5 Tips for Hosting an Allergy-Friendly Potluck

Writer and registered dietician, Micah Siva, has tips for how to host a safe potluck for those with food allergies.

illustration of shrimp, soy, eggs, wheat and nuts

Simply Recipes / Marianna Fierro

Holidays can mean different things to different people. To some, it’s an exciting time to celebrate and gather for delicious meals. But for those living with food allergies, it can be full of worry. Can I eat this? What’s in it? Will it make me sick? The worry is magnified at potlucks when food is prepared and brought by many people with little to no knowledge about food allergies.

Whether you are hosting or attending a holiday potluck this year, it's important to keep all dinner guests safe. That means considering everyone’s food allergies when planning, cooking, and serving.

First off, it’s important to understand what allergies are and what they are not. According to Mayo Clinic, a food allergy can be defined as an immune response to eating certain foods. An allergy is not a food preference and need to be taken seriously. While the severity of allergies can vary from a small rash to a life-threatening reaction, keeping allergies front and center while planning your holiday potluck can keep your guests safe.

With clear communication, cooperation, and a little bit of planning, this holiday potluck season can be the best yet for everyone. Here are my top tips for entertaining or preparing food for guests with allergies.

1. Plan Early and Clearly

Loop in guests to a shared online spreadsheet—or an email chain—where they can share information about their food allergies. Send it out early to give everyone enough time to respond and plan ahead. Some guests may prefer to keep their allergies private—if you’re the host, give them the option to contact you directly to share with the group in confidence.

2. Visibility Is Key

Make the list of ingredients front and center. Have each guest share either a link to their recipe or a list of ingredients in their dish, including any substitutions used. Write down the ingredients and highlight any potential allergens on a note card set next to the dish on the table. Depending on the severity of the allergy, place dishes containing allergens on a separate table.

3. Don’t Share Serving Utensils

Each dish should have its own serving utensil. Avoid cross contamination—the spoon to scoop dairy-filled mashed potato should never take a dip in the vegan stuffing! A note about vegan guests: some people with dairy or egg allergies are vegan—it's not just a dietary preference.

4. Those With Allergies, Go First!

Have food allergies? Serve yourself before the rest of the group goes to lower the risk of cross contamination. If you’re the host and know who your guests with allergies are, graciously guide them to go first.

5. Tips for Substituting Ingredients

Navigating allergies doesn’t mean deprivation. Instead, use it as an opportunity to broaden your horizons, learn, and try a new recipe or ingredient. Keeping allergies in mind means reading the ingredient list carefully and substituting out an ingredient that’s an allergen. The most common allergens are eggs, milk, tree nuts, peanuts, shellfish, wheat, and soy. Consider the following when making common Thanksgiving foods:

  • Turkey: Make sure your basting liquid or bouillon cubes are gluten-free and soy-free—check the ingredient list on the packaging. Frying your turkey? Avoid peanut oil!
  • Mashed potatoes: If you need to avoid dairy, use a gluten-free oat milk or coconut milk. Make sure no one is allergic to nuts if using almond or cashew milk. 
  • Stuffing: Use gluten-free bread if you need to avoid gluten. While many families have a secret recipe for the best stuffing, this isn’t the time to be tricky—be sure to share all the ingredients in your stuffing, especially if it includes nuts, any form of dairy, or gluten. 
  • Desserts: It’s always safer to hold the nuts—especially if any guest has a nut allergy. And avoid buying ingredients from open bulk bins at the grocery store since cross contamination can’t be avoided. There are so many Thanksgiving dessert options—you can find one that's safe for everyone!