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Don't let food allergies spoil the holiday fun

Plan ahead for food-filled festivities

Plan ahead for food-filled festivities

Holidays are legendary as nutritional minefields. No matter what your family celebrates, you're likely to encounter sugary, high fat, often nutritionally bereft foods laid out in extravagant yummy-looking buffets all
season long.

For families with kids who must manage food allergies these temptations present a double whammy. Whether its peanuts or tree nuts, soy, milk, gluten, eggs, shellfish or some less common trigger, how can you prepare your child to navigate seasonal treats especially when he or she is full of excitement and off to a party without Mom or Dad?

Erica Dahl is a community nutrition educator with the SNAP-ED Orange & Sullivan, a program of the Cornell Cooperative Extension. She is also the mother of a four-year-old who just started preschool and loves to cook.

Don’t miss out because of food allergies

"Having a food allergy shouldn't mean missing out on the fun of the season," says Dahl. "It's important to remember that the holidays are a time to appreciate time with family and friends. Food, although often part of the celebration, shouldn't be the focus. Don't be afraid to accept those invitations for the festivities but communicate with the host so she can be prepared with alternative options. Another option is to let the host know that you will be providing a separate option for your child. If you don't want your child to feel excluded or stand out, make enough for the group to share. Then, every child can partake in your allergen-free tasty dish."

Dahl says overall there is more awareness today about individual needs. "I think schools are certainly becoming more aware of food allergies. Many school wellness committees are requiring that classroom celebrations have either limited food options or eliminate food altogether to both encourage healthier habits and limit exposure to food allergens."

In addition, Dahl says some school districts recommend parents who wish to bring food in for classroom celebrations do so through the school's food service department to ensure those foods are both safe and nutritious.

Some take that request a step further. "Daycare centers and schools often require that food items brought in for classroom celebrations be store-bought so the food label can be assessed for allergens," Dahl says. But it also makes sense for parents to be proactive. "Be sure that you meet with your school nurse, classroom teachers and other relevant school staff who may be offering food. It can be helpful to equip your child's classroom teacher with safe, alternative options for occasions that may be celebrated with food," Dahl says.

Dr. Paula Brown has plenty of experience with helping kids and parents get a handle on food allergies. She's a pediatric allergist and immunologist with CareMount Medical.

She has also navigated her own lifelong food allergies. Her two young nieces, Olivia, 4, and Camila, almost 3, also suffer from food allergies. "I am allergic to peanuts, tree nuts, shellfish and sesame seeds," says Dr. Brown, who developed symptoms as a child. 

"In the '80s and '90s, food allergies were not a highly recognized medical condition. I would get hives, wheezing and recurrent vomiting when I ate a trigger food. I only got my first epinephrine auto-injector (EpiPen) when I was in college."

Now she helps her sister manage her niece's food allergies. Olivia is allergic to cow's milk and Camila to cow's milk, soy, egg, peanut and wheat.

"When my youngest niece turned two, the kids and my sister came to my house. I visited KidsWithFoodAllergies.org to enter all of Camila's allergies and get safe recipes," says Dr. Brown. "A food allergy action plan was written out in great detail that provided us with a good algorithm on what medication to administer based on the symptoms."

Plan ahead when eating away from home

Dr. Brown's detailed approach can help others stay on track. "I have a game plan when eating out. The first thing I do is to call up restaurants and tell them about my food allergies and see if they can accommodate me. For BBQ or other food events, I also make a point of calling the hosts ahead of time and telling them about my food allergies. If they can't accommodate my requests, then I bring my own food or eat before the BBQ or other events."  

That will work for others, too. Dr. Brown says. "Have a game plan before heading out to a restaurant or party to be aware of the food that will be served and what is available on the menu. If the restaurant or party host cannot accommodate your child's specific food needs, be prepared to have him eat ahead of time or bring your own food for him to eat."

"It's also helpful to bring along a dish that you know is a safe option for your child," Dahl says, and this can take the pressure off the host and ensure that your child doesn't feel excluded.

Have a plan for when accidents happen

Create a food allergy action plan for your child that includes a smooth strategy on what medication to administer to your child based on his or her symptoms. Decide who is responsible for administering medication when a parent or trusted teacher is not around.

But just in case the best planned strategy falls apart, Dr. Brown gives this advice. "I always have Benadryl (dissolvable) and at least two epinephrine auto-injectors with me at all times. Accidents can happen." She also recommends checking in with Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE). This resource provides excellent information about food allergies, understanding food labels, what to do when eating out and information about cross contamination.

Dahl also reminds those dealing with food allergies that communication is key. "Talk to the host and explain exactly what your child is allergic to, what reaction to look for in case of accidental exposure, and what to do if a reaction occurs. Ensure that if your child requires medication such as an antihistamine or an epi-pen, the host has access to those things should the need arise. If it is age-appropriate, have a conversation with your child about the foods they need to avoid, how to avoid them, and how to express to an adult if a food is unsafe for them."

Start at the grocery store

Dahl says help may be as close as your local grocery store as many of these now have registered dieticians on staff. "If parents have questions about foods or if you are hoping to accommodate a person with food allergies at your party but are unsure of what to look for, these professionals can be a great resource as you shop."

Olivia L. Lawrence spends her free time gardening or enjoying nature.