As a mom with a child who has food allergies, I know how nerve-wracking it can be to eat out, go to birthday parties and spend holidays together.
When my daughter was a year old, I introduced a new food and within 10 minutes, her body was covered in hives.
It was a warm, spring day and since she always had sensitive skin and eczema, my husband thought perhaps it was a heat rash. As a mom, I knew that wasn’t the case but it seemed strange to me too. She wasn’t crying or acting differently—she was happy, crawling and playing.
Everything seemed find except for those hives.
We called the pediatrician and they asked me if she was breathing OK—she was—and suggested we see a pediatric allergist to test her for food allergies. Later that week, testing confirmed she was allergic to several types of foods. We left with a prescription for an EpiPen and an emergency plan and our lives as parents were never quite the same.
One in 13 kids in the U.S. has a food allergy to foods like peanuts, tree nuts, sesame seeds, milk, wheat, soy, fish and shellfish.
If you’re one of them, chances are you’re hyper-vigilant about what your child eats, doesn’t eat or may have accidentally come into contact with. Food allergies are serious, but feeling stressed out all the time or living in fear is no way to live.
Here are 10 tips that have helped me deal with my child’s food allergies and they may help you too.
1. Eat Whole Foods
Cutting down or avoiding packaged, processed foods is a healthy way to eat for everyone, but it can life saving for kids with food allergies.
Although many brands now include in bold print, “may contain tree nuts, “ or “made on shared equipment with peanuts,” you still need to carefully read through the laundry list of processed and artificial ingredients to make sure the food is safe.
Instead of taking a chance and driving yourself crazy, nix the packaged fare and stick to whole foods—always a healthy and safe choice.
2. Make Sure Everyone Is On Board
Most daycare centers and schools have a nut-free policy but that doesn’t help you if your kid is allergic to something other than nuts.
What I have discovered through the years is if the teacher or person caring for your child doesn’t have a child with food allergies herself, they won’t be nearly as cognizant or careful as you are. The same goes for other parents and your child’s grandparents who may forget or not realize they need to read labels before giving your kid a special treat.
Before your child starts daycare or school, make sure you provide them with your child’s emergency medical plan and all medications and verbally review it with them.
Babysitters, grandparents and caregivers should also have a list of the allergenic foods as well as a list of foods that contain those allergens.
3. Keep Alternatives On Hand
Birthday parties can be tough for kids with food allergies because if the parent doesn’t have kids with food allergies (see #2), they won’t think to read the label on the cake to check for allergens or ask the bakery beforehand. The same goes for parties at school, especially when there’s lots of candy and other treats.
Rather than risk it, bring a safe, special treat your child can enjoy and keep a safe choice at school. My daughter’s teacher keeps dried fruit bars and peppermint patties on hand for special occasions.
4. Don’t Rely On Restaurants
Depending on your child’s food allergies, you can usually make an informed choice at restaurants. However, allergens like gluten, egg and dairy can be tricky.
You can ask your sever how a dish is made and request cooking surfaces and tools be thoroughly washed. They may make accommodations and you may even have a good relationship with your favorite restaurant and trust them but you can’t hold them responsible for your child’s food allergies.
In fact, a September 2016 study in the Journal of Food Protection found that although managers, food workers and servers were knowledgeable and accommodated customers’ food allergies, more than 10 percent said that someone with a food allergy can safely consume a small amount of the allergen.
Many fast food and family restaurants make their menus and nutritional informational available on their websites so check before you go. Also, download the AllergyEats app to find restaurants ratings.
5. Coach Your Child
When you think your child is old enough and capable of advocating for himself—usually around age 4 or 5—help him do so.
For example, you can role-play before a party so your child can learn how to ask about the food being served or you can go with your child to ask the party host.
You can’t make him entirely responsible of course, but you can help him get in the habit of asking about the ingredients, telling an adult what he’s allergic to and politely declining a food if necessary.
6. Have a Heart-To-Heart
When you have a child with food allergies, it’s important to help him understand the severity of food allergies but at the same time, not making him so scared he’ll be anxious and want to avoid certain situations.
You don’t have to get specific about what could happen if he has an exposure, but you can talk about food in terms of what’s safe and unsafe. Explain that he should only eat food you, a teacher or caregiver gives him.
7. Stay Calm
Food allergies can be scary especially if your child has had an accidental exposure. However, if you’re calm when you’re in places where food is served and you are confident about managing your kid’s food allergies, chances are, he’ll be too.
8. Be Positive
Now that my daughter is older, she often gets upset when she can’t have cake at a birthday party or a special treat for the holidays.
She usually gets over it quickly, especially if there’s an equally delicious alternative but my husband and I always try to paint her allergies in a positive light.
She might think it’s unfair, but we remind her it’s for her safety and everyone has something they have to deal with—that’s life.
9. Get Help
Your child’s pediatric allergist can be an excellent source of information and advice.
If you’re concerned however, about nutritional deficiencies, see a pediatric nutritionist who can evaluate your child’s diet and help you round it out with healthy, safe alternatives.
10. Find Friends
Having support from other parents who have kids with food allergies can give you ideas and help your kid not feel like an outsider. Check out Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE) for support groups in your area.