School is out in many communities and about to wrap up for the year in others. That means summer is upon us! Backyard BBQs are a summer tradition across the USA. As much as we all love a good cook-out, though, these parties are fraught with risks for those of us with food allergies and intolerances.
Not everything about summer grilling season is risky for those with food allergies and intolerances, but there are certain ‘danger zones’ that we have to watch out for. In essence they boil down to the idea that, in this case, sharing is NOT caring!
Sharing Meal Preparations
Preparing food together is a time-honored tradition. People can stand around cooking, visiting, sharing stories, and bonding. It’s a really fun time for everyone, unless they have food allergies. Sharing a meal preparation area is a major danger zone for those with food us. The risk for cross-contamination (where food is exposed to allergens by accidental contact) is quite high during shared meal preparations. If someone is cooking with flour in the kitchen while someone else is making gluten-free food, there are likely flour particles all over the GF food, making it unsafe. If someone with a nut allergy doesn’t realize that peanut butter sandwiches were just made on the counter they are using they could be in for a world of trouble! Crumbs drop, flour flies, bits and pieces seemingly crawl their way into other dishes. It’s basically like a field of buried landmines. You can’t see the traces of cross-contamination, but they are there just waiting to create disaster! If you must share a food preparation area with foods that aren’t safe for you, stake your claim on a certain section, as far as you can from everyone else’s food. Keep all of the tools you need there and make sure no well-meaning loved ones jump in to ‘help’ without clearing any traces of the offending foods from themselves (which means not just washing hands, but removing their apron or wiping down their shirt).
Potlucks and buffets are always an adventure for those who have food restrictions. First, you have to look at a ton of food you can’t have, which can be kind of depressing. Safety-wise, though, there is an even bigger problem. The utensils. Utensils at a buffet-style meal are the stealthiest of risks. I remember at Bible study once I saw a gal use the tongs on the fruit plate to serve herself up some strawberries, then reach over and use them to get herself a pastry, then put the tongs right back with the strawberries! I’m confident that she was completely unaware of the risk she had just created, but in my head I was screaming “NOOOOOO!” All I could think was that I was so glad that I had chosen to never take anything off the the buffet table. Most people don’t realize how dangerous it is to share spoons between dishes, so they do so without a second thought. Then you pay the price when you get sick from the traces of food that were transferred from one dish to another. FYI, this is precisely why I don’t take leftovers home from potlucks. I always send them home with someone else, because there is just too much risk that the food is no longer safe for me. Always err on the side of generosity and send your extras home with someone else!
Okay, let’s say you’re at a backyard bbq and the food is simple with just burgers, chips, and maybe some salad. Nearly everything there is safe for you to eat, except that you can’t have gluten, so the buns are out. You should be good to go, right? Wrong. Shared condiments are another danger zone for those with special dietary needs. Whether the hosts have put out bowls of ketchup and mustard for people to spread on their food, or there are bottles of condiments out for people to share, they are likely going to get contaminated. With bowls the problem is clear, that little knife that spread ketchup on someone’s bun just went right back into the bowl and got crumbs into it. With squeeze bottles, there is a pretty good chance that someone touched the bun and used the the bottle to spread it around. That’s now off limits for you, too. As funny as it sounds, the easiest solution here is to pick up a few extra of your favorite condiments the next time you pick up takeout. Toss them in a little ziplock baggie and keep them stashed somewhere convenient like your purse or glove compartment. Then the next time you are at a party you won’t have to decide between a dry burger or playing Russian roulette with cross-contamination.
Sharing Eating Space
You’ve safely navigated your way through meal prep, the buffet line, and the condiment station and sat down to eat. Big round of applause! You’re sitting at the table and you can relax and enjoy your meal. Then the unthinkable happens. Uncle Johnny reaches for something just past you and, OOPS, drops a piece of his food right into the middle of your plate. SHOOT! What do you do? This is one of those scenarios where different people will choose different ways to handle it. Purely from a safety perspective, the best choice is to trash the plate (or give it to Uncle Johnny) and start again. There are steps you can take to help prevent this problem, though. Try to get a seat on the end of the table whenever possible. That pretty well guarantees that nobody will be reaching over your plate to get something (since there isn’t anything past your plate) and cuts the number of people surrounding your food that could possibly contaminate it. Then you can strategically block Uncle Johnny by putting your arm in front of the table side of your plate.
