Being aware of food allergies: how to host a child with food allergies

by a Ottawa mom I am a mom who has been dealing with multiple severe food allergies now for two years (the anaphylactic-Epipen-ambulance rides to CHEO kind). These two years have been the most stressful period of our lives. It has turned me into a total Mama Grizzly on the topic of food allergies and awareness. I am always protecting my little cub at home and outside - constantly on the lookout for crumbs, suspicious food labels and food wrappers left in the park (and more).

The tricky thing with food allergies is that once you're outside of your safe zone, you rely on your friends and the people around you to be sympathetic to your needs and demonstrate compassion by taking your child's medical needs seriously.

Here's a recent (bad) example. One day last month there was a birthday in my son's daycare and the children had a surprise treat of ice cream (it was a surprise to me too as we have an agreement about giving notice for birthday treats). Because of my son's egg, milk and nut allergies, he cannot participate in these special activities. When I collected him at the end of the day shortly after the ice cream had been gobbled up by his classmates, I found my little boy in a high chair eating one of his homemade muffins. He looked miserable. His emotions were on his sleeve and he reached up for a big hug and slung his head on my shoulder. I felt horrible for him. And guilt. Then rage. A birthday party shouldn't be the worst part of your week.

You might not think it's a big deal, but it is when it happens repeatedly. This is just an example from last month. Month. Typing this story out is making me cry at my computer screen. Food allergies comes with a lot of emotional baggage.

You can show your respect towards a child with food allergies (and their parents) by creating safe situations for them when you invite them to playdates or birthday parties. Hosting an inclusive get together doesn't have to be complicated.

Here are some tips :

  1. Ask your guests if there are any food or environmental allergies in advance.
  2. Understand the severity of the allergies. Is it sniffles and red eyes? Or is it "911 epipen hives and can't breathe ambulance ride to the CHEO" allergies? Does the latter scare you? It should.
  3. Before the party:
    • Talk to the allergy parent about your menu plan. This allows the allergy parent to decide if they can allow their child to eat the same food or whether they will pack similar food to bring along. Ideally, I'd like to see the host not serve any food that contains the allergens. Really. If making an eggless cake boggles your mind, just ask for a recipe. I know that I can make a dairy and egg free cake that tastes just as good (or BETTER!) than the regular version. If you are the "allergy mom" offer to send recipes or even bake/cook something to bring for everyone.
    • Let all of your guests know about any special considerations. Some parents may ask that children not have peanut butter or nuts before arriving or ask that they brush their teeth and wash their hands beforehand. You may also want to ask guests not to bring any food.
  4. Make the party venue allergy-friendly. Give the place a good clean sweep. Wipe down surfaces such as play tables, kitchen tables and countertops with a clean cloth. Inspect any toys that will be shared for food residue and wash them if necessary.
  5. Avoid cross contamination when preparing foods. If you are cooking a separate item for an allergy child, always use clean bowls, utensils and ingredients. Cover any baking sheets with tinfoil if you've baked with the allergen on them before.
  6. Confirm any ingredients and food with the "allergy mom". Allergens can be lurking even in products that don't have the allergen on the ingredient list. Have you ever seen warnings that read, "This product has been manufactured in a facility the processes peanuts? " To us, that warning is THE SAME as having the allergen included in the ingredient list. And here's the tricky thing, that warning is OPTIONAL. Processed foods, even things like cereal, may not be safe.
  7. Condiments. If you think there is a chance that a knife may have dipped into peanut butter and then into the jelly jar or onto the stick of butter, open a new package or jar. Play it safe.
  8. Hosting a BBQ? Have you ever made a peanut sauce marinade for your meat and cooked it on the grill? Maybe? Then your BBQ may still have nut residue on the grill. Cook any food for the allergy sufferer on a piece of tin foil and use separate tongs.

Here are some situations that make an allergy mom extremely nervous when unsafe food is available :

  • Unsafe food within reach (it's not fun to be the helicopter parent standing next to your child during the entire party... and it's not much fun for the child either )
  • Children running around with unsafe foods. Dropping food. Trying to give the allergy-kid food.
  • Children with foody hands touching toys, tabletops, crayons or worse, touching the allergy kid.

Make it a safe party for everyone. And have fun!