Food Allergy Management, Holidays, Peanut-Free Food, Recipes

Food Allergy Safe Birthday Parties

Food Allergy Safe Birthday Parties
Peanut Free Cake & Birthday Parties
My daughter loves to help me bake. She recently frosted her own cupcake to take to a friend’s party.

Updated April 2016 (First Published July 2013)
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Let’s talk birthday parties and food allergies. If you’re hosting the party, you probably have a ton of things on your to-do list, but at least you know the food will be safe for your food-allergic child to consume and be around. But when your child gets invited to another child’s party, if you’re like me, you may get a stab of panic or hear your inner voice say “ugh” because, even though you’re not hosting, you have more to do than just purchase a present for the birthday child.

Contact the Hostess

Often the party location gives some indication of the food that will be served (e.g., a popular indoor inflatable place in my hometown serves only Papa John’s pizza and allows the host to bring in cake) and the invitation will often give further clues (“pizza and cake will be served”). Most of the party venues have rules about what can and can’t be brought into the facility, but when the party is at someone’s home, that’s when I get the most nervous since anything could be on the menu.

I contact the birthday child’s parents usually by email and ask about the planned menu. I let them know that my child has a severe peanut allergy, and I ask whether anything with peanuts will be served. I also let them know that I’ll be bringing a safe cupcake for my child.  I don’t necessarily ask about the menus to determine whether my child can eat any of the food; I want to know what food will be at the party so 1) I can ensure all the other kids won’t be eating my child’s allergen and then contaminating surfaces where my child will be touching, and 2) I want to bring safe substitutes so my child isn’t left out, or worse, tempted to eat something unsafe.

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Under age 6: Stay at the party with your child. You need to be there to ensure your child washes his hands before eating and is served and eats only the food you bring. Most other parents will stay too, so you won’t be out of place.

Ages 6-11: If your child can be trusted to eat only what you’ve approved and/or sent, you can stay close by but not hover. This age range can be tricky to navigate because most—or all—of the other children will be dropped off and your child will probably want to be more independent (i.e., not want you to stay). But even if your child self-carries her emergency medication, in most cases, she is still too young to take responsibility for recognizing a reaction, knowing when to self-inject epinephrine, and following through with administering her own medication if it’s needed.

I handle drop-off parties by going in with my child and re-checking the food to ensure nothing has changed since I communicated with the hostess. I remind the birthday child’s parents about my child’s allergy and, if the party is at a public venue, I let them know where I will be (over there on that bench, down the hall in the café, etc). I remind my child about what she can and cannot eat, and I leave her bag of safe food or keep it with me and tell her to come get me when the food is served. Also be sure to remind your child to wash her hands before eating.

If the party is at someone’s home, I will give the hostess my cell phone number and tell her I will be very close by in case I’m needed. Then I go sit in the car and work on my laptop or read. My child knows she can come out to the car if she needs something or she can have the hostess call me. This certainly isn’t convenient for me, but I feel like it gives my child some independence while also ensuring that in an emergency, I’m there.

Why I don’t leave my child’s EpiPens with the hostess

You may be wondering why I don’t drop off my child at birthday parties since I could just train the birthday child’s parents on how to use an EpiPen and leave the medication with them. There are two reasons why I don’t think that’s a good idea, unless the parents have already been trained or have experience with food allergies:

  1. Training someone to use an EpiPen is easy. Knowing when to use it is much, much more complicated. In addition, following through with administering epinephrine is scary, especially for someone who has never given the situation much thought.
  2. The hostess will be busy feeding, entertaining, and cleaning up after a bunch of excited children. She will be distracted and may not realize my child has an issue or is having a reaction.

Because of these reasons and because I think it’s generally an unfair burden to put on the parents while they are celebrating their child’s birthday, I don’t ask the parents to take responsibility for my child’s medications.

