Navigating Food Allergies in Children

Having a child with a life-threatening food allergy can certainly make normal “kid” activities (like school, birthday parties, and playdates) seem extremely stressful. It’s important to know that you’re not alone. One in 13 kids in the U.S. has a food allergy, so you’re sure to find at least a few parents in your circle who can relate to what you’re going through.

The most common allergens include milk, eggs, peanuts, soy, wheat, tree nuts, fish, and shellfish. And while some allergies don’t last forever (many children grow out of them as they get older), some might stick around for life. So, how can you make sure your child, family, and community knows how to address food allergies? Follow these simple steps.

1. Make an appointment with your child’s healthcare provider.

First and foremost, you want to make sure that you have the medication you need if your child comes into contact with their food allergen. Make sure your child, and everyone in your family, knows how to administer the medication if and when it is necessary.

2. Inform Your Child and Family

“Something I always tell families and parents new to the food allergy world is that normalizing the food allergy as a part of their child’s life is important, but that also explaining the significance of the food allergy without scaring their child is a must.” This advice comes from Dietitian Chelsey Amer, creator of CitNutritionally.com. Chelsey also explains that it’s important to teach your child how to be autonomous when it comes to their allergy by making sure they know the right questions to ask when eating food outside of the home. Teaching them to let other’s know about their allergy, and asking if foods contain allergens, is an important first step.

3. Get the Whole Family On Board

If your child is too young to read and understand food labels, it’s recommended to make the home an allergen-free zone (specific to your child’s allergy). “Growing up, my mom made our whole house a tree nut-free zone. This helped ensure safety at home and promoted a relaxed environment around food. I never felt left out from what everyone else in the family was eating” says dietitian Lindsey Janeiro. Lindsey also suggests finding allergen-free recipes the whole family can enjoy, or finding allergen-free alternatives and having a family taste test. “For example: with a wheat allergy, buy several different gluten-free breads and let each family member rank their favorites to decide on a winner!”

4. Keep Parents and Teachers in the Loop

Especially with young children, it’s important that other parents, teachers, and caretakers are aware of the allergy and how to administer medication if needed. While you want to teach your child autonomy, it’s also important they can feel “like a kid” and feel safe in the hands of their caretakers, should they accidentally come in contact with an allergen. Consider drafting a simple note outlining the details of the allergy, foods to avoid, how to administer medication if needed, and emergency contact numbers. This can help empower caretakers and make them feel more comfortable as well.

5. Reinforce “Allergy Vocabulary”

It’s important for your child to know that there are “safe” foods (foods that don’t contain an allergen), and “unsafe” foods, foods that do contain an allergen. Remember, your child only has to avoid the allergen that they react to, not all allergens (unless otherwise noted by your doctor). Make sure they know what foods typically are “unsafe” by pointing out common foods at the grocery store. For example, if they are allergic to peanuts, make sure they know not to eat peanuts, peanut butter, or cereals that contain peanuts. If they are old enough to read, make sure they know how to read an ingredient label. Lastly, make sure that your child knows it’s important to speak up at the first signs of an allergy attack. While all attacks manifest differently, shortness of breath, hives or itching, swelling in the throat, or an upset stomach can all signify an attack.

Does anyone in your family have an allergy? What else have you found helpful for keeping them safe? Let us know in the comments below!

For those with additional questions, here are some great resources for further education: