Parenting presents so many challenges on a daily basis. Imagine having to be vigilant about every single food and beverage that goes into your child’s mouth. It can be a very scary and stressful way to parent.
Before we get started, let’s just clarify the difference between a food allergy and a food intolerance. In very basic terms, a food allergy is when your body has an immune system response to a protein (usually) in a specific food. The response may range from very minimal (a rash) to life-threatening (anaphylaxis). The most common foods that people have a reaction to are peanuts, cow’s milk, tree nuts, shellfish, eggs, soy, wheat and fish. A food intolerance is when your body has trouble fully digesting a food (such as cow’s milk).
According to the CDC, about 8% (or 1 in 13) of children in the United States have an identified food allergy. That means that even if you or your family do no have to deal with allergies, chances are some of your friends likely do. Here is a quick primer to provide some better guidance and support.
Thou shall not cross-contaminate. Engrain this in your brain. Apply it to ALL situations. That plate, cutting board, knife, towel, counter top, jar of jelly used to prepare PB&J sandwiches (you get the picture). They all have particulate on them. Even if it is not visible. Either start with fresh utensils or wash all of those surfaces. Even better, designate separate cutting boards, condiments, etc. so there is less chance of cross contamination. To put it in perspective, little more than 10 parts per million can cause a reaction. So never assume that just because you can’t see it you are safe.
Hand sanitizer is NOT your friend. You know that little bottle you carry around everywhere? It is useless when it comes to removing allergens or other particulate from your hands. The only way to “clean” your hands when handling food for your child with say, a peanut allergy is to thoroughly wash them immediately before touching their food. Even if you already washed your hands prior to preparing everyone else’s food. Better yet, just make the food for your child with the allergy first.
Let’s talk gluten-free. Face it, we can’t discuss allergies/intolerances without addressing this subject. There is much grey area regarding this issue. Gluten-free diets are a big trend (for adults and children) that is not going away any time soon. People are on them, placing their families on them even without a medical reason to remove gluten from their diets. So, assuming you notice your child is having issues (gastrointestinal or other) related to eating wheat (etc.), DO NOT immediately place them on a gluten-free diet. Take them to the doctor to discuss it and undergo the proper testing for Celiac Disease first. If you try the diet first and your child does have the disease, it will result in a false negative on the test. Now if your child does have Celiac or a legitimate gluten-intolerance all the same precautions for typical food allergies apply too.
Be your child’s biggest advocate. Nobody knows them better than you. Also, most businesses out there are only concerned with one thing. So, learn to read those labels religiously and develop a real understanding of what all those claims and terms mean. Dining out can be scary. You must not be afraid to ask questions, no matter how the person who is answering responds. (But know that kindness and a little explanation can go a long way). When in doubt, speak to the manager/owner or even the chef. Things can change back in the kitchen that the server/cashier may not even be aware of. Also be cognizant of cross contamination, it is riskier at establishments that use pizza stones, woks or fryers.
Have compassion. If you are one of the fortunate people who do not have to deal with food allergies/intolerances on a regular basis, taking the time to accommodate for your friends that do can make a world of difference. Chances are they will not expect you to so it will be greatly appreciated. Coping with food issues can be exhausting. But do not be over-confident about it. I’ll share with you an experience I had at my home during a play date with my young son’s friend. The morning play time went longer than expected, stretched into lunch time and almond butter and jelly sandwiches were on the menu. Our little friend had diagnosed Celiac Disease (which her parents were continually trying to keep under control). They even sent her with her own lunch just in case, but she wanted to have the same thing as everyone else. So I set about making her a gluten free version on apple slices (With her mother’s permission of course). In the middle of preparing her special version, with new utensils, plates and cutting board, I realized that our jar of almond butter was probably completely contaminated with wheat particulate. My well intentions could have been a disaster later for our friends. All-in-all, our friends were very appreciative of the extra effort, whether it worked out or not. Taking these precautions could help avoid causing a reaction or worse.
The American Academy of Allergy Asthma and Immunology is also a fantastic resource of information about allergies as well as provides wonderful support for people who may have food related allergies.
Article written by Renee McGrew, RD