Have you ever seen that parenting meme that goes, “Currently approving my kid’s friends based on which parents I think will drink coffee with me on playdates”?
Pre-kids, I used to sip my coffee, scroll through my morning Facebook feed, and chuckle to myself whenever I saw that meme.
Little did I know, I was actually going to be the silently anxious mom bringing EpiPens, Benadryl, and an emergency action plan in my diaper bag to all future get-togethers.
It took a long time for me to feel comfortable talking to other moms about my child’s food allergies. I usually just avoided playdates at all costs or sat in quiet terror the entire time, never letting my eyes fall away from my daughter.
If that’s you right now, I’m sending you virtual hugs. Seriously. Only other allergy moms know the legit struggle of juggling your child’s social needs, health risks, and your own personal anxiety during playdates.
I hope this article will give you helpful tips in communicating effectively with other parents about your kiddo’s food allergies. My goal is to give you some practical ideas on how to manage the actual activities themselves so that everything runs as smoothly as possible.
Thinking Through Playdates
Undoubtedly, you have probably wondered how to navigate playdates with your child if they are living with food allergies. Depending on your child’s specific needs, there are numerous things to consider.
- Where is the playdate taking place?
- What are the ages/stages of development of your children?
- Will you be with them for the duration of the activity? Or is your child older and desiring more independence?
- How do you politely bring up the subject of your child’s food allergies and needs?
- How do you handle talking to the other parent about snacks?
- Does your family have specific rules concerning food consumption around others?
Lauren and I have spent the last few years pondering these questions during social outings. We always wanted our children to have fun, but we also wanted to keep them safe.
As Lauren likes to say, “My kids are going to live their best life.”
Just because our little ones have a life-threatening health issue doesn’t mean we continually have to hunker down and shelter in place. Though that initial cocoon period is a legit season of life many allergy families rightly and understandably go through (we certainly did).
There is a deep desire for our children to make memories and have meaningful friendships or experiences. But, realistically, families dealing with food allergies can’t just meet up with people at the drop of a hat. It usually takes a bit more effort to plan and explain your child’s medical needs to others.
At first, it may feel overwhelming. Thinking through all the details for each interaction your child is going to have with their peers can feel daunting.
But I promise it does get easier. Eventually, it just becomes second nature and part of your automatic thought process. You and your kid(s) can still go out and experience all the wonderful blessings close friendships can offer!
Location, Location, Location
First things first, where is the playdate located? The location is the most important detail that will determine your comfort level when trying to build more playdates into your monthly schedule. I have found that I am usually most comfortable meeting up for playdates at very specific locations.
This is a list of common playdate locations ranked in order of my personal preference.
- My own home
- Other parent’s home
Home, Sweet Home
For me, my own home is the place I feel the most secure in meeting another family to have a playdate. It often doesn’t require as much effort on my part to plan ahead since I know the environment is already free of my children’s allergens.
If we agree to meet at my house, I usually inform the other parent about my kids’ allergies ahead of time. I politely request:
- that they not eat my child’s food allergen before coming over
- that they not bring any food into the home, but that I will provide snacks (I usually ask what kinds of snacks their kiddo would love)
- they wash their hands once they arrive at my home
- take their shoes off before entering my house (peanut and nut allergens are commonly stepped on and tracked into homes)
Being straightforward with my requests helps put me at ease while my child plays with their friends. I know that indirect contact with their food allergen is much less likely to occur.
If you happen to be like me, you might feel awkward having to bring up the subject of food allergies. Maybe you even wonder how to delicately phrase your safety requests towards another parent.
I’ve got you covered! I’ll provide a sample text message of how I breach the subject with other moms later in this post.
Playgrounds & Parks
Playgrounds and open park areas are another great choice because food does not typically play a prominent role there. With that being said, you will still encounter parents that allow their kids to eat on the playground equipment.
Those snacks can sometimes contain your child’s allergen, so you will need to be aware while you’re playing. I usually do a quick scan to see what other people are doing (aka if they are actively eating my child’s allergens), and to see if there is any crushed cookie in the tunnel, or smeared snacks on the slide.
Then we play! And wipe hands afterwards.
I suggest trying to plan a playdate at a playground that you are very familiar with or feel safe at the majority of the time. For instance, there is a park close to our home that is not usually busy and we’ve had great luck in not seeing a lot of food/food wrappers everywhere.
