One Mom's Tips for Dealing With Food Allergies
My son, Max, has all the qualities that you’d expect in an almost-11-year-old boy. He’s smart, precocious, curious, funny and adventurous. He’s an outgoing and popular kid, and he’s got big plans. These things are all apparent if you talk with him for just a few minutes.
One thing you can’t tell by looking at him or chatting is that he also has life-threatening food allergies. Max has anaphylactic allergies to eggs, peanuts, some tree nuts and sesame seeds. This means that if he eats one of these foods, even in very small amounts, his throat could close (among other possible reactions), and he’d need to use his Epipen® and be rushed to the ER. Believe it or not, this list is shorter than it used to be. Year by year, he’s outgrown one tree nut at a time, and his level of allergy to the remaining foods is on a downward trend.
This is great news for us, and we hope the trend continues. But for now, Max still has serious allergies to a list of very common foods, which creates challenges for us in otherwise “normal” areas of life. Having navigated these waters for over a decade, I’d like to share some tips I’ve picked up along the way.
Here are a few big lessons I’ve learned so far on this journey.
Most people want to help.
A life-threatening food allergy is a special medical need. Sure, I’ve met a few people who consider having to give Max special consideration a personal inconvenience. Overall, though, I find that most people understand and will do whatever they can to help. Don’t be afraid to ask politely and firmly for what you need. You’d do the same for another parent whose child had a special need, right? I thought so!
It’s OK to be stressed out about your child’s safety.
We’ve known about Max’s allergies since he was 1, and I confess that I still worry about them daily. I make his breakfast, pack his lunch and snacks for school and send in special treats when there’s a celebration at school involving food. Every day of Max’s life, I plan what he’ll eat and when. It’s a lot of planning, and it can get stressful. I try to focus on this: For the most part, even though it’s serious and can be scary, a food allergy reaction is typically avoidable. If they don’t eat the food they’re allergic to, they won’t have an issue.
There’s a substitute for (almost) everything.
At this point, there’s no food that Max wants to try that I can’t get or figure out how to make. Baking can be especially tricky, but I make it work. For example, I like to use ground flax seeds in place of eggs (1 tablespoon ground flax seeds + 3 tablespoons water = 1 egg). You can also use potato starch, depending on the recipe, since flax seeds show up as little brown dots in your baked goods, and this may be distracting for some kids. It takes some trial and error, but I promise you can make any food taste and look great using safe substitutes. Pinterest® is a goldmine of recipes these days.
It’s nice to lean on other “allergy parents.”
Check Facebook® for groups of “allergy parents.” I belong to two of these groups, and they are invaluable to me when we’re traveling, planning travel or even just grabbing a bite locally. We share good and bad experiences, so we all learn and move forward as stronger and more confident advocates for our kiddos.
The following tips have helped us cope with things like eating out and traveling.
Tip 1: Eating Out
- Check online reviews or ask friends with allergies to find restaurants that have a reputation for safely serving food allergic guests. When a parent of a food allergic child has a great experience in a restaurant, they’ll shout it from the rooftops. I know I do.
- When you’re ready to order, ask for the manager or the chef to come out and talk to you. They can give you details of safe options, and they can personally oversee your child’s food being made and then deliver it to your table themselves. This gives you and your child confidence.
- Trying a new restaurant can be scary for the parent and the child. If I ever feel uneasy about the food prep or the attitude of the restaurant staff, I politely ask for Max’s food to be boxed to go. Then, he either eats something that I brought—I swear my purse is a bottomless pit—or we go elsewhere. The customer is always right, after all.
- When you have a great experience at a restaurant, tell the management and tell your friends! This is how we all expand our horizons.
Tip 2: Traveling
- Once you find a few restaurants that you trust near home, these can be options for when you travel. It took us years to build a list of more than one or two trusted places. I attribute this to building our confidence in the process and restaurants becoming more confident in their ability to serve allergic people. If you don’t have at least few restaurant options yet, you’ll get there. Move at your own pace.
- If you’re staying at a hotel or resort with onsite restaurants, speak to the manager, chef or food and beverage director. They’ll be able to tell you what your child’s options are on property, and you can make a good plan before you arrive.
- Pack “fill-in” foods that you can use in times when you’re not sure there’s a safe option. We call ahead and make sure that our hotel room has (or can be equipped with) a mini fridge and a microwave. We take cereal or bagels for breakfast, plenty of snacks and even a few precooked meals in travel containers. This way, if we decide to go to a restaurant that can’t serve Max, or if we get stuck without any good options, we can heat up food that I packed from home. (Enter the bottomless pit purse mentioned earlier.)
Tip 3: Parties and Sleepovers
- Find out what foods will be served, and send your child to the party with their own version. This way, they’ve got the “same” thing as their friends, and you can rest easier. I’ve baked countless cupcakes to match birthday party themes over the years, and since the party fare is usually pizza, you can sub in your favorite frozen or fresh-made versions.
- Ask the party host (usually Mom or Dad) if it’s possible to have the kids wash their hands after they eat. They won’t mind!
- Sleepovers are a little more involved, since there will be party food for dinner, plus snacks and breakfast. I generally call the host to see what they’ve got planned and then I provide Max something similar. I have made batches of rice cereal treats for another child’s sleepover so that Max could reach in and grab one at will. Many times, moms will ask me and then buy certain brands of foods that are safe for Max, which is awesome. Luckily, he’s happy with cereal for breakfast sometimes, and this is easy to pack for a sleepover.
Tip #4: Become a Resource!
This I know for sure: When we learn something, we should teach others. I’ve benefited so much from advice and tips that others have offered to me. Now that I’ve got a decade of this journey under my belt, I want to be sure to share some of what I’ve learned. If we’re all willing to do this, we’ll make the world a better place for those who matter most to us!
Filed under: Prevention
Jennifer Marko is a communications specialist at Florida Blue, a wife, mom and a perpetual student. On weekends, she scours Pinterest for the next great recipe, project or decorating idea. Jennifer likes to travel, play tennis and take classes so she can be as crafty as the pros she follows on social media.