By Natasha Persaud

If you have a food allergy, holiday dishes can be especially tricky to figure out. Is it safe to eat that appetizer or should you enjoy something else? We asked registered dietitian Amy Jamieson-Petonic, manager of the employee wellness program at the Cleveland Clinic and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association, for tips on enjoying the feast without becoming ill.

Holiday Food Image - Masterfile

First, if you have a food intolerance or allergy, your number-one priority is preventing an anaphylactic reaction, she says. Don’t get swept up in holiday dining fever, which can make you neglect your usual precautions.

Holiday dishes may be prepared with unusual ingredients, and dishes are often prepared together, so it’s especially important to know how a dish is made to avoid cross-contamination.

Tell your host what you’re allergic to and ask if any of the ingredients used to prepare a dish contains the allergen, including the cooking oil, egg washes, pastes, breading and garnishes. For example, if you’re allergic to peanuts, you need to know if your egg roll was sealed with peanut butter or cooked in peanut oil.

If you know the host well, mention that you have a special diet and offer to prepare and bring a dish that you know you can eat. Your host may offer to make a dish especially for you, so be prepared with a recipe that’s easy to cook.

Chat with the restaurant chef. If the party is being held at a restaurant or is being catered, call ahead to discuss your dietary restrictions. The best time to reach a restaurant or caterer is about two in the afternoon, between the lunch and dinner rush. The chef can describe the menu, and if you have a food intolerance or allergy, discuss how the food is being prepared to avoid cross-contamination.

Look for clues on the restaurant menu. Some restaurant menus are labeled according to specific diets, such as “wheat-free,” and some list potential allergens in the ingredient list, so check out the menu for clues about what you can and can’t eat. If you have further questions about the ingredients in a dish or how it’s being prepared, ask the server or the chef.

Most times, the safest bet is to eat at home and make do with having a drink or nibbling on some fresh fruit at the party. Always carry your prescribed epinephrine self-injection kit.

Here, learn about popular holiday dishes that may contain one or more of 8 common food allergens:

  1. Milk—If you’re sensitive to milk or dairy products, avoid appetizers, dips, gravies, entrees and desserts that contain:
    • Cream Used in red sauces such as vodka sauce and baked potato toppings, in addition to more obvious culprits such as eggnog, chocolate soup, cake and cream-filled pastry.
    • Milk Used in baked goods, including cookies, cakes and pies, frostings, some creamy salad dressings, gravies, and white or béchamel sauces.
    • Yogurt Used in some dips and creamed spinach.
    • Cheese In addition to obvious dishes such as lasagna and macaroni, watch for sprinkling of cheeses, such as parmesan, on vegetables, pasta, salad and potatoes.
  2. Egg—Eggs appear in many baked goods and eggnog, of course, but also be wary of chopped eggs on salads and other side dishes, pasta, soups and coffee drinks with foam.
  3. Peanuts—Peanuts can be found in many foods and candies, especially chocolate candy. It can also be found in certain cakes, such as the traditional fruit cake. Increasingly, peanuts are found in creative cuisine, including dishes you may not suspect would contain peanuts, so it pays to ask questions of the chef. Many packaged foods are prepared in facilities where peanuts are manufactured, so look for that notice on pre-packaged food labels.
  4. Tree Nuts (Walnuts, Pecans, Almonds, Cashews, Macademia Nuts, etc.)—In addition to baked goods, rices and stuffings, tree nuts may also appear in barbecue sauce and ice cream. As tree nuts can cause severe allergic reactions, be sure to carry around an epinephrine self-injection kit.
  5. Fish—In addition to avoiding seafood dishes, watch for soups, salad dressings (such as Caesar dressing) and sauces (such as Worcestershire sauce) that may have been made from fish or fish stock; also avoid surimi (a product made from whitefish that’s shaped to resemble another kind of fish, like crab).
  6. Shellfish—It’s easy to remember to avoid shrimp, lobster, scallops, crab and oysters—but you should also be on the lookout for egg rolls that may contain these ingredients, and soups, such as bouillabaisse, that are made with shellfish.
  7. Wheat—If you have a wheat allergy, you’ve likely experienced an unpleasant reaction to a dish or beverage you didn’t suspect contained wheat, such as sausage or even root beer. During the holidays, also be wary of beer, puddings, scalloped potatoes, creamy soups, gravies and salad dressings that contain hydrolyzed vegetable protein, a wheat derivative.
  8. Soy—Remarkably, soybeans are part of most processed foods, from soy sauce to instant coffee. Here are some hidden sources of soy: vegetable broth, natural flavoring and vegetable oil. Ask your host how something was prepared whenever possible to avoid a reaction—and carry your epinephrine pen. You may be surprised that butter substitutes and even hard candies, nut candies, fudge and caramels can be made with soy flour—so it pays to be cautious.

By asking questions and keeping a sharp lookout for offending ingredients, you can safely enjoy the holiday festivities.

Publication Review By: the Editorial Staff at

Published: 31 Oct 2008

Last Modified: 15 Sep 2015