I take it for granted that I can bring my daughter to any playground and let her climb the monkey bars. I can send her to school without worrying that lunchtime could be dangerous. Boarding an airplane doesn’t put me on high alert, and I never fret that another mom may have left peanut butter residue on the cutting board where she is now making my child a snack. I have the luxury of never worrying that what my children eat might kill them.
One of my daughter’s friends does not have this luxury. Because she has a severe food allergy, she and her parents must be vigilant about what she eats. They are not alone: About 8 percent of American children,which works out to one in every 13, has an allergy to everyday foods such as peanuts, almonds, walnuts, dairy, eggs, soy, wheat, fish or shellfish. Assuming your child, like mine, is friends with one of these kids, what do you need to know to guarantee this child is safe while in your care?
I spoke with Jennifer Eagen, a food allergy expert, founder of the Allergy Nut, and parent of a child with severe food allergies. She suggests you make a habit of asking a parent if their child has food allergies, especially when the kids are young and cannot advocate for themselves. This notifies the parent that you take the issue seriously, which is of great comfort to them. Ask parents for ideas of allergen-free snacks that their kids enjoy. Some parents will even send a snack in their child’s backpack; Eagen always does.
Prepare your home
Clean your kid and your kitchen. Wipe children’s hands and faces, throw out your garbage, and wash any surfaces at home with hot soapy water. Eagen’s son once had an allergic reaction because his friend had eaten peanut butter that morning and wiped his hands on a hand towel instead of washing them in the sink. Her son touched the contaminated towel that afternoon and had a dangerous reaction.
Stock your cabinets with allergen-free alternatives such as products from MadeGood Foods (our favorites), Safe + Fair (Eagen’s favorites), Don’t Go Nuts, and Enjoy Life Foods. Read the labels of the snack foods you already have so you know which ones are safe. Fruits, vegetables and cheese sticks (for kids without a dairy allergy) are safe snacks, as are items on the regularly updated list at snacksafely.com.
Eagen says, “It is best not to serve anything with the allergen while the allergic child is in your house, even to another child. Kids with food allergies worry about their own safety and having an allergen nearby will create unnecessary anxiety in the child, while also creating a potentially dangerous situation.” If your child gives up their regular snack for the day, commend them for their flexibility and for being a good friend.
Educate your children
Kids as young as preschool age can understand that foods can make people sick, that they shouldn’t share food, and that they should wash their hands before and after eating. Kids with food allergies are often teased or bullied, so talk to your child about how hard having a food allergy is for their friend and that they should be supportive.
Teach your children to eat in appropriate places. That means not on the sofa while they are watching TV, or in the car where their hands touch the armrests. When at a playground, feed them at a picnic table or in their stroller instead of letting them run around with a peanut butter sandwich in hand. Eagen explains that she was always on guard at playgrounds. If she saw a child finishing a peanut butter sandwich and then climbing onto the monkey bars with sticky hands, her son skipped the monkey bars.
Understand what to do if a child has a reaction
“In the heat of the moment, I don’t want another parent reading the EpiPen directions,” Eagen says. She sends her son to play dates with a kit that includes an “emergency action plan,” as well as an EpiPen, a device that delivers an injection to counter dangerous allergic reactions. Parents should be able to recognize a reaction: a tingling sensation in the mouth; redness, swelling or itching of the eyes, lips, face, tongue, throat or other parts of the body; difficulty breathing; a rash or hives; vomiting, abdominal pain or diarrhea; decreased blood pressure or loss of consciousness. Remind your child that if their friend gets sick, they should find an adult immediately.
Eagen urges that if the parent of an allergic child “prefers to have play dates at their house, especially when the kids are little, please understand. It is about safety. Kids are trusting and often think that because their mom believes it is okay for them to go to a house then it must be safe. They may let their guard down and grab a cookie like they do at home. Parents often feel safer in their own homes.”
I asked Eagen what scares her most now that her child is older, and she answered the increasing use of nut flours, nut milks and nut cheeses. Many bakeries and parents now make cookies and muffins using almond flour, which may be healthier for individuals allergic to gluten, but not healthier for kids with a nut allergy. And many times they are not marked.
She also said teenage boys with food allergies are the most vulnerable. They naturally lean toward more risky behavior, they do not want to feel different by asking too many questions of a waiter, they do not carry a purse or bag for an EpiPen, and they may kiss a girl without asking if she has eaten peanut butter or another allergen.
It got me thinking about my own teenage boys, who no longer spend their Saturdays on the monkey bars with me hovering nearby, but may take the Metro to Nationals Park for a baseball game. For a teenager with a peanut allergy, that peanut shell-littered stadium seems like a time bomb. Thankfully, many professional baseball stadiums offer peanut-free days or suites, so even people with a severe peanut allergy can enjoy America’s pastime.
Raising children and teenagers is tricky enough but raising them with life-threatening food allergies takes the anxiety to another level. Let’s all do our part to keep these kids safe.
First published in The Washington Post on Thursday, May 17, 2018.