5 Ways to Keep Kids With Food Allergies Safe
Food allergies are a nightmare to any family with young children and an epi pen. Food and social activities seem to go hand in hand. But young kids struggle to understand the difference between 'good food', 'safe food' and 'safe for me' food. Parents are reluctant to drive the point home. After all, kids should be kept somewhat innocent. They don't need to know that food, something that tastes good and should be nourishing, could also turn fatal.
They don't even need to know the meaning of the words "fatal" or "anaphylactic shock". But their parents are well aware of the risks taken just by attending a picnic, a restaurant, or even church services. That's why parents of kids with food allergies need to do all they can to keep their kids with food allergies safe. There are 8 foods that account for the majority of potentially fatal allergic reactions. Those foods, known as the top 8, are milk, soy, peanuts, tree nuts (like almonds, pecans, macadamia nuts), eggs, wheat, shell fish and fin fish. Federal law requires that any packaged foods containing any of these 8 foods be clearly labeled with the allergen. This helps, those who know how to look for their specific allergen can easily spot it on an ingredient list. The trouble is, you have to know to look.
People love to feed kids. If you're at a party, people hand out crackers and cookies without a second thought. The grocery store hands out candies and samples, the bank teller hands out lollipops, school friends share sandwiches or desserts. Neither scouts nor soccer practice would be complete without parents bringing in a snack to share. It's rare for packaging to be readily available, even more rare for the one sharing food to offer out the ingredient list. Parents with food allergic kids don't just need to re-evaluate their grocery trips and learn to read labels, they need to learn how to keep their kids safe even when they aren't around. Because let's face it, just because a child has allergies doesn't mean the parent can drop everything to trail behind them 24 hours a day. And no one thrives in a bubble. So here are 5 ways to keep your child with food allergies (any food allergies) safe.
How to Freeze Cookies
Freezing baked goods is a lot easier than many people imagine. You can actually freeze most homemade cookies in an airtight tupperware style container. Freeze them on a cookie sheet first, then tuck them into the airtight container. Label it with the words "Allergen free" and the date. The cookies will still be good in 3 or even 6 months, if you don't eat them all first. My family eats them still semi frozen. Cupcakes can be frozen in individual baggies and thawed in a lunchbox or the microwave.
Prepare, Prepare, Prepare
I've heard it said that a girl scout is always prepared. Maybe parents with food allergic kids should go back to scouts, then. When diagnosed with food allergies, preparedness takes on a whole new level. The key to a successful, survivable, easy to navigate life with food allergies is always to be prepared.
Keep extra cookies (and cupcakes) in the freezer, have emergency meals on hand, and know which restaurants (if any) can handle your family's allergy subset. You also need to have an emergency action plan that includes the quickest route to the nearest hospital and an emergency bag that includes an epi pen and any antihistamines that you've been advised to use in case of exposure.
A notebook that highlights the basic medical information of the kid with food allergies comes in handy, too. The notebook should list your child's allergies on the front page, your pediatrician and allergist's phone numbers, any medications that the child is currently on and your allergy action plan in case of accidental exposure. You might want to include a list of symptoms that indicate a need for the epi pen, too, since many parents and caregivers tend to second guess themselves during a reaction.
You can keep all your emergency supplies in a small purse sized backpack, or a fanny pack, that gets attached to the child's caregiver whenever they leave the house. Don't forget to pack a few safe, prepackaged snacks in there as well. Just in case.
Label your child's food. Label their lunchbox and waterbottle. Label their snack pack, too. Don't just label it with your child's name. Label it "Free of ..." your child's allergens, followed by "SAFE FOR" your child's name. This tells other caregivers that the food is specifically for your child. And that your child has food allergies. Which, in turn, reminds them not to feed your child any other food. This is especially important if your child is in Kindergarten or younger.
