If your child does not have food allergies, it can be hard to imagine that common foods such as peanut butter, eggs or milk can cause severe reactions and even death. "Parents of children who do not have food allergies should be aware that a food allergy is a medical condition, not a food preference," says Anne Muñoz-Furlong, CEO and founder of the Food Allergy and Anaphalaxis Network, a leading food allergy education and advocacy group.
For allergic families, parental concern is heightened as school kids get older and want to spend time at their friend’s homes—away from the watchful eye of mom and dad.
The good news is that allergic and non-allergic kids can play together without incident: the key is for all parents involved to know what precautions to take. For example, careful reading of package labels is one of the main ways to determine if a food is "safe."
"People think if a food doesn’t contain the actual allergen, then it is safe to eat. But you have to check everything, including the environment in which the food was prepared," says Marnie Howell, a Crystal Lake mother of two children with multiple food allergies. For instance, bakery goods are unsafe for kids with nut allergies due to cross-contamination; kids with milk allergies must also avoid any foods with whey or milk derivatives. The bottom line: If you’re unsure about a food, don’t serve it.
Avoiding the allergenic food right before play time is another great way to stop problems before they start. Angelica Norris, a Chicago-area attorney and mother of an 8-year-old boy with a peanut/tree-nut allergy, says her son had a reaction after sharing a computer game with a friend who had just eaten peanut candy. "I’ve learned to say to parents, ‘My child can’t have peanut butter and when our kids are playing together, yours can’t either.’ The risk of cross-contamination is very real." Washing hands after eating and being careful not to "share" serving utensils like spoons or ice cream scoops also will help prevent cross-contamination.
Even with precautions in place, allergic families need to be able to offer an easy-to-follow emergency plan. Dr. Sai Nimmagadda, a Chicago-area allergy and asthma specialist affiliated with Children’s Memorial Hospital, advises allergic families to "keep it user-friendly. Have a nicely defined emergency action plan and have your child carry their EpiPen (a life-saving injection of epinephrine) in a fanny pack. Make it as easy for the other parents as possible."
Nimmagadda also stresses the importance of evaluating each individual’s ability to care for an allergic child, including their willingness to use an EpiPen. "Don’t leave your child with someone who you feel is not responsible or responsive to your child’s needs," he cautions.
For some parents, communication is enough to alleviate their concerns about hosting their child’s food allergic classmate. "If I know that I can contact the parent and I know emergency procedures, I feel more comfortable," says Nicole Dickinson, a Crystal Lake stay-at-home mom of two daughters who don’t have any food allergies. Svitlana Kochman, a Chicago advertising executive and mother of two kids, also without allergies, agrees. "The parents (of the allergic child) just need to let me know exactly what the situation is. I’ll avoid foods and learn to use an EpiPen if I have to," she says.
On the bright side, because of their growing maturity and ability to express themselves, school-age children are better equipped to take responsibility for their own allergies. "My kids are very well-versed in what they can have or not have," says Howell. "They ask if something is safe before they even put it in their mouths."
Parents can also role play with their child to help them practice how to politely refuse a food that may not be safe for them to eat.
No matter what, all parents must keep in mind that every situation is different and may require adjustments. Birthday parties, in particular, present unique challenges because unlike play dates where the other parent may already know about the allergic child’s needs, the hosting family at a party may not. "The education of other parents should begin as soon as you receive the invitation," Muñoz-Furlong says. "Explain your child’s food allergy and how you can help make sure your child is safe."
For hosting parents, she suggests, "When sending out invitations, you might consider adding a statement like, ‘If you have a food allergy, let us know.’ "
Nimmagadda advises parents of allergic children to do all they can to support their school-age child’s growing independence and expanding social circle. "Be cautious about what you eat and where you go, but still do the things you want to do. Don’t let the allergy prevent your child from living their life."
Jennifer Kales is a Chicago-area freelance writer and mother of two. Her oldest daughter has severe peanut and tree nut allergies. She has a new blog, nut-freemom.blogspot.com.