How to cope when your child has food allergies

What to do when dietary issues make eating out dangerous

dealing with kids that have food allergies

In the average classroom, it’s common for there to be children with food allergies (to things like nuts, soy, and dairy), kids on special diets or that need to avoid preservatives/food dyes (for Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), or on a gluten-free diet (for Celiac Disease). Teachers, school nurses, and daycare providers work hard to keep track of special needs and make accommodations, but ultimately, a child must be properly educated to protect himself. 

Sending a child with food allergies into the world can be a frightening experience for caregivers.  Teaching a child to become knowledgeable about safe foods and advocate for oneself at a young age is no easy feat, especially when the margin of error could lead to illness or an anaphylactic reaction.

Working with schools

If your child needs to be on a special diet, bring a doctor’s note to your school nurse, teacher, and food services and find out what accommodations may be available.

READ MORE: Discover the truth about gluten

When my daughter was diagnosed with Celiac disease and lactose intolerance in elementary school, I called the head of Food Services for the district and explained our situation. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that some allergen-friendly items were already in the school freezer, and we were able to work out a schedule of pre-decided days upon which she could buy lunch.

I was told that with a doctor’s note we could set up a more comprehensive plan, but occasional snacks and lunch were sufficient for us. We also kept cupcakes, clearly labeled and kept in the teacher’s freezer for special events, and the teacher was willing to keep non-perishable snacks handy.

Sandra Brown of Newburgh dealt with these issues first-hand when her granddaughter, Alayanna, who has a peanut allergy, entered school. After another child touched her granddaughter with peanut butter on his hands, Alayanna spent two days recovering from hives and breathing difficulties. This resulted in Alayanna being placed at a table to eat alone, which made her uncomfortable and upset the other children. Ultimately, her school turned to a children’s book depicting food allergies, to help her classmates develop a better understanding of her special needs.

READ MORE: Tips on raising vegans

Because many daycare centers also provide meals or snacks, this is another opportunity when an adult must be trusted to be knowledgeable in the special needs of your child. An open and direct conversation with needs explained in writing is often the best plan. Leaving alternate snacks is also a way to avoid difficulties.

Special care for special occasions

We live in a very food-focused culture and most celebrations involve gathering around a table.  Whether it is the typical pizza and cake birthday party, a holiday buffet, or a summer barbecue, there are bound to be refreshments – and quite honestly, this one can be the hardest. It may help to get in touch with the host ahead of time and find out what’s on the menu. Although it’s always appreciated, never assume that safe foods will be served.

Once you know what’s on the menu, plan something similar (my kids appreciate this, so they aren’t looking longingly at the pizza while they’re eating a turkey sandwich) or bring your family’s favorites, if they prefer. We find bringing a special treat of our own helps us not feel left out, as does our promise to recreate any special foods that were off-limits at the event.

Restaurants have made great strides to accommodate food allergies, but their preparedness and limits vary greatly. Use social media to research allergen-friendly menus in advance, identifying ones that are known for their ability to make accommodations. Call ahead and inquire, as some restaurants have substitutions (gluten-free buns, nut-free dishes) whereas other restaurants can make foods “plain” but not truly accommodate special needs.

Reaching out

Turning to support groups, both online and at local hospitals or libraries, is a great way to get advice from trusted friends and professionals who can discuss safe protocols. Medical identification bracelets can be worn by young children whose allergies may be too complicated to explain.

As children grow, it’s essential to role-play how to inquire about ingredients, or how ask an adult to contact a parent to check on a food in question.

“Let everyone know right away about a child’s allergies,” Sandra says. “You won’t always be there.”  She also emphasized the importance of teaching her granddaughter to “ask about everything she’s given.”

Preplanning, outreach to trusted friends and family, and written documentation are essential steps for keeping loved ones safe. Give kids the knowledge and confidence to grow into his or her own advocate, modeling clear and respectful communication along the way. 

Stephanie Sandler is a clinical psychologist and Fishkill mom.