Class Parties 101: How to Keep Your Food Allergy Kid Feeling Safe & Included
There are countless things that make the fall holiday season fun, especially for our school-aged kids. All of the field trips, festivals and class parties that encompass the months of October through December make these some of the most festive moments of the entire school year. But, for children with food allergies, all this celebrating gets a little complicated... because food is almost always invited to the party. There's good news, though. While challenging, we can partner with teachers and fellow parents to take steps that will not only ensure that our children are safe at their class parties, but that they also feel just as included and a part of the fun as their classmates.
Here are some things for all of us - food allergy parents and other adults, alike - to think about as we work to ensure safer and happier class celebrations for our food allergy kids!
Plan and communicate. If you are a food allergy parent, you know that planning is absolutely key in anything involving your child. This could not be more important than in the case of class parties. As this fall holiday season gets underway, be proactive and contact your child’s teacher NOW to discuss what types of festivities are ahead in the coming months. If there is a room parent or other adult party-planners involved, be sure to include them in the conversation. Most importantly, keep in mind these key questions:
Is food going to be served?
*Is it required that the food is store bought, and if so, who will be checking labels (teacher, school nurse)?
If the food being served is not safe for my child (particularly, if it is homemade and not store bought), how will I arrange a safe alternative? Will the party planners be required to purchase this, or will I send it in myself?
If food is at the party, what procedures will the teacher put in place to ensure my child's safety in the classroom (i.e., seating during the party, wiping tables and washing the children's hands after the party)?
*One more key point here: brands MATTER! When discussing food, please don't simply accept answers like "we are serving pretzels" or "we'll be having chips." As food allergy families know well, many brands contain sneaky ingredients that no one would ever expect, and you can't simply assume that safe foods are made on designated equipment. You are absolutely entitled to look at labels yourself before allowing your child to partake. I've asked our school nurse to email me pictures of labels on several occasions so that I could look for myself and/or contact the company to double-check on their manufacturing processes, and she has always been very willing to comply. Don't hesitate to take these extra steps! And, if you are at all uncomfortable, arrange for a safe alternative treat for your child.
Attend the party, if possible. As the mom of four children, I understand as well as anyone the challenge of trying to be at several places at once; it is often difficult, especially for working parents, to attend class parties. But, if you can swing it, offer to join in the fun! If your child's teacher is keeping the list of party volunteers small (or is only asking for room parents to attend), it can't hurt to still offer to lend a helping hand. I can't tell you how many times I've done this and the room parent has taken me up on it, as I've found that teachers and other parents feel a level of comfort knowing I'm there to keep an extra eye on my boys.
Speaking of, here is one more reason why attending class parties is such a good idea: your eyes are going to catch things that others are just not going to see. For example, a few years ago at our preschool, the teachers set up a trail mix station at the kids' fall festival. While the mix was nut-free, there was Goldfish at the station, and even though the teachers were advised to leave the Goldfish out for the dairy-allergic kids, what they were not accounting for was the cross-contamination that was occurring every time they used the same gloves to touch both the safe and unsafe ingredients. On another occasion at our elementary school, an unsafe party food slipped through and landed in one of my boy's classrooms before the nurse was able to check the ingredients, as is the protocol. It was a "perfect storm" of events that led to this mishap (including the room mom having to pick her son up from school sick right before the party, thereby causing a very frazzled drop off of food and supplies as she was carting her ill child out the door). Fortunately, I was at the party and double-checked the label in time to notice the "may contain" statement that included most of the top eight allergens. Both of these are examples of innocent mistakes, but I was grateful that my hyper-focused "food allergy eyes" were able to spot the mistakes that might otherwise would have gone unnoticed.
If the teacher seems open, suggest festive activities and non-food treats. Fortunately, schools are really beginning to jump on this bandwagon, but we still have a long way to go. As far as I'm concerned, a perfect world would include parties that were simply food-free, with the emphasis placed on fun activities and games instead. This would not only benefit our food allergy kids, but the millions of children in the United States who are on a modified or restricted diets for plethora of issues including diabetes, ADHD, or weight control, just to name a few. If your teacher is at all open, suggest focusing on crafts, games and fun toys instead of food for your next class party. Yes, it will take initiative and planning on your part, but you have no idea of the impact your creativity may have on future groups of kids. It's so worth it.
Stay tuned, I'm going to post two of my favorite fall dessert recipes from fellow food allergy bloggers later this week! These two recipes will be perfect for any Halloween party or fall festival you'll be attending this season.