How to handle food allergies at school
Dealing with your child's food allergy is never easy; however, it can be especially nerve-wracking when he is at school and not under your watchful eye. We spoke with experts and moms who shared tips on the best way to talk to the teacher about your child's condition, as well as how to help your child take charge of his food allergy.
"If your child has food allergies, it can be scary sending them off to school," says Vandana Sheth, registered dietitian, nutritionist and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
"Being proactive and creating a team that supports you in this process will help," says Sheth, who shares that there are eight foods which account for 90 percent of all food allergy reactions, and those include peanuts, tree nuts, milk, eggs, soy, wheat, fish and shellfish.
How to talk to your teacher about food allergies
Talking to the teacher, school nurse and any other helpers that will be working with your child about your child's allergy is critical. Some school are "peanut-free zones" and require teachers to be trained on how to use an EpiPen; other schools do not have such policies in place.
"I always provide the teacher an introduction letter at the beginning of the school year, sharing the potential reaction, offering to provide substitutes as needed, volunteering to be a resource about food allergies and including a home baked allergen-friendly treat," says family therapist Brooke Randolph, whose own child has a food allergy.
Sheth agrees, saying it is very important that you have a meeting with the school nurse and teacher prior to the start of school. "Prepare a food allergy and anaphylaxis emergency action plan that ensures proper storage and administration of epinephrine, [which is] medication in case of a severe reaction. This will not only identify the food allergens that your child must avoid, but also list symptoms of a reaction and treatment."
It is also very important that the teacher knows the symptoms that your child is having an allergic reaction, such as hives, itching, wheezing or swelling of the lips and tongue.
Help your child take charge of his food allergy
Along with educating your child's teacher, you also need to educate your child on how he can take control and be aware of his food allergy while at school.
"Younger kids need to be taught that asking about food allergens is an important habit. For example, have your child practice asking 'Does this have dairy in it?’ before accepting any food, even if it comes from you," says Randolph.
She says that asking about an allergen should be a habit, so the child does it automatically about everything. "Until the child develops the habit, do not let go of food or place it in front of a child until he or she asks you about the allergens. Have him practice at restaurants and everywhere else you are together. It is no different than teaching your child to say please."
It is also important you teach kids to read food labels and to educate them on the different names that signify a food allergen. If there is no label or they aren't sure, teach them to avoid it.
For younger kids, Sheth says to teach them to not eat anything you haven't sent to school. You may also want to consider having your child wear a medical ID bracelet.
Best food substitutions
"It really isn't that difficult to live allergen free these days. There are substitutions for everything," says Randolph. Depending on the allergy (and check with your doctor for specifics), some good allergy-free lunch substitutions can include:
- Sandwich with sesame seed or pumpkin seed butter
- Fruit kabobs
- Crackers stacked with turkey and cheese (omit the cheese for dairy allergies)
- Tortilla wraps with bean dip and guacamole
- Sunbutter and crackers
- Gluten-free crackers or pretzels
- Wheat-free, gluten-free chicken nuggets
- Hummus and carrots
- Homemade beef jerky
Is your child being bullied over food allergies?
Ward off bullying before it starts.
"Education is the best weapon against bullying," says Robert Reinhardt, U.S. Medical Director for ImmunoDiagnostics at Thermo Fisher Scientific.
"The unknown is often what leads to bullying, so making sure that a child's peers understand what his allergy is and how dangerous it is can often alleviate the situation," he says. "Sometimes the fix to a bullying situation is as simple as having a parent-to-parent discussion. That way, the parent of the bully can speak with their child and hopefully handle the situation without having to escalate."
Lastly, don't let your child miss out on fun class parties and events because of his food allergy. Plan ahead and bring his allergy-free food for him to enjoy with his class.
"I will ask ahead of time about the menu for parties and bring substitutes. I generally carry a pizza and a cupcake for my child to every birthday party," says Randolph.