If you’re living with a food allergy or share your home with a loved one who does, you understand the constant fear of allergen exposure. It’s a fairly common situation for American families, since about 4 percent of adults and 5 percent of children are allergic to one or more types of food. The most common food allergies include:
- Dairy (milk and milk-based products)
- Tree nuts
When it comes to making your kitchen a safer space for family members with food allergies, the easy answer seems to be to keep hazardous foods completely out of your home. Of course, the solution is rarely that simple, especially for families with members who don’t suffer from this condition. However, there is a lot you can do when it comes to food storage, kitchen organization, food handling, and clean-up to reduce the risk of cross contamination. Our guide explains how you can improve your kitchen’s safety when you or a loved one has a food allergy.
Food Storage and Kitchen Organization Safety
The way you store your food and organize your kitchen can play a huge role in the health of those with food allergies. These strategies will help you create a safer atmosphere.
Assign Allergens to the Lowest Storage Shelves
Organizing your refrigerator, cabinet, and pantry shelves is key when it comes to food-allergy safety, so place any items containing allergens on the lowest shelves to help reduce the risk of cross contamination. In your refrigerator, cold products may drip onto food below, which could lead to huge health risks if dangerous ingredients fall onto “safe” foods. You should also be sure to use a drip tray of some sort directly under the foods in your fridge that could cause an allergic reaction, even when they’re placed on the bottom shelves. Meat, shellfish, soy, and other products have a tendency to leak, providing more opportunity for cross contamination should their juices flow onto shelving. As a bonus, you’ll have a way to remove these items without having to touch their packages.
It’s wise to apply this same thinking to the areas where you store products that don’t need to be kept cold or frozen. It’s still possible for these items to spill or leak, so keeping them low is a good way to avoid dangerous situations.
If you have young children, you’ve probably already taken childproofing measures. However, you’ll need to be extra vigilant when food allergies are a factor, especially if you store dangerous foods on low shelves. Not only will this protect your child from eating something they shouldn’t if they’re the allergy sufferer, it will also help ensure kids who don’t have food allergies touch the fare and then touch other items, which could lead to cross contamination and put someone else in your home at risk.
Use Secure Packaging
As often as you can, opt for airtight, leak-proof packaging. Styrofoam trays covered in plastic, which grocery stores often use to hold meat and seafood products, have a habit of leaking, as do single-use plastic baggies. Glass storage containers with latching lids are a great solution. You can also opt for silicone storage bags, which use a plastic slider to secure them more tightly than the seal on single-use baggies. They also sit upright, which helps prevent spills, and as a bonus, they can be kept in the freezer and even boiled to make food prep safer and simpler.
What’s more, secure packaging makes it more difficult for kids to get into any food they’re able to reach (despite your best childproofing methods!). Anything you can do to more tightly enclose products containing allergens will help you create an overall safer kitchen.
Label Your Items
It’s a good idea to label all of your ingredients as “safe” or “unsafe” in your fridge, cabinets, and pantry. Color-coded containers are an easy way to accomplish this, or you can simply write the words on pieces of tape.
Be Careful with the Dishwasher
Especially if you have curious kids, you’ll need to be mindful of placing dirty dishes, utensils, and food storage containers in the dishwasher. In addition to childproofing this appliance as necessary, be sure you close the dishwasher as soon as possible when adding anything contaminated to it. Don’t keep it open if it’s going to take a few minutes to load, because this gives kids an opportunity to expose themselves to something harmful. Pets are another factor here — dogs and even cats that lick up or put their paws or noses in the contaminant could transfer it to your loved one when showing their affection. It’s also a good idea to run it right away if there are any allergen particles left on anything inside.
Food Prep and Cooking Safety
Preparing food for someone with food allergies can feel like a challenging — or even scary — endeavor. These tips will help take the stress out of making and serving meals.
Make Allergen-Free Meals First
Preparing contaminant-free meals before making dishes that contain allergens is the number-one rule for families with food-allergic members. Doing so will not only help keep them safe, it will also make many of the steps below easier to follow (or even allow you to eliminate them).
Wash Your Hands
Wash your hands with hot, soapy water any time you’ve touched something containing a food allergen and move on to working with the ingredients, food-prep tools, dishes, and silverware for the person with food allergies. Always err on the side of caution by thoroughly washing your hands if you even think you may have touched something potentially harmful.
Use Multiple Cutting Boards
The same way you wouldn’t place produce on a cutting board you just used to prepare raw meat, you shouldn’t use the same board for working with “safe” ingredients and those containing allergens. Even if you wash them between uses, you may run the risk of cross contamination. To be as safe as possible, buy multiple cutting boards that are assigned to allergen-free and general use.
