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What Kids Wish Teachers Knew About Food Allergies

Updated on December 4, 2011

Nobody ever said that being a kid was easy. Having food allergies, whether it's dairy, nuts, soy, shellfish, peanuts, wheat or eggs or something not listed on the top 8 allergens, just makes things a little more interesting.

As adults, we look at food allergies as a condition. Something we can control. So you can't eat nuts. Skip the nuts. Problem solved. You can't eat eggs? Even in baked goods? Well. That's a problem. You'll skip the cake, I guess.

Have you ever been on a diet? Do you know how hard it is not to take just the tiniest sliver of cake? (not to mention seconds, since you only had a sliver.) If you're hungry, and the food in front of you looks good, it's difficult to hold yourself in check. But if that food will send you into anaphylactic shock (or even just cause you to break out in hives) it's not worth eating.

My daughter was diagnosed with dairy allergies and gluten intolerance when she was around ten years old. She was old enough to know what it's like to get to eat cupcakes in class. She was old enough to know what Oreos taste like. She was old enough to understand how the wrong food would affect her. And she was still too young to do anything about it when the rest of the class got a pizza party.

This article is for her.

Do people with a dairy allergy have to avoid eggs?

I'm not exactly sure who started the rumor, but when people are allergic to dairy products, they are generally reacting the casein. Casein is the protein found in cow's milk. There is a similar protein in other mammalian milk. However, there is no casein in eggs.

Eggs are laid by chickens. So no, people with a dairy allergy do NOT have to avoid eggs. The only thing that eggs and dairy have in common is that dairy farmers occasionally raise chickens as well as cows.

And while we're on the subject, those with an egg allergy can have butter and milk.

Allergies Aren't Just to Nuts

One of the biggest misconceptions we've faced is that the only allergy that 'counts' is a nut allergy. Peanut allergies account for the majority of allergic reactions in the United States, affecting over 3 million individuals. But that doesn't mean that they are the only allergen out there.

A close second is milk and dairy products. Although most people consider a milk allergy to be akin to lactose intolerance, milk products can actually cause an anaphylactic reaction in susceptible individuals.

The top 8 allergens in the United States are Peanuts, tree nuts, milk, eggs, soy, wheat, shell fish and fin fish. Any of these foods, or foods that come from these foods, or foods that touch these foods, can cause a life threatening reaction in someone with a known allergy. (Or even an unknown allergy, since food allergies can develop at any point in life)

If someone is allergic to something other than nuts, that allergy counts and is just as valid as the nut allergy. After all, it still means food avoidance. It's just that the person with a peanut allergy is avoiding peanut derivatives, and the one with a soy allergy is avoiding soy products.

They Aren't Being Picky

"You get what you get and don't throw a fit," is the mantra of Kindergarten teachers everywhere. But when you have food allergies, what you get shouldn't kill you.

I don't mean to be crass. But the whole "kid with food allergies need to deal with it" thing really irks me. Especially when it's paired with picky eating comments. A kid with a dairy allergy is not being picky when they ask for a lollipop instead of a chocolate bar. They're being safe. And since their request is not about taste buds, but about being able to participate while continuing to breathe, requesting a safe option that is readily available should be quickly and quietly accommodated. It really is that simple.

I fully understand that teachers don't have time to make sure that each kid gets the colored lollipop that they want. And I get that kids should be happy to be offered a piece of candy at all. But, when you're holding two pieces of candy and one will hurt a child and the other won't...isn't it common decency to give them the one that won't?

You'd be surprised at how many adults will lecture a kid for saying 'No thank you' or asking for an appropriate alternate.

It's Not Just About Food

When it comes to food allergies, it's hard to get past the fact that a child can't eat certain things. They might be left out of lunch time, or parties, or food related activities.

It's important to remember that there is more to it than just food. Look at all lesson plans. (that M&M worksheet is fun. But when you pull it out, remember to make an accommodation for the kid with a dairy allergy, or a peanut allergy, or a food dye allergy. They take things literally. There are some kids who will hyperventilate when the worksheet says "now eat the red ones. How many do you have left?" OMG, what should they do? Eat the red ones and risk hives? Or...not do their work properly? This is serious stuff to a kid. )

Art class is a problem too. Check the materials, and the ingredients, before parading the class in to string macaroni necklaces. Maybe they won't be eating the macaroni. But some kids can't actually be around the products they're allergic to.

And be aware. It's not that they feel left out because they can't eat. Kids with food allergies have to be on their toes all the time. They have to question anything that might pass their lips. They are taught to respect adults, to listen to their teachers, and to question all ingredients. It's very hard to speak up for yourself. Especially when you're just a kid.

Parties Are Supposed to be For Everyone

There's a lot of pressure on schools to provide healthy treats. But healthy treats aren't necessarily allergy friendly. (Yoghurt and granola, string cheese and apples, peanut butter sandwiches, they're all full of top 8 offenders)

When a kid has a food allergy, it doesn't mean they stop wanting parties. And it shouldn't mean they no longer get to participate. Just think about the last time you went out to celebrate. Did you eat something? Or did you sit at the table and watch everyone else eat? I thought so.