Make it Safe
One way to avoid the risks involved with backyard BBQs is to hole up in your house and avoid all events that involve food. While that is effective from a safety standpoint, it leaves a lot to be desired from a social standpoint. You run the risk of becoming a lonely hermit! The key to being able to stay engaged in the ‘community’ (whatever your community is) is finding a way to be separate, while still being together. Tricky, I know, but here are some ways to do it.
Host Them All
The most obvious way to make summer bbqs safe for your allergies is to host the parties and provide all the food yourself. That leaves you in total control of the ingredients, preparation area, and any potential sources of cross-contamination. It puts the ball entirely in your court and doesn’t leave your safety in the hands of others. If you are going to do this, make it clear to guests that you need them not to bring any food due to allergies in the household. If they really want to bring something, offer up options such as soda, juice, ice, paper goods, etc. This allows guests to contribute while not risking cross-contamination from well-meaning friends.
Foil Is Your Friend
While hosting the party is a great safety measure, it isn’t always an option. Not only does it get expensive, sometimes you will be invited to an event hosted by someone else. So, what can you do to make those safe for you? One key to remember is that foil is your friend! Using aluminum foil can create a barrier that protects against cross-contamination. First of all, there is a high chance that the people doing the cooking have cooked something unsafe for you at some point, so even if the menu that day is good to go there is still a risk. Putting down a piece of foil to grill your food on will help keep your food safe. Another great option is a foil packet. A quick Pinterest search will turn up a plethora of foil-packet meals to grill. Then your food will be fully protected while on the grill and you won’t have to worry about rogue crumbs or well-intended friends (who are unaccustomed to the fun of watching for every tiny bit of cross-contamination) making a mistake.
First In Line
This one feels a bit awkward at first, but when you are at a potluck with both safe and unsafe items, be sure that you are first in line. Remember our discussion earlier about how people tend to move serving utensils from one dish to another without realizing the dangers they are creating? That’s why it is important that you are the first one to go through the buffet line. You get access to the food before anyone has had the chance to mess it up! Now, I’m not saying push and shove your way to the front. There is still a matter of socially acceptable behavior in polite society. Just keep an eye out for when it looks like the meal will be starting and jump right in first. If you are at an event like a church potluck where they tend to excuse one table at a time, either inform the person who will be dismissing tables of your need and ask that your table go first, or sneak over to the buffet line while everyone is visiting and make your plate on the sly. Then you can just put it on your table and wait for your table-mates to get their food to begin eating. Like I said, this can feel a bit awkward at first, but eventually you will get used to it. If anyone asks what you are doing you can either come up with a convenient excuse or, better yet, use it as an opportunity to educate them about the perils of cross-contamination at potlucks and buffets.
Make Your Own
By far the safest choice for a meal at someone else’s house (that still allows you to eat) is to make your entire meal ahead of time at home and bring it with you. Be aware that this will inspire a scad of fun questions like, “are you on a diet”, “why did you bring your own food”, “are you picky”, and, “just a little won’t kill you”. Technically that last one is a statement, not a question, but it’s probably the most common one you will encounter! This tends to reflect the beliefs of much of the world that cross-contamination isn’t a real problem, which is precisely why making your own plate/box of food ahead of time and bringing it with you is so important. Outside of maybe two people I know who truly get all of the steps they need to take to keep me safe, I find it safest to go this route instead of trusting others to get it right.
Side note: If you’re reading this and don’t have food allergies/intolerances yourself but will be hosting guests with them, please don’t take offense if they don’t eat the food you offer. Even if you assure them it is safe for them to eat. Most of us have been burned before by someone who meant well but didn’t realize that the cooking spray they used to grease the pan contained soy, or that using the same jar of peanut butter that they used for sandwiches to make GF cookies makes them unsafe for Celiacs. We know that you mean well, but we also know that you aren’t used to thinking of all of the minute and unusual ways that cross-contamination can happen. We aren’t trying to insult your kitchen, cooking, or hospitality by bringing our own food, we are just trying to keep ourselves safe.
I know that when you stop and think about all the risks inherent in eating outside your own home it can seem really intimidating. That hermit idea can suddenly seem much more appealing. Don’t do it, though. Being a fully engaged member of society is worth the time and effort it takes to figure out how to do it safely! Just stop and do a little planning before going to a party and when you get there to ensure that you can have fun while staying safe.
What are your best tips for staying safe while attending summer grilling parties?