How to Support the Family of a Child With Food Allergies

The author was skeptical about severe food allergies, until her own son's collapse

By Iris Hartness, Publisher of Macaroni Kid Hickory-W. Piedmont, N.C. July 25, 2019

When I first heard of food allergies years ago, I was a bit doubtful. I thought parents were likely overreacting. After all, could a harmless peanut really cause that much harm to a child? 

But then came the day when my 18-month-old son ended up in the back of an ambulance, struggling to breathe. In just a few scary minutes his tongue had swollen to the point that it was too large for his mouth.

What had happened? We had taken him to a steakhouse -- one where peanuts are at every table -- and fed him a bite with a fork that had apparently come in contact with peanut dust. Within moments I was cradling my suffering baby, feeling helpless and terrified.

I will never forget the sense of relief that washed over me when I heard the siren wailing down the highway.

What it means to be a food allergy family

Since then we have learned what it means to be a “food allergy” family. It's been life-changing for us in little ways and in big ones: 

The notices at restaurants I once ignored? Now we consider them important warnings.

Grocery shopping is no longer a mindless task, but a battlefield where we must avoid the land mines of surprise ingredients. 

Playgrounds, ballfields, and movie theatres are no longer a place to zone out and relax, but rather be on high alert for a stray nutshell, a chocolate-covered peanut, or even a well-meaning toddler sharing a granola bar.

How to support families dealing with allergies

One in 13 kids in the United States suffers from a diagnosed food allergy -- which means you likely know a child with one. While nearly any food is capable of triggering an allergic reaction, there are eight common foods that cause the majority of reactions: peanuts, tree nuts, milk, eggs, soy, wheat, fish, and shellfish.

Some of the most meaningful moments for me, since we've joined the ranks of those parents with a child who suffers a severe allergy, have been when other parents have gone out of their way to include my child and make his well-being a priority -- especially since he is still too young to speak up for himself. 

Want to know how you can support a family dealing with a severe allergy? Here are three ideas:

1. Respect "no snack zones"

Respect shared play spaces such as mall play areas or fast food play structures as “no snack” zones. If you need a snack, there are usually places outside of the common use areas where you can eat. Kids with severe allergic reactions can react to extremely small amounts of the contaminant, so your effort truly can make a difference. 

2. Speak out about the need for nut-free learning environments

Encourage your church, school, and community group to go nut-free in classrooms and at extracurricular activities and camps. Offer to post notices and take precautions when serving snacks. The Food Allergy Research & Education organization offers quality free educational resources.

3. Buy allergy-free treats

Celebrations -- like the upcoming Easter holiday -- can be difficult for a child with an allergy. Consider allergy-free treats for parties when filling piñatas, candy bowls, and treat bags. (I can say from personal experience it is a bummer to say no to piñata candy because it was mixed in with peanut butter cups.)

No one wants to be that “allergy parent,” but advocating for our children is part of the job. Thank you to everyone who is patient and understanding with the parents of kids who have allergies!

 Iris Hartness is the publisher of Macaroni Kid Hickory-W. Piedmont, N.C.