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Explaining Food Allergies to Your Kids

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If you've got one of the 5.9 million kids with food allergies, you can protect him at home, but what about when he goes to daycare or on a playdate? Try these preschool talking points to help him understand the seriousness of the sitch.

START EARLY

“Parents can teach kids as young as two to say things like ‘No peanuts, I'll get sick’ or ‘I can't have any eggs,’” says Todd Mahr, M.D., a pediatric allergist at the Gundersen Lutheran Medical Center in La Crosse, WI. “Even if he doesn't understand what that means, adults will be alerted to ask further questions before offering any snacks. As your kid gets older, then you can talk about the symptoms that might occur.”

MAKE STAYING SAFE A GAME

Use picture books, magazines, grocery-store flyers, and trips to the market to play “find the food” with your child. Offer hints to help your kiddo point out the items that are off-limits. “At home, you can place a sticker on foods to indicate whether something is safe or unsafe—red for ‘stop’ and green for ‘go,’” suggests Dr. Mahr. You can also designate a special shelf or cupboard for her special foods.

GIVE HER A SCRIPT

Rehearse different scenarios, says Elika Kormeili, a Santa Monica, CA, food-allergy therapist. (“I'll be Mrs. Cole and you're you. ‘Lizzy! Can I offer you a peanut butter cookie?’ What do you say to her, sweetie?”) And get into the habit of “RSVP-ASAP,” says Dr. Mahr. “Talk to the party- or playdate-host mom early to let her know about your kid's allergies, and offer to bring safe foods for your child so she doesn't have to worry about separate food preparations.”

KEEP CALM

“My son has multiple food allergies and it's stressful, but I need to be strong, act calmly, and think clearly so my son can learn to do the same if he is faced with an allergic reaction,” says Lori Langer, a registered dietitian in King of Prussia, PA, who specializes in food allergies. To help make that happen, Langer introduced her son to his EpiPen and Benadryl as soon as he could talk. “I wanted him to understand that in order for him to get well, an adult may need to give him medication. He never seems fearful, and I think it's because we were always well prepared and very matter-of-fact about the situation,” says Langer.

HOW DID YOU EXPLAIN YOUR PRESCHOOLER'S FOOD ALLERGY TO HIM?

“My son is allergic to strawberries, so we taught him at a very early age to never eat anything red or to hand it to us first. I also told him that if the package had a picture of a strawberry, say ‘no.’” —Jenn K.

“The main point we made was not to share any food ever because it can be dangerous.” —Jackie A.

“I really didn't have to explain anything because my three-year-old will tell anyone who feeds her that tree nuts make her sick. She fully remembers when Daddy had to use the EpiPen on her and doesn't want to go through that again.” —Clarissa D.

QS FOR YOUR DOC

  • Is my child likely to outgrow this allergy?
  • Can this allergy lead to nutritional deficiencies?
  • Should I call you after an allergic reaction even if he seems fine?
  • How do I know whether to give him Benadryl vs. an EpiPen?

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