What Do You Do When Your Child Asks, “Can I eat this?”

“Can I eat this?”

At holidays, parties and family and school events, parents will eventually hear “Can I eat this?” from their child with food allergies.  Hopefully you have taught your child to always ask before taking a bite!  You may not have had time to fully investigate the requested food, which requires not just reading the label, but may require calling the manufacturer of the prepared food. Consulting websites such as www.foodallergy.org or www.glutenfreewatchdog.org may help determine if food ingredients are safe for your child. Look for a date when website pages were last edited as companies can change their ingredients at any time without informing the public.  When in doubt, it’s best to ask your little one “How about this food instead?” as you quickly pull out a safe food from your snack bag (that parents should always carry with them) or direct your child to another safe food option that you recognize is allowable.

Here are some considerations when faced with that on-the-spot question:

1.    Home-made food made by someone other than you—is not allowed.  Unless it is made by someone you have directly taught how to prepare foods safe for your child, the answer must be NO.  Even if food was prepared by a parent of another child with allergies, you can never be sure that others are fully aware of your child’s food allergy restrictions. Even when the cook tells you the ingredients were used, sometimes a person can forget the little sprinkle of this or that when adding ingredients. Kitchen cleaning practices vary, so cross-contamination may be a huge risk. Everyone’s understanding of cross-contamination and use of allowable ingredients may differ.  As a dietitian I have had people tell me they follow a wheat-free diet because they are avoiding whole wheat even when they are using all sorts of other food products that contain wheat.  If offered a questionable food, refuse graciously by explaining that your health care team advised against all home-made foods.

2.    Prepared foods from restaurants or grocery store may be safe, but how do you determine this? The exception is if the chef or manager overseeing the preparation of a desired food can tell you with certainty how the food was prepared and handled so you can judge if allowable or not. You can also review lists of restaurants that participate in training for safe food preparation.

3.    Packaged foods may be safe for your child.  No matter if it is a new product you are using for the first time or a product you use regularly; you must read the label every time before offering to your child so they do not get exposed to unwanted food allergens. If you have read the label and feel confident in the manufacturer ingredient label, then the product may be suitable for your child with food allergies.  I often suggest parents sign up for food allergy alerts from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

5.    Avoid mixing allowable foods on your child’s plate with non-allowable/questionable foods. If the allowable food has been mixed with a non-allowable food, then you can consider that food contaminated. For instance, if a plain, allergy-safe hamburger patty gets inserted into wheat-containing hamburger bun, and wheat is not allowable for your child, then the meal is not safe to eat.  Try to get into the kitchen to read labels and make your child’s plate safe BEFORE exiting the kitchen.  

Teach your child to ask you if they can add any additional foods to their plate. If your child is on a top 8 food elimination diet (E.g., Avoids milk, wheat, egg, soy, peanuts, tree nuts and fish and shellfish), all fresh fruits and vegetables are safe. Fruits and vegetables generally are great choices if tolerated as long as they are served separately from sauces and dips. Bring a bag of apples, pears or tangerines to the party to assure that your child has a healthy and safe choice available. 

Meats are generally okay, as long as the preparation method does not introduce any unwanted ingredients.  Watch out for packaged meats or vegetarian meats as many contain wheat, soy or dairy. A single meat jerky has a long shelf life and may be kept in the car, purse or backpack for an extended period of time and may be considered an allowable and nutritious snack..

No matter how well you plan, these “Can I eat this?” moments may happen. As a best practice, we recommend keeping a snack bag with you or in your car in case of emergencies. Ideas for your snack bag depend on what food allergens your child needs to avoid. For instance, if your child is on a  8 food elimination diet, allowable snack examples include:

  • Individual bags of gluten free pretzels, top 8-free cookies/crackers or allowable potato chips
  • Freeze dried fruits or fruit leather
  • Meat jerky sticks
  • Ready to serve Neocate Splash drink boxes in a variety of flavors
  • Suggest making a list of “safe” foods offered at common fast food restaurants that provides food allergy information on their website.

Have questions? Comment below!

-Patricia Novak MPH RD CLE LD

Today’s guest blog post is by Patricia Novack. Patricia has 30 years experience working with children and adolescents with autism, developmental disabilities, food allergies and chronic illness.  Her work includes clinical practice in both hospital and community based programs, professional training and curriculum development.  The common thread throughout has been addressing feeding issues in children from infancy through adolescence.

Published: 01/26/2017
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