Food allergies are a serious and growing problem in the U.S., affecting nearly three million children, according to the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN). For parents with children who have food allergies, birthday parties, dining out and even school can be a potentially near-death experience.
The biggest offenders of foods that can cause allergic-reactions include: wheat, dairy, soy, eggs, fish, shellfish, peanuts, and tree nuts. Ironically, these foods a staple in U.S. diets and very common in many popular recipes for desserts and breads. As a result may pose many challenges for parents trying to keep their children safe. Allergic reactions from these foods can vary from mild to severe, to even fatal if not treated immediately. Parents should look for symptoms such as rashes, diarrhea, vomiting, and either difficulty breathing or swallowing.
While it can be serious, a food allergy doesn’t preclude children or families from enjoying food at home, school or when dining out. Bonnie Presti, a food allergy consultant and founder of SensitiveDiner.com, says there are a number of things parents can do to help navigate the world of food allergies in children. At school, she says that parents should educate everyone who may have any interaction with the child, including the principal, cafeteria staff and teachers on what the child is allergic too, his or her potential reactions and how to treat it if they accidentally eat something of which they are allergic.
Parents may also want to conduct a “show and tell” in the child’s classroom about food allergies. Presti says that this helps non-allergic classmates to be more aware of the subject of food allergies in general, and educate them on their classmate’s specific food allergies so they can be more vigilant in looking after their friend, or making sure they remember to not offer the allergic child certain foods.
She also recommends parents provide “emergency snacks that the teacher can keep in the drawer for times when other parents bring surprise treats that your child would not be able to eat. They can then join in the party with their own safe food.”
Something else parents should keep in mind is that some of the foods that may cause allergic reactions have easy substitutes for parents so children can often still enjoy the same foods like cookies and pasta just by making a few simple modifications.
Websites such as FAAN and Weelicious.com, offer alternatives for sensitive foods in recipes. Many of the site’s recipes call for using cashew butter, almond butter or sunflower nut butter, instead of peanut butter. If cow’s milk is the culprit, parents (and children) may find solace in rice milk, almond milk, hemp milk, hazelnut milk or soy milk. Finally, if there’s a recipe calling for wheat flour, try rice, potato, or even bean flours.
Restaurants can easily pose a danger for children with food allergies. Food experts such as Presti recommend that parents take certain steps such as asking questions of the server or chef about ingredients in items listed on the menu to help ensure meals are prepared safely.
“It’s okay to ask to see the label, package or container for a food,” says Presti. “That way you can see for yourself if there are any ‘hidden’ ingredients that could be potentially harmful.”
Presti also says parents should avoid going to eat at peak dinner times or holidays when staff are extremely busy and not as available to answer questions or make special changes to a menu choice. And she says “be prepared to take other food just in case there are no good options on the menu.”
While many children continue to have lifelong allergies to tree nuts and peanuts, most will either become less sensitive to or outgrow altogether allergies to dairy, eggs and fish by adulthood.
Parents should always continue to consult with a family medical practitioner if they have questions about a child’s food allergies. But there are also a number of resources parents can turn to for more information about food allergies including foodallergy.org, KeepKidsHealthy.com and sensitivediner.com. These sites also offer tips for traveling and dining out, recipes and/or information about testing for allergies.
Presti, Bonnie, food allergy consultant, www.sensitivediner.com.
Food Allergy and Annaphylaxis Network, www.foodallergy.org
The American Academy of Allergy Asthma and Immunology. http://www.aaaai.org/media/statistics/allergy-statistics.asp#foodallergy