Don't stick to labeling your food, though. Feel free to label your child! There are online publishing sites, like Zazzle, that allow you to customize clothing and stickers. An allergy shirt (or sticker) can be a good reminder to others that your child has food allergies. It also helps serve as a buffer when you're at a large social function where other adults may not realize your child has allergies. Of course, you want your child to fit right in. But you also want them to be safe. Anything that makes a generous parent hesitate before handing out pecan studded double fudge brownies is going to improve your (and your child's) party going experience.
Educate anyone who might be left in charge of your child about food allergies. Food allergies are not picky eating. Food allergies are not paranoid parenting. Food allergies are not just a sniffly nose and itchy evening. They are a potentially life threatening condition. The people who care for your child, even if it's just for the afternoon, need to know and understand the severity of your child's allergies.
Every child has unique needs. Caregivers tend to smile and nod, filtering out only the most pertinent information when parents are giving detailed descriptions on how to take care of their kids. Each kid responds differently to different caregivers, and any good teacher or babysitter knows that. But food allergies are a medical condition that caregivers need to understand. If you think your babysitter is hearing "picky eater, paranoid parent", look for another sitter.
No one expects their child to have a reaction. No one expects their child to suddenly become anaphylactic. But it happens. If your child is diagnosed with food allergies, they need to walk a fine line between living a full life and being cushioned from potentially dangerous allergens. Not everyone knows how to read labels. Not everyone can be trusted to read labels. So you need them to understand that when you say "Don't feed my kid" you really mean that they are not to give your child any food that you don't approve. You need them to know that there is a good reason that you're depriving your child of a surprise treat, and it has nothing to do with trendy eating.
Allergy Friendly Snacks for an Emergency Bag
Make a Back Up Plan
Most temptation (and accidental exposure) occurs when the best laid plans fall through. Maybe your child's teacher is out sick and the substitute brings treats. Maybe your car battery dies just at dinner time, when you're on the road. Or maybe you run out of time to bake cookies before the birthday party.
It's hard to be a kid. It's even harder to be a kid with food allergies. When you're a hungry kid with food allergies, you're really in trouble. Food abounds, but safe food isn't always close at hand. So if you want to keep your kids safe, you always (Always!) need a back up plan.
Keep a snack pack in the classroom. This should include individual bags of cookies, candy and a savory treat like chips or crackers. If there's freezer space available, popsicles and a frozen cupcake are a good idea as well. You can label them with a picture of your child and your child's name and allergens, just so there aren't any questions.
Keep a snack pack in your car. This one should be a little more temperature stable and sturdy. Packets of trail mix or granola style bars, juice boxes, chips (chips aren't healthy, but they're often allergy friendly and they have a long shelf life), and dried fruit or jerky are good choices for quick energy when you're stuck on the road.
If you have successfully eaten out; keep a list of allergy friendly restaurants handy in the car as well as near your home phone. Remember that eating out is always risky when it comes to food allergies. If you have to eat out, try to choose a less crowded time of day and make sure your server fully understands and can communicate your needs to the kitchen staff, or that the chef himself takes your order and understands your allergies. Even restaurants you've been to before can be a dangerous place during the height of dinner hour, so make sure your back up plan includes waiting for an optimal dining time.
Teach Your Kids to Speak Up
While you don't want to scare your kids, or make them any more 'different' than food allergies innately makes them, you also need to teach them how to navigate life with food allergies. They need to learn not to trust the adults in charge, but how to correctly self advocate. Of course, you won't leave them with someone who would endanger them. But the substitute teacher, or the parent helper, or the scout leader might have a bad day. They might have a momentary lapse. Kids are responsible for their own health, too. So teach them how to politely ask if the ingredients have been verified with you. Teach them how to read a label, and how to watch for cross contamination.
Teach them how to identify warning signs of an allergic reaction and when to go get help from an adult. And let them know that it's okay to be rude. Some kids worry about self advocating because they don't want to get in trouble if they're mistaken. Some kids just don't like being any more different than they have to be. With food allergies, your child's safety come first. So teach them to speak up, ask questions, and teach them the right questions to ask for their unique allergies.