Celebrating Hanukah When Your Child Has Food Allergies
by Yael Weinstein
In a few days, Jews all over the world will be celebrating Hanukah. Hanukah is a fun filled holiday, but like many Jewish celebrations, food is a highlight to heighten the experience of these festive days. As parents of children with food allergies, we are always concerned about the safety of our children around food. Around the holidays, our worries are increased. Nevertheless, with a few easy tweaks, you can make Hanukah an exciting and enjoyable holiday for your children and the entire family.
Synagogues’ Hanukah parties are a large part of the eight day festival - and many synagogues put on impressive ones. However, your family might find it intimidating to go to a synagogue-wide celebration. With that in mind, I’d like to give you a few tips that can take a potentially risky situation and make it fun and safe.
Most synagogues have committees to help out with large celebrations such as a Hanukah party. If a synagogue doesn't have a committee, the program director is likely the person in charge of planning. If you have the time, consider joining the committee to help coordinate the party and to help address allergy concerns. As a committee member, you will likely be able to have input into the activities and meal preparations, so the meal can be a safe one for children with food allergies.
Ideally, as with any other holidays or special occasions at school or elsewhere, it’s best to make the celebration one which does not focus on food. Instead, the celebration should focus on activities, crafts and other opportunities that will be safe and inclusive for all children.
If food is going to be served, focus on making the food safe for all children attending the celebration. If a particular food can’t be made safe for a child with food allergies, then it would be best to find another food to serve altogether than to offer one that will not be inclusive of all children.
Many times the synagogue’s caterer will be able to make a safe option for families dealing with food allergies. I know in my synagogue, there are many families that deal with the challenge of food allergies and therefore, the caterer always tries to have a dish that is free of the top 8 allergens (milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, soy, wheat, fish and shellfish) and safe for other allergens as needed. In general, they are more than willing to accommodate the needs of their members.
Religious school environments are another location that could be a potential place for an allergic reaction. We usually think through what we have to do to make our children safe at school, but we don’t always think about religious school, where food is not necessarily an issue. Nevertheless, around Hanukah, many schools bring food to make learning about the holiday more fun for the children.
This is another situation where planning ahead and speaking with your child’s teacher can reduce the risk and make the holiday activities into a fun learning experience for your child. The best approach is to suggest activities that do not focus on food, and instead focus on activities, crafts and other opportunities that will be safe and inclusive for all children.
There are amazing traditions that have nothing to do with food - including the lighting of the Chanukiah and playing the dreidel (with safe food treats or non-food items such as stickers). There are also wonderful songs that the children can learn.
When food is planned, work in partnership with the teacher to plan for foods that are safe for all children in the class. If a particular food can’t be made safe for a child with food allergies, then it would be best to find another food to serve to include all children in the class.
For example, many schools make latkes, which typically contain potatoes, eggs, and sometimes wheat. Other foods with common allergens include sufganyot (jelly donuts) and gelt (dark chocolate or milk chocolate). Peanuts are sometimes used to play dreidel. By planning ahead, you can provide safe alternatives for the entire class.
I hope these ideas are helpful to you. Hanukah is a fun filled holiday. With some planning ahead and a positive attitude, you can make this holiday awesome for your children, even in environments that are outside of your home!
Yael Weinstein, M.A., is a mother of a child with food allergies. She has been a Jewish educator for more than 10 years and has developed curricula for both adults and children. In addition to her work in the Jewish community, Yael has been a speaker for Kids With Food Allergies Foundation on the topic of celebrating holidays with food allergies for children with feeding tubes. She has also created various booklets on how to celebrate holidays for Kids with Food Allergies Foundation.