Are you planning a party, scout meeting, or school event that will be attended by a child with food allergies? Follow these tips for food allergy safety and inclusiveness. It is possible to welcome and include all children in social events, even those with severe food allergies.
Planning a social event that is safe for children with severe food allergies requires a little bit of advance thinking, but not a whole lot of extra work. Follow these 8 simple tips for a social event or club that welcomes and includes children with food allergies.
1. Communicate with Parents Before the Event
There is no one right way to manage food allergies. Food allergies are a spectrum, and what works for one family may not work for another. Ask the parents of the child what has worked for them in the past and what helped their child to feel included. Don’t feel afraid to voice your concerns – parents worry too. But emphasize that you want to include the child and your concern is for their safety and emotional well-being.
2. Recognize that Not Every Event Needs Food
We condition kids to expect a snack (often a sugary snack) at every social event but it is healthier for everyone to only provide snacks when children are actually hungry. An hour-long club meeting does not need a snack break.
3. Allow Children to Bring their Own Food
Sometimes adults feel overwhelmed by the difficulty of trying to create a snack that everyone can eat – vegetarian, organic, kosher, soy-free, peanut-free, etc. Recognize that it may not be possible for everyone to eat the same food, and that is completely acceptable.
A product marketed as “allergy safe” may not be safe for an individual child. There are a lot of allergy products on the market these days – but a gluten-free peanut butter cake is not going to be safe for a child with a peanut allergy. Some children have such severe allergies that they can not eat any food – no matter how safe the ingredients – that was prepared outside of their home. It may reduce everyone’s stress level to make an event “bring your own snack.”
4. Wash Your Hands Early and Often
Soap and water are the cheapest, easiest, and most effective tools for keeping a child with food allergies safe. Have children wash their hands when they arrive and then again AFTER eating or working with craft materials. Hand sanitizer does not neutralize the proteins that cause allergic reactions – washing needs to be done in soap and water. If you are out on the playground or at the park, a bucket full of soapy water will work.
Washing tables with household cleaners after snacks and crafts will also prevent the spread of allergens around the room. For more information, read How to Avoid Allergy Cross-Contamination.
5. Watch Your Language
The words you choose can make the difference between acknowledging differences and making a child feel excluded. A parent walked into my child’s preschool class with a plate of cookies and announced “I have cookies and everyone gets one!” My child, used to not eating classroom birthday treats, asked “Really, everyone? Including me?” The parent said “Yes! Everyone!” My daughter was really upset to find out that she wasn’t considered part of “everyone.”
If this parent had announced her child's birthday by focusing on the child, not the snack, everyone would have been included in the celebration.
6. Think Outside the Box
Your group makes pinecone bird feeders rolled in peanut butter every winter, but this year one of the kids has a peanut allergy. Use this as an opportunity to try out a new craft – apple and orange slices treaded on a ribbon are just as easy, fun, and might be something the kids haven’t tried yet. There’s always an alternative activity, and it may be something you end up enjoying so much it becomes a new tradition.
7. Nip Teasing in the Bud
If you overhear teasing, such as “Aiden can’t eat anything!” don’t ignore it or it may turn to bullying. Address the situation calmly and directly. Treat it as an opportunity for education. If you are a teacher, scout, or club leader, invite a doctor, nurse, or parent to give a presentation about food allergies to the group.
8. Treat Every Child as Normal
If you roll with a child's diet restrictions, so will the other children in the group. Some children with multiple or severe food allergies may only be able to eat food from home. Children with Eosinophilic Esophagitis may not be able to eat regular food at all. A simple explanation, such as “Emma brings her own snack that is safe for her,” is enough to satisfy the curiosity of most kids.
9. Focus on Fun, Not Food
The point of a party is friends and fun, not the food you eat. Emphasize activities, games, and other fun aspects of an event rather than the snacks. Not only will this help a child with food allergies to feel more included, it will teach healthy attitudes toward food to all the kids.