Sending an allergic child out into the big, wide world

Eve Menezes Cunningham has some helpful advice

It's bad enough trying to emphasise the potential hazards when you're not preparing your own meals. But when you're sending your food-allergic child out into the world, it's even worse.

Are they old enough to understand the severity of sticking to what you've taught them? What if they get teased instead of supported? Even if everyone means well, will you be able to ensure that others are careful enough?

With 250,000 children in the UK estimated by the Anaphylaxis Campaign to suffer peanut allergies (not to mention all the other food allergies like shellfish, soya, wheat, fish, eggs, sesame seeds and kiwis), the public is becoming better educated about how to keep allergic children safe.

These tips, from allergy experts and parents of children with food allergies, will help you encourage them to experience and enjoy as much as possible while keeping them safe.

Empower your child

The more confident your child feels about expressing his or her dietary needs in any situation, the more you’ll both be able to relax when they’re eating outside your home. The older they get, the easier this will be but even very small children can understand the link between eating certain foods leading to being very sick and say 'No'.

You can learn more and get more support by signing up for the Anaphylaxis Campaign’s free workshops for parents and families around the UK. See the Events section of their site.

“Make sure they have their medication with them,” says a spokesperson for the Campaign. “Depending on their age, empower your child to ask about ingredients and encourage them to check ingredients lists themselves.”

“Educate your child fully,” agrees Alex Gazzola, author of Living with Food Intolerance, and other books on food allergies and coeliac disease. “They must be taught which foods are and are not safe for them, that they should not accept food from other children or consume food which has not been specially prepared for them. Give them advice on how to recognise a reaction, and how to tell a teacher or other carer. Role play could be useful here. Regularly ‘review’ their understanding without alarming them.”

School or nursery

It’s natural for parents to feel a wrench when their baby leaves their full-time care. When your child has food allergies, there are additional worries but there are lots of ways you can minimise the risks.

“All school staff who come into contact with your child should be aware of his/her allergies,” says a spokesperson from The Anaphylaxis Campaign. “The school should have an emergency care plan, drawn up with input from your child's treating doctor, the child's parents and the school. In infant schools and nurseries, watch out for unexpected allergens in craft materials like nutty cereal boxes, egg boxes, pasta shapes and bird feeders. Children should wash their hands before and after eating to minimise allergen contamination. Eating areas should cleaned thoroughly with hot soapy water before and after mealtimes.”

“Fellow parents may also need to be informed,” adds Alex. “Many children casually swap and play with food. Issues surrounding feeling ‘different’ or marginalised at school can be a concern for children who want to fit in with all their friends. Encourage teachers not to exclude them from activities because of their food allergies, and to keep vigilant in case of bullying or teasing from other children.”

If the idea of so much being in the hands of other people sends your anxiety levels sky-high, and all the attention makes them shy, think of ways you can encourage your child to take as much responsibility as possible for themselves. Even small children can be given appropriate cleansing wipes and taught to clean their own hands and eating area before putting anything in their mouth. It can be done in a matter of fact, easy manner which puts both your minds at rest.

It’s challenging when children are too young to understand why they’re being denied something they want. When what they want could potentially put their life at risk, the stakes are high. “Even at 16 months, it's getting hard,” says Viv Smith, whose 16 month old daughter is allergic to dairy and egg. “When we go to our local children's centre, I keep her close to me as the other children have milk. I'm wary of her being given some by accident or her helping herself. She can see when she isn't being given the same as her older brother or other people and gets upset. I'm not sure I'd feel happy leaving her in nursery, especially as dairy products are such a big part of the diet at this age.”

“We found out about Joe’s allergies when he was three,” says Sam Thewlis, a blogger at “Now nearly 6, Joe is very good at knowing what he can and can't have. The biggest hurdle we’ve faced so far was him starting school, trying to make sure he can take part in things like cooking and tasting foods despite his allergies. Joe's school is very good with allergies and a number of children with only one allergy are catered for with school dinners.”

Going out for the day – visiting friends’ houses school trips, parties etc

“Make sure friends' parents are aware of your child's allergies,” says the Anaphylaxis Campaign’s spokeperson. “If they're providing food, ask to check ingredients. Watch out for teens ordering takeaways. Indian and Oriental takeaways in particular are very high risk for nut allergic individuals. For younger children, friends' parents may be prepared to be trained how to use adrenaline auto-injectors.”

On school trips, she suggests packing “some safe snacks. This will minimise the risk of your child going into a shop and buying something that may not be suitable. Make sure there are staff members trained in emergency management of severe reactions, including adrenaline administration. Make sure emergency medication goes with your child.

“If staying at a centre, the school should contact the caterers in advance of the trip. Parents may wish to contact them too if this is possible. Encourage your child's friends to recognise symptoms of an allergic reaction and to call for a teacher who can administer medication if your child is unable to do so and make sure your child lies down and stays still.”
When you’re there too, it’s a bit easier. “I've had a bottle of Piriton in my handbag since her first reaction at 6 months,” says Viv. “On day trips we stick to food venues we feel are likely to have something to offer for her and I always carry snacks for her as so many snack things on sale contain dairy or egg - even a lot of crisps.”
When others are caring for her daughter, Viv says, “I always leave food and snacks for her, often plated up. There's no need for others to start finding food and inadvertently gives her something they thought would be ok.” 

“Parties are also an issue,” says Sam. “Mostly I just take a lunchbox for Joe and he eats his own food from a party plate at the party table, but some mums are lovely enough to make him special food. Party bags are normally filled with chocolate and sweets from packets, where the ingredients are on the packet not on the individual sweet, so we can't risk it. Again, some mums take the time to find out what he can have and make special versions with small toys and jelly sweets instead.”

On holiday

Planning a holiday when your child has food allergies can feel very stressful but by taking safety measures, your whole family can relax safely.

“It depends on the allergy,” says travel agent Ginny Scott ( “For example, most hotels cover gluten free diets easily.” Having said that, Ginny recommends self-catering accommodation and taking your own food for the journey.

“This is not the time to try out new foods,” says the Anaphylaxis Campaign’s spokeperson. “Stick to plain, simple foods without sauces or dressings. Take some safe, simple snacks with you. If you're going abroad, take some translation cards for use in restaurants. Find out about the foods of the country you're visiting from the country's tourist office and/or embassy. Make sure your child’s medication is in date.”

“Ensure your travel insurance covers treatment for your child’s allergy,” adds Alex. “Pack essential safe supplies such as allergen-free snacks in case you’re caught short, say by flight delays. Foreign versions of foods found on supermarket shelves may contain different ingredients and will be made in a different factory, even if the brand is identical, so a safe product at home may not be a safe product away from home. When eating out, it may be worth dining outside peak lunch or dinner hours, when waiters and chefs will be less harassed and more able to cater for your child precisely.”

First published 2011


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