What's he allergic to?
"My son has life-threatening food allergies to dairy, egg and all nuts."
How did you find out?
"We've known since he was 15-weeks-old, had his first sip of formula, broke out into hives and couldn't breathe."
Will he ever outgrow it?
"Based on his blood test numbers, he'll never outgrow it. There's advancing research to support a treatment, but not a cure."
Do you have allergies?
"No, my husband and I don't have food allergies and neither does anyone in our family."
What do you eat?
"Yes, we still order pizza, but after he's in bed... No, soy milk only in the house, we all drink it... You know I really like the taste of sunflower seed butter now... well, applesauce or baking soda and oil can be a substitute for egg while baking."
I am an allergy-mom and these are the questions that people usually ask me when they first learn that my son has food allergies. It's not necessarily in this order, but it's always these five questions. I've been asked these questions so many times that I have the above stock answers at the ready, and respond in an automatic voice.
The questions aren't mean spirited and come from a place of pure curiosity. However, they can be a bit daunting to answer over and over, especially in front of my son who is able to understand what, and who, we are talking about.
So during Food Allergy Awareness Week I want to take this opportunity to share five questions that friends can ask food allergy families instead. These questions are more productive and frankly, come from a place of thoughtfulness and eagerness to help the child with food allergies, rather than reassuring the person who is asking the question.
Like most of the families with food allergies that I know, we never expect special accommodations. In fact, we are quite consciously taking great steps to make sure that our son knows how to manage his own allergies and doesn't perceive himself as a victim. However, when one of the below questions is asked, it always touches my heart and makes me feel a surge of appreciation and affection for the friend who is asking it.
With 1 and in every 13 kids in the United States living with food allergies, it is likely that you know someone who is impacted by food allergies and will have the occasion to ask these questions yourself. Thank you in advance for doing so.
1. How can I educate my child and myself to make sure we're being extra safe around your child?
For children of any age, please reinforce two things; 1) hand washing after eating and, 2) to never share food. These little steps can make a big difference in keeping kids with food allergies safe. Plus it is just a good, healthy habit to get into.
For your grade-school aged child, teach them the seriousness and signs of an allergic reaction (swollen lips, wheezing, hives, stomach cramps) so they can help recognize when a classmate or friend is in danger and tell an adult immediately.
For your toddlers or preschoolers, give some thought to what food you bring to a park or public space, or try to minimize snacks on-the-go. At a park, pool or beach, focus on playing, swinging and sliding, not snacking. If you do have food, go for fruits, dried vegetables or pretzels. I've been in many stressful situations where a toddler is toting around a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, or a handful of pistachios at a public park. Of course this is a shared space and you're free to feed your child whatever you want, but I believe this is a small sacrifice to make for an act of kindness.
2. As a host, what can we serve at a birthday party or picnic that will help keep all of the children safe, reinforce how welcome your child is and how glad we are that he or she is there?
Again, this is never expected and we've grown accustomed to bringing food for our son. But when our friends offer this as a host of a party, it is such a kind gesture that really makes us feel safe and allows us to relax and enjoy ourselves more. Our hosts have always been happy to buy a certain brand of pretzel or hot dog bun if it ensures that my son can participate freely in the event or meal.
Additionally, as the parent of a child with food allergies, it is important for me to find a quiet and convenient time (not right before the party as guests are arriving) to train a host on how to use an epi-pen, and/or offer to stay myself if they are uncomfortable doing so.
3. What can I pack in my child's lunch so he or she can join yours at the peanut-free table?
I'm happy to provide ideas of an allergy-safe lunch and appreciate the opportunity to do so, in order for my child to sit with a friend during lunch.
Additionally, support an initiative at your child's school to help raise awareness of food allergies. This year the principal at our school came to me with the idea for a Peanut-Free Café based on the book by the same name by Gloria Koster. For one day only, all of the students were encouraged to bring an allergy safe lunch so that the kids who usually sit at the peanut-free table could sit anywhere.
Also, on this day, food allergy musician Kyle Dine performed two assemblies (one for grades K-3, and one for grades 4-5) using songs, puppets and games to deliver tactical education lessons related to food allergy safety. Even more important, his message and this day also delivered an overarching lesson of kindness, leadership and acceptance.
Kyle Dine has food allergies himself, yet travels the world finding a kid-friendly and fun way to communicate what could otherwise be a heavy topic. All of the kids in both of the assemblies were engaged, eager and entertained. Plus they really think of Kyle as a rock star. He kind of is, check out his music.
4. What kind of event can we plan for our families to enjoy together?
As a family with food allergies it can be challenging to socialize with other families. We always enjoy events where food is not the focus like bowling, swimming or any other activity. If we're having a back yard BBQ or getting together for a sports game, we're happy to provide ideas for allergy safe snacks, or bring our own.
We love going to baseball games and hockey games and appreciate when a team has a special game or night where they don't serve peanut products. Just a few weeks ago, The Florence Freedom baseball team in Florence Kentucky announced a partnership with Enjoy Life Foods to make their entire stadium peanut-free due to the intimate small setting and family friendly atmosphere.
Lastly, every year we participate in an awareness event, the FARE walk as a family and raise money to support food allergy research. We love when friends and family join us on this fun day!
5. What else can I tell my child about food allergies?
Remind your child often that different is cool! Some kids like pizza, some kids play soccer. Some kids love art and some kids eat seafood. Whether its food allergies, skin color, hobbies or interests, we're all wonderfully unique! Being different is what makes us all interesting and gives us new things to learn from one another!