Precautions when cooking for someone with a milk allergy?
May 14, 2019 10:47 PM   Subscribe

I will cook for several guests, one of whom has a milk allergy. I'd like to offer him some precautions that I can take in order to keep him alive, but I don't really know my options. Possibilities inside?

Stuff I can do:

- Serve meals as a buffet of ingredients (e.g., salad bar, taco bar, etc.) so that he can assemble a meal without dairy ingredients.
- Run my tools and containers through the dishwasher to avoid cross-contamination from my usual cooking (where I use dairy ingredients liberally).
- Handle the dairy ingredients last in my prep, to avoid cross-contamination during prep.
- Let him go through the buffet line first, before people have cross-contaminated the serving utensils.
- Serve the dairy ingredients on a separate table with labelled utensils, to reduce splatter and discourage utensil sharing.
- Announce that we've got a guest with a milk allergy.
- ??? Other suggestions welcome.

Stuff I can't really do:

- Designate a dairy-free work area.
- Buy new tools and containers and use them only for dairy-free work.
- Prepare, plate, and garnish his meal separately from a special mise dedicated to dairy-free dishes.

I guess at some level I'm asking, how much of a commercial kitchen's allergen protocol is overkill for domestic cooking?

Regarding the severity of his allergy: I think so far he has never experienced anaphylaxis, but he does carry epinephrine around.
posted by meaty shoe puppet to Food & Drink (23 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Are you able to chat to your guest beforehand? When I've been in a similar situation, the person I've been cooking for has always been more than happy to give advice on the best way to accommodate their allergy.
posted by cholly at 11:15 PM on May 14 [17 favorites]

I've done what you are planning to do regularly (for different allergies), with no complaints.

And in some cases I've planned the meal around the allergy, just for the challenge, but also because I'd find that easier to do than to police all containers and utensils all the time. There is such an abundance of great vegan recipes out there, and you can even do a meat dish as well. Look at kosher meat menus. Or look at Asian foods, where dairy isn't a thing.

In the weekend I made this stew: BRAISED PORK CHEEKS WITH PALO CORTADO SHERRY from Saveur, and served it with a regular lettuce salad with a vinaigrette and homemade bread. In retrospect, I think a salad with oranges, olives and fennel would have been even better. And a store-bought fruit sherbet with cantuccini for dessert. It wasn't even planned to be dairy free, it just came out that way.
posted by mumimor at 12:16 AM on May 15 [3 favorites]

I have a serious dairy allergy and think that you probably want to make a dairy free meal. For your own sanity and for theirs.

You should definitely do everything you have said except the announcement, which I would find really embarrassing and not helpful. People really aren’t going to know what you mean by it. The allergic person will keep an eye out for cross-contaminated serving utensils.

If you are going to be cooking dairy in a small-ish kitchen at the same time that you’re cooking this person’s meal, honestly, if I were them, I would not eat your food. You sound quite experienced so it might not be an issue, but I absolutely do not trust people not to use the same cutting board, cooking utensils between pots, keep things completely separate while cooking, etc. And, again, for your own sanity do you really want to be in a situation where you use the utensil in the wrong pot and then you can’t use that food? ( I never want to put someone in the position of having to dump out the big pot of food just because of me! So that is my bias.)

Similarly, I’m not sure what you mean about not being able to plate and garnish something separately, but if you do a buffet, I guess that shouldn’t be an issue? I would maybe not want someone handling dairy, plating dairy, and garnishing/plating my food at the same time. I’m trying to imagine what you mean by that and some things would bug me and some would be fine. Sprinkling chopped parsley on a bunch of plates, whatever. Wiping plates, ladling sauces in a way that touches the food, sprinkling cheese on top—nope.

Generally, this is why I don’t eat at other people’s houses, but if I were, I’d want a dairy-free kitchen for the duration of the cooking process. I really just do not trust people to be as careful as they think they are, or to really be able to internalize cross-contamination as an issue if they’ve never dealt with it before. So no dairy in the meal at all is my vote. Even if you do a great job and are perfect, this person has no way to know that, and seeing that a meal is dairy heavy will make it stressful for them to get the dairy – free version. Less so with the buffet! But it is still something that would keep me from being able to enjoy myself completely. Which sucks for both of you if you have put so much effort into cooking something nice and safe.

