No thank you. We’ve all said it a thousand times to mostly well-intentioned family.

“No, no cake for me, but thank you.”

“It looks so great really. I wish I could eat it, but I believe there are eggs in it.”

“No, I can’t just take a Lactaid.”

And we’ve all heard the refutes a thousand times.

“Oh, just have a bite.”

“It’s not going to kill you.”

“There’s only a tiny bit of butter in it.”

When trying to navigate gatherings with food restrictions, you can feel like a walking recording of “no thank you.” All you want to do is relax, and relax around food. And it can be tough to know how to balance socializing and food anxiety. So, after a frustrating interaction with my mother-in-law, I was curious to explore why some of my family struggles to understand mine and Izzy’s food restrictions and how I could better communicate them. My breaking point went like this…

“Do you want Girl Scout cookies,” my mother-in-law’s text in our family group read.

“No, thank you. They aren’t food restrictions approved. But, thank you for asking.” I wrote back, feeling that if I added two thank yous, it would really send the message home.

“I got you all some Girl Scout cookie,” she wrote two days later.

“None for us. But, thank you for thinking of us,” I wrote back while flinching.

When my husband’s side of the family met up next, my mother-in-law approached me and handed me a box. “I know you all are trying to be good but here are these.”

I looked down, and I just couldn’t believe it. Girl Scout cookies. My eye started to twitch as I sputtered, “I can’t eat these,” my but thank yous a thing of the past.

“Eh, one won’t hurt,” she cackled (okay, fine, she just laughed) as she walked away.

I wish I could say this was the first time that we’d had a negative food interaction like this, but they seem to happen more often than not. I was stressed but understanding when I had to bring over my own Thanksgiving dinner and Christmas breakfast to her home. I swatted off comments like, “well Izzy looks fine,” and I tried to remain positive after showing her the blood in Izzy’s stool and receiving a mere shrug. But for some reason, the Girl Scout cookies felt like they signified an ignorance I could no longer take. How could I ever let her babysit for us and trust she wouldn’t feed Izzy the wrong thing?Were we going to continue to feel ostracized during holiday gatherings? How could I get her to understand? Questions swirled through my head, and I needed some answers. So, what did I find when googling “how to help family members understand food allergies? I’m not alone.

There are tons of blogs and forums out there dedicated to getting families onboard with food restrictions. A great place to start looking for answers in on Allergic Living’s site.  I read post after post about horror stories of family members ignoring food allergies. Some of the stories were terrifying. But I also found some sage advice on handling family. After reading through many of them here’s round-up of some of the best advice I found:

  1. Make time for a conversation. There have been a lot of times where I’ve just ad hoc brought up our food restrictions, without setting aside time to specially talk through them. This is probably a mistake. Ask your family member(s) to sit down to talk about food restrictions. Maybe even invite them over and provide snacks that are food appropriate which will help give them examples by showcasing what you can eat.
  2. Show evidence. Now that you’ve set aside time. Come prepared. Bring information explaining your or your child’s food restrictions from a reputable source like FARE. Bring pamphlets or printouts that your family can keep regarding the health issue at hand. Bring photos of what a reaction looks like. It might be graphic, but maybe that’s necessary.
  3. Be patient, but firm. It may take your family a long time to come around, no time at all, or they might never understand. I think, or I choose to think that people struggle when not able to share food with ones they love because providing food is such a symbol of love. I know someone who says “this is how much I love you” when she makes meals for her family. And I believe most of us subconsciously think this when gathering with family.  So, when you frame it that way, it’s easier to accept their difficulty understanding. And realize that most people actually don’t know a lot about food. I certainly didn’t. So be patient, but know your limits. For example, I am working on being patient with my mother-in-law’s understanding of our diet restrictions, but what I’ve made clear is that she isn’t going to babysit Iz until I feel comfortable that she’ll adhere to them. I’m willing to wait until she’s ready, but I won’t budge until she is. It sounds harsh, but tell that to my daughter’s bleeding colon.
  4. Regulate yourself. The best life advice I’ve ever been given is that you can’t change people, but you can change how you react to them. Such simple advice, but it can truly work wonders for your well-being and relationships. You might never be able to convince a family member of the severity and important adherence to your and/or your little one’s food restrictions, but you can manage how you react to it. That might mean taking a deep breath, it may mean being okay bringing your own food to a holiday gathering, or it may mean regulating time spent with them.
  5. Repeat

Dealing with family, even those that don’t grate your nerves always presents a unique set of challenges (and rewards). Keep trying if you feel the relationship is worth maintaining. I know it’s tiring, but I wager that you and your little one are loved more than you know.

How have you discussed your or your child’s food restrictions with family members? What has worked, what hasn’t?



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