Taking Part in Parties...With Food Allergies
Food allergy diagnosis never comes easily. It throws the entire household into a new dynamic. Eventually things settle down. You get used to reading labels on everything that comes through the door, lunches get packed, you even learn how to eat out again.
Life seems to return to some semblance of normal. You almost forget that things have changed, until the dreaded birthday party invitation arrives.
Of course, to a child, that birthday invitation isn't dreaded. If you have kids, you know what that coveted birthday party invitation means. And if not...well, you're probably moving on to the next hub. In elementary school, the social scene revolves around who will be at which party. Best friends are designated by whether or not someone makes the cut. Turning it down. social suicide.
And yet, birthday parties center around food; a colorful, candle-lit cake being the crowning glory of any good party. Many are also excuses to order more pizza than the delivery man can carry or to fire up the barbeque. Yep...food, everywhere you turn. It's a Food Allergy nightmare!
So, What to do?
The possibilities seem dim at first. Go, don't eat or participate. Go, eat what looks safe and pray it really is. Or play it safe, skip the party and deal with the doldrums.
However, with a bit of ingenuity and some preparation, you can confidently send your child off to a successful, reaction free party. (Or even attend your own!)
- Call ahead. That RSVP phone number not only gives the hostess a heads up on how many kids will or will not be attending, it allows you (the guest) to contact her with any concerns. Introduce yourself, inform her of the food allergies and ask what the food plans are.
- Once you know what the plans are, you can brainstorm. Fruits and veggies should be safe, if cut on a clean prep space and served on a separate platter. Most hosts are willing to make this simple accommodation. You can provide a separate plate with safe, comparable, food if a meal will be served. And for snacks, if the host is willing, you can mention a few known safe brands of chips or candy.
- Offer to bring extras. I don't know about your kids, but mine feels much more confident about her allergies if we bring enough 'ice cream' or allergy friendly cookies to share. Rather than her eating 'special food', she eats part of what's offered to everyone. The part she provided.
- Send a phone number, and any necessary medications. If the allergy is anaphylactic, make sure that the host knows the meds are on your child (or give them to her to keep on the counter) and what to do if a reaction is suspected.
Don't forget to Prepare Your Child
They'll be the ones attending. It's their party, their event, their body and their allergy. Let them know what to expect, and what accommodations have been made. Let them know what food is safe, and what isn't. Make sure they understand that they are under no obligation to eat. After all, as adults, we are well aware that we have a choice. Kids think they have to do whatever an adult tells them to, even if it's to eat something they're unsure of with an allergy.
Also, make sure your child knows it's okay to call you at any time. Teach them how to quietly find a phone, whether it's the host's telephone or they lock themselves in the bathroom with their own cellphone. Let them know it's okay to call you for support if they feel uncomfortable. Peer pressure is really hard to handle at any age. For kids with food allergies, it's essential that they be prepared and be strong.
What if my Child Calls?
That ringing phone can stop hearts when your food allergic child is at someone else's house. The vast majority of the time, the call is innocent. Sometimes it's your child calling to check on food, and once in awhile it's that dreaded "I think I need my medicine" call.
When you hear your child's voice on the other end of the line, stay calm. No matter what catastrophe your mind leaps to, keep your cool! Ask if everything is okay. If they are looking for info on a food, ask about the ingredients and remind them 'if in doubt, leave it out'. Suggest a food that you know was there and is safe for them, or offer to look at it after the party and let them bring a taste home. Usually that's enough for kids. You may also want to talk to an adult, if you don't feel confident your child will listen or if the food is a safe brand that the adult is restricting out of caution. Adults can err on either side of the coin...too cautious, or not careful enough.
If your child is feeling a lot of peer pressure, try talking to them before racing in to the rescue. Ask why they feel pressured, what they think they should do, and if there's anything they think you can do to help. They might just need a little reassurance that it's okay not to eat pizza. Not everyone likes pizza anyway. They may just want you to tell them it's okay to go into another room rather than watch the other guests eat forbidden foods. They may be insistent that they need to go home, in which case you can humor them. Just remember to tell them how proud you are that they tried, and focus on the fun parts of the party, not the parts that made them want to leave. Remember that all kids have arguments, or feel left out, or simply want to go home once in awhile. It's not always about the allergy, but food allergies are easy to blame for discomfort.
And if they are calling to say they think they are having a reaction? Continue to stay calm. Ask what makes them think they are reacting. Getting hit in the head with the pinata bat will cause a lingering headache for the most normal of children, but some kids with food allergies will blame the allergy. (It's totally irrational, but strange connections evolve in the minds of children) It's very unlikely that, after all your precautions, your child will actually have a reaction. But if they do, your host is prepared because you prepared them. Get an adult on the line, give them directions about if and when to call for an ambulance or use the epi pen and let them know you're on your way.
Hopefully, the party will go flawlessly. No allergic reaction. Your child will be picked up stuffed full of safe sugar and grinning ear to ear. And then you can breathe easier.
But don't let it end there. Remember to take stock of what you did right, compliment your child on making good decisions, and file away your learning for next time. Each party should get easier, and as other parents learn your child's allergies, they'll be more an more accommodating. (Just don't get too complacent, no matter how attentive they are, it never hurts to remind all adults of food allergies and medication whenever food is going to be involved.)