As rates of childhood allergies continue to rise, awareness about allergies, especially in schools, must rise as well. Between 1997 and 2011, food allergies in children went up about 50 percent, with one out of 13 children in the United States having at least one food allergy. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) declares that about 90 percent of food reactions are caused by eight foods, also known as the “Big 8”: milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, soy, fish and shellfish.
Being more aware means understanding the difference between allergies and intolerances and knowing what foods to purchase and pack as safe alternatives.
A true food allergy triggers an immune system reaction that affects organ systems, while an intolerance is less severe and limited to digestive problems that subside over time. Food allergy symptoms often involve a rash or hives, itching, tingling or swelling of the mouth and throat, vomiting, diarrhea, wheezing, coughing and, in rare cases, death due to a drop in blood pressure.
Shopping for children with allergies
When looking for healthy and school-safe food options for your children, remember to read food labels thoroughly and avoid the allergen(s) necessary. If a food contains a Big 8 ingredient, it is required by law that the nutrition facts label communicates this in the ingredients list or calls out allergens followed by the word “Contains” in bold letters. Fruits, vegetables and unprocessed raw meat sources will typically be free of a food label and free of common allergens, too.
Tips for the back-to-school season
Whether it is your child’s first or tenth year at school with allergies, planning well, notifying the right people and taking necessary precautions can keep him or her safe.
- Find out what is currently in place at school. Your child is probably not the first to have a food allergy in the classroom. If a policy is not already in place, inquire about allergen-safe rooms or tables in the cafeteria and what can be established on school grounds.
- Practice teamwork and advocate for your child. Discuss your child’s needs with the school foodservice director, cafeteria managers, school nurses, administrative staff and teachers. Speaking with other parents might be necessary for classroom parties or celebrations; if they are aware, they can clearly label any foods brought in that may contain allergens. Ensure that school employees know how to decrease the risk of cross-contamination, how to identify food allergies and reactions and how to administer emergency medication. As the parent, you are responsible for providing appropriate medical documentation and emergency medication your child may need.
- Discuss and reinforce good hand washing practices before eating with your child. Soap and water are best for removing allergenic proteins before eating; hand sanitizers do not work.
- Talk to your child about (not) sharing foods. The concept of “being a good sharer” is something you’ve most likely taught your child already. Unfortunately, when it comes to food allergies, it’s important that they know when sharing is off-limits. Even if an allergen table is designated, swapping pudding for crackers before heading to the lunchroom, for example, can happen. This increases the risk of an allergic reaction. Stress the importance of packing a lunch that is “just for him or her,” and nothing should be traded or shared.
Packing and snacking
When your child is headed back to school, try these healthy snack ideas that include foods unlikely to cause a reaction:
- A small, pre-portioned bag of popcorn or two cups air-popped popcorn
- Apple slices or celery sticks with SunButter (made from sunflower seeds)
- Homemade baked kale or sweet potato chips
- Dried fruit mixes or all-natural fruit leathers
- Homemade hummus with carrot sticks or broccoli florets
This article was contributed by Courtney Kiang, a registered dietitian nutritionist with The Little Clinic (inside select Kroger locations). For more information about dietitian services, visit thelittleclinic.com/dietitians.