Tl;dr, if you can make a buffet that’s decent and dairy free, you might as well go all the way and just leave dairy out to make this person as comfortable and safe as possible. That would be easier and better than going through all this hassle IMO.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 4:31 AM on May 15 [24 favorites]

Whenever I have a guest with dietary restrictions* (religious, allergic, preference - they’re all treated the same by me) I just don’t include the avoided items on the table. This way, Susan can’t take a giant scoop of pork or sour cream or shellfish and then jam that serving utensil into a dish of chicken or guacamole or tilapia. I let the person or people with preferences know what’s in the menu and ask if there’s anything I’ve forgotten. And ya, I’ve been reminded, please don’t cook the ____ in _____, use something like ______ instead.’

Your allergic guests don’t complain because they’re socially trained to expect to hear ‘but I triiiiiied.’ (As a side note, folks observing religious abstention are also mocked about food, and allergic folks are often accused of faking to enforce a mere preference.)

*except CSA season when we put out a spread of that days prepped veggies and people build their own salads. Whether you like cucumbers or not I still have six. If you’re allergic to veggies this is not an event for you and there are no hard feelings about it, I hope.
posted by bilabial at 5:10 AM on May 15 [4 favorites]

Yeah, I was reminded by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9's comment, there are a lot of people including close friends and family who's food I won't eat because I don't trust they will respect my own allergy issues. I can see you are really considerate, but unfortunately some people aren't and that will make people with dietary restrictions careful when they visit a new place.
I guess friends trust me because they know I am allergic (and I make sure to tell that to new guests, too)

So just go diary-free. It isn't a hard challenge compared to some other allergies/other diet restrictions.
posted by mumimor at 5:48 AM on May 15 [2 favorites]

I can see you are really considerate, but unfortunately some people aren't and that will make people with dietary restrictions careful when they visit a new place.

Yeah, and add this to people who are trying really really hard, but just make an honest mistake, and it's a lot. My bestie (who I lived with for years when we were dating) still sometimes makes mistakes and he is a great cook, was vegan for years, etc. I trust him to cook for me but I still nose around and ask questions, which you can't really politely do in a group cooking setting, making them stressful.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 5:53 AM on May 15 [3 favorites]

I have a lot of food allergy and sensitivity issues. The precautions you're describing would work for me, especially if I got my food first (this is a HUGE thing, to get a shot at the food before someone contaminates something unthinkingly). I think you should talk to your friend and run these by them, and see if this will work for them, because different things are different for different people and letting them know what you're going to do to keep them safe can make a lot of difference to their comfort level.

Great question, and I hope you and your guest can come to something that works for both of you!
posted by bile and syntax at 6:17 AM on May 15 [1 favorite]

Reach out and ask. If they carry around epinephrine that's pretty extreme. They may not even want to be in the same room with people eating dairy. A buffet with some foods that may kill me? Generally my advice with food allergies is not to worry too much and let the person sort it out themselves, but in the case I would consider going to the other extreme and be very cautious. Also, don't be surprised if he's planning on bringing his own food.
posted by xammerboy at 6:18 AM on May 15 [1 favorite]

To reiterate, yes, I will discuss with him beforehand. But I'd like to go into that conversation with some reasonable and effective options to offer him. It's possible that while he knows more about allergies, I know more about cooking and cooking for groups.
posted by meaty shoe puppet at 6:29 AM on May 15

The last time I asked about how to handle a serious food allergy here on the green, the advice I got was WAY different, and directly contradictory, to what I got from the mother of the celiac child when I asked her straight. FYI.

I really think you just need to ask the guy. For instance people telling you to not serve any dairy to anyone -- he may be absolutely mortified at that. (Or maybe he'll be very appreciative.) He's an adult who navigates this stuff all the time: just ask him.
posted by fingersandtoes at 6:36 AM on May 15 [3 favorites]

For instance people telling you to not serve any dairy to anyone -- he may be absolutely mortified at that.

