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How to Eat Well at a Cookout When You Have Food Allergies

Jillian is a mom who has food allergies and years of personal experience to share with the greater food-allergy community.

Cookouts and barbecues are usually great fun, but they can present a challenge if you have food allergies. Find out how to cope.

Cookouts and barbecues are usually great fun, but they can present a challenge if you have food allergies. Find out how to cope.

Tips for Planning Ahead

Summer BBQ and cookout time is here! As you gather with family and friends to spend more time together outdoors, a little bit of extra planning and vigilance on your part will go a long way, so that you can safely enjoy the gathering while managing your food allergies.

  • First and foremost, it's a wise idea to either plan to discuss your food allergies in advance with the host or bring your own meal.
  • If you are planning to eat the food prepared by someone else, you might want to bring some backup foods in case you decide at the last minute that it isn't safe for you to eat what is served.
  • You can also offer to bring a side dish or dessert so that you know you will have safe options.
  • Having a light meal before going can be helpful. A very empty, roaring belly may cloud judgment.
Skewers on a grill

Skewers on a grill

Grilled Foods and Allergens

If you are going to a cookout where they will be grilling at someone else's home, this can be a risk for contact with your allergens. Barbecue sauces, marinades, and spice blends can contain many different allergens. You just never know what can be left behind on that grill. Even with a thorough cleaning, depending on your sensitivity, minute traces left behind can still trigger a reaction in some.

The safest bet is to bring your own prepared food or stick with non-grilled items. Alternatively, you could consider purchasing a small, portable grill that you can bring anywhere. These are often on sale during the summer months, especially holiday weekends.


Hot dogs and sausages can contain flavorings and ingredients that may need to be verified first. Stick with whole or freshly ground unseasoned chicken, turkey, pork, and beef products to avoid mystery ingredients.


Those with sesame allergies or gluten intolerance should bring their own safe bread and buns (if desired) since most breads can contain these. If you are eating something off the barbecue grill, ask if they cook their buns on their grill.

A dressed salad

A dressed salad

Dealing With Dips, Salads, and Dressings

These are likely to contain common allergens such as milk, eggs, soy, sesame, etc. Always ask to check the label for store-bought products. If the item is from a deli (such as macaroni salad) or was made by someone you don't know if you can trust to thoroughly understand cross-contact with your allergens in the kitchen, do not eat it. Don't ever feel embarrassed to pass on a food or beverage item. Safety always comes first.

Dips and Salsa

Dips and salsa can easily become "contaminated" by other food items being dipped or by someone "double dipping" an item after it has been in their mouth. Be sure to take your portion of a safe dip first before anyone else has used it, and do not go back for seconds unless you can take some from an uncontaminated package. If you feel comfortable with plain items prepared by someone else, you can always bring your own dressings or dip.

Pickles and Mayo

Pickles and mayonnaise often contain mustard and other spices that may be allergenic for some. Traditional mayonnaise is also not safe for those with egg allergies (there are now egg-free alternatives available).

Cross-Contact in Homemade Beverages and Fruit Salads

Similar to other foods, there is the potential for cross-contact with allergens when chopping fruits or processing in a blender. Avoid these, or bring your own.

A strawberry tart

A strawberry tart

Allergen Risks in Desserts

Be especially cautious about desserts that were not prepared by someone trustworthy or that came from a bakery. These are especially high risk for those with common allergies like milk, nuts, peanuts, soy, wheat, and eggs.

Ice cream is also very risky for peanut and nut allergies since most brands are produced on the same equipment, and traces may be left behind that can trigger a reaction. Hosts would likely appreciate the offer to bring a safe dessert or fruit salad.

Clinking glasses.

Clinking glasses.

Hidden Allergens in Alcoholic Beverages

These can contain common allergens such as milk, eggs, nuts, soy, wheat, and more! Major allergens are not required to be on the label, and listing them is completely voluntary. Alcohol can also intensify an allergic reaction and impair judgment. Verify the ingredients with the manufacturer before consuming.

Serving utensils often come into contact with multiple foods.

Serving utensils often come into contact with multiple foods.

Managing Utensils and Serveware

Serving utensils can easily come into contact with other foods that may not be safe. Always ensure that you are using a very clean serving utensil, or bring your own. The safest bet is to be the first person to take your food, before it may inadvertently come into contact with other foods. Don't be afraid to take a generous serving if you think you'll want seconds!

More Tips for the Food-Allergic at Cookouts

1. Keep Tabs on Your Food

Especially if your child has food allergies, bring something easily identifiable to serve their food or beverage (e.g. personalized cup or children's dinnerware set), to avoid confusion with others' food and drinks. Or, bring a marker and write your names on your cups.

Remind your child not to share food, and teach him/her about which food is theirs and not to consume any others without checking with you first.

2. Always Read Ingredient Labels

Never assume an item will be free of an allergen just because it doesn't seem like it would contain the allergen. Allergens can pop up in the strangest of places, so always, always read labels for anything that goes in your mouth or on your body. Every single time. This also applies to sunscreens and bug sprays.

Scientific names for nuts, peanuts, and botanicals (for example, helianthus annuus for sunflower) can make this trickier. Be familiar with the scientific names of your allergens.

Pack epinephrine injectors, and have your allergist's phone number handy.

Pack epinephrine injectors, and have your allergist's phone number handy.

3. Be Prepared

As always, carry at least one set of epinephrine injectors for each person with food allergies and whatever other medications your doctor recommends. Protect your auto-injectors from extreme heat and keep them out of the sunlight (do not leave them in the car). Packing them in an insulated case may be helpful.

Bring and memorize your food allergy emergency action plan, so you always know what to do. Have your board-certified allergist's phone number on hand in case you need to call.

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Have fun and be safe!