A childhood food allergy can cause most parents to feel confused, frustrated, and at a loss for what to feed their children. Whether you have just discovered your infant cannot tolerate a specific food or your school-aged child is newly allergic to a food, here are some dos and don’ts to help you, your child, and your family cope with childhood food allergies.
Work with your child’s doctor (whether a general practitioner or a specialist in food allergies), to determine what foods your child is allergic to, how their body responds, and what they can do to manage their symptoms. A clinical nutritionist can work with you and your child to adjust their diet, find new recipes, and identify any supplements your child may need. For example, if your child is allergic to dairy, a dietitian can help you find other foods high in calcium and recommend supplements to you, if needed. Additionally, they can also help you cope with a “picky eater” who has food allergies.
Throughout your child’s life, they will receive meals and snacks from a number of places. Talk to your child’s teacher, daycare supervisor, and summer camp director about your child’s allergies. Ask about alternative snack and meal options. If your child has multiple and/or unusual allergies, you may have to provide alternative snacks.
Whether your child has been allergic to foods since infancy, or you have recently discovered a new food allergy, it doesn’t mean your family meals have to be boring. Find a cookbook or website that specializes in your child’s diet. There are thousands of cookbooks that cater to vegan (no animal products, including dairy and eggs), gluten-free, and other allergy-free lifestyles. Specialty food stores, as well as a growing number of grocery store chains carry “alternatives” to foods, such as soy and coconut milk, spelt bread, and egg replacers. Experiment with food alternatives and find one that works for your family.
You may be surprised to find food allergens lurking in unusual places. For example, it is quite common to find milk byproducts in bread, and gluten in candy. If your child is able to read, teach your child the different forms their allergen can take and show them how to read ingredient labels. Also, encourage your child to ask if a food is safe for them to eat when they are at a friend’s house, restaurant, etc.
Talk to your friends and family about your child’s food allergies. Just as you are learning about your allergy and adjusting your child’s food restrictions, your friends and family will need to do the same. If you are attending a family gathering, offer to bring a food item that is safe for your child to eat. If your mom wants to serve your peanut-allergic son a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, discuss your son’s allergy with her in detail and offer her meal alternatives. By educating family and friends, you will have more watchful eyes that are able to look out for the safety and health of your child.
Ultimately, your child will be the one to live with these food allergies. Discuss their allergies with them, invite them into the kitchen to cook with you, and teach them how to manage their allergies effectively.
Don’t assume that your child can continue to eat the same foods without consequence. Whether a severe food allergy or mild food intolerance, your child’s body will react to the foods they are eating and cause ongoing harm. Talk to your child’s doctor and/or dietitian about the impact these foods are having on their body and what it would mean if they continued to eat them.
Whether your child is newly allergic to a food or feels compelled to eat a particular food strictly because they’re not allowed to, eliminate the possibility of an accident by removing the offending food from your home. Clear your cupboards of food your child can no longer eat and don’t buy them anymore when you go to the grocery store. That being said, an older child or a child well-educated about their food allergy may be able to tolerate having these foods in the home. Ultimately, work with your child and discover a solution that is right for your family.
While many restaurants are becoming friendlier to food allergies, don’t assume anything while dining out. Call the restaurant ahead of time and ask if they can accommodate your child’s food allergy. Browse the menu to find a few options that appear to be “safe” for your child to eat. Explain to the waiter that your child has food allergies and ask for recommendations on the menu. Some chain restaurants have printed information on food allergies that can guide your choice, but be prepared: some waiters have no idea what foods may be safe. They may also be too busy with other tables to spend the time to find the answer. In some cases, a chef may come out and discuss this with you. But ultimately, be prepared to either have your child munching on snacks from home or finding a new restaurant entirely if this one cannot accommodate you.
If your child’s allergy is severe and they require an EpiPen, don’t ever leave home without it. An accidental ingestion of a food allergen can happen at any time and a severe anaphylactic reaction to an allergen can be a life-threatening emergency. Ask your doctor when your child is ready to learn how to use the EpiPen independently.
Food allergies can be overwhelming and confusing to most parents. Education and experimentation will be your greatest tools in managing your child's food allergies. Teach your child about what you learn from their doctor and educate those closest to you. Remember that an allergy is not the end of the world, and can be a way to open up the world of new foods to your child and yourself.
More expert advice about Allergies
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