Kids with food allergies want to be included. They are just as excited that their class met the reading goal as their peanut butter cup eating table mates. They want to decorate cupcakes for Halloween, and they are just as susceptible to the power of sprinkles as any other kid.

When a child with food allergies is left out of the class celebration, they take it personally. Maybe they shouldn't, maybe they understand that it's just not possible to meet their unique needs. And maybe they know better than to eat that slice of pizza the parent helper is offering. But it hurts to say no when they want to say yes. Especially when everyone else gets to say yes.

What is Anaphylaxis?

Anaphylaxis is a severe allergic reaction involving 2 or more body systems. It can lead to the rare, but potentially fatal, anaphylactic shock. When a person goes into anaphylactic shock, their blood pressure drops and their heart can stop.

A person with a potentially anaphylactic allergy should always carry an epi pen. An epi pen is a personal injection of epinephrine that is designed to be carried with someone and given even by someone who has never given a shot before. Teachers should be trained on when and how to use an epi pen if a child in their classroom has food allergies.

Peer Pressure, Adult Pressure, and Self Confidence

It's hard to be different. Kids with food allergies don't have any choice. They can't eat whatever looks good in the lunchline. They can't swap desserts with their best friend. They have to read ingredients, and ask questions, and sometimes they have to say no.

As adults, we often have the chance to walk away from temptation. But kids are expected to sit at a lunch table for the duration of a lunch period. They are expected to work out disputes among themselves, and they are reminded not to tattle. Food allergy questioning and teasing often falls short of the yard duty's radar. And what's worse, yard duties don't always know that a child has food allergies. So when one kid throws a slice of cheese onto a dairy allergy child's sandwich, a yard duty might understandably tell them to take it off and eat the sandwich anyway, while simply reprimanding the bully. That slice of cheese? It could cause a painful, even life threatening reaction. And the kid with a dairy allergy knows it even if the yard duty doesn't.

As adults, we get to choose which parties to attend. Kids are expected to be in their classroom under an adult's supervision from the time the morning bell rings until they are excused at the end of the day. When there's a treat delivered, they can't walk away. They can't go buy themselves something safe. They have to sit and be polite.

What's more, when there is a substitute or an adult who is unaware of the allergy at a party, the adult can unknowingly cause a child to feel very pressured to ignore their allergy. An adult who criticises a child who can't eat dairy products for "not getting enough calcium" can make a dairy allergic child worry unnecessarily. Adults are authority figures. Kids trust what they say. More than one child has eaten an unsafe cookie because a frazzled teacher answered "Can I eat this?" with "Of course, everyone gets one cookie."

It's hard to be the one saying no. It's hard to be a kid and not know who to trust. It's hard not to be able to trust food. And being the one who is different, who has to always ask questions and doesn't participate in pizza parties or ice cream socials starts to take it's toll on your self esteem.

Kids with food allergies know that they can't always be included. They know that they are different. But they also want to know that they matter. They want to know that they can trust the adults in charge, and that their needs are considered, if not always met.

Sometimes, they just want an adult to come over and say "I'm sorry that you were left out this time. Next time, we'll have popsicles (or something else you can eat)". Simply acknowledging that they have the right to be disappointed goes a long way.

So does following through on that popsicle promise.


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    • msviolets profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago

      Kristyreal, this has been the hardest part of food allergies for us. That my dd has to be able to self advocate to grown ups who don't 'get it' or think they know more than me about parenting (when it's not even a parenting issue) We have to trust our kids with other people sometimes, but even the best of intentions can go wrong when it comes to allergies.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      You talked about an aspect of childhood allergies that most people don't consider. My child has to be able to stand up to an allergy-ignorant authority figure even if she is threatened with punishment. Imagine having the strength of character that requires at sixteen years old, much less ten years old, and you'll have a small inkling of what a child with allergies must face when she goes anywhere without her parents.

    • ChaplinSpeaks profile image

      Sarah Johnson 

      6 years ago from Charleston, South Carolina

      Excellent Hub. I thought I knew a lot about child food allergies, but you have taught me even more! My daughter attends a small public charter school, and the kids with allergies are accommodated. Everyone in each class knows about the allergies. No peanut butter allowed at school at all. Not the same with my son's larger public school. They may have a nut free lunch table, but that is simple not enough. If we can ban smoking in public places, I think we can fully accommodate kids with specific allergies at school.

    • alissaroberts profile image

      Alissa Roberts 

      6 years ago from Normandy, TN

      This was a very interesting and useful hub. There are several children in my son's kindergarten class with food allergies. One is allergic to peanuts, another to eggs, and one is on a red diet. I tend to panic on our snack days always worrying if our snack is safe for everyone to eat. Great job - voted up!


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