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Dealing with those insensitive relatives to food allergies

Washington Post

Dear Carolyn: My mom is big on having holiday dinner gatherings. I have food allergies that can make eating out or eating food made by others a very stressful endeavor. Added to that, there are a couple of traditional holiday foods that were forced on me as a kid and still make me gag at the smell.

Some years have been better than others, but a recent holiday gathering included my off-limits ingredients in every dish save the bagged bread rolls, plus a surprise appearance of a traditional dish at the last minute with the usual family joke about how it is ridiculous for me to be sensitive about it.

Between the stress of sitting at a table with an empty plate, not wanting to interrogate people about ingredients, and the traditional dish after Mom said she wanted me to be comfortable and wouldn’t serve it … I just don’t want to do it anymore.

I felt stupid and juvenile basically saying that.

My sister-in-law, who also has food allergies, did a pre-holiday gathering that was fine.

Is it ridiculous for me to avoid the parental holiday dinners and encourage adding other types of non-food-centric gatherings to the calendar? It’s a pain in the tail to accommodate my dietary restrictions, I don’t want to be stressed out anymore, and I’ve never particularly enjoyed these dinner gatherings at the parents’ anyhow. Am I being a juvenile jerk? – Declining

I don’t know exactly what you said, to whom, using which exact words, at what decibel level, in what context or to what intended effect, and since each of these can turn a valid objection into a childish one, I’ll refrain from making a blind ruling on the way you handled this dinner.

But if what you describe of others’ behavior is true — that your own family prepared an entire meal using ingredients to which they knew you were allergic — then we’re talking about conscious choices so stunningly hostile that I’m surprised you didn’t walk out on the lot of them.

In fact, I wish you had calmly gone home instead of choosing to sit with an empty plate, but I also understand why you probably didn’t; the force of habit can be strong, as can the deterrent effect of knowing you’ll be julienned by those “joke”-ey relatives the moment you walk out the door.

So please, yes, take the next best step of saying a kind no-thank-you to these dinners from now on.

You’ve had license to do so all along, not (just) in protest but for any reason whatsoever; it’s one of the finer perks of adulthood. That means you also don’t have to explain yourself and thereby mislead your family into believing your reasons are up for a roundtable discussion. They’re not, you’re not, your allergies aren’t, your gagging isn’t. “I’ll be doing [alternate plan] this year.” If they try to argue, then do not partake in that, either: “Your opinion is noted” will suffice.

Your idea of encouraging and showing up at other, not-as-stressful events is an excellent way to remain connected to your family on your terms, and therefore adds a note of good faith to your decision to opt out of Mom’s dinners. I hope for your sake that their actions show they deserve it.

Email Carolyn at tellme@washpost.com, follow her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/carolyn.hax or chat with her online at noon Eastern time each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.

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