How to Navigate the Holidays with Food Allergies

Plus: 5 great gluten-free, nut-free, soy-free, dairy-free bakeries in Philly

Having endured my fair share of Thanksgiving food-allergy fiascos—I’m allergic to nuts and egg whites—I’ve developed a serious case of social hibernation during the holiday season. For the past few years, I’ve chosen, for the most part, to steer clear of food-related holiday activities (so, yeah—pretty much everything that’s awesome this time of year) rather than find ways to allow myself to be a part of it. “This year,” I told myself recently, “things will be different.” I resolved to find a solution to my food-allergy woes—something that wouldn’t make my nonallergy-ridden relatives and friends turn up their noses.

So I reached out to Ali Shapiro, a fab health coach here in Center City and a gluten-free eater herself, for some tips on how to survive, and even enjoy, the holiday season with food allergies. First she put my social anxieties to rest: The holidays practically revolve around mealtime, she said, and sharing meals with friends and family is how we bond. Since I couldn’t bond with my loved ones over food, I was left feeling deprived and hungry—so no, this wasn’t all in my head.

The good news is, food allergy sufferers no longer have to feel excluded from holiday festivities. Here are Ali’s tips for navigating the season with allergies:

  1. The hostess is on your team. Whoever’s throwing the party wants you to have a good time (hey, he or she invited you, right?). Approach the host and suggest some recipe ideas that will make you feel comfortable and offer to bring something that everyone can partake in.
  2. You’re not an outcast. Most people can probably name at least one person they know with a food allergy; it’s a hot topic these days, and most people are interested to know more about it. And you never know, your allergies could give other guests the incentive to try new things, so really you’re doing them the favor.
  3. Never assume. This is good advice in a lot of areas of life, of course, but here, don’t just assume that people know the specifics about the contents of food (whether there’s gluten, soy, dairy, shellfish, etc., in a dish). You have to carry the flag and do the prep work. It will make you feel safer and relaxed.
  4. Recreate foods you can’t eat. The Internet is rife with ideas for how to make a gluten-free cake or dairy-free potatoes au gratin. View your allergies as options instead of things you can’t eat.
  5. Own and accept the emotions that come with having food allergies. If you are angry, that’s okay—be angry. If you feel left out, confide in someone. By embracing your emotions, they dissolve.

Feeling better? Me, too. Perhaps the easiest place to start is with Ali’s first tip: If you’re going to a holiday party, offer to bring something that you can eat and enjoy. For fellow allergen sufferers, here’s a list of places in Philly to get tasty treats that won’t hurt your health.

Where: Desserts Capital
What to get: Gluten-free Apple Spice Cake
The gluten-free menu is a recent addition here but it’s steadily growing. Note: Desserts Capital is not nut free. In addition to the apple spice cake, gluten-free goods include pumpkin spice cake, red velvet cake and carrot cake. By delivery only, 215-837-0992.

Where: Sweet Freedom
What to get: Magic Bar
This bakery was built to support allergen groups. It is gluten-, dairy-, egg-, soy-, corn-, peanut- and refined-sugar free. The bakery is also kosher and vegan to boot. The Magic Bar, a combination of maple shortbread, crushed natural candy cane and chocolate, is customer favorite through the holiday season. Also try the gingerbread, pumpkin loaves, pies, donuts and mint brownie. 1424 South Street, Philadelphia, 215-545-1899.

Where: Cookies for Me
What to get: Holiday sugar cookies and brownies
Cookies for Me has been nut-, gluten-, egg- and dairy-free since its start five years ago. There is no cross-contamination between products. All the products are made from natural extracts and include no artificial dyes. Cookies are topped with sugar icing and are heat-sealed to prevent cross-contamination with any other products. Cookies and brownies can be found at Whole Foods and Giant.

Where: Virago Baking Company
What to get: Gingerbread pumpkin torte
What began as an organic and vegan bakery has evolved into a 100 percent gluten-free bakery, too. Virago also accommodates those with nut allergies. Some customer favorites are the chocolate cake and fudge, which are gluten-, soy- and nut-free. Try the gingerbread pumpkin torte and the vanilla bean cheesecake for your holiday gatherings. 322 1/2 West Main Street, Lansdale, 215-412-7071.

Where: Pure Sweets
What: Macaroon gift boxes
Pure Sweets doesn’t allow any ingredients or products that could be contaminated with gluten into its facility; the place has been GF-friendly since 2008. What makes Pure Sweets unique from other speciality bakeries is its use of nut flours (so no, this place isn’t nut-free) to enhance the vegan and gluten-free sweets. Best bets are the macaroon gift box and crisp bars. Order online or try select goods at Ultimo Coffee, 1900 15th Street, Philadelphia.