Not to argue, as I agree that you shouldn't announce it or make it a big deal. However, I don't see anyone being mortified at simply being served a meal that happens to not have dairy in it, though. This may be different if you eat a dairy-centric cuisine in which dairy is commonly in every single dish and its absence will be notable. But plenty of people are "paleo" now or whatever and it's not a huge thing to make, e.g., a roast with veggie and potato sides and no dairy.

The other thing about asking directly is that there is a huge social pressure to be okay with anyhing. It puts people with allergies in a difficult spot. It is sort of like being asked if you're okay with someone's dog jumping all over you. It's their dog and you don't want to be a jerk even if you hate it.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 6:44 AM on May 15 [5 favorites]

It's possible that while he knows more about allergies, I know more about cooking and cooking for groups.

Then you'll also know there are plenty of meals to be made that are entirely dairy free. If the allergy is as serious as it sounds, I wouldn't risk it. A dairy-free meal won't compromise food quality. It's not like you need to announce the very strange meal you're serving is due to an allergy -- just....pick a menu with no dairy. I doubt anyone would notice.
posted by missmary6 at 6:59 AM on May 15 [23 favorites]

The advantage of not serving any dairy is that it is simple for both you and your guest, and will make him feel welcome and included. It's just nice.

Apart from Jewish and Asian food traditions, North African food has a lot of good dairy-free recipes that are easy to cook for many people, and also not too expensive to make, if that is an issue. From my experience traveling in Morocco and visiting people at home, many authentic dishes are not very hot (they serve the harissa on the side, dissolved in broth, and you can almost always choose between hot and sweet merguez), so it's a cuisine most people can find something to like from at a buffet. MarocMama is an American blogger in Morocco, and though her site is not easy to navigate, her recipes are good. I mainly use an ancient cookbook on North African cooking that I can't find online, but if you have the time to get a book, look at the Moro cookbook. It's more generally Mediterranean, but you'll find tons of inspiration.

And over on the most recent cake ask, there is a good looking olive oil cake that I will try this coming weekend.
posted by mumimor at 7:15 AM on May 15 [3 favorites]

I guess I'm not clear as to why you wouldn't just make a meal that doesn't include any dairy.

Beyond that, I'd suggest reaching out to the person with the allergy to find out what sorts of things you need to do in addition to preparing all the food dairy-free to keep things safe for him. When I have cooked for a friend with a severe fish allergy, it was sufficient for me to thoroughly wash all cooking utensils, cookware and place setting items, and to spray down my wood cutting boards with a mild bleach solution. Your friend ought to be able to provide you with all the information you will need. On the other hand, I have a friend whose partner has celiac disease and in the final analysis she just didn't know me well enough to trust that I would be able to avoid cross-contamination and decided not to have dinner at my home. Personally, if you are an experienced cook with good sanitation protocols, I would feel secure if I explained my needs and you were preparing a dairy-free meal. I would not feel secure if dairy items were also prepared and served to others as part of this meal. On the other hand, your friend may feel differently. Only one way to find out.
posted by slkinsey at 7:35 AM on May 15 [4 favorites]

If he's contamination-level allergic, just make a dairy-free meal - something that is extremely easy to do - and give him the gift of less anxiety. And it does not matter how much you know about cooking: his boundaries are the most important thing, you don't get to decide what is and isn't okay.

Do ask if dishwasher-washing all your tools and cutting surfaces, plus counter wipe-down with a typical cleaner, will be safe enough. It probably will be, otherwise he likely would opt out of eating in non-vegan homes in the first place. But if your kitchen is clean and you simply don't put dairy or casein-containing products in your meal, the risk is just so much lower that he will inadvertently cross paths with it.
posted by Lyn Never at 7:49 AM on May 15 [8 favorites]

If this were me, and it was a person that I did not feel comfortable asking before the event (in order to avoid embarrassing them), then I would serve a dairy-free meal, and inquire casually at the event, once said person has been served, about the severity of their allergies, and about kitchen / food-handling practices. That way you can learn for the next time, while not having put the person on the spot beforehand and causing them to worry that they are troubling you.
posted by vignettist at 8:25 AM on May 15 [1 favorite]

