Childhood Food Allergies (Tips for holiday parties)


A study published in Pediatrics in June 2011, indicates that food allergies in children are much higher than experts previously believed.  In fact, the study shows that about 6 million kids (8 percent of the population in the U.S.) have a food allergy.  That’s a lot of kids.

The most common food allergies include:

  • Milk
  • Eggs
  • Peanuts
  • Tree Nuts
  • Wheat
  • Soy
  • Shellfish
  • Fish

This is not a complete list, by any means.  Technically any food can potentially be an allergen.

With the holiday season upon us, parents of children with food allergies are on high alert.  Kids are accosted with baked goods everywhere they turn this time of year.  The potential for coming into contact with a food allergen is high.  Unless you made it yourself, it can be nearly impossible to know what’s really in that cookie, brownie, or gingerbread house.  For instance, most people don’t realize that some brands of chocolate chips are cross-contaminated with tree nuts, while others are cross-contaminated with peanuts.  If you don’t have a child with one these potentially life threatening allergies, you’re probably not checking the labels on something as seemingly benign as chocolate chips.

Riley is allergic to tree nuts.  People hear that and think it’s no big deal, just stay away from tree nuts.  Given the way foods are manufactured these days, it’s just not that simple. I’ve encountered everything from wheat bread to all-purpose flour that included cross-contamination with tree nuts.  Premade snacks are very difficult.  Trying to find granola bars, crackers, and sometimes even pretzels that are free of cross-contaminants is nearly impossible at a place like Trader Joe’s (although, strangely enough, their chocolate chips are free of both tree nuts and peanuts).  I have to read labels very carefully.

We all want our kids to have fun during the holiday season, and at birthday parties for that matter, and a little preparation can go a long way.  Below are 5 tips to deal with food allergies this season:

1.    Come prepared:  Whether it’s birthday cake or a holiday cookie, you just don’t know what lurks beneath the pretty frosting.  And kids are impulsive, particularly when it comes to treats.  Don’t leave home without Benadryl and an Epi-Pen Jr.  If you are dropping your child off at a party, make sure the host knows how to administer medication should your child ingest a food allergen.  Symptoms of food allergies will occur within minutes to an hour after ingesting the allergen.  Symptoms can include hives, a rash (often around the face, mouth, and neck), wheezing, swelling (or an itching feeling) in the mouth or throat, pale skin, or difficulty breathing.  **Difficulty breathing necessitates an immediate trip to the ER.  Call 911.

2.    Tell the host:  Attending Thanksgiving somewhere else this year?  Tell the host about your child’s food allergies.  Request that food items containing the allergens be clearly marked at the table, or just ask again when the meal begins.  Being the annoying parent who never stops asking questions about ingredients is a small price to pay to avoid contact with an allergen.  Remember, food allergies can be life threatening.  It’s up to you to get the information and figure out what your child can eat.  While turkey is generally safe, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and other side dishes might contain allergens.  It won’t hurt to ask, but it might if you don’t.

3.    BYOF:  Bring your own food!  I don’t leave home without a backup meal for Riley.  I would rather have her eat something different than take a chance.  Bring snacks or a small meal that you know your child can eat, just in case.  Kids with food allergies sometimes get anxious at parties as well.  They don’t know how to navigate the buffet either.  Hopefully you won’t have to use the backup, but at least you have it.  Always bring a dessert to parties!  Riley just had her end of soccer pizza party.  Parents brought tray after tray of premade cookies for dessert.  They all contained cross-contaminants.  We went home and made our own.

4.    Feed first:  Particularly if you are dropping your child off somewhere, even on a play date, it can be useful to feed him first.  If your child isn’t hungry, chances are he will just enjoy the party and avoid the food issue all together.  Give your child a light meal or hearty snack prior to the party to avoid excessive hunger and grabbing at food impulsively.  When kids are starving, they eat what’s directly in front of them.  When they are not that hungry, they are more likely to make good food choices.

5.    Be honest:  Your child needs to know the importance of asking before eating.  I hear parents talk in hushed tones about food allergies so as not to alert their child.  Tell your child exactly what he is allergic to and what it might feel like if he ingests an allergen.  He needs to know what is happening to his body and how to ask for help should he accidentally ingest tree nuts, peanuts, etc.  Just yesterday Riley looked up at me after speed eating a bowl of blackberries and said, “Mommy, my face feels itchy.  Was it the blackberries?”  She wasn’t tested for fruit allergies, but at this point nothing comes as a surprise. Be honest.  They will feel more in control if they know what to avoid and what to do if they accidentally ingest a food allergen.

Even if you don’t have a child with food allergies, chances are you know someone who does.  If a friend alerts you to an allergy make an effort to understand what exactly the allergy entails if you are the party host.  Knowing the details and providing ingredient cards for buffets will help everyone involved.

Does your child have any food allergies?

Speaking of holiday treats…have you signed up for the Blogger #cookieswap yet?  What are you waiting for?


About Katie

Katie Hurley is a Child, Adolescent, and Family Psychotherapist and Parenting Expert in Los Angeles, CA. She works in private practice in the South Bay area of Los Angeles, writes for PBS Parents, Washington Post Parents, and the Huffington Post. She is the author of "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World" (Tarcher/Penguin, 2015) and "No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls" (Penguin Random House, 2018)