Thanksgiving 2016, Merrill and Robert Debbs' 11-year-old son Oakley ate a piece of cake while on vacation visiting family. Oakley, who had asthma and been told he had a "mild" nut allergy, suffered a severe reaction and was hospitalized. A few days later, he passed away. The cake had contained walnut extract.
Oakley's parents, who felt they hadn't received adequate medical advice about his allergy or about anaphylactic shock, formed a non-profit in their son's honor called Red Sneakers For Oakley. Named after the red shoes he favored because he felt they made him stronger and faster, the group has a mission of raising awareness about the dangers of food allergies.
This Thanksgiving, they're hoping to help keep other families safe—and avoid the kind of loss they endured—with their list of Top 10 Tips For A Safe Thanksgiving. "If I had known these things last year at this time, I'd be in a different position," says Merrill Debbs. Here are some of their tips:
1. Call ahead
If you're eating at someone else's house, it's important to let your host know about food allergies in advance to ensure a safe environment (and avoid any kind of last-minute rushing around to put certain foods away). Debbs says some people may avoid saying anything because they don't want to be a bother or because they worry about hurting their host's feeling. "Don't be afraid to speak up," she says.
2. Watch out for serving spoons
Food allergens can be transferred via serving spoons and forks, so be sure the same utensils aren't being used in both safe and unsafe dishes (a pecan pie and a nut-free dessert for example).
3. Tell your friends and family
Be sure your loved ones understand the severity of your child's food allergy and what they should do in case of an emergency. "People in older generations may not understand how serious food allergies are because there weren't as many people with food allergies when they were young," says Debbs. Be sure it's clear to everyone that even one taste or one reaction can be deadly.
4. Check food gifts
If you receive food from family and neighbors at the holidays, always check ingredient lists. Or request items such as fruit or non-food options to be safer.
5. Always ask
If you're hosting guests this holiday season, ask all of your guests about food allergies ahead of time and be aware of ALL of the ingredients used in preparation, including extracts and garnishes.
Finally, if your child has allergies, always carry an epinephrine auto-injector (such as the Epi-Pen) with you, especially when traveling and even if previous reactions have been mild.
Visit Red Sneakers for Oakley for more information and to download an Emergency Care Plan.
Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, educator, and mom of two who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. She is the author of The Snacktivist's Handbook: How to Change the Junk Food Snack Culture at School, in Sports, and at Camp—and Raise Healthier Snackers at Home.