I’ve witnessed an anaphylactic reaction to milk at a play date in someone else’s home and I just thought I would echo the dairy-free meal recommendation. Nothing wrecks an evening like a 911 call and even if it’s overkill, it can be kind of fun to set that meal planning challenge.
posted by warriorqueen at 8:27 AM on May 15 [8 favorites]

I agree with just making the meal dairy free. I can’t imagine wanting to put a friend in a possibly dangerous situation just for the ability to use calf juice. Endless possibilities, and you will be the best host to your guests, which, I imagine, is the goal.
posted by MountainDaisy at 8:47 AM on May 15 [1 favorite]

+1 to please just create a serve a dairy free meal, and confirm with the attendee the level of pre-cooking sanitation that needs to happen. I'm happy to provide a variety of recipes if needed.

Also, it's not really mentioned here, but please be sure to thoroughly check your ingredient lists of anything that is premade/pre-packaged/not made 100% from scratch. Thankfully dairy is one of the Top 8 allergens that are often reported on products, but not all products report all of their allergens. Dairy products appear in weird/surprising places, and under weird names.

Just because the attendee carries an epi-pen, doesn't mean the allergy is low risk. The most dangerous part of food allergies is they can go from low intolerance level to anaphylactic in a very short period of time.
posted by RhysPenbras at 8:50 AM on May 15

+1 for making a dairy free meal that everyone can enjoy.

Ethiopian food has SO many delicious, dairy free dishes like Safflower FitFit, Alicha Siga Be Atakilt (Beef with Carrots and Potatoes), all sorts of lentil and split pea stews (some spicy, some not), potato/carrot/onion dishes, etc.

If you'd rather not tackle making injera (it has a steep learning curve), many Ethiopian restaurants will sell 10 pieces or more of injera to go.
posted by jeanmari at 9:17 AM on May 15

Here to provide perspective as a person with a serious food allergy, though not to dairy. If I was attending an event where a home cooked meal was being by someone I didn’t already explicitly trust to cook safely, I would either proactively reach out to the cook, be prepared to not eat certain things or to just decline and say that I already ate etc. If I don’t know the cook well enough that they know how to cook for me safely, I would be quite embarrassed to have a “special” allergen-free meal made just for me - while thoughtful, it’s a lot of extra effort and would invite questions from other dinner party guests about why I’m having a “special” meal. Also, diverting to other dairy-free cuisines like Asian or African can open up another set of allergen/dietary issues, such as my particular allergy, so just picking another type of food to cook isn’t as easy as it sounds.

Also, please note that the OP never stated that the person in question is their friend. They may very well be a friend, but could also be a business contact or a plus one.
posted by lovelygirl at 9:30 AM on May 15

Having someone take your allergy absolutely seriously when cooking is a rare bit of dignity and respect. We are the only outside place several of our friends will eat because we make meals without the contaminating ingredients. If they’re coming to the dinner party, we’re not using wheat/corn/dairy/nuts. Frankly, I expected your “more inside” to be asking what ingredients might secretly be dairy so you could avoid them. Even if you know more about cooking and more about cooking for groups, that doesn’t mean you know more about cooking allergen safe foods.

There are many buffet worthy foods that don’t have dairy, and it’s unlikely anyone would miss it. Salad with burrito bar (set out guacamole and no one will miss the cheese) and pan potatoes.
posted by stoneweaver at 9:33 AM on May 15 [2 favorites]

I recently attended a catered event that was entirely vegan. It was delicious, festive, hearty and elegant. For example there was a beet-walnut puree, mushrooms on toast, the chef's playful interpretations of tofu spring rolls with all kinds of julienned bits inside, vegan stuffed peppers with rice... all perfect for a buffet and never felt that the chef was limiting their creativity or that the guests were limited in any way in their fun, delicious, filling eating experience. If someone with a dairy allergy were being accommodated -- and I've no idea -- it was a non-issue, which is what you want.
posted by nantucket at 9:34 AM on May 15 [1 favorite]

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