A few months before we planned to enroll our son in daycare, he was diagnosed with seven major food allergies: corn, soy, peanuts, eggs, wheat, shellfish, and chicken. The food allergy diagnosis threw our plans into disarray; we couldn't send a two-year-old to a big preschool with hundreds of children and risk his health, could we? What would he be exposed to? Could we ever let him out of our sight again?
Fast forward: our son, now 8, makes decisions daily about food. He's not completely independent (he wouldn't be able to tell that semolina on a ingredient label means wheat), but he knows how to talk to adults about his allergies and make sure they know what he can and can't have. So far, so good. No emergency room visits, no epinephrine injections, no major breakouts.
This may sound like we're taking unnecessary risks—especially in an era where parents are scrutinized for letting their kids walk unescorted to a playground—but there's a method to our madness. We hope we can raise a child, who as a teen and adult, can live a full, rich life without us. When encountering eating decisions in our absence (as he surely will), we want him to know how to survive and manage his own risk. The bigger risk is that he will be unprepared when we aren't around.
When you have a child with a potentially life-threatening condition, whether it's food allergies or type 1 diabetes, the decision to let your child take an active role in managing their condition is a tough one. Parents worry about our children's safety, whether we're tiger parents or free-rangers. But what's there right time to give them a little independence with food allergies?
Paul Antico knows a thing or two about raising kids with allergies. Antico, who runs AllergyEats.com, a guide to allergy-friendly restaurants, has three children ranging from 5 to 17 with life-threatening food allergies. The oldest, Tucker, heads off to college next year.
"We've been working with our five-year-old since she was three," he says. "She recently asked me if a dish had egg in it? That was a badge of honor. It actually had eggs in it. I'm her Dad. How embarrassing is that? I love that my five year old knows she's allergic to eggs and can speak up for herself."
Antico began teaching his children about allergies from an early age. They learned about the foods they are allergic to and about how to live with those allergies. As they get older, they learn about carrying and using an epinephrine auto-injector and the importance of carrying one. "At 8 years old, they're carrying the EpiPen with them," he says.
Antico, who also has a mobile app for food allergy dining, says it's important to arm children with the right tools to make the right decision, to practice with them and talk through scenarios they might encounter. Then let them live a fairly normal life. "They do everything. They travel, they do playdates, they hang out with their friends."
And as they get older, they also learn to order food for themselves and ask the right questions. Antico's 12-year-old son, for example, is quiet and reserved. "He's not terribly comfortable speaking up." But when his hockey team eats meals out, he sits at a different table from his father and orders for himself.
This constant education effort is paying off in Antico's oldest child Tucker. "He's a teenager, but I don't think he's going to take stupid risks around food. I can't follow him around but it doesn't keep me up at night."
In our own house, these conversations about food decisions and allergies are ongoing. At age 4, our youngest made local television news as he interrogated adults about the ingredients in their Halloween candy while he tricked or treated. Today he reads menus and steers himself to foods he knows are safe in restaurant settings.
In a few years, if we keep our efforts to educate him going, we think he'll be able to tell that semolina on a ingredient label means wheat.