I had food allergies before it was cool. It came out of nowhere: one night my parents and I were eating dinner, and I started breaking out in hives. Thus began a nightmare of trying to figure out what was wrong. Since food allergies were hardly a blip on the radar back then, it took some time before my pediatrician referred us to an allergist. By that time, my skin was so sensitive that I couldn’t handle an allergy test (the “prick” test).
In typical middle school angst mode, I decided I would “never ever” know what the deal was. Eventually we were able to do a test, and I was allergic to wheat, corn, and oats. Let me tell you, the coolest lunch you can bring to school is NOT rice cakes with peanut butter.
Since then, food allergies are much more common, but I’d imagine it’s still pretty tough to deal with as a parent, especially if you didn’t have them yourself. From my own experience having them in middle and high school (and then a reboot in my twenties, because why not), here’s a bit of advice.
First off, don’t make a big deal about it. I remember being more stressed out about my mom being stressed about it. Myself, I was just glad to get a diagnosis and stop being a human scratching post. Don’t make your kid feel guilty about how difficult it is to shop for their food or cook stuff from scratch, and don’t bemoan the things they use to eat. The less drama the better all around.
A word about getting diagnoses: you should. I see a lot of people doing elimination diets, regardless of whether they’re sick or not, and this strikes me as odd. For one thing, it’s very difficult to do a real elimination diet without a doctor’s supervision and still get enough nutrients. Any time you cut out whole food groups, you’re at risk of causing a deficiency. Moreover, there’s no guarantee that your kid’s allergy will even get detected by such a process. Not everyone is allergic to peanuts and shellfish; we never would have guessed corn or oats, for example. And unless you make it your second job, it is very difficult to properly eliminate an ingredient, since things like corn and wheat and soy have code words listed in ingredients (and even in medications) that laymen just won’t recognize. It makes sense to go to an allergist and get tested. Plus, some schools or other organizations will take you more seriously if you have that official diagnosis.
If your kids are old enough, expect to advocate for themselves once they understand what to avoid. Most kids lack the confidence to ask about ingredients, ask for substitutions, etc, just like many kids might shrink from making official phone calls or speaking in public. This is a great opportunity to nip that in the bud. If they can understand what the allergies consist of – the different “code words” in ingredients labels, for instance – then they can learn to speak up. Don’t jump in too quickly as their advocate (which is humiliating), but don’t give them an out either. If they want substitutions and special accommodations, they have to learn to ask.
On a similar note, let them do typical kid stuff. I went on field trips and slumber parties and week-long summer camps with food allergies. And yes, it was awkward, getting my own stuff from the camp kitchen as we had pre-arranged, but everyone was nice about it, and it built confidence. Nowadays it’s probably even easier, since food allergies are much more public. Make sure teachers and camp counselors know about the allergies – what medications your child needs, what’s off limits, what reactions to watch out for. And then set them loose.
Don’t stress too much about finding one-to-one substitutions. For one thing, you probably can’t. My poor mom tried to make me a wheat-free birthday cake, with mixed results. While there’s more and better alternatives nowadays, they’re often very expensive. Besides, most alternatives are sad and second-rate: would you ever eat carob and think “hey it really is like chocolate!”?
Instead, think of other foods altogether, and other cultures. American foods are heavily tied to wheat and corn and dairy, so if you have to avoid these it’s best to look at other cultures. Think of Mexican or South American or Asian cuisines. You can even look at different regions in the US. I was lucky, because Southern cuisine relies heavily on rice, and my family used tomato or meat based sauces rather than flour/white sauces. It’s OK to get outside the American paradigm of spaghetti and pizza and sandwiches.