At 18 months old, we signed my son up for his first real activity, soccer. Well, as much as soccer can be at that age. He had the energy, and we were ready!
I was still a relatively new food allergy mom as my son had been diagnosed at 8 months old with a peanut allergy. I was nervous because this was his first organized activity and I wasn’t quite sure how to navigate that yet. But I figured there were probably not be food present at the meets and I probably wouldn’t need to do much preemptive planning.
Nope. Definitely called that wrong.
I had disclosed his food allergies, which at the time were peanut, tree nut, and dairy on the medical forms and had mentioned it to the director at the first day’s check in.
I thought that was enough.
We were in the middle of class, which by the way was SO cute, but then I noticed something that made my food allergy mom alarm go off.
Another parent was allowing their child to run off the field, go to where the parents were watching and eat a bite of snack before running back to the class. That snack was smeared all over his hands and mouth.
This continued to happen repeatedly. Like every 3 minutes.
I did not anticipate this. My son is 5 now and I know that I would respond differently now than I did then. I have had years to build my confidence and experience advocating.
My response back then was to be as low key as possible. I kept my son away from that child, finished the class, then talked with the coaches afterwards.
If this had happened now, I would approach the parent with my typical, “Hey, would you mind helping me with something?”
I also explained to the coaches that given the kids young ages, where they still put hands in their mouths a lot and then touch the equipment, that eating food while the class is occurring is potentially problematic for my son.
I reminded them that the class expectations were that there was no food in class.
Luckily, I did not get any pushback on this. The coaches were understanding and made a point to remind parents of the rules. We were able to finish the semester with no further issues.
Here’s the thing. Anywhere there are people, there will be food. Including, if not especially, child centered activities.
Instead of being surprised by the food, I’ve learned how to be more proactive and better prepared. I want my kids to be involved and I do not want food allergies to limit my kids. But this takes some intentionality.
Here are some tips that we have found helpful in navigating food allergies and extra activities!
Be Proactive Instead of Reactive
Clear communication goes a long way. I’ve found much better success (and less anxiety) in being proactive with advocating for my kids’ allergy needs rather than reacting to it in the moment.
For each activity we’ve signed up for, I’ve talked with either a coach or director right from the beginning. Here are some questions I ask:
- Is there food involved with the activity in any way?
- Have you had students before who have had food allergies?
- Are any of the staff trained on administering epinephrine? If so, what injection devices have they trained with?
- Is the staff trained in CPR and First Aid? Where is the closest First Aid kit? Does it include an epinephrine injector? (Some facilities do keep an emergency epipen on hand.)
- Here is our Emergency Care Plan. I’d love to review this with you so we’re on the same page. Are you familiar with these types of emergency plans?
- Should I not be present for some reason, who would be responsible for the emergency care plan should an incident occur?
- Is there anything I can help with? (It doesn’t have to be food allergy related.)
This has helped us solve potential issues BEFORE they were a problem and has allowed my son to enjoy these activities and feel included.
Be in Charge of Snacks
When my son was in t-ball, I noticed that the teams had different ways of doing snacks. One way was to have a team snack after practice, which luckily is what my son’s coach wanted to do. The other was to have a team snack half way through.
In either scenario, it was helpful for me to be involved with the snacks. I was able to work with the coach and other parents on safe options that everyone on the team could enjoy.
One idea is you can generate a safe snack list to meet the needs of the kids on the team. A great way to make this happen is to offer to do that for the coach so the coach doesn’t have that on his or her plate. The benefit of this idea is that parents can still rotate bringing snacks by following the list.
Another idea is to just provide the snacks yourself. The benefit is the obvious assurance that someone isn’t bringing snacks that aren’t safe. The obvious disadvantage is that this can be financially strenuous.
A third idea is to advocate for no snacks during the actual practice, and that way if it’s too difficult to organize a safe snack each week, then after practice you can bring your own safe snacks for your kid while the other kids eat the other snacks.
Furthermore, you could volunteer to be in charge of the snacks as well as organizing the other parents. Often, parents just want to know what to bring. If you are in charge of the snacks, then you can coordinate with the individual parents each week to bring something. This way you aren’t having to provide it, but you have some control over what’s happening.
Our Family’s Double Food Rule
Finally, although we plan as best we can, we can’t always control if another parent shows up with a box of donuts to “surprise” the team. This stuff is hard because then my kids are excluded.
A couple ways we deal with this are I always have snacks with us so we have something to eat. We’re literally a walking picnic.
But we also have a deal with our kids that if they are ever excluded because of their food allergies, and they can’t eat the food that everyone else is eating and there isn’t a fair alternative, then we go and get double of whatever safe treat they want!
This rule has been a GEM for our family. Instead of being sad they can’t have a treat, my kids are plotting what they want double of to eat!
A Visual Reminder
Another reality of doing activities with many young children is realizing that the coaches and instructors have a lot to process during each session. Most of the time, they really are doing their best to remember all the information and details about each and every child they work with.
