In the UK, an estimated 50 per cent of children are diagnosed with an allergic condition and in the last decade food allergy rates have doubled. The most common culprits for children are milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish and shellfish. In this article we look at how parents can best protect their kids, when eating out, at school and in the case of a severe reaction.
All children in reception and years one and two are now entitled to free lunches thanks to new government legislation, which came into force in September 2014. So does ‘free’ mean free-from? The new rules mean that schools must also cater for children with medical conditions, including food allergies. Speak to your school about the policy they have in place and what information they need from you – including contact details in case of an emergency. Many school food providers now avoid using nuts in their meals and offer healthy allergen-free alternatives, including gluten-free fish cakes and vegetable grills.
Birthday parties can be a major challenge for parents. Biscuits and cupcakes are often made with eggs, fried foods are typically covered in gluten and icing can be hazardous – especially if your child is allergic to nuts and the topping is marzipan. So what is the best plan of action? If you are hosting, there are now plenty of free-from options available – including gluten-free crisps, allergy-friendly cake mix and dairy-free ice cream. If your child is attending a party, bite the bullet and call the host in advance. Explain your child’s condition and how to use an EpiPen (adrenalin injection) if they do suffer a serious allergic reaction. Tell the parent to look out for signs including difficulty swallowing or speaking, abdominal pain or rashes. For highly allergic children, simply being in close proximity to someone eating the offending substance (ie peanuts) can lead to life threatening anaphylactic shock. If this is the case with your child, ensure they carry an EpiPen with them at all times.
Restaurants and cafés are now legally required to clarify whether a meal does or doesn’t contain allergens and the same rules apply to take-away food. However, some businesses have been slow to comply, according to a recent survey from the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH). The RSPH found that over half of the 55 takeaways they visited in London could not tell them whether one of the 14 major allergens was in their food. Bottom line? To make the most of convenience food, do your research first.
Eat as a family
Part of the ritual of sharing a meal together is eating the same food. So, if possible, try to prepare food for your entire family which is also safe for your allergic child. Initially, problem-free siblings may not be keen on the change in menu, so try to make the free-from meals less conspicuous. For instance, if your child is allergic to gluten and dairy, experiment with Asian cuisine – like fried-rice, stir fries, coconut milk curries. These options might be less obvious than substituting standard spaghetti or cheese for gluten- or dairy-free alternatives. Week by week, you can introduce these less familiar foods into the menu.
Getting the right nutrients
One of the biggest concerns for parents is ensuring their children with allergies are not missing key nutrients. Rest assured, kids with milk allergies can still get adequate calcium. One cup of cooked spinach contains 240mg of calcium, not far off the 300mg a cup of milk provides. In addition, certain seaweed has more calcium than cheese. For those with seafood allergies, omega 3 supplements made from algae sources can ensure a healthy growing brain – along with eggs and organic pasture-raised meat. There are also plenty of fibre-rich food options for those withgluten and wheat intolerances.