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‘I’m Allergic to the Birthday Cake My Co-workers Gave Me!’

Photo: The Cut

Dear Boss,

I have very severe and specific tree nut/sesame allergies. I’ve been hospitalized because of cross contamination, so I have a fair amount of anxiety around this. 

My rule of thumb for survival is “If I didn’t order it, I don’t eat it,” which makes eating food at work really hard. My co-workers REALLY want me to participate in team doughnuts or the granola yogurt bar at meetings. I’m never comfortable eating with them because the risk is enormously high. I get a lot of “Here, have a slice!” “Why aren’t you in the kitchen with us?” and “You’re not going to take anything?” I’m worried I seem antisocial in these celebratory moments by not eating. 

If I say, “I have a food allergy,” my co-workers typically want to know more about it or ask for reassurance that it’s totally okay for them to eat it themselves. This makes me feel like I’m receiving unwanted attention. It also misdirects the reason for the food being there. (Birthday! Babies! Wins!) Some people don’t remember that I’ve mentioned my allergy in the past, which makes me feel like I’m that person who’s always talking about it. 

On one particularly awful occasion, someone bought a nutty cake for my birthday, unaware that I’m allergic, and I faked eating it out of pure anxiety for making a scene. 

Am I being unnecessarily awkward? Should I just take the food and not eat it? I don’t want to talk about my allergy anymore, and I truly don’t expect people to accommodate me. I’m used to it.  

People get very, very invested in other people’s food choices.

Allergies aside, in some offices, if you’re eating cake or a burger, you’ll hear annoying comments like you’re “being naughty” by eating so much sugar or “it must be nice to be able to eat that.” If you’re eating a salad, you’re “being good” and also “deserve a chocolate bar.” If you’re vegetarian, it’s “but meat is so good — don’t you miss steak?” And on and on.

But allergies are in some ways the worst. Some people will question you until they can find something you’ll eat (which no doubt stems from kindness and a desire to include you but is often unwelcome). Some people will want to know the precise details of your allergies and exactly what happens to you if you encounter your allergen, and some will want to tell you about how their cousin had that same allergy but then they were cured with essential oils and milkshakes, and some will express horror at how you can possibly avoid that food because they’re sure they never could. And that’s before we get into the people who don’t really believe food allergies exist and try to get you to eat food with “just a little” of your allergen in it.

Humans, man. We’re exhausting.

Ideally, you’d simply be able to say, “No thanks, I’m allergic” and that would be that. Sure, people who want to be polite might still ask if there’s something else they can get for you to eat, but you could say no and everyone would move on. But as you’ve noted, that’s not happening.

There’s no perfect answer that will shut this down entirely and forever, but there are approaches that will minimize the annoyance. The most useful is being resolutely, unshakably vague, followed by a quick subject change. For example, you could say, “No thanks! Allergies.” When the other person presses you about your food choices, you say, “Oh, it’s long and boring! By the way, did you see the new plans for the Warbucks account?”

Often what people want is assurance that you’re okay — that you’re not starving or resentful. If you’re getting that vibe, you can say, “Oh, I’m fine! I ate beforehand. Go ahead and enjoy it!” In this case, you skip mentioning allergies altogether, so it’s a nonissue.

But I hear you on not wanting to seem chilly by hanging back when others are celebrating. Sometimes just having something in front of you will take care of that. It shouldn’t be a slice of the cake you know you won’t eat — you don’t need to go that far, and it risks muddying the message when later you might need people to understand and respect the allergy situation. Just holding a beverage can check off the “she’s got something to consume” box in people’s minds. Or, if it’s not a huge pain, another option is to bring in your own food on days when you know communal eating is going to happen.

All this said, if you’re on a team that shares food on a regular basis, over time you might need to say a little more. Thoughtful teams will want to include you and are likely to ask how they can do that, figuring that there’s probably something they can order for you. If there’s anywhere that delivers to your office with options you would feel safe eating, it’s okay to suggest it. Some offices will happily do special orders when people have specific dietary needs, so don’t feel weird about taking them up on the offer. Or, if you’re more comfortable placing your order directly so there’s no risk of its being messed up by the person placing it, it’s also reasonable to say, “I really appreciate your offer! My allergies are so severe that I’ve found I should only eat something if I order it directly. Would it be okay for me to place the order myself so no one else has to worry about it?” (In this scenario, the company still covers the cost — you’re just doing the legwork.)

But if none of those options work well and it’s easier for you to simply opt out of eating at these events, it might help to say to the people who will notice it a lot, “I’ll probably never eat the food when we do this because of allergies. Please don’t worry about me, though — I’m happy to participate without the food, and I’ll eat beforehand or afterward.” Then if you get more questions, you can use the “it’s a long and boring story” language above.

Also! So that you never again fake-eat a cake someone makes for you, it’s completely okay to say, “This is incredibly nice of you. Thank you! I’m actually allergic to nuts so I can’t eat it, but I’m so moved that you did this, and I would be happy to sit with you and others while they enjoy it.” In other words, be warm but factual, and try to honor the intent (“Let’s gather and enjoy the moment”) without faking your way through it.

And here’s a call for everyone else out there to remember that people with dietary restrictions get very, very tired of questions about it, and it’s a kindness to let people state their needs and then move on.

Order Alison Green’s book Ask a Manager: Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work here. Got a question for her? Email Her advice column appears here every Tuesday.

‘I’m Allergic to the Birthday Cake My Co-workers Gave Me!’