Teach Your Food-Allergic Child to Manage their Food Allergy Responsibly
Empowering your food-allergic child to manage their food allergy is essential as they grow older. As a parent, you naturally have more control when your child is young, but at some point you must carefully guide them to make decisions on their own. How can you know when your child is ready to be more independent and make safe food choices?
The answer is – it depends on the child.
However, answering the following questions can help you guide your food-allergic child to increased awareness, more accountability and safe food choices. Ask yourself:
- Does my child understand the severity of his/her condition and know what foods or ingredients trigger a reaction?
- Will my child speak up and ask questions about how a food is prepared? Or, are they too shy or embarrassed to ask?
- Can and will my child accurately read food labels?
- Will my child say “no thank you” when peers encourage him/her to try something?
- Does my child know the symptoms of their allergic reaction?
- Does my child know where to get help for a reaction? Or, is my child able to administer his/her own medication in an emergency?
The more “yes” answers, the more confident you can feel in letting your child make their own food choices. The challenge is to empower your child to make decisions and teach them how to read food labels, ask questions when unsure about a food choice and instill confidence in their abilities to be responsible.
Children with and without a food allergy need to feel special, but not different and apart from their peers. Making safe choices is not easy even for a well-trained, vigilant person. It takes time and understanding for children.
Ingredient label reading is a challenge in itself. First, the print is small and the list is often long. Second, manufacturers change product formulas, so it’s critical to read labels each time. Third, some ingredients have unfamiliar names. It’s easy to miss an ingredient that could cause a reaction. Fortunately, a new law requires food manufacturers to list common food allergens on food packages now. Because companies often run similar products on the same equipment, labels often state “run in a facility that processes peanuts” or “may contain almonds or other nuts”. Research shows that 20% of the time there is enough peanut in products with that label to cause a reaction. Allergic individuals must avoid these foods as well.
Teaching a child to read the fine print is not easy, even when a mistake could be serious. It takes lots of practice, perseverance and patience. Give your child many opportunities to read and compare labels. Point out allergenic ingredients on the label. Teach them the various words for soy or milk or other ingredients in a food. The Dallas Food Allergy Center can help you with information about food synonyms and hidden foods.
Eating in restaurants or away from home can also be a problem. You must ask questions about the food and how it’s prepared. In restaurants, inform the wait staff and even speak directly to the chef if need be. Here’s why:
- Some chefs add peanut butter or nuts to dishes without mentioning it in the menu description. They may add peanut butter to barbecue sauce or use milk in sauces.
- Finfish, such as flounder and shellfish are usually deep-fried together. Sometimes French fries are done separately, but not always.
- Wok cooking poses special problems because, in general, woks are wiped but not washed between dishes. If the dish before your beef and broccoli was peanut chicken there can be a problem.
- Restaurants often use the same grill for steak, eggs, fish and other grilled items, but don’t always wash the grill thoroughly before reusing.
Teach your children and teens to be accountable and manage their own lives and health conditions. This includes asking questions, reading labels, making choices and carrying and administering medications. Children and teens with allergies need to feel comfortable and secure in their ability to make those decisions. FARE provides excellent educational resources to help children of all ages better understand food allergies.