Ages 12+: Assuming your child is responsible enough to self-carry and self-inject, you can drop off your child and leave the party venue. Depending on your child’s age and level of responsibility, if you’re allowing your child to eat certain foods at the party, I would have him check ingredients and then I would check behind him. If unsafe foods are being served, remember that it’s safer to have him eat only things you sent with him since cross-contact is an issue.

Birthday Cake

I was never much of a baker until my children were diagnosed with food allergies, but I’ve come to enjoy it. And though picking up a bakery cake for birthday parties is certainly more convenient than making a cake at home, it’s also a lot more expensive. Below are my favorite cake and frosting recipes, as well as the name of a brand of a boxed cake mix that I trust and resources for packaged treats.

Homemade Yellow Cake

Contains wheat. Can substitute safe options for milk and egg as needed.

 Ingredients

  • 3 cups sifted cake flour*
  • 5 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 3/4 cup unsalted butter, room temperature, or non-dairy margarine (such as Earth Balance – we like the one in the red container)
  • 1 1/3 cups sugar
  • 6 egg yolks (or 4 whole eggs) or equivalent egg replacement, such as Ener-G
  • 1 cup milk or milk substitute, such as rice milk
  • 2 tsp vanilla extract

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit
  2. Sift the flour, baking powder, and salt together and set aside
  3. Beat the butter with the mixer set on low until creamy (couple of minutes)
  4. Gradually add the sugar and beat until sort of fluffy—4 or 5 minutes
  5. Beat in the egg and vanilla extract
  6. Alternately add the flour mix and the milk in 3-4 batches, beginning and ending with the flour
  7. Divide between two round and prepped cake pans (9-inch pans, oiled and floured).
  8. Bake for approximately 25 minutes (until a toothpick comes out clean and the middle feels a bit springy)
  9. Cool in the pans around 10 minutes and then remove to wire rack to cool completely before frosting.

Yield: Two 9-inch round cakes or 24 cupcakes.

*If you don’t have cake flour but instead have all-purpose flour you can do one of two things:

  • Use all-purpose flour: use 3 cups of sifted all-purpose flours MINUS 6 tablespoons, or
  • Use all-purpose flour + corn starch: 2.25 cups sifted flour mixed with 6 tablespoons of corn starch

Boxed Mix for Yellow Cake

We trust Cherrybrook Kitchen and have had good results with the yellow cake mix. The mix contains wheat and is free from peanut, nut, dairy, and egg. It doesn’t contain a bunch of preservatives and dyes like other boxed mixes and needs to be mixed with only oil and water.

Yield: One box makes one 9-inch round cake or 12 cupcakes.

Where to buy: Amazon and Whole Foods are my go-to places to find this mix. Sometimes I can find it in the organic/natural food area of other grocers.

Homemade Chocolate Cake

Contains wheat.

Some people call it wacky cake and others call it war or depression cake (the recipe was created during the Great Depression when staples such as eggs were scarce). I call it delicious and allergy-friendly (as long as wheat isn’t an issue).

Adapted from Mary Knipe’s recipe on AllRecipes.com

Ingredients

  • 1-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 4 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 tablespoon vinegar
  • 6 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 cup water

Directions for cake

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit
  2. Sift dry ingredients together into 8 x 8 ungreased cake pan.
  3. Make three depressions. Pour oil into one well, vinegar into second, and vanilla into third. Pour water over all and stir well with fork.
  4. Bake for 30-40 minutes or until toothpick inserted in middle comes out clean.
  5. Frost when completely cooled.

Directions for cupcakes

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit
  2. Mix dry ingredients together in a large bowl.
  3. Add oil, vinegar, vanilla, and water and mix well.
  4. Pour into cupcake pan lined with paper cups.
  5. Bake for 18-22 minutes or until toothpick inserted in middle comes out clean.
  6. Frost when completely cooled.

Yield: One 8 inch x 8 inch cake or 12 cupcakes.

