Back-to-school time is stressful. 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 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 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 kids 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 adults. She suggests parents role-play with their kids to practice. And even if the kids don’t have 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 cause adverse reactions.) 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.
Disclose 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. 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. Come up with alternatives that are just as tasty, pretty or colorful as the problematic foods.
Hit a variety of food groups and compensate for what’s left out. Good snacks will cover a wide swath of nutrition. 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 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, sunflower seeds and avocados. If eggs are a problem, you can get vitamin B12 from fish, shellfish, soy, beef, chicken and milk. The gluten-free market means finding substitutes for wheat foods (pretzels, crackers, bread and more) is not hard. 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.