A picnic should be a fun gathering of family and friends where everyone can relax and have a nice time together. However, for many people attending a picnic can cause stress and panic. No, I am not talking about the dreaded conversation with your awkward uncle or the pressure from grandma to find that special someone. I’m talking about coping with the spread of dishes put out for meals.
For many, the serving table full of its tasty fare, chock-full of traditional picnic dishes can cause stress. In a time when there are so many fad diets, intolerances and medical needs involving food, there are many people that can’t just eat what everyone else is eating. At our typical family gatherings there are folks with food allergies, diabetics and vegans all needing to eat. So here are six simple steps we always use to help everyone have a nicer mealtime.
1. Wash your hands after you eat. This may seem simple but it is one of the most effective ways to stop the fear of accidental exposure to a food. I know that I cannot remove every item my family is allergic to at a picnic. Just eat responsibly and clean up afterward. If there is a kids’ table, stop by and ask them to be good friends and clean up when they have finished.
2. Talk openly with guests that have special food needs. Find out how uncomfortable they are around foods they do not eat. Will that food cause a severe reaction if they come into contact with it? Is it something they can just pass up as they browse the buffet line? Ask what you can do to help them have a relaxing time. Sometimes it is as simple as letting them go through line first so they can get what they want before a spoon may get set in the wrong dish or cheesy fingers touch things.
3. Be open to placing foods that may cause severe allergic reactions foods at a separate serving area or avoid serving some foods. No, I don’t think you should have hamburgers served on lettuce for everyone because one person keeps gluten-free.
However, if there is someone with a severe food allergy, you should consider keeping it off your menu. I always feel more comfortable if there are no openly peanut dishes or cheesy chips on the serving line. I’ll know that my daughter will have a safer, more enjoyable meal.
Yes, this may mean you can’t make your blue ribbon peanut butter chocolate supreme cake or the cheese curls won’t get set out. But it would help your guests feel more comfortable interacting with everyone. If your picnic just wouldn’t be complete without it then make the item and place it at a separate serving table or at the end of the serving line. And be sure to warn the highly allergic guests, so they can bypass the area.
If they have a milk allergy, make sure there are no traces of cheese that may have been put on the grill when making burgers previously. If in doubt, cook allergy-aggravating foods on foil. Strip the foil off the grill when finished to create a clean environment.
5. Keep all your packaging so allergic guests can check ingredient lists. There often is no silver bullet of one grocery store item that can always be eaten. Food production lines can vary from plant to plant so one shipment of baked beans may be ok, where the next one may have a different ingredient or cross-contamination statement. Yes, I do read every single label of every single item before I place it in my cart at the grocery store. Yes, it is a pain, and yes, I hate it. But it is the only way I can feel safe feeding my family.
6. Keep it simple. For many people, fruits and vegetables start out being fine to eat. It is what we add to them and how we cook them that can cause problems. Making grilled foil packets of veggies with simple seasoning (if using a blend check the ingredients) and a cut watermelon can be enough for a great meal. Just be aware and like the grill, start with a clean cutting space. Also, know what you have added to things. A dollop of margarine may not seem like a lot, but if there is a milk allergy you just made the veggie or fruit a dish an allergic guest cannot eat.
With our family food needs, I will often bring something or easily know of something I can get for my daughter quickly should she need something else. Sometimes it is very hard for me to give up control of our food preparation and if your guest is more comfortable to just bring their own food, let it be. However, if you incorporate one or two these things it can help everyone have a more enjoyable picnic.
Christi Michaels has had ten years’ experience with cooking for a food allergy family. Her husband John has a severe peanut allergy. Her son Noah had a milk and egg allergy that he has outgrown; he is now seven and loves eating many different foods. Her daughter Moriah has a milk, wheat, egg and sunflower allergy; while feeding her is a challenge she enjoys summertime meals the best and can eat her weight in watermelon. Moriah is five and is excited about attending kindergarten this fall. While learning how to cook for them has meant changing the style of food, no more creamy/cheesy casseroles or box meals, there are still many good eats served daily in the Michaels home.
Editor’s Note: This post was first published in July 2014.