Again, talking to another mom ahead of time about the seriousness of your child’s allergen will set the stage for your comfort level. You may want to kindly ask them to not eat your child’s allergen before meeting, or you might even want to request that there be no snacks eaten during the playdate itself or offer to provide snacks that you know are safe.
Remember, every child and every allergy is different. You are the one advocating for your little one until they are old enough and mature enough to do it themselves. It is okay to tell another parent that you have to keep your child safe and request certain safety measures.
Most people will be okay with that, and if they are not, then that friendship really might not be a good fit for you or your kiddo.
Also, don’t forget to pack wet wipes in your emergency allergy bag as well. They will be helpful not just for wiping down little hands, but cleaning picnic tables and benches if needed.
Another Parent’s Home
For me personally, going to play at another family’s house is my least favorite option. There are many more factors to contemplate, especially if my child’s allergens are actively used in their home.
For my daughter’s needs, I have to consider the fact that their children might have eaten a food allergen and then touched toys, furniture, doorknobs, etc. Some families also allow meals and snacks to be eaten on couches or in bedrooms.
Typically, I try to get to know a family for awhile before going to their home. If the parents lean more towards my style of parenting and share similar house rules concerning food, then I tend to feel a lot more comfortable visiting their home.
Similar to how I handle playground playdates, I usually ask that no snacks be served for the duration of our time together and that everyone washes hands before we play.
Lauren prefers to ask that the snacks not contain nuts or offers to provide the snacks.
Lauren and I are fellow moms, not medical experts. We can give you things to think about and our own personal experiences with food allergies.
Always consult your allergist for medical advice on any specific needs for your child.
Alternative Options for Playdate Locations
Here is an additional list of local places you could choose to meet up at for playdates:
- Play Street Museum (in select states only)
- Hiking Trails
- Jump Houses (call ahead & check food rules)
- Splash Pads
- Water Parks
These places are great and so much fun! However, it is important to note that food will most likely play more of a role at these locations. You will have to think through your comfort level and the needs of your child at this stage.
If you decide to go to one of these places, here are some ideas to help keep everyone safe:
- Bring wet wipes for hard surfaces (such as dining tables and chairs).
- Bring your own hand soap for bathrooms. I cannot tell you how many places we’ve been to that either don’t have soap or run out often. An easy way to carry soap on you is to put it in an old, pocket sized hand-sanitizer container or travel bottle.
- Consider a disposable plastic table cloth to further put a barrier between your child and hard surfaces (dollar stores usually carry these).
- Disposable placemats were so handy when my kiddos were under 2. After wiping down the table I could stick the placemat right on.
- Pack your own safe snacks or lunches instead of purchasing anything there. If there is a “no outside food” policy, bring your safe food anyways. Many places are accommodating of you bringing food for your child for medical needs.
Developmental Stages and Ages
The location that you choose for your kiddo’s playdate will also depend on their age and developmental stage. For example, if you have an infant or toddler with food allergies, you probably want to be present with them at a location that is as food-free as you can get.
Little ones are constantly sticking things in their mouths or crawling on floors, which adds another element of being super aware of allergens in their environments.
Moreover, some toddlers are not ready developmentally to understand why they shouldn’t be grabbing food off another person’s plate. They may not be able to reason why food can be a potential danger. That’s typically why many food allergy families with young children opt to meet in their own homes. It is probably the safest location for that particular kid.
If your child is upper elementary age or a teenager, they might be ready for more independence and possibly be capable of advocating for their own food allergy needs. Lord help me when my kids reach that age!
If that is the case, you might discuss with them what it would look like for them to go to a friend’s house and any safety rules they would be expected to follow.
Possible Visitation Rules for Pre-Teens & Teens:
- You will need to provide mom or dad with the address of your friend’s house as well as your friend’s phone number and their parents’ numbers.
- Your emergency action plan needs to always be in your purse or wallet. A copy will be given to the adult host upon arrival.
- Your 2 EpiPens stay on your person, or in the same room, at all times.
- If the food or snack (especially ones without ingredient labels) was not deemed safe ahead of time, don’t eat it.
- If you have questions or concerns, always call mom or dad.
The above rules can be adjusted as a pre-teen matures and grows older. Some of these rules might not work for your family, so feel to use ones that everyone feels comfortable with!
I know many veteran allergy moms advise that you go with your child to meet the parents of the friend ahead of time before your child visits their home alone. That gives you the opportunity to discuss the seriousness of the food allergies with the other set of parents. It’ll also help you establish safety protocols so that everyone is on the same page.