Boxed Mix for Chocolate Cake

We trust Cherrybrook Kitchen but have never tried the chocolate cake mix. The mix contains wheat and is free from peanut, nut, dairy, and egg. It doesn’t contain a bunch of preservatives and dyes like other boxed mixes and needs to be mixed with only oil and water. One box makes one 9-inch round cake or 12 cupcakes.

Yield: One box makes one 9-inch round cake or 12 cupcakes.

Where to buy: Amazon and Whole Foods are my go-to places to find this mix. Sometimes I can find it in the organic/natural food area of other grocers.

Frosting Recipes

Hershey’s Chocolate Frosting

This recipe is our favorite and it’s as sweet as the canned stuff without the preservatives and other chemicals! This recipe is printed on the back label of the Hershey’s unsweetened cocoa container and contains dairy/milk as written. Cow’s milk-free adaptations are my own.

Ingredients

  • ½ cup (1 stick) of butter or non-dairy/soy-free margarine such as Earth Balance (red container)
  • 2/3 cup Hershey’s unsweetened cocoa
  • 3 cups powdered sugar
  • 1/3 cup cow’s or rice milk
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Directions

  1. Melt butter. Stir in cocoa.
  2. Alternately add powdered sugar and milk, beating on medium speed to spreading consistency. Add more milk, if needed.
  3. Stir in vanilla.

Yield: Approximately 2 cups of frosting, enough for 12 cupcakes. Double the recipe if you’re frosting a cake made from two 9-inch round pans like the homemade yellow cake recipe above.

Buttercream Frosting

Contains dairy/milk, but can be made cow’s milk-free with adaptations.

Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup butter, softened, or non-dairy/soy-free margarine such as Earth Balance (red container)
  • 2 cups powdered sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2-4 tablespoons cow’s or rice milk (for spreading, use the greater amount of milk; for piping, use about two tablespoons)

Directions

Beat the butter until creamy. Then beat in the powdered sugar one cup at a time. Add milk a tablespoon at a time until you get the desired consistency. Mix in vanilla.

Yield: About 2 cups of frosting (enough for 12 cupcakes).

Birthday Snacks & Quick Cake-Like Treats

If you need a quick sweet treat or salty snack, check out the Snack Safely Guide. The folks at Snack Safely put together a list of peanut, tree nut, and egg free snacks and keep it updated. (Make sure you always double check ingredients yourself though.)

In a pinch, I’ll pick up a dozen Treasure Mill mini cupcakes—our local Whole Foods usually has them in the cookie aisle—or if the cupcakes aren’t available, I’ve put a glob of homemade chocolate icing on a Treasure Mills Brownie Bar. The brownie bars can be frozen too so that it’s easy to always have them on hand. To thaw, take as many as you need out of the freezer about two hours before they’re needed and let them thaw on the counter in the plastic overwrap.

Tips for Perfectly Frosted Cakes & Cupcakes

I used to fret over frosting layered cakes because I always had difficulty frosting the cake evenly and, worse, getting all the cake crumbs out of the icing. That is, until I learned these ingenious tips for frosting layer cakes:

  1. Put a glob of frosting on the middle of the cake platter and place the first layer. The frosting will help anchor the cake.
  2. Put a generous amount of frosting on the top of the first layer before placing the second layer. Ideally, when you place your second layer and gently press down, the frosting will start to spill over the sides of the cake.
  3. Now put on a generous layer of frosting all over the top and sides and don’t worry about any crumbs.
  4. Refrigerate your cake uncovered for about 10 minutes to firm up the frosting. (Do not put the leftover frosting in the refrigerator yet.)
  5. Remove the cake from the refrigerator and put on a second layer of room-temperature frosting to cover up the crumbs. Violà!

For cupcakes, using a decorating bag makes frosting cupcakes really easy. I use these Wilton disposable bags. No tips are needed. Fill the bag with frosting, push the frosting down toward the pointy end of the bag, twist the bag closed just above the icing and hold it closed, then cut off the tip of the bag. Pipe the frosting onto the cupcakes.

