Starting School with a Food Allergy: Decisions

A few years ago, I wrote a children’s book “Starting School with a Food Allergy:  Tips for a Peanut Allergic Kid.” It covers the rules a boy named Ricky needs to follow to keep himself safe at school.  Ricky will eat his own food from home and will sit with friends eating safe lunches.  Ricky will learn to read and will love recess!

My kids are annoyed with all the back-to-school sales and ads.  But it is that time!  If you are sending a food allergic child to school for the first time, this can be a very busy stressful time for you!  Here are some important decisions you need to make:

  • Who can provide my child with food?
  • Does my child need an allergy free table?
  • Is my child mature enough to tell a teacher if he or she feels sick?

Who can provide my child with food?

Along with peanuts and tree nuts, our son has some less common allergies to chick peas, lentils and other foods.  At home we avoid any foods that may contain traces of peanut or tree nuts.  We decided it was safest for him to only eat food from home while at school.  Even if a teacher or cafeteria lady or friend thought the food was safe, it was not allowed.

Every child with food allergies has a unique situation.  Research the cafeteria food.  Decide now what is right for your child this year, and then be consistent with your child, the teachers and the cafeteria workers.

Does my child need an allergy free table?

This again depends on your child’s situation.  My son’s friends yelled with their mouths full, especially in K and 1st grade.  Sitting next to them was interesting!  At times I had to swab off my face.  So yes, we did and still do have a peanut free table.

Unfortunately, a severe milk or egg allergy can be more isolating than nut allergies.  Some schools have a dedicated desk that is covered, except when the specific food allergic child goes to lunch.  The child uncovers the desk and pulls it up to the main table.

Plan to go to lunch several times that first week of school.  You need to see for yourself how things are going.  This is easier and more reliable than trying to extract info from your child after a long day.  Is your cafeteria plan working?  The ideal situation is for your child to be safe and not socially isolated.

Is my child mature enough to tell a teacher if he or she feels sick?

Accidents happen.  Reactions occur.  Your child needs to tell an adult if they feel unwell.  Encourage your child to speak up.  If they have their hand up to go potty, they can wait to be called on.  If they feel symptoms of an allergic reaction, they should be able to get immediate attention from a teacher or aide.  They don’t need to sit and wait to be called on.  Give them permission to break the regular rules and get out of their seat to ask for help.

More to come soon on Kindergarten kisses, cafeteria trash cans and classroom helper jobs!

The Surprise Hamster: Conflict Resolution at School

Many years ago, dear son went to a peanut free preschool.  He had a wonderful classroom with lots of toys and bins and circle times.  We went to the preschool orientation and were very satisfied with his experienced teachers.  They knew about food allergies and had been peanut free for several years.

Dear son was absent one day in the fall.  I was surprised to see a hamster in the room the next school day.  Yes, that was the new class pet.  I was concerned because most hamster food contains nuts.  The lead teacher was resistant – she was sure the hamster food didn’t have nuts in it.  I checked the food and it did have tree nuts and peanut dust as an ingredient.

The teacher would not consider moving the hamster to another classroom.  She became defensive.  The hamster had to eat, dear son would not be feeding the hamster, none of the children would ever touch the hamster or its cage.  Of course these promises could not be kept – the kids would want to feed the hamster and play with the hamster and clean out the hamster’s cage.

I was furious.  The promise of a peanut-free environment was being ignored.  I felt that my son was not safe in his classroom any longer.  I was treated as a crazy, over-protective, paranoid mom.

This is the point where I should have gone to the director.  Instead, I complained to my friends.  I whined to my dear patient husband.  I went to PetSmart and found some hamster food that did not have tree nuts or peanuts as an ingredient.

If I could have a “do-over”, I would have requested an immediate meeting with the teacher and the director.  We would have had a decent chance of working out a solution to the hamster problem that didn’t put the burden all on me.  I could have educated the school better as to what “peanut-free” really means.


Throwing Peanuts: Conflict Resolution at School

Having a child with food allergies guarantees one thing:  CONFLICT.  For the safety of your child, you are asking others to change their eating habits in some situations.  Before your child eats food his teacher has made, you are asking probing questions about her food prep methods.  Of course there will be conflict!

The hardest situations I have had to handle seem to come out of nowhere.  For example, my dear daughter came home from school one day saying her class was throwing peanuts at kids on the school playground.  What?  Yes, and her allergic brother was on the playground at the same time with his class at recess.

My first thought was to call the principal and start yelling.  But thankfully dear daughter is very good at details.  So my questions for her were:

  • Were they targeting her brother?
  • Was brother hit by any peanuts?
  • How many classes were involved?
  • Why were they throwing peanuts?

It turned out that some preteen boys and girls were flirting with each other in dear daughter’s class.  They were not targeting our son and he was not hit by any flying peanuts.  Only her class was involved.

I emailed my concern over this behavior to her teacher only.  She was surprised by the kids’ behavior and understood my concerns.  The next day the teacher had a serious talk with my daughter’s class.  According to my daughter, her teacher covered these points:

  • Food is not allowed on the playground.
  • It is disrespectful to throw food at someone.
  • Kids with food allergies are put at risk when food is thrown.

That was the end of the whole situation.  Here are the things that did not happen:

  • No new rules were needed.
  • The principal was not involved.
  • Kids throwing peanuts were corrected by their teacher without being embarrassed.
  • Other parents did not have to be notified.
  • Dear son’s name was not mentioned.
  • My relationship with my daughter’s teacher not damaged.
  • No social media platforms were used in the situation.

I know I was lucky in this incident.  If my daughter’s teacher had not understood my email, I would have needed to follow up with the principal.  If the principal was not supportive, then I would have needed the school nurse, or the cluster superintendent, or an outside advocate like FAAN to step in.  If the kids had been bullying my son, then completely different measures would have been called for.

What would you have done?  Comments welcome.


What do you say?

We’ve all been in those uncomfortable situations.  Other parents are questioning why they need to change their habits for the safety of your food allergic kid.  Or maybe they are complaining about accommodations made by airlines, or schools, or churches that curtail their freedom to eat peanuts where they want, when they want.  And you are there, listening uncomfortably, to their complaints about how they have been inconvenienced by food allergies.

Magical Phrases

It is tempting to be silent, but please don’t!  Here are some phrases that are almost magical in changing the tone of the whine-fest.  Please only use when completely true!

“Before dear son was diagnosed with food allergies, I felt that way too.”

“Before he reacted at the baseball game, I wondered the same thing.” (true for us)

“Before that trip to the emergency room, I thought…” ( thankfully haven’t been there )

“Before his eye swelled up from contact with ____”

“We are proud of dear son.  He is used to going without and not complaining.  He can have something special to eat when he gets home.”

“Our allergist Dr. Wood told us to…”

“The allergist told us not to…”

“We know he has not outgrown it because …”

“We have thought about going to ___ restaurant, but we were not comfortable after we talked to the manager.”

“I was frightened when I thought about what could have happened…”

“We looked into ___, but our family has decided it was too risky for dear son.”

“I was so scared when I realized I hadn’t been careful enough…”

“After that near-miss, we started to ___.”

[Explaining why dear son can’t eat their home-made brownies.]  “I can cook for peanut allergic kids.  But even now I am not able to cook for kids with milk/egg/wheat allergies.  We just have too much of those in our kitchen; the kids and I are not that careful.”

Tone of Voice

You are not a paranoid, over-protective parent.  You are just stating what has happened in your family and the logical decisions you have made since.  Do you best not to get defensive!  These are all most effective when spoken in a very matter-of-fact tone of voice.  Good luck, food allergy parents!