Use Separate Tools
You should also use different knives, spoons, tongs, and other kitchen utensils when making food for and serving it to those with food allergies. Similar to cutting boards, having designated tools for different meals is a great way to ensure there are no accidental mix-ups. Color-coding or using a numbering system (marking food-safe tools with a “1” and general-use items with a “2,” for example) simplifies keeping like cutting boards and food-prep tools together.
Be Aware of Airborne Particles
When you’re mixing as well as when you’re cooking on the stove or even in the oven, there is a risk of particles moving from one dish to another. To put safety first, try these tips:
- Use separate parts of your counter to prepare liquid and powder products that can splatter or waft through the air, potentially contaminating allergen-free food.
- Move pots and other cookware as far away from each other as possible on the stovetop, and always use lids on items when you can.
- Cook allergen-free food items separately from those with contaminants in the oven. Even if you space out cooking sheets and baking dishes, ingredients may splatter or drip on one another. Plus, if the allergy is severe, fume exposure may present a serious health threat.
Clean Everything Thoroughly
Once everyone has cleared their plate, make sure you clean everything well. If you use a dishwasher, use our safety recommendations above. If you wash dishes by hand, be sure to use hot, soapy water, scrub each item thoroughly, and only soak items you’re absolutely certain children and pets can’t reach to avoid risking cross contamination.
Also be sure to clean your food-prep and eating surfaces, including your countertops, kitchen table, and placemats (opt for plastic or silicone versions rather than cloth, since these can be wiped down between uses and won’t have to be thrown in the laundry after every meal). If you suspect anything spilled in your refrigerator or pantry while pulling out your ingredients, be sure to sanitize the shelves as well.
Lastly, be sure to clean other surfaces you likely touched while preparing your meal, including:
- Refrigerator handles
- Cabinet knobs and handles
- Food storage containers and lids
- Sink faucets
Use Disposable Towels and Rags
The best way to avoid cross contamination is to use paper towels to wipe your hands and clean your countertops any time you’re handling food that may trigger an allergy. If you prefer using cloth towels, be sure to change them out immediately if they come into contact with an allergen. Similarly, if you wear an apron, be sure to avoid wiping your hands on it — if you accidentally do, take it off, and put a new one on right away.
Other Safety Steps
In addition to taking care when storing ingredients, preparing food, and cleaning up after meal prepping, there are other measures you can take to ensure dangerous foods don’t come into contact with those with food allergies. Use these safety strategies to protect the health of every member of your family.
- Keep an eye out for warning signs of an allergic reaction. There are some minor, non-life-threatening symptoms, such as itchy skin, teary eyes, and an upset stomach. If the individual has signs of anaphylaxis, including difficulty breathing, a rapid or weak heart rate, or loss of consciousness, call 911 immediately, and administer their epinephrine autoinjector (common versions include Auvi-Q, EpiPen, and Symjepi) as prescribed and according to its instructions.
- Be extremely careful shopping. In addition to looking at ingredient labels, you should also be wary of the production process of foods. For example, if you or your loved one has a tree nut allergy, it’s best to avoid any product that shares manufacturing equipment with products containing them.
- Teach children with food allergies what to say to other food preparers and handlers in order to stay safe. If you have a young child, you may be programmed to provide the information about the nature and severity of their allergy to others, but it’s important they also learn how to talk about it as early as possible.
Discuss how to give this information when they’re at school, friends’ homes, and restaurants. They need to be able to state exactly what the allergy is and what happens if they ingest it, so be specific. For example, you may coach them to say, “I’m allergic to tree nuts, and if I eat them or any food that has been exposed to them, I will go into anaphylactic shock.”
However, try to use age-appropriate language. While you want your child to understand the severity of the condition, you also don’t want them to live in constant fear. When having this conversation, be sure to answer any questions they have and reassure them that as long as you work together to make everyone aware of their food allergy, there is nothing to be scared of.
- Have a family discussion about the food allergy. Children of all ages need to understand the severity of the issue and the importance of taking action to keep you or your loved one safe.
- Let anyone who enters your home know that you or a family member has a food allergy, and preferably, tell them ahead of their visit. This will prevent them from bringing anything into your home that could trigger an allergic reaction.
Having a food allergy or living with someone who does is stressful in the best of times — and terrifying during worst-case scenarios. Being cautious when you’re shopping, laying out your kitchen, preparing meals, and cleaning up will go a long way in not only keeping your entire family safe, but also in giving you peace of mind.