Friends and Food Allergies

Guest post by Teen Advisory Group member Ava Wellener.

One of the most difficult issues I’ve dealt with in my food allergy journey is interacting with people who don’t have food allergies. Whether it be teachers, extended family members or friends, it can be hard to spend time with people who don’t understand food allergies. Today’s post will focus on friends, and I’ll provide you with some advice on how to spend time with your friends and talk to them about your food allergies.

I used to be absolutely terrified of talking about food allergies with my friends. This fear was, of course, completely irrational. But that did not stop me from being scared to bring up the topic! Instead of being proactive and clear, I’d try to talk about my food allergies as little as possible. I was scared that if my friends found out there was something different about me, they wouldn’t want to spend time with me anymore. There was one moment which really changed my perspective. My friends and I were at school, and we were learning how to make a special type of bread as part of a lesson on Passover. Just before we were about to start making the bread, one of my friends asked what ingredients were in the bread. A few other of my friends and classmates chimed in, asking if there were any eggs or tree nuts in the mixture. They said, “We know Ava is allergic to eggs and tree nuts, and we just want to make sure she can eat it too!” Though I had already confirmed with the teacher that the bread was safe, I was surprised that my classmates were concerned. I was so afraid that these people would hate me if my food allergies interfered with their life, but here they were standing up for me! I was so touched. This moment made me realize that your friends care about you. Real friends won’t see your food allergies as an inconvenience or burden. Real friends care about your safety. Don’t be scared to talk about food allergies or stand up for your own safety. Your friends care about you!

My first piece of advice is to ​be clear.​ Trying to hide your food allergies or make it seem as though they’re not a big deal doesn’t work. The fact is that at some point, you are almost certainly going to have to discuss food allergies with friends. So, you should be clear with your friends right off the bat. Let them know how many food allergies you have, what you are allergic to, and how severe your allergies are. But how do you bring this up? It’s a bit awkward to bring it up in the middle of a normal conversation. My advice is to start this discussion when something comes up that provokes the conversation. If someone offers you food, but you’re allergic to it and can’t have any, you could take that moment to explain to your friends why you can’t eat it. If you’re out at a restaurant and ask about ingredients, you can use that moment to tell your friends that you have food allergies. Make sure that your close friends have at least a general idea of what to do in an emergency. I know that when you’re a teenager, you really want to fit in, and food allergies are something that makes you stand out. But, being upfront about your food allergies is so much better than risking it. Your friends will appreciate that you were clear with them, because it will make their lives easier too! When you are clear about your allergies, everyone benefits, because everyone is aware and your friends are able to help you out when you need it.  
My second piece of advice is to ​speak up.​ Be an advocate for yourself by using your voice. When your friends are making plans, speak up! Whenever my friends and I are deciding where we want to eat, I also try to choose a restaurant where I know I can eat something safe. If a friend is planning a party, ask them ahead of time what food will be there. Maybe a friend is eating the food you’re allergic to while they’re sitting right next to you. The right thing to do is to kindly ask the friend not to do that. Chances are, they’re not going to be upset about it at all! Speaking up with your friends is so much better than risking it. Speaking up is easy to do, and it will make your life go much smoother! Consider two scenarios. In the first scenario, a group of friends are planning where to eat. One of the friends has food allergies, but she doesn’t want to be a burden, so she doesn’t speak up when the plans are being made. In the end, the restaurant they selected wasn’t able to accommodate her food allergy, so she couldn’t eat anything that night. In the second scenario, when the friend group is making plans, this person with food allergies speaks up. She suggests a restaurant that she knows is safe. In the end, she is able to enjoy a nice meal with her friends because she spoke up! Sometimes it may feel difficult to bring your opinion into the conversation. But, using your voice to advocate for your allergies when you’re with friends will make the time you spend with your friends go smoothly. If you speak up ahead of time, when you’re with your friends you can focus on the fun, not the food.

 My final piece of advice, and perhaps the most crucial, is to​ be patient​. Your friends do not have the same experiences as you. Chances are, your friends did not grow up with food allergies and they’ve never had an allergic reaction. Because of your vastly different experiences, your friends may have a hard time accommodating your food allergies. They may forget what you are allergic to, they may have a difficult time understanding what cross-contamination is, and you may get some questions about the epinephrine you carry. In moments like these and others, when your friends make a mistake, you may feel upset. But, trust that your friends are not intentionally trying to make your life awkward. They are not blowing off your food allergies. They are human, and they make mistakes. Take a deep breath, and explain once again the difference between a peanut and a tree nut, or whatever the issue may be. Patience will get you and your friends through the most tricky situations.  
It’s hard enough to navigate friendships as a regular teenager, and food allergies can complicate friendships, if you let them. But, if you are clear about your allergies, speak up in advance and are patient with your friends, life will be easier. Remember that real friends care about you and your safety, and they won’t think your food allergies are a burden.