When you're younger, it's easy to host friends for playdates. Parents or babysitters encourage shoes to come off and hands to be washed upon arrival, and a safe snack is served for everyone. You can keep everyone contained to a playroom or kitchen, while wearing their dirty school clothes, and still within sight. Everyone is safe in the comfort of your own home, and the risk is low.
Things start to get a little trickier when there are birthday slumber parties at someone else's home or something really cool is going on at a friend's house, and the party can't be brought to you.
Whenever I went to friends' houses, my mom and I had a system. If she read the ingredients on something, and it was safe, there would be a tiny check mark on the corner of the box. I never ate anything new, and usually my mom would recommend a few safe snack brands or the local allergy friendly bakery. It was a little signal of safety for me so I could eat a snack I'd had a million times before with comfort and confidence. I always had backup food packed in my school backpack, just in case.
My closest friends had many boxes in their cabinets labeled with those check marks. That way, I could keep some of the spontaneity that should go along with a normal childhood.
Sleepovers were a little trickier. I never went to sleep away camp, and wasn't very good at being away from my mom. The sleepovers often started after dinner, because the risk of cross contamination in someone else's home proved to be too great. Plus, if I was going to stay the night somewhere, it was easier to drop me off well fed and 100% allergen free.
If I was close with the family whose home I was sleeping at, I felt safer and like the parent really knew me. I was confident that even if I was sleeping, that parent would be able to tell if I was having an allergic reaction. But if it was a newer friend, the sleepover often just ended as a very long playdate, with a late night phone call for my parents to please come pick me up.
And then you go to college. The thing with college is a lot of hanging out occurs in dorm rooms; and dorm rooms are tiny, consisting of a desk and a bed. Your bed is where you eat, sleep, and hang out. It also should be where you let your guard down and can relax about your allergens. This requires being vigilant, especially in your own room.
Until I went to college, I wasn't really much of a bed maker. Once I got there, I realized people drop by unannounced all the time, and I wanted my room to look nice. I always had an extra blanket that I kept on top of my comforter. This was so people could sit and I could be a "normal student" without grilling them about when they were last in the dining hall. Then, when I was going to bed, I would fold up that blanket at the bottom of my bed, so the blankets touching my face were nice and clean.
I also would always sit on my bed, closest to my pillows, so there was no risk about anything coming in contact with my face once I was going to sleep. Falling asleep isn't exactly the best time to be worried about exposure to your allergen.
The picture below is from my dorm room my junior year, and there are a couple of things worth noticing. One, is that blanket I mentioned, folded up at the bottom of my bed. The next items are the disposable plates and utensils. These were especially helpful when friends would be eating with me. I didn't have to worry about making sure my utensils were extra clean after they used them, and could just throw them out when we were done. The last thing, is the microwave fridge unit. There was a company at my school you could rent it from, and they put it in your room prior to the first day of school and then removed it on the last. Something that was awesome about this, was there was a form where you could note if you had any food allergies. Based on your allergies, the company would provide you with a brand new unit so you did not need to worry about previous allergen exposure.
Navigating social situations is tough, and definitely gets easier as you get more comfortable with the people around you. Of course, that's one of the reasons going to college is so challenging. You're starting over with a whole new group of friends! Hopefully, as more people come to understand food allergies, there will be less of an explanation required. But for now, we have our own personal protocols in place that help us feel just a little bit safer.