How to Plan an Allergy-Friendly Party at a Play Place

Allergy-Mom finds her Inner Party-Mama

My son is turning 6 years old in a few weeks and has asked to have his birthday at a play place. I was partially relieved, because I currently don’t have the time or creative energy to plan anything more elaborate. I was looking forward to bringing a meal, allowing kids to run wild for 2 hours, then going home.

I thought that booking a play place party would be straight forward, but the need to manage food allergies has added some unexpected complexities… To my surprise, many of the birthday party packages included pizza in the price of the party, and many places don’t allow outside food in their facilities. While the added pizza is likely a selling point for many people looking for a turnkey solution to party planning, this actually became the biggest hurdle for me. My son is allergic to dairy, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts and wheat, so serving pizza and not having the ability to bring our own food is completely out of the question.

It’s a special day, and possibly the only day of the year, that he is able to share a meal with all of his friends.

I contacted two venues I was interested in and asked if they would be able to accommodate my son’s food allergies by allowing me to serve my own food at his party – note that I did not ask for a discounted party rate for waiving the pizza option.

In one case, the party packages allowed a choice between pizza or hot dogs, and the manager was willing to allow me to bring my own hot dogs and buns, but asked me not to tell anyone about it, as their no outside food policy is strictly enforced. Hmmm … the idea of sneaking in our food stressed me out, and it didn’t actually feel like an accommodation.

In another instance, I received the following e-mail back from the Events Department of a popular facility in the city when I asked them if I could waive the pizza option and serve my own food:

“As for food, unfortunately we do not allow any outside food or drinks inside the facility. We do have a Catering Menu that we offer in case you want to have extra food for your party. For your child who has severe allergies, you can bring in a separate food portioned just for him if you want.”

I had to read it a few times because I couldn’t believe it. Were they actually suggesting that I pack a lunch for my child and have him excluded from the main meal at his own birthday party? I was upset and angry. I wanted to just delete the e-mail and move on, but I felt a stronger duty to educate the staff about what it’s like to live with food allergies and to speak to the owners about being more flexible in their food policy.

After I sent an e-mail explaining my disappointment, the owner called me back the same afternoon. I explained that allowing my son to bring a portion of food to eat would’ve been fine if he were attending someone else’s party, but at his own birthday party, it’s a special day, and possibly the only day of the year, that he is able to share a meal with all of his friends. It was a good conversation, and by the end of the call the owner had completely understood the reasons why outside food accommodations were sometimes necessary, and had given me permission to serve my own food.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking over the past weeks about empathy, compassion and accommodations. The fact is that people who are not impacted by food allergies in their lives just don’t understand food allergies, and they don’t need to. This makes it difficult for them to show empathy or make appropriate accommodations. Food allergies are still a relatively new phenomenon, and the best thing we can do is to reach out and educate as many people as possible, especially during difficult situations.

That said, selecting and booking a party venue wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be, simply because I had food allergies to consider.

Here are some tips to consider when selecting an allergy-friendly party venue at a play place.

  1. Book a venue that allows you to bring your own allergy-friendly meal and allows ample time for set up.
  2. Don’t let “No Outside Food” policies deter you from considering a play place. Make sure to call and explain your situation to a manager to see if accommodations can be made.
  3. Ask specific questions and find out details that can help make set up seamless. For example, you might want to know if there is a plug in the party room in case you want to bring a slow cooker, warming dish or radio.
  4. Private use of the play place is ideal. This can help to minimize risks of exposure to other kids that could have allergens on their hands, face or clothing.
  5. Visit the venue before booking. Take note of the overall cleanliness of the play place.
  6. Beware of ball pits or foam pits, as they are difficult to clean regularly and allergens, germs and other surprises are most likely lurking at the bottom of the pit.
  7. Talk to the manager about their cleaning schedule. It might be a good idea to book the first party of the day if the play structure gets  a more thorough cleaning overnight.
  8. Upon arrival, assign a responsible adult to walk through the entire play structure and check for any food, spills or candy wrappers.
  9. Introduce yourself and your child to all relevant staff members, especially the person assigned to host your party. Make sure they are aware of your child’s food allergies. Ask them politely to wash their hands before serving or touching any food in case they came in to contact with allergens before the party.
  10. As with everything, be gracious and appreciative of everyone that helps make your child’s birthday a safe and happy occasion.