My daughter has severe food allergies. The first time I left her at a drop-off birthday party was embarrassingly difficult. While some parents clutched yoga mats, waved goodbye, and went off to relish their “me time,” I cowered in a nearby coffee shop and did what I did best at the time: secretly freaked out while sipping my chamomile tea and pretending to act casual.
I went through a mental checklist of what I’d left with my daughter at the birthday party. Epi-pen? Check. Benadryl in backpack? Check. Emergency contact info with host? Check. The only thing missing was me. For the first time, my severely food-allergic daughter was out in the world and set free. But the question really was, would I ever be?
Having a child with food allergies can turn the most laid-back and fun person into a slightly aggressive, naggy parent. For party goers, this is a strange role to be in. Who wants to be the bummer at a party? For example, most guests simply ask the host what they can bring. For parents of children with food allergies, it’s our job to ask a number of worst case scenario-type questions, such as:
1. Is this a store-bought cake? If so, may I ask where it comes from to be sure there is no cross contamination at the bakery? Does it contain nuts? If you baked it yourself, may I ask the ingredients?
2. If you aren’t serving cake, may I ask what you are serving so I can make an allergen-free equivalent treat for my kid?
3. If you plan to give out party bags, could you leave out any food items for my kid?
And on and on.
Sometimes, being a parent to a child with severe food allergies is all about accepting your role as, for lack of a better term, a party pooper. But there are ways to survive. Here are my five go-to tips that have help me stay calm.
Remember to breathe. This is ultimately a fun affair, so try to remember that as best as you can. Parents of food-allergic children are diligent because we have to be. You will be more than prepared. Try not to let your own anxieties damper the fun for you or your child.
Communicate with the party host well in advance of the party. They will appreciate a heads up to any food allergy concerns. But it’s also not their job to watch out for your kid among twenty little busy bodies, so give them signs to look for in the event of an allergic reaction and a clear step-by-step emergency action plan. Some parents find it useful to have a typed sheet for their party hosts to tack on the fridge.
It can be a huge relief for many party planners to know you might come with your own food. Knowing the food your child will come in contact with will be safe to eat takes pressure off your host (and yourself). Don’t forget to label your child’s snack containers with allergy alert stickers. While a busy host might not see your child’s food containers, other adult or even kids that can read can help keep your child safe.
Despite how kind it is for hosts to offer alternative treats, it’s just not worth the risk. Treats made in a household without food allergies have greater risk of cross-contamination. For example, your host might have used an allergy friendly cake mix with a spoon that still has residue from other foods that are unsafe for your child. The risk is just not worth it.
Kids can get overwhelmed with information easily, so keep your pep talk simple and to the point. Try something like this:
“Today you are going to Avery’s birthday party! Are you excited? At the birthday party, there might be some food that is not safe for you to eat because it has (insert allergen). Mommy packed you safe food and a special treat in your lunchbox to eat at the party. Avery’s mommy knows what food you can’t eat, and she’ll help you so you can have fun with your friends.”
Your main objective is to make sure your child feels like everyone else, and that they don’t feel singled out because they have food allergies. That said, your child must be well informed about what they can and can’t eat.
It’s a big milestone for food-allergic families to let go and let their children explore the world without them. Many childhood events involve food and treats, so going can be an intimidating step for most families living with severe food allergies. However, it’s important not to lose sight of the symbolism of letting go. And that alone is worth celebrating.
Kristen Duncan Williams is the Founder of FAKS: Families of Allergic Kids in School. FAKS is an organization devoted to spreading more food allergy awareness within school communities. For more information, firstname.lastname@example.org.