Freezing & Thawing Tips

The next time your child is invited to a birthday party, I recommend baking and frosting 12 cupcakes and freezing 10 of them. The trick is to set the frosted cupcakes on a baking sheet in the freezer for about an hour to freezer the frosting. Then you can carefully transfer the cupcakes to a freezer bag. Or if you have a baking pan with a lid like this one, you can just put the frosted cupcakes in the pan with the lid and stick the whole thing in the freezer.

I write the date, the description (e.g., yellow cake with chocolate frosting), and the allergens they contains (e.g., contains milk, egg, wheat) on a piece of masking tape and attach it to the lid. The cupcakes will stay delicious for 3-4 months.

To thaw, take out the cupcakes you need and let them thaw at room temperature for 2-3 hours before you need them.

Cupcake Tote

OK, you made and frosted beautiful cupcakes and even found some safe sprinkles for extra decoration. Now you need a way to carry the cupcakes to the party without leaving more frosting in the container than what remains on the cupcake. I highly recommend getting cupcake totes like these disposable ones (they can be washed and reused a few times) or this reusable one, which is the ones we use.

Super Mom Tip

Bring more than one cupcake just in case your child’s safe treat ends up on the floor or gets contaminated with unsafe food by another child!

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7 Comments

  1. Congratulations on a really well written post! I love the links the references for us. Okay, silly me was wondering how you would make the cake yellow! With egg yolk of course. Thanks again and keep up the wonderful posting.

    Reply
  2. melissa

    I am making a cake for someone that has peanut allergy, so I am really hoping that this cake rises properly. For some reason I can’t get yellow cakes from scratch to rise, if they do, they end up being really dense and flat. Your directions don’t specify when to add eggs, so I added them after the creaming of butter and sugar. The batter when finished looked really thick and creamy so crossing fingers that it rises well.

    Reply
  3. My question (and I can’t seem to find any blog that addresses it) is what about all the ingredients like the baking soda, salt, the butter, the eggs, granulated sugar, flour, even powdered sugar(I always buy Domino). Do we have to worry about brands with any of these items?? Just wondering, making scratch cupcakes for my DD’s class and send in a list of brands and items used to bake them. Just on a side note, I volunteered to make the class cookies (I have twins so it was about 28 cookies per class) and was so very careful in prep and in ingredients used. I enjoy baking for the class even if there are allergies. I would never want to cause any child even one moment of suffering or their parents for that matter because of any of my mistakes. Sometimes it requires more planning but in this Mom’s opinion it is with love for fellow classmates who got a pretty rotten lot in life not being able to just enjoy these things like the rest of us take for granted and for them I would do anything to help them.

    Reply
    1. You are so nice and empathetic…thank you for trying to include everyone. I will say, as the mom of kids with life-threatening allergies, that I do not let my kids accept home baked food from other people’s kitchens unless I know that they completely understand label reading AND cross-contact. If you are baking, for example, for an egg-allergic child, but you do not maintain an egg-free kitchen, you need to be extra cautious to ensure every surface, utensil, bowl, sponge, towel, and your hands are completely clean and free from egg during prep, baking, and storage of the items. This can be tricky…think about, for example, your mixer. I know I don’t always wipe down my stand mixer where the attachment engages to the mixer. It’s a slim possibility that egg could contaminate what’s below, but there is a chance.

      And, to answer your question, yes, you need to be concerned with every raw ingredient and must ensure it’s safe for the kids you’re baking for. I know that many Walmart brands are not safe; even the baking soda has a “may contain peanuts” warning on it! If you stick with the big name brands and read each label carefully for both ingredients and allergen statements and avoid anything that mentions the allergen (even “made in a facility that processes ______”), it *should* be safe. But, again, the complexity of reading and understanding labels makes most parents who have kids with *severe* food allergies reluctant to accept baked goods from other parents. It’s not that we don’t trust you, it’s that we’ve made our share of mistakes and have had close calls in the past that make this rule necessary.

      Again, thank you for being so empathetic!

      Reply

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