Empowering Children to Manage Their Food Allergies
Daryl L. Minch, M.Ed., CFCS, Family & Consumer Sciences Educator, Somerset County
As a parent of a child with food allergies, I know the
challenges of selecting safe food and the worry of giving my child more
responsibility in managing his condition. When a child is young we have lots of
control, but as they grow older we need to let go and teach them to make safe
choices. Letting go is hard and making safe choices is not easy. A true food
allergy is the body's allergic response to a food or one of its components. A
person may react with hives, itching, or in the worst case anaphylaxis.
Anaphylaxis is a severe allergic reaction involving the respiratory tract or
multiple bodily systems at the same time. Anaphylaxis is a life threatening
medical emergency. Individuals with an allergic condition must strictly avoid
all foods that cause a reaction. Some people are so sensitive to certain
allergens that the smell, touch, or airborne residue of the food will cause a
major reaction. These highly allergic individuals often avoid all food away
from home and carry emergency medicine at all times.
How will parents of a child with allergies know when their
child is ready to be more independent? The answer is "it depends on the child".
Answering these questions can help:
- Does my child understand the severity of her or his
condition and know what foods or ingredients are triggers to a reaction?
- Will my child ask questions about how a food is
prepared? Or, are they too shy or embarrassed to ask?
- Can and will my child accurately read food labels?
- Will my child say "no thank you" when peers
encourage her or him to try something?
- Does my child know the symptoms of the reaction?
- Does my child know where to get help for a reaction?
Or, is my child able to administer her or his own medication in an emergency?
The more "yes" answers, the more confident parents can feel
in letting their child make his or her own food choices. The challenge for
parents is to empower children to make decisions, to teach them how to use
available tools, such as food labels, and to instill confidence in their
abilities. Children with and without food allergies need to feel special, but not apart from their peers.
The hard part is that making safe choices is not easy even for a well-trained,
vigilant person. Consider this situation: A parent takes a group of children to a fast food restaurant to get
take-out (yes – fast food is ok on occasion). Everyone orders including a child
with peanut, tree nut, and shellfish allergies. That child orders a burger,
fries and drink. When they get home and start to distribute the food, the
parent wonders, "were these French fries cooked in the same oil as the fried
shrimp?" A quick call to the restaurant results in a "yes", so no fries for the
allergic child. The cross-contact may be enough to cause a reaction. Cross contact is one of the major
reasons for unintended reactions. Take, for instance, a person with shellfish
allergies who purchases salmon in the supermarket, without realizing that the
counter person just scooped out a pound of shrimp with his gloved hands and
then wearing the same gloves picked up the salmon. An extremely sensitive
person would probably skip buying fish, but minimally they could ask the
counter person to change his or her gloves or use tongs to pick up the fish.
Ingredient label reading is another challenge. First, the
print is small and the list is often long. Second, manufacturers change product
formulas, so it's critical to read labels everytime. Third, some ingredients have
unfamiliar names. It's easy to miss an ingredient that could cause an
allergy. Fortunately, a new law requires food manufacturers to list common food allergens on food packages now. Because companies often run similar
products on the same equipment, labels often state "run in a plant that
processes peanuts" or "may contain almonds or other nuts". Allergic individuals must avoid these
foods as well.
Teaching a child to read the fine print is not easy, even
when a mistake could be deadly. It takes lots of practice, perseverance, and
patience. Give your child many opportunities to read and compare labels. Point
out allergenic ingredients on the label. Teach them the many words for soy or
milk or other ingredients in a food.
Creative cooks are another problem. One must ask questions
about food preparation and ingredients in restaurants and in other people's
homes. In restaurants, it's important to inform the wait staff and have them
tell the chef that you have a food allergy or talk directly to the chef.
Here are some reasons why:
- Some chefs add peanut butter or nuts to dishes,
without mentioning it in the description. One may find peanut butter in
barbecue sauce or milk in sauces.
- Finfish, such as flounder, and shellfish are usually deep-fried
together. Sometimes French fries are done separately, but not always.
Parents need to teach their children and teens to manage
their own lives and health conditions. This includes asking questions, reading
labels, making choices, and carrying and administering medications. Children
and teens with allergies need to feel comfortable and secure in their ability
to make those decisions.
My son eats at friend's homes and buys snacks in stores. I'm
proud of his ability to read labels, ask questions, and skip tempting treats
when he's unsure of the ingredients. I'm letting go, but still worry. After
all, that too is my job.