For instance, you can go over the signs of anaphylaxis and how to use the EpiPens. It’s always good to remind people to call 911 first (instead of you) if your child experiences a reaction. The more information they have and the better prepared they are, the better both parties will feel.
Always follow the emergency action plan given to you from your allergist.
FARE is the trusted source of information about food allergies and they have an emergency care plan template here.
Talking About the Food Allergy
My husband and I did foster care for a number of years before our own children were born. During that time, we were a part of a phenomenal support group of foster parents. Subsequently, we made several lifelong friendships with people that were well trained in trauma, empathy, and living with health issues.
Most of those friends are people we feel comfortable around and they usually respond to my family with great compassion. We had hardly said anything about the newly diagnosed food allergies before they jumped in to ask how they could support us or make us feel comfortable still doing activities with them. It was so wonderful!
On the other hand, it is a completely different story when I am trying to branch out and make new friends. Discussing my children’s allergens with people I don’t know makes me uncomfortable.
I usually feel anxious about having to explain the seriousness of the food issues. Then I worry about whether or not someone will respond kindly if I politely ask for a few safety conditions once we do meet up. The “what if” cycle can quickly get out of hand inside my brain.
Hence, I did actively choose to avoid playdates with people I didn’t know well until my daughter turned 3 years old (a worldwide pandemic didn’t help matters either). That was when I finally felt brave enough to venture out. I felt encouraged to make new friends at church or with ladies I met at our local park.
When I was invited to go do activities with other families, I knew I needed to communicate my children’s food allergy needs clearly. Personally, I usually call a new mom friend ahead of time or message her about the playdate specifics.
Here is a text message example:
Hey! I am so excited to hang out with you and your kiddos soon! Just a heads up, my kids have a few pretty serious food allergies (peanuts, tree nuts, and bananas) and I didn’t want to catch you off guard. Would you mind bringing snacks for your kiddos that don’t have those allergens in them? Then our kids can hang without us worrying about it. I’m also happy to provide snacks if that is less stressful 🙂 Let me know your thoughts
Depending on your child’s specific allergen, you might want to adjust that text message to fit your needs.
Different People Have Different Responses
I have found that most moms are very open and understanding when I text a message like that. If the moms agree to my requests, I respond by thanking them for their kindness and flexibility.
Actually, Lauren has had multiple moms thank her for bringing the food allergies to their attention. One of the moms took it so seriously that she changed her child’s clothes (to make sure no food was on them) before coming to the playdate.
Talk about AWESOME!
More People Want to Help Then Not
You might even be surprised to find that people will research how to keep your children safe all on their own. I once took my kids to meet their cousins at an insect learning center. I wasn’t feeling uneasy at all about this playdate because no food was served at that location. Also, my sister-in-law has always been very supportive of us.
We weren’t supposed to be there long enough to have to worry about snacks, but we ended up finishing early. My SIL wanted to feed her kids. You could practically hear my allergy mom heart thumping uncontrollably as went to go sit on a bench outside.
However, I was soon put at ease. Incredibly, my SIL pulled out allergy safe snacks for ALL the kids! She had thought about it ahead of time and cared enough to find a product that was made in an allergen free facility for my kids. I wanted to cry tears of joy.
Something like that can really warm your heart and touch your soul.
But girl, there will also be those people that do not want to accommodate the requests you present to them. If you happen to ever run into someone (or if you already know one) that indignantly tells you “no” or pokes fun of your need to protect your child, I’m telling you that it’s okay to set boundaries.
It is totally fine to let that dust storm of a friendship pass right on by. Shake off the dirt and keep moving forward. This is difficult enough. Anyone who belittles, judges, or criticizes you is not a real friend.
You’re basically a rock star!
If you are a food allergy parent, you are already an incredible human being! Don’t push yourself to do anything you aren’t ready to tackle.
All the information and ideas that you just read about in how to plan playdates will either feel empowering or terrifying. It is completely okay to hold off on planning playdates until you have a plan that you are comfortable with.
For me, I had to wait until my confidence outgrew the sheer weight of my anxiety. I’m in your corner, momma, no matter your decision!
Day by day, month by month, you’ll gain more knowledge and settle into a new groove of dealing with the allergies. When you and your child are ready to take on more activities and handle the risks, I promise that you’ll feel it in your bones.
Until then, enjoy playing and learning with your beautiful little ones while soaking up all the great memories. <3
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