You are your child’s greatest health advocate, but you won’t be able to monitor everything he or she eats. Use this helpful guide to remind yourself and to teach your child ways to avoid potentially harmful foods.

It’s normal to fear what we can’t control. When you have a child with severe food allergies, this is particularly true. When your child is away at camp, spending the night at a friend’s, or attending a birthday party for a classmate, he or she may be in an unfamiliar environment with adults who do not know about their food allergies.

That’s why teaching your children to be advocates for themselves is important. It’s important to start talking about allergies at an early age, to teach your children to tell adults about their allergies, and to instruct your kids to ask the right questions before they eat something.

When they are old enough to talk

Don’t assume that your child is too young to communicate. Even preschool children can help look out for themselves. Start at an early age and explain their allergy to them. At this young age, avoid any gray area you might give an older child: If a food might contain something they’re allergic to, then they can’t eat it. For this age group, however, it is most important to educate all adults who are supervising your preschool age child. Children at this age cannot be always be relied upon to remember or to follow your instructions.

For example, if your child has a corn allergy, teach them to say no to boxed juice drinks. Many juices contain high-fructose corn syrup that will likely cause an allergic reaction.

While children at this age may be too young to understand the reasons why they might have an allergic reaction, they aren’t too young to know you said it would be bad for them.

When they go to a new place

Teach your child to find an adult who is in charge and show them his or her medical alert bracelet or necklace. That helps the adult in charge be aware for your child. 

When they are offered food

Before your child accepts food from anyone, teach them to ask if it contains a food they are allergic to. If the person giving them the food does not know, have your child politely decline it or ask another adult who might be able to give them a definitive answer.

If your child may be in a situation where they can’t eat any of the food provided for them, make sure they are carrying food they can eat. Better yet, supply the food yourself.

When they can read ingredients lists

An egg is not always an egg—it could be lysozyme, mayonnaise, albumin, ovalbumin, meringue or meringue powder, or surimi. When your child is old enough to read and recognize certain words, teach him to check ingredients lists for possible allergens.

Thanks to the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004, companies have to declare if their products contain one of the eight major food allergen groups: milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soybeans. These eight groups account for more than 90 percent of all food allergies. You can teach your child to look for the statement on the label, “This product may contain” any of the above eight foods.

However, more than 160 foods can cause allergic reactions, and alternative names for ingredients make labels difficult to understand.

Find a list of ingredients that may indicate the presence of major food allergens, including soy and milk, from Kids with Food Allergies, a division of the Allergy and Asthma Foundation of America.

At all times

Remind your child his or her food allergy is nothing to be ashamed of—it just means they have to be more careful about what they eat. They should not feel ashamed to tell an adult or even another child about their allergy.