holgate, S. T., Lockey, R. F., & World Allergy Organization. (2011). World Allergy Organization (WAO) white book on allergy. United Kingdom: WAO.
  3. American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology [Internet]. Arlington Heights, IL: American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology; 2021. Available from:
  4. Food Allergy Research & Education – Facts and Stats [Internet]. McLean, VA: Food Allergy Research & Education; 2020. Available from:
  5. Food Allergy Research & Education – Common Questions [Internet]. McLean, VA: Food Allergy Research & Education; 2020. Available from:
  6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [Internet]. Atlanta, GA: National Center for Environmental Health; 2020 Aug 11. Available from:
  7. Food Allergy Research & Education – Cross Contact [Internet]. McLean, VA: Food Allergy Research & Education; 2020. Available from:
  8. Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America [Internet]. Arlington, VA: Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America; 2017 Dec 13. Available from: