When your child is diagnosed with an allergy it means a whole host of new issues to deal with – parties are now something to be prepared for, eating out needs planning and menu checking, school is a minefield over lunches and most of all very time your child eats at someones house there has to be a discussion. Sometimes education over ingredients, and often an awkward conversation where you explain that no, your child isn’t just fussy. Molly’s allergies are delayed, which means when she was given food she is allergic to at other peoples houses their reaction was always ‘but she’s fine’. Sure, now, but 4 hours later she’d be vomiting. Life is easier when the reaction is immediate, easier to discover the allergy, and easier for people to see the reaction.
Part of the problem is the continuing negative image allergy sufferers have, the jokes in movies, the accusation of fussy eating, the misunderstanding about delayed reactions. The attitude that it was ‘only a little bit’, the minimising of a rash or an upset stomach. People would be horrified if they served your child a tea that resulted in food poisoning, but a similar allergic reaction can be brushed off.
So what to do? Here are my top tips.
- Be calm and despite what people may say to you don’t raise your voice or get exasperated. Repeat as many times as necessary – allergies are an autoimmune reaction, a medical condition, not a lifestyle choice. Those outside of the allergic community can get, understandably, mixed up with intolerances, allergies to raw egg vs baked egg, mild allergic reactions vs severe so we need to be able to explain it all, repeatedly.
- Be clear about what can’t be eaten, don’t just say ‘dairy allergic’. You need to spell it out for people – that means no cooking in butter, cheese, cream or milk in any sauces. Ask them to please be careful with crisps and snacks as they often have milk protein. If gluten is an issue warn people about soya sauce, and other sources of gluten that might not be so obvious (sauces thickened with flour etc). The number of people who don’t seem to know that mayonnaise has eggs is shocking – it’s the one I always have to remind people of.
- Always send your child with snacks. Otherwise they may be the only kid being offered fruit while the others have cake.
- Ask if there is any way you can help make cooking easier – dairy free margarine, non dairy milk, vegan pesto, gluten free pasta?. Whether we like it or not, having our kids over means more work for the hosts so we need to be prepared to accept that and offer to make it easier.
- When people make an effort – say thank you. Several times. Recently Molly was at a water skiing camp. The organisers were kind enough to buy her dairy free chocolate bars. It was so kind, so thoughtful. I got Molly to send a ‘thank you’ postcard. It only takes a minute, which is less time than they spent hunting for milk free chocolate.
- When people ask ‘but what do you feed them?’ – be ready to reel off a bunch of easy suppers. You need to act relaxed, if you make it sound horrendous then other people will feel the same.
Being a good guest is an important skill to teach children, for allergy sufferers it’s a bit more involved. Maybe people feel that they shouldn’t have to say ‘thank you’ any more than anyone else, but I disagree. We need to appreciate the effort people make for our children, and make sure they know that we’ve noticed, and are grateful.