Think back to your own childhood. How many of your friends had a food allergy? In my circle, that’s a big zero. Most likely, that’s the case for you too. Now, up to 15 million people and about 1 in every 13 children do. Unfortunately, food allergies in the classroom can be a divisive topic, with some parents finding food bans restrictive while other parents believe schools don’t do enough to protect allergic students. I’ve got one kid with allergies and another who can eat whatever he wants (but complains anyway), so I’ve been on both sides of this issue. Whether it’s a classmate of your child who has an allergy or it’s your kid who has a dietary restriction, it is possible to have a fun and safe year without anyone going nuts over PB&J sandwiches. Here’s how:
6 Dos and Don’ts for Parents of Food-Allergic Kids
1. Do cut other parents a break.
They aren’t dealing with food allergies every day, so they often truly have no idea how serious they are. I certainly didn’t before I had my daughter and saw her have an allergic reaction firsthand. Most people have a relative who gets mildly gassy after eating a jumbo-sized hot fudge sundae or a buddy who requires an antacid after indulging in a platter of fried calamari, so they figure that’s the worst that will happen to your children, not the reality of severe vomiting, full-body hives or their throats closing up.
2. Do expect to do more than your share of work in the classroom.
Volunteer to be the class parent. Send in food for each of the nine billion parties and celebrations. Offer to chaperone a field trip. It’s frustrating that in addition to the stress and worry, there is a real economic cost to having a child with food allergies, but until there’s a better solution, being as hands-on as possible helps keep your kid safe and allows them to be part of the group.
3. Don’t assume people know how to cook or shop for your child.
My husband almost fed our daughter a cookie containing egg because he missed it on the teeny-tiny ingredient label. I ordered my kid a slice of pizza last summer and didn’t think to ask the chef whether or not the dough was made with egg—causing my kid to have a (thankfully) minor, but still uncomfortable, reaction. Food allergies are confusing enough even for people dealing with them every single day. If you really think another parent in the classroom or the teacher can handle feeding your child, great. But if you’re not sure, thank them for the offer, and then politely decline by putting it on you and saying you don’t want to add to an already full plate. No one will mind being asked to do less work!
4. Do show gratitude to people who go out of their way to include your kid.
Maybe a parent gave you a heads-up before sending in cupcakes for the class or made a fruit plate in addition to cookies so your kid could have something with his classmates. These parents are busy, and on top of the 87 things on their to-do list, they remembered your child’s health condition. Thank them!
5. Do educate your own child.
Teach children to manage their own conditions by washing their hands before eating and refraining from sharing food with friends. Also, if your school allows it, supply safe treats for the nurse or teacher to have on hand so your kid will always have something yummy when food celebrations happen on birthdays, Valentine’s Day, Halloween, Easter, Groundhog Day, Winter Solstice, Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza, the 100th day of the academic year and the third Thursday of the month.
6. Don’t idealize everyone else’s lives.
When my child was first diagnosed with her allergies, I’d look with envy at photos on Facebook of friends eating out with their children. One time, I actually burst in to tears when a person posted a picture of their family’s annual visit to the ice cream stand. Irrationally, I felt like their not having to worry about allergies meant they didn’t have to worry about anything. It sounds ridiculous, I know, but it’s important to remember that everyone has something they’re dealing with—in the classroom or at home—or both.
6 Dos and Don’ts for Parents of Non-allergic Kids
1. Do give a heads-up before sending in treats.
Email the teacher or the parents of the allergic kid (if you know them) to let them know you’ll be dropping off that ice cream cake or plate of sugar cookies. It’ll give the other family time to bake something safe for their own child. Trust me, it’s easy to forget this one—I’ve done it myself, I’m embarrassed to admit, but if you can, it’s super helpful.
2. Do consider non-food treats.
If your child wants Minecraft-themed cupcakes for her class party, great. But if you know there’s a kid in the class with an allergy who won’t be able to eat them, think about sending in Minecraft stickers, temporary tattoos or pencils, too. You’ll be making another child’s day.
3. Do respect the school’s rules.
Yes, it can be frustrating to work around food bans (no nuts! no seeds! no fruit with the letter A in it!), but grin and bear it. If you have concerns or feel there’s a better way, by all means speak with the administration, but don’t ignore the policies in place. It can put another kid in danger, and it also sends the wrong message to your own children: that they can ignore rules they don’t like.
4. Don’t make cracks about food allergies in front of your child.
You don’t want them to think their classmate’s serious health condition is a joke, or worse, something to tease them about. About 31 percent of children report being bullied because of their food allergies. Let them know this is not a laughing matter.
5. Don’t call us neurotic.
I know we look crazy to you, but we’ve seen our kids get violently ill or raced them to the emergency room as they gasped for air. We’re not trying to helicopter here—we’re truly just hoping our kids survive lunch period. Don’t blame us for the people who say they’re allergic to something at a restaurant just because they don’t like it. They’re just annoying.
6. Do be grateful.
Your children can enjoy birthday celebrations, playdates, class parties and meals at the school cafeteria (okay, that last one may not be all that awesome) without a second thought. You don’t have to make and send their own food, pack life-saving medicine to have on hand, or worry they might inadvertently ingest something they’re allergic to. Appreciate it!
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