And it can be a lot.
Depending on your comfort level, having a visual reminder about food allergies can be helpful as well. One way Katie’s family does this is by having their children wear their allergy alert bracelets during activities.
Personally, our two families love the AllerMates brand. Check out their store on Amazon HERE. (Not an affiliate link.)
One of the best ways to create a safe environment for your kids is to be involved. When we wanted to get involved in a new church after we had relocated out of state, I was nervous to drop my son in Sunday school.
They had assured me that they no longer do snack time (which I really appreciate) and that their staff is trained on EpiPens. This is more than I expected, however as I started meeting more of the volunteers, I noticed some inconsistency in the training. For example, one volunteer thought they weren’t allowed to administer epinephrine which obviously does us no good in an emergency.
I then noticed that they were going to a different room for music time, but leaving my son’s EpiPen in the original classroom so then it wasn’t with him.
After that, I realized I needed to get involved.
I started volunteering in his classroom and I noticed on the lesson plan that we were going to make oobleck. If you haven’t made oobleck, it’s basically a slime from cornstarch and water. Kids love it.
I knew that I should bring with me a safe brand of cornstarch. Then my day got away from me and I didn’t have time to pick some up. I got to the classroom and immediately checked the can of cornstarch.
Sure enough, it was an off brand that had a “may contain” warning for several tree nuts, milk, and soy.
Because I was there, we were able to come up with an alternative. Because it wasn’t a snack, the staff was not thinking about that craft being an issue for food allergies. For my son’s needs, we treat “may contains” as good as contains.
For me, 20 kids with this on their hands was outside of my comfort zone for his safety needs. I was able to advocate because I was there and involved.
As my son gets older, and he can read labels for himself, self-administer epinephrine, and advocate, I can be more hands off. For now, at the tender age of 5, volunteering is a way I can help create a safer environment for him.
Find the Places that Will Be Supportive
We’ve noticed that the range of food allergy awareness can really vary down to the actual studio or facility you are attending.
For example, when we signed my son up for martial arts, my husband took him to the orientation at one training center. He was amazed at the staff’s awareness of food allergies.
The entire staff was trained on epinephrine, absolutely no food is allowed in the actual training room where the classes are, and they actually presented us with ideas to keep my son safe.
They even offered to buy him his own equipment that they would keep separate so other students wouldn’t use it.
We actually though that this was standard for the entire organization and when we moved across town, there was another facility even closer to our new home.
My husband brought my son to this location to meet the staff and immediately upon entering the facility, the lead director tried to hand my 4 year old son a cookie without asking my husband.
When my husband stepped in to decline and explained the food allergies, this director looked very confused and just clearly wasn’t as knowledgable.
Needless to say we stayed with the other location even though it’s farther away. They were willing to learn and change things if needed.
They are still very supportive of my son and it means the world.
Driving the extra distance is completely worth it. Find those places!
Food allergy education and awareness is the key to making the world safer for our kiddos with food allergies. Often times, people truly just don’t know, but are very willing to help!
I’ve found my voice over the last few years in tactfully advocating for my kids.
The reality is, we cannot control what other people eat. And although I would like to personally take a flame thrower to all the peanuts and tree nuts on the planet, alas I cannot and the truth is, nuts are a safe food for other food allergy families.
What we CAN do though is ask for help when we need it. If I see another family actively eating my kids’ allergens during an activity, the conversation usually goes like this:
If we’re at an activity where there is a “no-food rule,” I either approach the parent directly or usually the coach is aware of the situation and addresses it.
Knowing What Is Reasonable
The important thing to remember is to stay calm and stay logical. Washing hands and no food while the activity is ongoing are reasonable requests.
Trying to control what people eat before and/or after the activity is not a reasonable request unless you are hosting the activity at your home. When my kids were babies, we did ask people not to eat peanut or nut products before coming over to our home because kids drool at that age!
I try to imagine how I would want my kids to advocate for themselves in the future. I would want them to be polite, but firm and clear on what they are asking people to do.
In most cases, I’m asking people not to actively eat my kids’ allergens while we interact and to simply wash up before playing.
Most people I have interacted with have been very positive and willing to help. Occasionally, you will run into someone who believes it is their God-given right to consume nuts right there in that exact moment, not wash their hands, and everyone else can just deal with it.
If you run into this while trying to get your kiddos involved activities, advocate for your needs. If you truly have an environment that is unwilling to be supportive, it’s ok to look for another location or even a different activity.
The more we advocate and educate, the more people are aware of food allergies and can come alongside our kids in keeping them safe!
My kids’ food allergies have not stopped them from having a blast in their activities! So far, we’ve tried soccer, t-ball, dance, swimming, Sunday school, and martial arts.
We’ve been proactive, involved, and advocated when needed. My kids are growing and thriving. Their confidence is blossoming.
You can find a way to keep your kids safe at activities! I hope this encourages you with some practical tips.
As always, Katie and I are here for you, cheering you on!