Back-to-school time is stressful on its own. Add in the specter of food allergies - of your own kids or their friends - and the stakes can feel even higher. What to toss in the lunch bag? What’s safe to share with the class? What can the kids grab between practices? What can you offer that’s not a packaged food? And so on.
According to Kids With Food Allergies, part of the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, 1 in 13 kids has a food allergy. According to the Food and Drug Administration, 90% of food-related allergic reactions come from eight foods: milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat and soybeans.
With the exception of seafood, those allergens are pretty typical ingredients when it comes to snacks aimed at children. Snacks at school can be particularly problematic, as “most allergic reactions on school campus happen in the classroom, not the cafeteria,” says Melanie Carver, vice president of community health for the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. The reasons are unclear, but possibilities include kids being more likely to eat food not prepared by their own parents, substitute teachers not being aware of student needs and cross-contamination occurring with less rigorous hand-washing.
Here are a few tips for smart, safe eating at school and at home:
- Help your kid understand their allergies. They need to be able to communicate what they’re allergic to, and Carver says they should be comfortable asking questions of other adults. She suggests parents role-play with their kids to practice. And even if the kids don’t have any food allergies, they should be aware that some of their friends might and they should avoid sharing food with others.
- Know what’s in your food. By law, packaged food containing the eight allergens listed above must be labeled. (Sesame is not included in the law, Carver says, but it can also cause adverse reactions.) Be sure you read the packaging for these and any other ingredients that could cause a reaction, and teach kids how to read labels. Also look for voluntary disclaimers about potential cross-contact in a facility that produces multiple types of food.
- Be sure others know what’s in the food. If you’re sharing snacks with your children’s class, include a label or recipe. Try to get a list of safe foods from the teacher, too. If you’re hosting a group at home, double-check with the kids that they can eat what you’re serving or, better yet, check with their parents first.
- Emphasize what your kid can have, rather than what they can’t. Be sympathetic if they feel deprived or left out. At school, Carver suggests parents ask that teachers stock allergy-friendly snacks, such as muffins, for their kids in the freezer for unexpected situations, such as an impromptu party. Attitude helps, too. Come up with alternatives that are just as tasty, pretty or colorful - if not more so - than the problematic foods. Think of it as an opportunity to explore new foods, Carver says.
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- Try to hit a variety of food groups and compensate for what’s being left out. Good snacks, individually or in combination, will cover a wide swath of nutrition. Thankfully, fresh fruit, as well as dried or freeze-dried, and vegetables are generally safe bets. As to other types of foods, Kids With Food Allergies offers some alternatives to consider. If dairy is out, nondairy milks are an option, and you can pick up calcium in many greens. No nuts? Consider olives, pumpkins seeds (pepitas), sunflower seeds and avocados. If eggs are a problem, you can get vitamin B12 from fish, shellfish, soy, beef, chicken and milk. The ballooning gluten-free market means finding substitutes for wheat foods (pretzels, crackers, bread and more) is not hard these days. Oats, if certified gluten-free, are a great snacking option, and so is the classic rice cracker. Kids With Food Allergies recommends quinoa as a high-protein grain (Quinoa Crispy Treats, anyone?).