Helping Your Food Allergic Child Enjoy Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is here. You’ve reminded the relatives about your child’s food allergies and done all you can to ensure that your child is safe at the yearly family extravaganza. You’ve worked through the emotions that encompass the holidays, especially when dietary restrictions impact not only your little one, but your extended family as well.

Time to focus on what Thanksgiving is truly about: Gathering together with thankful hearts. It’s about family, tradition and community. It’s about gratitude and giving. And yes, we express our thanks around the table, often with recipes passed down from generation to generation.

How about establishing some new traditions for your little one that don’t focus on food, but on celebrating our time as a family and one that is centered on gratefulness and generosity? Here a few suggestions to do just that:

Designing Delightful Thanksgiving Tables

While the adults are preparing the food or perhaps at your house the day before, have a special party for the kids to decorate the table. Older cousins can assist as the younger kiddos make the centerpiece, place cards, napkin rings or place mats. This is a time to encourage each generation to get to know each other a little bit better. What wonderful conversation starters this will be when everyone sits down!

A Tisket, a Tasket, Who’s Got the Basket?

While waiting for the turkey finish roasting, give everyone a small piece of paper. Each person writes down one funny fact about their lives, such as “My first job was at an ice cream shop and I accidentally turned DOWN the temperature in the freezer instead of turning it UP as my boss had requested,” or “My husband called me by the wrong name our entire first date!” Put them in a small basket, perhaps decorated by your child and while enjoying dinner, pass the basket around the table. Each person pulls out a piece of paper, reads it, and the table has to guess who wrote it. Then, that person tells the funny story in detail. This is the perfect game to video tape – family history straight from the horse’s mouth! Make copies and give them as holiday gifts in December. Relatives’ holiday gifts DONE and it’s still November…you are amazing!

Potato Turkey Heads

You’ve heard of Mr. Potato Head? Give the kids a variety of shapes and sizes of potatoes, toothpicks, buttons, felt and anything from the bottom of your craft box to create their own potato turkeys, each with his own personality. Hint: Microwave the potatoes just slightly the night before and then refrigerate so that little fingers can push toothpicks into the potato a bit easier. These also make fun place cards!

I’m Thankful for…

It’s a lovely touch to share what you are thankful for, but here’s a silly twist to do afterward: Go around the table clockwise and say what you are thankful for, but the first person must start with the letter A, then B, then C, etc.

Always known for practical jokes, Uncle Rob might say: “I am thankful that Andy’s pet snake hasn’t escaped (yet) from the cage under the table.” The child on his right might say “I am thankful that Basketball season is coming because I am going to score a gazillion points for my 4th grade team!” or “I am thankful for Carrots because we dug up the last bunch at our Community Garden to give to the food bank.”

Ever heard of a holiday gratitude can? It keeps us counting our blessing all the way through the end of the year.

Warm Hands, Warm Heart

It’s important to remember that many families don’t have a warm place to gather together on Thanksgiving. Making blankets or rice-filled hand warmers to deliver next week to your local homeless shelter is a gracious way of giving thanks for our special day together. Most craft stores have inexpensive fleece for tied blankets that the entire extended family can make together after dinner.

A few years ago, our family made blankets and donated them to Project Linus. It is their mission “to provide love, a sense of security, warmth and comfort to children who are seriously ill, traumatized, or otherwise in need through the gifts of new, handmade blankets and afghans, lovingly created by volunteer “blanketeers.” Gotta love that!

Is there an adult in the family known for sewing? Ask them to cut 4 inch by 4 inch pieces of fleece and sew them on three sides as “starter” hand warmers. During the family festivities, help the kids fill the pockets with rice via a funnel, then blow in a kiss before whip stitching it shut tight.

For those homeless in our community, a convenience story microwave means not only a hot cup of water for tea, but it is an easy means to heat up these heart filled hand warmers. Attach a note, directions for heating and a tea bag and tell them you wish them well.

It’s Not about the Food, It’s about the Presentation

Okay, it’s also about the food – I’m not fooling anyone here! But, for your little munchbug with food allergies, participating in the presentation of the food helps them feel valuable and included in the holiday meal. As a feeding therapist, I love all the kids to join in on this. Experiencing the feel and aroma of new foods one of the first steps to becoming more adventurous eaters. Here a few tips for getting them involved:

This is a golden opportunity to learn about proper hand washing before prepping food! Soap up and sing Happy Thanksgiving to you (the Happy Birthday song) twice before rinsing hands well. Dry with a paper towel to prevent your child from accidently being exposed to any food residue that may be on a kitchen towel. Don’t forget about the soup itself – many contain allergens, especially when the “fancy” ones are put out in the powder room!

Fresh herbs can decorate any platter or dish. If you child can’t be exposed directly to the food, have them tear the leaves onto a fresh plate and the hostess can add them herself.

Remember to take a minute and admire the presentation. “Ellie, I love the way you made a nest of greens for the turkey to rest upon! It makes the whole dish look beautiful!”

Letting the little ones arrange several small allergen-free vegetable trays and then carry them from guest to guest as the adults help themselves is a wonderful exercise in social skills and creates the perfect opportunity for each adult in the family to chat with each child. So often, kids end up sitting together or playing in another room and miss out on the important feeling of belonging to the extended family.

Being a Gracious Guest during the Party and Afterward

Demonstrating how thankful we are for the special day together is part of being a gracious guest. The holiday season is prime time for polishing up on manners, helping with the chores whenever our child can do so safely or offering to entertain the younger children while the adults clean up the kitchen. Ask your child “What is the one thing you would like to offer to do for Grandma today?” and help him follow through. The very next morning, sit down together and write a thank you note. Preschoolers can color a picture and kids in elementary school can write a sentence at the bottom of your handwritten note. It’s all part of the celebration and focusing on what matters most – family.

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Note: Portions of this article was originally posted on for The Tender Palate.

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