Food Allergies & Children’s Programs

food allergiesIn 2009, I gave my 13-month-old son a taste of a peanut butter snack I was enjoying. 15 minutes later, we were in an ambulance rushing to the emergency room. His eyes were swollen shut, he was covered in hives, and his crying was choked and ragged. Turns out he’s severely allergic to peanuts, tree nuts, and eggs.

Being the parent of a kid with food allergies has definitely changed my approach to the programs I develop. I thought I would share some of these changes with you! Here they are, in no uncertain order…

  • So long egg cartons. I no longer do craft projects with egg cartons. Also on the “do not use” list, any packaging that once stored food. The exception to this is non-nut flavored tea tins and oatmeal containers. But I always have alternative non-food containers ready, just in case.
  • Careful with food lids and beverage caps. Very rarely, I use food lids for projects. Mostly, I use beverage caps (water, soda, or juice caps). I never use lids or caps from mayonnaise, nut butter, or milk containers. I clean the caps before the program, announce that I’m using food lids and drink caps at the program, and provide hand wipes for cleaning them during the program. I also offer an alternative non-food item to use.
  • Goodbye candy prizes. These days, I seldom award candy prizes. Instead I opt for stickers or little trinkets. If I do use candy prizes, I always have an alternative available for food allergic kids. Example: I developed a Robin Hood tax game for a large-scale event. Once the players “lost” all their money, they received a chocolate coin as a consolation prize. But food allergic kids got to take home a metal replica of a Medieval coin (to the envy of all).
  • Save packaging and labels. Parents of kids with food allergies always have to check food packaging because allergens are sometimes listed in sneaky ways. If you offer food at your program, keep the original packaging on hand so parents can check the labels. Example: At a program about discovering India, kids had an opportunity to enjoy mango lassi samples from a local restaurant. But there was no ingredient label for the restaurant lassi. So for kids with food allergies, I offered mango juice poured straight from the original bottle into dedicated cups. There were quite a few takers (including some folks without food allergies!).
  • Consider going nut free at events. Part I. Approximately 1 in 13 kids have food allergies today. The rest of the population is raring for all the fantastic things we enjoy at events – yummy, delicious, goodies dyed neon colors. As a recovering cotton candy addict myself, I certainly don’t want to deny anyone their fun. However, I must say that peanuts and tree nuts (which appear to be the most dangerous in terms of severe allergic reactions) have a way of showing up in unexpected places. A peanut butter ice cream cone drips on the floor where a baby is crawling and mouthing a toy. Sticky hands that previously held a piece of walnut baklava grasp markers at a neighboring table. Eeek.
  • Consider going nut free at events. Part II. Going nut free doesn’t have to be limiting. For example, at a Journey to the Centre of the Earth event, we served a custom “dirt” gelato. It was basically chocolate gelato with chocolate cookie crumbles. No nuts. True, the gelato was processed in a kitchen with nuts and was therefore inedible to kids with nut allergies – but that’s OK. Food allergic parents are prepared for that sort of thing. But at least there was no chance that a random almond was going to show up at the “cave crawl,” or peanut butter was going to be smeared on a bench.  And lemme tell you – not one single person complained about the lack of nuts in that amazing dirt gelato.
  • Clean up art supplies. Recently, I did a program at a local pool, and kids worked on their craft project while eating snacks they brought from home. Later, I cleaned all the markers and scissors, to insure no allergens were clinging to them.
  • Save a line for allergens. Any time a kid registers for one of my programs, I always include a line on the registration form for food allergies and an emergency number. If a program is going to involve food, I contact the child’s parents for clarification about the allergies (if you’d like to see an example of this process, take a look at this post). If the parents don’t feel 100% safe about the food, we work out an alternative. And yes, there have been times when I’ve completely removed food activities from a program to keep a child safe. I don’t mind doing that at all. There are plenty of creative alternatives to food!
  • Listen & Ask. I’ve been doing children’s programs for over 15 years. In the beginning, food allergic children were rare. Even though I was respectful to parents wishes and made modifications to my programs, I always wondered if those parents were being, well…just a little too sensitive about their child’s diet. But watching my son suffer in that emergency room, I quickly realized that no…they’re not being too sensitive. If a parent contacts you with a concern about something, listen to them and ask what they need to feel safe at your program or event. Parents of food allergic kids are used to planning for, and coming up with, reasonable alternatives for things. They will definitely appreciate you helping them make more informed decisions about what to expect at your event!