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Tips for Managing Food Allergies at School

Kids with food allergies have special challenges when they eat at school.  Unlike at home, they may not know all the ingredients in the food they are served or what food items came in contact with their food.  Allergic reactions, sometimes severe, can result.  What can parents do to help their kids manage their food allergies at school?

What are the most common food allergies in kids?  Peanuts, shell fish, dairy products (lactose, specifically), and wheat (gluten, specifically) cause the most common food-based allergic reactions in kids.

What is the best way for parents to teach their kids about their food allergy so they will avoid eating something they shouldn’t be eating?  Most kids learn about their allergies after first having an allergic reaction to something.  Allergic reactions are unpleasant and can also be embarrassing for the sufferer.  Additionally, some allergic reactions can be life-threatening.  The best way for parents to motivate their kids to avoid eating something to which they are allergic is to remind their kids of the consequences of eating these foods.  Parents also need to determine what motivates their kids to want to eat the foods that they know are harmful for them, and then parents can work to lessen that motivation.  Parents can also provide their kids with easy ways out—face-saving ways to decline allergy-prompting foods from their peers.  For example, “Johnny, I know you like peanuts and all your classmates like snacking on them, but remember what happened when you ate peanuts the last time?  Remember how your face and tongue swelled?  Some of the kids made fun of the way you looked and that was embarrassing for you, right?  Then, you went to the doctor, and she said you could die from eating peanuts.  Remember that?  I know it’s tempting to eat peanuts because ‘everybody’s doing it’ and you want to fit in, but as much as you don’t want to look different from your buddies, wouldn’t having an allergic reaction make you stand out more than just not eating peanuts in the first place?  There’s other food you can snack on, so it won’t be a major issue, will it?  You can just say that you don’t want any peanuts; you don’t have to say that you’re allergic to them.  Maybe you can say that you prefer eating the popcorn that is also served.  We love you dearly and don’t want you to risk your life.  We want to keep you around for a long time to come.  Will you help us ensure that we get to keep you?”

How can parents teach their kids to read food labels?  Once kids are old enough to read, parents can teach their kids to read food labels by reading food labels aloud with them consistently.  Every time a labeled food is consumed, parents and their kids with food allergies should read the label together and discuss what is read.  Are any of these ingredients harmful?  Does the label say that the food was prepared or packaged in a facility that also processes food that is harmful (even if the labeled food is not, on its own, harmful)?

What is the best way to talk to teachers and school kitchen staff about your child’s food allergy?  Teachers and school kitchen staff must plan meals for the masses of kids that they feed daily.  With so many kids to think about, it may be difficult for them to juggle the complex web of food allergies among the kids in the school.  Parents need to inform their kids’ teachers and school kitchen staff of the food allergies, the symptoms of the allergies, the proper first-response treatment (i.e., EpiPen, etc.), and other necessary information.  Parents are well advised to put this information in writing with their kids names printed in large text at the top; this document then can be provided to the kids’ teachers and school kitchen staff.  By providing a written document as supplement to the discussion between parents and school staff, parents make it easier for school staff to understand the allergies and what is expected of them regarding the allergies.

How can parents make sure the school/teacher is prepared if an allergic reaction takes place?  By having the discussion above and providing school staff with a document that details the information shared during the discussion, parents can provide school staff with the information they need to understand and respond to an allergic reaction in their kids.  If a proper first-response treatment involve specific medicine or unique items, such medicine or items should be provided to those school personnel who would most likely be the first responders.  For example, an EpiPen can be given to a teacher in case an allergic reaction occurs in the classroom.

What symptoms should teachers be looking for that kids are having an allergic reaction?  Different allergies manifest with different symptoms.  Rashes, hives, reddened or bluish skin, itching, swelling of face and tongue, difficulty swallowing and/or breathing, chest and/or abdominal pain, nausea, diarrhea, sneezing, runny nose, weakened blood pressure and/or pulse, loss of consciousness, and other symptoms may manifest as allergic reactions.

What are the best kid-friendly substitutions for peanut products, dairy, wheat and other allergy-prone foods?  Depending on the context in which peanuts are used (i.e., as stand-alone snacks, in cookies, in chocolate candies, etc.) popcorn, chocolate chips, puffed rice, sunflower seeds, and soy nuts can substitute nicely for peanuts.  A variety of lactose-free and gluten-free products are available in most grocery stores.  Fruit juices are popular substitutes for drinking milk.  Mashed bananas, rice flour, tapioca flour, and ground rolled oats can replace wheat flour in many baked goods.    Chicken is a popular substitute for shell fish.

What is the best way for parents to deal with other kids or parents who seem annoyed that their kids’ food allergies are an inconvenience?  Understand that food allergies may be foreign to the other kids or parents and they may be annoyed by the additional work required of them to accommodate the food allergies.  Acknowledge the inconvenience, issue an apology, and offer a solution.  For example, “I know your son’s birthday cake will have peanuts in the frosting.  My Johnny is allergic to peanuts.  I’m sorry to create an inconvenience for you; I don’t want to put you out, but I’m hoping that you can accommodate Johnny’s allergy.  You need not bake the cake (or any part of it) differently just to accommodate Johnny’s allergy.  I’m hoping you’ll just serve Johnny the ice cream that you will serve with the cake.  Is that ok?”  If the other kids or parents remain annoyed, parents will need to decide if avoiding food-related situations with these individuals may be the best response moving forward.

Do most kids outgrow food allergies?  Some kids outgrow food allergies; some do not.  It is not currently understood why some allergies disappear with maturation and some do not.

For more detailed information on food allergies or if parents have questions about their kids’ food  allergies, they are encouraged to speak with their pediatricians.

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