For school-age children, December means holiday parties filled with treats and sweets! But for kids with food allergies, this time of year brings extra anxiety for them . . . and their parents.
Julia Terry, MS, RD, LD, a nutritionist in the Children’s of Alabama Clinical Nutrition department shares her expertise with Birmingham Mom Collective about food allergies. Children’s of Alabama also has the only all-pediatric allergy group in the state.
Food Allergies vs. Food Intolerances
Julia says it’s important to distinguish between true food allergies versus food intolerances. Food allergies cause an immune response resulting in anaphylaxis, whereas food intolerances result in digestive issues. While food intolerances are certainly unpleasant, food allergies can result in dire consequences–even death.
Food allergies to dairy, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, shellfish, soy, and wheat account for 90% of all food allergies, with dairy and eggs being the most common food allergies in children. However, most children outgrow dairy and egg allergies by the age of five.
Nut allergies usually get the most attention because that tends to be lifelong and the most serious. So when planning Christmas parties and making homemade gifts, it’s essential to do your research and ask lots of questions before handing out treats to children.
Planning That Classroom Holiday Party
If you find yourself (like me) planning your child’s classroom holiday party soon, Julia offers us some great tips to make sure they have a safe, happy, and healthy party.
Give Yourself Time to Plan Ahead
Ask the teacher if there are any known food allergies in the class. If there are allergies, be sure to ask lots of questions such as: Which allergens do I need to avoid? Is the child okay with, say, nuts in the classroom if they are at a different table? If dairy is baked into the treat, is that okay? You don’t want to be scrambling around last minute to figure out what is fine to serve.
Include the Parents
If you do have a child(ren) in the classroom with allergies, reach out to the parent to get help. Do you have a child in the class with celiac disease who requires gluten-free food? Ask that parent to make the cupcakes for the class. Is there a child who can’t eat dairy, but you’re planning to have a cupcake decorating station? Then ask that parent what brand ready-made icing is fine for her child. Determine if perhaps avoiding certain allergens at the party all together would be the best course of action.
Read the Labels
Labels can be difficult to decipher, especially if you’re not used to dealing with food allergies. Julia suggests checking out websites such as kidswithfoodallergies.org along with foodallergy.com. There are also apps that will let you scan the labels of items to alert you to allergens. Just do a quick search in the app store to find the one that’s right for you.
Avoid Cross Contamination
If you plan to serve items with and without allergens (like icing using dairy products as well as dairy-free icing), be mindful about possible cross contamination. Keep all serving utensils and surfaces separate. Some kids might take the plastic knife out of the regular icing and stick it into the dairy-free icing as they decorate sugar cookies. It’s an easy mistake for kids to make, so it’s important to ensure that doesn’t happen.
Easy Allergen-Friendly Options
Julia offers up some easy allergen-friendly options you can serve to avoid any possible disaster scenarios:
- unbuttered popcorn
- chips and salsa
- potato-based chips
- hard candies and fruity candies (like candy canes and Starbursts)
- hummus with fresh veggies
There are also several restaurants with great allergen-friendly options if you want to go the take-out and caterer route:
- Five Guys Burgers
What Parents Want You to Know
Parents of children with food allergies need people to take the allergy seriously. Be sensitive and inclusive. Be patient when they need an extra minute to double-check food labels. Reassure them they are not being a burden.
The isolation that stems from food allergies is hard, but this is yet another way we, as parents, can teach our children empathy. Work together with other parents to make sure their child is included not only in the class Christmas party, but year-round!