Living With Food Allergies

12 Tips for Avoiding Cross-Contact of Food Allergens

Foods that cause allergic reactions are called allergens. Even a tiny amount of an allergen can cause a reaction. Allergic reactions usually occur after your child eats a food that she or he is allergic to.

Precautions You Should Take to Avoid Allergic Reactions

Some parents choose to completely eliminate all food allergens from their homes. Others, especially those whose children have many food allergies, do not make this choice. If you choose to allow allergens in your house, you run the risk that those foods will "contaminate" your home and your safe foods. This is known as cross contact.

Cross-contact occurs when a food allergen comes in contact with food or an item not intended to contain that allergen. Small traces of allergens can cause allergic reactions.

There are several precautions you should take to avoid food mix-ups and accidental cross-contact.

Label Foods in Your Home as "Safe" or "Not Safe"

To ensure everyone (including your children, visitors, babysitters, etc.) can determine which foods in your home are "safe", it can be helpful to label the food in your pantry, refrigerator and freezer. A convenient way to do this is to use red and green circle-shaped stickers. You can buy these types of stickers or make your own. The red stickers are for the unsafe foods and the green are for the safe foods (i.e., "red" means "stop" and "green" means "go"). Apply these stickers to every food item in your house.

Avoid Pantry Mix-Ups

If you have both "safe" and "unsafe" versions of similar items (like soy milk and cow’s milk) in your home, do not store these products next to each other. Designate particular shelves or cabinets for storing the "safe" foods. Avoid purchasing items that look similar to each other.

Avoid Sippy Cup Mix-Ups

If your toddler is allergic to milk, buy a "special" sippy cup to use both at home and away from home. This cup is never used for anyone else. Put your child’s name on it. Once you put the lid on the average sippy cup you cannot see the contents. Having a special cup that is always used ensures that your child doesn’t grab the wrong cup by mistake.

Avoid Contaminating Your Food Supply

If you keep both "safe" and "unsafe" foods in your household, you need to take steps prevent cross-contact:

  • Hands – Teach everyone to wash their hands with soap and water before touching safe foods. Their hands could have allergens on them and they could make a safe food become unsafe.

  • Utensils – Do not allow allergen-covered utensils to touch your "safe" foods. For example, if a knife used on butter gets inserted into a jar of jam, the jam is no longer safe for a dairy-allergic individual to eat. If you spread butter on wheat bread toast and then dip your knife into the butter again, the butter will now contain traces of wheat.
  • Countertops and other surfaces – Teach everyone to clean all surfaces after preparing food and to clean countertops before preparing food.  Countertops could have traces of allergens on them.  Food prepared on an unclean countertop can result in cross contact with allergens.

Avoid Getting Allergenic Residue All Over the House

If you allow food allergens in your home, you need to prevent allergen residue from getting all over the house. Teach all members of your household to always wash their hands with soap and water immediately after touching or eating allergens. Consider confining all food consumption to your kitchen and dining areas. Otherwise, crumbs and traces will get onto your carpets, furniture, toys and other surfaces.

Don't Forget Your Guests

When friends arrive, politely ask them (and their children) to wash their hands with soap and water. If your friends have infants, you may need to take precautions to avoid spit up on your carpets or furniture. The food, formula, or breast milk that is spit up is likely to be allergenic, and will get on surfaces your child may touch. Set down a clean blanket for babies to protect carpet or furniture.

Take Precautions When Cooking

Take steps to avoid cross-contact with allergens during the cooking or serving process:

  • If you are preparing both “safe” and “unsafe” food for the same meal, prepare the safe meal first.
  • Do not use the same utensils to prepare allergenic and non-allergenic dishes.
  • Place utensils, plates and cutting boards  directly into the sink or the dishwasher immediately after use. Teach your family that soiled items in the sink or dishwasher are not safe to use until they have been properly washed.
  • If you use a barbecue, be sure to fully clean the grill before cooking for your child. Consider using foil or a clean grill pan to prepare foods for your child.

Take Care to Wash Dishes

Wash pans, utensils and dishes in hot, sudsy water before using them to prepare food for someone with food allergies. It is best to rinse off dirty dishes and utensils before loading them into your dishwasher. This prevents stray bits of dried allergens from sticking to your clean dishes.


Reviewed by medical advisors July 2014.