More kids than ever live with life-threatening food allergies. My son is one of them. Peanuts pose the risk of anaphylaxis and, as a result, my son never travels anywhere without his Epi Pen. We first learned about his food allergy when he was 20 months old, and since then I've been forced to notice the little things about your life that change when your kid has a serious food allergy. Are those little changes worth it? Absolutely. In the end, there isn't a thing in the world more important than my son's health, so these changes aren't really inconveniences as much as they are simple adjustments.
No one else in our family, including his older sister, has any food allergies, so we had to make some significant accommodations in order to keep our boy safe. When kids are toddlers, and rarely left to their own devices, we are their mouthpieces. I felt like my son’s Secret Service agent whenever we’d show up at a party or playdate; I’d survey the scene, scope out the food situation and grill the hosts on the contents of their kitchen. At food-centric holidays (which for me, as a New York Jew, means all of them), we would put in our requests to adapt the recipes to be nut-free, and offer to bring desserts or sides or anything else that reduced the chance of someone inadvertently serving a deadly ingredient.
We have lived with my son’s peanut allergy or over four years now, and as he enters grade school, new kinds of adjustments must be made, too. He’s more independent, now. After all, he’s one of 29 kids in a class and if he doesn’t speak up for his safety, who will? We’ve done all the due diligence with the teachers and school nurse, and thankfully the school has a “food-free” celebration policy so nobody brings in edible treats for birthdays. Still, the default cold lunch served in the cafeteria is a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. There is a long way to go to keep all food allergy kids safe when they are out of our reach.
So, with that in mind, here are a few things that having a child with a serious food allergy changes about your life:
Among the kid art on our apartment door is a colorful “NO PEANUTS PLEASE” sign, which is essentially a warning as well as a request. Our whole family abstains from peanut products, so as not to put our son at risk. However, when we attend playdates hosted by other families, I have to be proactive and let them know, before we arrive, that we can’t have peanuts around.
Most families are very understanding and my five-year-old is conditioned to ask “Does this have peanuts?” when someone offers him anything. If you can’t safeguard by abstaining from serving peanut products, I’m afraid he can’t come over to play.
A lot of chain restaurants are transparent about their ingredients, stating their potential allergy alerts on the menu. Sadly, though, that is not enough. We have to know what kind of oil is used, if there is a risk of cross-contamination with shared pots and pans, and if the dish that usually comes with nuts but can come without nuts is still a risk because it has come in contact with nuts at some point. I mean, it's exhausting.
Salads, sauces and desserts are the shadiest offerings at a restaurant; you have to ask the server to reverse engineer the dishes for you so you know exactly how those dishes have been prepared. We can’t be afraid to be that family — the one with a million questions about the food. We love eating out, but we essentially stick to the places where we’ve already grilled the restaurant staff and know what’s safe to order, and what isn't. I hope to resume more adventurous eating as the rest of the world adapts to families like ours.
Teaching Your Kid To Share
As parents, we’re on the look-out for sharp corners, unprotected wall outlets or toxic products on low shelves. As parents of food allergy kids, our over-active senses are in full effect, as what is now "poison" could be anywhere. Taking our son to the playground changed drastically after learning of his severe peanut allergy. I saw every surface as a potential death trap, watching all those little hands touch the equipment. Had those children been eating peanut butter?
So while we've always encouraged our children to share, I don't want anyone sharing with my son. Luckily, most caregivers know to ask parents, not kids, if the children can partake in an offered snack. Usually, we need to say “no thank you,: unless it’s a packaged item or I know the ingredients by heart. “He has a food allergy, so we’re extra careful,” I explain. I used to sound apologetic about it, but I quickly grew out of it and no longer make apologies for my son and his needs. We have nothing to feel sorry for, and we’re doing other families a service by educating them on how we can keep our children safe.
Attending Birthday Parties
I would never ask another parent to deny their own child whatever treat their heart desired on their special day. However, what if people did consider others’ health issues when they decide what to serve at parties? My son’s severe allergy is limited to peanuts, but we know plenty of kids whose parents arm them with gluten-free, dairy-free, nut-free cupcakes so they can eat a sweet along with the rest of the non-allergy kids enjoying birthday cake.
Imagine if every kid with an allergy attended a party where their needs were met too, and they weren’t made to feel like an “other?” Who says the best cakes are made with flour and eggs and milk, anyway?
Anything Involving Halloween
The sight of those pumpkin-shaped Reese’s peanut butter cups gives me palpitations. Now, I hate Halloween, as it inevitably means I'll spend my time combing through my kids’ loot to weed out anything laced with peanuts, and watching their disappointed faces as the pile of acceptable and safe candy gets smaller and smaller.
I know people want to be nice and hand out candy, but can we just stick to the mostly safe straight-up sugar kind, like Twizzlers and Dum Dums? Luckily, my son has staunch supporters; the pack of kids he trick-or-treats with all yell in unison “Trick or treat! No Peanuts!” Most of them aren’t even allergic. If they keep that up, over time, people will get the message.
One of the many joys of shopping at Costco is scooping up the free samples stationed throughout the store. My kids love trying new food, especially if it’s bite-sized, fried, and served in a little paper cupcake holder. However, where I could once waltz through the superstore, sampling everything in my wake, we now grill the server on the ingredients, study the package label and, sometimes, pass it up if we can’t be completely sure it’s peanut-free.
My son has learned not to be disappointed, but my heart aches for him as we navigate these extra layers to determine if a piece of a chicken dumpling on a toothpick is safe.
Purchasing And Using Cosmetics
When my son was first diagnosed with his food allergy, the doctor advised us to have him stay away from peanuts and tree nuts. This affected more than just the food in our house; I had toiletries that contained almond and coconut and macadamia products. I freaked out that the lotion I had been using was potentially harmful to my son, even if he came in contact with my skin.
Thankfully, a more conclusive allergy prick test confirmed that peanuts were on the “no way” list, but other nuts were safe. Still, we learned we can’t make assumptions when it comes to keeping our kids safe. There is nothing that my food allergy kid can’t do or enjoy in life, he just has to ask more questions, read more labels and discover all the delicious alternatives to PB&J.