As someone with a severe food allergy, I understand from the kid’s perspective how terrifying birthday parties, buffets, and school lunches can be.
I’m sure it is 100% worse to be the parent: letting your allergic child fly from the nest.
But you can take very specific steps to help your child survive out in the world, without your constant supervision.
As parents, we teach our kids through repetition and examples to stay away from electric outlets, hot stoves, open flames, and strangers. Why not foods to avoid?
Start easy. Show your preschooler or kindergarten child pictures of their trigger food.
Say: This is peanut butter, it makes you sick. Don’t eat it!
Repeat this with other pictures of peanuts, peanut butter, or foods that might be unsafe until you feel confident that your kiddo can recognize and avoid these foods.
There all sorts of products out there to help adults identify your child as someone with a serious allergy. From bracelets to cards, if you need it you can buy it.
I like AllerMates and MedicAlert medical alert bracelets. Both companies offer a variety of bracelets and accessories, with charms and colorful tags that make wearing their medical info on their arms fun. The bracelets are mostly bright colors, and are noticeable with medical images that draw attention.
Another great choice is a cue card that can be tucked into pants pockets, backpacks, or over night bags.
You can teach a small child to find the card and hand it to the adult in charge as soon as they get to their event. This is pretty easy to create in Microsoft Word or another program. They are easy to either laminate and reuse OR to just handout like business cards to be one-time use items.
For kids with food allergies, this is especially true. Knowing what their trigger foods are, and how to spell and read those words is crucial.
I can’t tell you how many times I have been about to purchase a food item that seemed “safe,” but stopped to read the label and realized that it contained dairy.
Reading might also offer up new food options! So many of the creamy salad dressings I crave are actually mayo based, one of my safe foods.
Once a child can read and recognize their allergy words, it gives them ownership and freedom. Suddenly, they can make their own food choices! Woohoo!
But this works only if they use it. They must read new food labels all the time. Even labels of “safe” foods should be revisited every few months to check for changes, since brands reformulate their recipes all the time.
Kids must also be taught to carefully read restaurant menus and to speak up if they have questions. I can’t tell you how many times I have skimmed a menu and ordered, only to find I missed the “creamy dressing” or “Swiss cheese.”
It’s embarrassing, and easily corrected, but it is equally easy to avoid these mistakes through careful reading and questioning. Or even straight up avoidance. I now avoid everything that hints at cream, milk, or rich sauce.
And I always double check that cheese is not included with my sandwiches and burgers.
Give a Call
For situations where you think your child might slip beneath the radar, like a crazy birthday party, a trip with another family, or other hectic event where you will not be present, alerting the adult or adults in charge is a great fall back.
If you want to see how responsible your child is, you might call on the sly to give the heads up about your child’s allergy.
Give just the basics: “Johnny is allergic to tree nuts and peanuts. He needs to avoid these foods. He cannot eat fried foods due to peanut oil in the fry-o-laters, he cannot have PB&J sandwiches, and should avoid popcorn treats due to cross contamination.”
Ask if they have any questions or concerns, and be honest with your answers. Finally, ask if they would prefer if you sent, or dropped off beforehand, a comparable snack that you know is safe to eat.
Another approach it to have the same conversation with the adult in charge, but let your child know that you are calling to alert the other parent/adult to the allergy. See if there is anything that your child wants you to include in the discussion, and honor that.
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, or so they say. When a child is quite young, you need to be that prevention.
Scheduling a discussion with your child’s teacher or school administrator prior to their first day to talk about allergy precautions is a simple way to help everyone. The school and teacher want to know specifics, and you can tell them exactly what to do.
With this knowledge, they can create safety plans: allergen free classrooms, no nuts lunch tables, or even ban the allergen from the school completely if the allergy is severe enough or there are enough kiddos with a similar allergy.
Another great idea is to provide your child’s teacher with a safe snack pack. Load up a large resealable bag or fabric grocery sack with “safe” foods. This way, any time that there is a snack time in school or unscheduled food related event, your child is able to be included.
Many teachers will do this on their own for kids with allergies. Just think how much she will ADORE you if you showed up on day 1 with a pre-made go bag for her! This is less money that she is spending out of her paycheck, and now she won’t worry that even the carefully selected snacks might set off a reaction.
Bottom Line: The world is not allergy safe.
There are traces of allergens everywhere. We can’t change that. But we can educate our food allergic children to read carefully, advocate for themselves, and avoid anything that might contain a trigger.