How to handle food allergies at school
For children just diagnosed with serious food allergies, navigating class parties or school lunches may seem impossible. Here’s how to proactively manage food allergies at school.
Back-to-school time can understandably signal anxiety for parents of young kids who have recently been diagnosed with food allergies. Regardless of progress made in recent years, dealing with food allergies at school can still be difficult for many children. However, advance discussions with teachers, school administrators and your child can help you ease into the year with confidence.
Talk to your child about self-care.
“Ultimately, as a parent, you cannot be there at every moment to protect them,” says Stacy Dorris, M.D., a pediatric allergy and immunology specialist at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt. “They have to carry a large portion of this load. They should be in the habit of asking before eating anything to make sure that it does not contain their allergen.”
Talk to teachers and administrators and have an emergency plan.
Parents should also inform teachers and the school administrators about the child’s food allergy. Dorris recommends having a written Food Action Plan (click here for an example) in place. “Of course, there needs to be two EpiPens and liquid Benadryl available at all times for the child in case of a severe allergic reaction,” she adds.
What about school lunches?
“I don’t advocate for a child strictly bringing their own lunch if the allergen is fairly easy to avoid such as nuts or seafood,” Dorris says. “If the allergen is milk, eggs or wheat, for example, this may be more difficult, and each parent will have to decide what to do after talking with the administration and staff.”
What about classroom snacks and treats?
Some teachers and administrators may choose to avoid a certain allergen altogether. They might send a letter to other parents, advising them of the situation. Depending on the allergy and the classroom plan, parents may wish to send safe snacks to school with their children.
What about riding the bus?
“The bus is a real worry for me,” says Dorris, whose 6-year-old daughter has a peanut allergy. “This is a time where there is only one adult available and he or she is driving! When a child is young, typically they are not allowed to carry EpiPens in their backpacks, so, you can see this is an unprotected time. Then you add in the children who may or may not be eating.” Dorris instructs her daughter to avoid eating anything on the bus. If another child gives her a piece of candy, she is to hang on to it until she gets home and her parents can inspect it.
What about field trips?
“Typically, on field trips, a teacher will carry the EpiPen kit,” Dorris explains. “Many times, those are the days you are asked to pack a lunch. Of course there is an amount of change on those days, so it is a great time to remind your child to not share food unless they are sure it does not have their allergen.”
What about birthday parties?
For children who are allergic to eggs, wheat or dairy — ingredients typically found in cake — Dorris suggests that families send along substitutes. “I would not encourage putting that task on the host as they have plenty to do,” she adds.