As a mental health counselor and an individual with adult-onset food allergies, I find myself thinking a lot about communication and food restrictions. Two years ago I experienced the onset of my severe food allergies to hot peppers and their derivatives (and also tree nuts). In the time since, I've experienced awkward conversations, difficult apologies, and an incredible amount of support.
I'm convinced that I have to work just as hard at communication and at allowing others to help me. If I expect others to work in respecting and understanding the impact of food allergies on my life, then I have to be thoughtful about my approach to communicating with them.
Through my own set of trials and errors, I have found these seven tips to be the most helpful while discussing my food allergies with others.
1. Be direct and be clear about your food allergy.
Tell the facts clearly and concisely. If you have an anaphylactic response to a food allergy, explain that it is a life-threatening response and what your symptoms are. Explain what foods are triggers, and explain the basics of cross-contamination. It only takes one scary allergic reaction for a food-allergic individual to learn about cross-contamination, but it may not be as intuitive or easy to grasp for someone who has never encountered anaphylaxis.
My new "normal" can be shocking to other people. "You mean you can't eat anything at that restaurant?" a new friend may ask, incredulous. I shake my head no and then take the opportunity to share the types of things I have to be careful of when eating out. Given my allergy to peppers, the new authentic Mexican restaurant is likely off-limits for me.
2. Timing is everything.
I might be feeling self-pity when a friend is eating my former-favorite Thai peanut chicken dish (my mouth is watering as I type this) for lunch. However, the middle of a busy workday with our leftovers in front of us may not be the time to share my sadness and my reality. Sometimes we need support, but when I have a perfectly good lunch in front of me and there's already a lively conversation at the lunch table, it's time to pull on my big-girl pants and step out of the pity party. The food-allergy conversation is not imperative at that moment.
3. Be assertive.
Not passive, and not aggressive, assertive is right in the middle. Being assertive means telling other people your needs in a respectful and straightforward way.
If I come into a conversation planning to just absorb uncomfortable or disrespectful statements from others, without speaking my own thoughts, I definitely will not leave feeling good. Similarly, if I enter the conversation with my defenses raised and feeling ready to do battle over food, I'm likely not going to get a friendly response from others. Assertiveness means speaking your own mind, using statements that express your feelings and opinions (statements that start with "I" are always a good place to start here). Be respectful, and be strong.
4. Seek collaboration.
Two pairs of eyes are better than one. If someone else feels offended by your scrutiny of ingredients in their famous secret pasta sauce recipe, explain the benefits of collaboration. This not only adds safety to your meal, it gives the host an opportunity to be a graceful help to you. In addition, seeking to collaborate with others ahead of time can prevent a crisis or hurt feelings when the food leaves the kitchen.
5. Don't make assumptions about other people.
What someone says may not be an accurate communication of their intent. A person may intend to help or be inclusive without knowing the best way to do so. I learned the hard way early on in my food allergy adventures that people sometimes have the best of intentions, but without clear communication both can leave the party feeling misunderstood. Clear communication about expectations, and shared education about food allergies, can empower both the food allergic individual as well as his or her friends and family.
I've found that in general, people do not intend to be disrespectful, hurtful, or unsafe about food allergies. Most times people genuinely want to have positive experiences. The negative experiences I've had centered around miscommunication or assumptions.
6. Be open-minded...
Sometimes people have great suggestions, and it's important to be open to hearing them! My sister-in-law found a new sauce for me inadvertently just by checking ingredients for a meal we were going to share. Other people may have ways of handling food allergies that could enhance your own life, from cooking to hosting to organizing your kitchen to... communication itself!
7. ... and know when to walk away.
There are some times when people are not open or interested in hearing about your food allergies, or accommodating them. Sometimes it's best to walk away, whether that is to keep yourself safe or to preserve a relationship. This does not make the other person a bad person, although it may not designate them as an ally in food allergy support. It does make the situation an unsavory one for managing food allergies. If you have to attend an event hosted by one of these individuals, prepare your own food or plan to not eat. Keep the drama out of it, and keep yourself safe.