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Food Allergies 101: A Guide for Parents and Caregivers

How to keep your food-allergic child safe at school and at play.

Image via Stocksy.com

As a parent and aunt of children with life-threatening food allergies, I understand how difficult it is to keep your child safe, and how scary it is to take your child out of the house. Educating yourself and others is the key to creating a safe and relaxed atmosphere for you and your family, and your friends.

Here are some tips for parents and caregivers on coping with food allergies.


Visiting a Friend of Relative's Home

  • Let them know your needs.
  • It is OK to ask them to vacuum, sweep or do other necessary cleaning for safety.
  • Explain the severity of your child's food allergies.
  • Let them know if the allergic food can be kept out in the open.
  • Let them know what is OK to serve- or offer to bring your own food.

Going to a Restaurant

Many parents with food allergic children never go out to dine. If you choose to, here are some tips to increase the likelihood of keeping your child safe in a restaurant.

  • Ask as many questions to the staff as you need to feel safe.
    • If they do not feel comfortable answering, do not eat there.
    • If they tell you nothing is safe, they do not want the responsibility. Do not eat there.
  • Speak with the chef.
    • Many restaurant chefs will accommodate a food allergy by making certain a pan is clean, or even cooking food in foil.
  • Visit kid friendly places- such as Disney World- where they are sensitive to food allergy issues and will do whatever they can to accommodate your child.
  • Bring your child's food so you may dine at the restaurant.
    • Call the restaurant before doing this.
  • Know your child's sensitivity, especially for an indoor restaurant. Some children are sensitive to aromas or 'airborne' food.

Outdoor Play

  • Be aware of possible food on equipment and around the play area.
  • Children eat everywhere on the playground - even while on the equipment (especially the swings). Peanut butter, peanut shells, cheese snacks, cookies and many other snacks are frequently on the ground and even on the equipment.
  • Bring anti-bacterial wipes and wipe equipment and hands freely- especially if your child is young and still puts his hands in his mouth or eats off of the ground.
  • Walk the grounds looking for food remnants and wrappers before allowing your young child to play.
  • Do not be shy- it is better to be seen as a neurotic parent than to have your child get sick because of an accidental ingestion of food.

Indoor Play

  • Indoor areas where food is not allowed are always safest.
  • However, do not rely on this as many parents do not understand this applies to snacks.
  • Do not be afraid to remind visitors of the facility's policy as a venue safe for food allergic children.
  • Smaller toys are often found indoors. Remember to wipe all toys that young children could easily put in their mouths.

Safety at Child Care Centers and Schools 

  • Make sure the facility is willing to accommodate your child's needs.
  • Ask if they have any other food allergic children and how they are meeting their needs.
  • Prepare the facility.
  • Use the FAAN Back to School Kit to help prepare the teacher and kids
  • Provide a list or articles on how to make your child's environment safe.
  • Request that the children wash or wipe hands upon arrival and after eating. You may want to supply wipes for the classroom.
  • Provide the caregiver/teacher with a medicine pack for easy accessibility or have your child wear a hip-pack containing medication at all times.
  • Train the caregiver how and when to administer an epi-pen or give Benadryl.
  • Make sure you instruct the caregiver very clearly on how to recognize an allergic reaction, what to do if your child has a reaction, and what to do afterwards. Leave a written copy of this information, in case the caregiver forgets.
  • Include instructions and emergency contact information in the medicine pack and provide copies to several other people usually accessible in the school.

Taking Medication at School

  • Most schools have medication policies. If your child has life-threatening allergies, you need to check in with the school nurse to discuss medication protocol and to sign permission forms. Your physician will need to write prescriptions you can fill to leave with the school nurse.
  • Many schools will now only store and administer prescription medications that are in the box from the pharmacy with the proper labels still attached.
  • Some health insurance plans with drug coverage will not cover duplicate prescriptions (such as 2 bottles of the same medication at the same time-one for home and one for school)-they may only cover 1 bottle. If this is an issue-call your drug coverage program or the 800 number on your insurance card and explain the problem. They may cover the extra prescription as long as they receive a letter or call from your physician to confirm the need for it.
  • Finally, be sure to check with the school about whether or not it's okay for your child to carry medication with them during the day (or even to transport it to school to bring it to the nurse). Most schools do not allow this and you don't want your child in trouble by accident simply by having an inhaler in his backpack or by bringing meds to the school nurse without a note. This is a security policy that protects all students (and the school). Be sure to check it out to be on the safe side.

School Cafeterias and School Lunches

  • If the school serves lunches, make sure you discuss the menu in detail with the chef or representative from the school's food service. Make sure your child will be safe whether they buy or bring their lunch to school (in some cases, you will want your child to bring their own lunch all the time).
  • Make sure your child can be seated away from possible food allergens.
  • Many schools now have special "allergy tables" during lunch for students with life-threatening food allergies. This is becoming so common that many students don't mind it, but it can make kids feel "different." If your child needs to sit with other children who have to be very careful about their food, make sure they know about it in advance and be ready to discuss it.
  • More and more schools are banning food from school parties or holiday and birthday celebrations that take place during the school day. Talk with your child's teacher about other events such as a class breakfast or field trip. School food rules may not apply in those instances and you'll want to anticipate your child's needs for those events.
  • Remember that your child's school nurse, guidance counselor, teacher and other school personnel can help you figure out how to keep your child safe at school. If you have a question, ask it. They can't know the extent of your concern, or your child's particular allergies unless you tell them.

A Few Notes for Child Care Providers

  • Educate yourself by visiting the FAAN website and asking the parent questions.
  • Do not be shy! Parents will appreciate your caution and interest in protecting their child.
  • Know what to do if there is accidental ingestion of allergic foods.
  • Know what to do if the child appears to be having a food reaction.
  • Know how and when to administer medicine to the child.
    • If you may be required to use an epi-pen and feel unsure about it, ask the parents to demonstrate what to do and to show you how much force to use and where exactly to administer the medication on the child.
  • Know what to do after administering medicine.
  • Make sure you have the medicine available to you AT ALL TIMES.
  • Always ask the parent for medicine dosage and the child's medicine bag. This usually includes epi-pens and Benadryl.
  • Never leave an epi-pen in the car or outside in the cold. If it is very cold out, place the epi-pen in your jacket pocket to make certain the medicine will eject properly if needed.
  • Always have the parents' contact information readily available.
  • Food allergies are serious. Treat them this way.
  • Children can react from eating, being near, smelling or touching the food they are allergic to.
  • Take extra precautions when going out of the safe environment of the child's home/school.
  • Know what is safe for the child to eat.
  • Do not give the child anything without asking the parents if it is OK.
  • Even though a food may seem like it is ok, it is possible the food was processed on the same equipment as the allergy food and this may cause a reaction in some children.
  • Before caring for a food-allergic infant, brush your teeth and wash your hands as infants may put their hands in your mouth or your hands in their mouth.
  • Do not bring or eat any food in the house or around the child without asking the parents if it is permissible and safe.

Shoshana Dayanim, PhD is a developmental psychologist and mother of two with teaching and research expertise in media and child development. She has written articles guiding parents to local age-appropriate activities and in research psychology journals.

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