One in 13.
On average, one in 13 kids in the U.S. lives with a food allergy. Statistically speaking, that means two kids in an average classroom. (As a former elementary teacher, I saw more than that in most classrooms.) Additionally, there are kids living with severe food intolerances or autoimmune reactions to certain foods (i.e., celiac disease).
Even if your own kids don’t have any food allergies, you can be almost certain one of their classmates, friends, or carpool companions will.
We all know the worry that comes with motherhood. Now imagine how that worry is multiplied for a mom dropping off her child with a severe food allergy at school, a playdate, or carpool. As moms, we work together to keep our kids safe at the playground, on the T, on social media; we can also work together to keep kids safe in our kitchens and cafeterias.
The question is how? How can we make the world a little safer for kids living with food allergies… and a little less scary for their moms?
Always ask about food restrictions.
No one wants to sound like a broken record, but in this case, it is absolutely the best thing. If you’ll be looking after another child, check before the parent leaves (or send a quick text if it’s a school pick-up playdate) to see if there are any foods to avoid. If you’re planning a birthday party, a quick email or group text to ask about foods to avoid can go a long way in making sure the day is safe for everyone. And if a toddler wanders over to your toddler’s snack at the park, make sure the parent sees what is happening before offering a bite. (We’ve all been there — hungry toddlers have to be one of the fastest land animals.)
Don’t try to bake something safe.
This one sounds harsh, but think about it for a minute. You know one of your son’s friends can’t eat gluten, dairy, or peanuts, so you buy a box of gluten-free brownie mix. You prepare it according to the “dairy alternative” recipe. But there’s a problem. That sponge you used to wash the mixing bowl? It cleaned peanut butter off a breakfast plate this morning. That wooden spoon you used to mix the batter? It mixed wheat flour last night and might have small traces of gluten (even after washing). Yes, some kids are that sensitive. So trying to bake something safe can be a risky gamble. After all your efforts, it still might not be safe for the child. The best thing to do is talk to the parent ahead of time. Find out what kind of snacks are safe and where you can buy them.
Keep the package sealed.
If you pick up a treat from an allergen-friendly bakery or from the freezer section of the grocery store, make sure to keep it in the original packaging. See, if you place a gluten-free cupcake on the plate with the regular ones, you’re risking cross-contamination. If you didn’t wash your hands between handling the regular cupcakes and taking the gluten-free one out of the box, more risk of cross-contamination. Keep the treats in the package until the child is ready to eat them.
This is also important because you always want to double check the ingredients with the child (or the parent, depending on age). Sometimes a certain allergen is replaced by a different allergen. (For example, wheat flour might be replaced by almond flour — now it contains tree nuts.) Also, that message printed on the box about manufacturing in a facility that contains peanuts or milk can make all the difference in whether something is safe. Take a picture of the label before you buy the item, and send it to the parent to verify. You might feel like a nuisance, but trust me, food allergy parents read SO many labels, and it will mean the world to them to have confidence in what will be available for their child.
Be mindful of common allergens.
The eight major allergens are milk, eggs, fish, tree nuts, peanuts, soy, wheat, and shellfish. Of course, kids can be allergic to many other foods, but knowing these eight is a good place to start. Due to the large number of children living with food allergies, there are many companies that offer foods that are free from the major allergens. These are great options to consider for classroom events or to have on hand at your home. These can also be great snacks to pack for your own kids when you’re going to a shared playspace like the library, the playground, or a museum. We’re fortunate to have many allergen-friendly restaurants in the greater Boston area, so try to keep those places in mind when planning group outings. A little mindfulness can go a long way.
Communicate, communicate, communicate.
I could go on and on about this topic, but the absolute best way to protect kids with food allergies is to communicate. Communicate with the classroom teacher. Many schools don’t allow food for birthdays anymore, but even if yours does, consider an alternative way to celebrate. You would be surprised how exciting a new pencil or a new book for the classroom library can be. Communicate with parents to find out how to make their child feel safe and included. Ask when to use Benadryl. Ask where the child keeps an Epi-pen, and know when and how to use it. Again, you may feel like a nuisance, but for a food allergy mom, this is just another day — and it will mean the world to her that you care so much about keeping her child safe.
As we celebrate Food Allergy Awareness Week, let’s work together to make the world a little safer for ALL kids… and a little less scary for moms.