Sending a child to school each year can fill any parent with emotions, especially when your child has food allergies. You may wonder if the school staff will know how to recognize their food allergen or if they will have quick, easy access to epinephrine. How will they handle field trips and extracurricular activities? Will they know how to handle anaphylaxis?
It’s normal to have mixed emotions with each new school year. Thankfully, many schools across the U.S. already have processes in place to manage food allergies. And with resources and support, you and school staff can work together to create a healthy learning environment for your child.
Kids With Food Allergies (KFA) spoke with Barb Pritikin, Brand Manager at Enjoy Life Foods, and some of our community members about their experiences sending their children with food allergies to school. Read their thoughts and helpful tips below.
1. Communication with school staff about your child’s food allergy is key.
Barb’s daughter, Sophie, is 20 years old and attending college now. But Barb still remembers how scared she was to send her to kindergarten. She quickly found that communication with school staff is an important part of preventing food allergy reactions.
“Talk to your child’s teachers, classroom aides, and other parents of kids in the same classroom,” Barb says. “You may find that some kids in the classroom have the same allergies! When Sophie started elementary school, food allergies were not very common. At the start of each school year, we spoke with the school principal and teachers about her food allergies. We also trained her teachers and the school nurse how to use an [epinephrine auto-injector].”
Partner with the school staff who will be involved with your child. The school staff wants your child to have a quality education just like you do. By working together, you can usually create a plan that works for your child.
“[I was] SO anxious,” recalls Vicky S, KFA community member. “When [my son] started school, I was terrified, but his teacher and teaching assistant were equally anxious to keep him safe and checked everything with me. … Communication is key, I find, for the positives and the negatives so you can find a way forward that you’re happy with.”
2. Prepare in advance.
The first few weeks of any school year are hectic for parents and school staff alike. By preparing for the new school year before it begins, you help put your child’s care plan in motion before they set foot on campus. You may also find that it’s easier to get in touch with teachers and other staff before school begins.
Before the first day of school:
- Contact the school to discuss your child’s food allergy and care plan
- Get copies of the forms you will need to fill out and turn them in before the first day
- Meet with your child’s doctor to get forms signed and refill prescriptions
If school has already started in your area and you haven't taken action, start the steps above now.
“I was well-prepared [for my meeting with the school principal] with my own speaking points and supplemented with handouts from reputable resources, including several from the Kids With Food Allergies site,” says AllergyBoyMom. “While there was still a lot more ground to cover over time, I left the meeting feeling good about the solutions-oriented spirit of the discussion and the outcome.”
Think of ways food might be involved in your child’s school day beyond snack time and lunches. There will be school parties, field trips, afterschool activities, clubs, and more. Candies and snacks may be given out as rewards. Some crafts and school projects may even use food that includes your child’s allergens. Talk with your child’s teacher about ways to handle food in these situations too.
- Kids With Food Allergies School Planning Zone
- Non-Food Rewards for Children With Food Allergies (includes printable PDF)
- Potential Food Allergens in Preschool, School, Camp Crafts, and Activities (includes printable PDF)
3. Help make sure your child has access to foods free of their allergens.
Packing your child’s lunch is one of the best ways to have control over what’s in your child’s food. Since your child may not be able to eat many traditional lunch favorites, how can you keep lunches healthy and interesting?
“Sophie loves Enjoy Life cookies and these became a favorite snack very early in her life. Not surprisingly, Sophie was also a picky eater (she had food anxiety growing up). Therefore, her lunches were always carefully packed with foods from home. I also learned how to cook specific restaurant-style dishes that our family loves, but in a safe way.”
Kathy P, Vice President of Community for the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, uses a trick that keeps hot food hot until lunchtime.
“We use Thermos food jars. They keep food hot for a long time. I boil water and put it in the Thermos and let it sit for a few minutes. I empty it and then fill it with preheated food.”
For snack times and unexpected events involving food, Barb recommends sending a box of safe snacks and treats for the teacher to keep on hand. This can help your child feel included if food is not planned.
Make lunch prep easier with these KFA resources:
4. Guide your child to self-management of their food allergy.
Teaching a child how to manage their food allergy can have many benefits. Self-management:
- Builds confidence
- Teaches your child how to talk with other people about their food allergy and advocate for themselves
- Gives your child the skills they need to prevent and treat allergic reactions when they are away from you, especially as they become a young adult
“We have talked about food allergies a lot throughout [Sophie’s] life,” Barb states. “We also taught her not to be afraid to speak up about her allergies at school, in friends’ homes, in restaurants, and even with extended family members. To help her prepare to advocate for herself, we had her start ordering her own food in restaurants at a very early age.”
“The younger years are the hardest because the kids are still learning about their allergy and how to manage,” according to KFA community member Jenny0111. “It does get easier, and I’ve found people start to really listen when our kids speak for themselves. Each stage is so different but as soon as your child can speak for themselves about how it makes them feel and what they need, go for it!”
5. Get support from KFA and other families managing food allergies.
Support is a valuable part of food allergy management. Learning to manage food allergies is a process. Talking with other parents and caregivers of children with food allergies can help you ease your concerns and find ways to make management easier.
You can support your child’s teachers too. KFA has several school resources that can help teachers make their classrooms more allergy-friendly and inclusive.
“Just breathe!” Barb says. “Your child is starting school, which is a very exciting time in life! There are so many resources available including Kids With Food Allergies, your child’s allergist, as well as regional support groups.”
To help you with your school planning, join our community. You’ll have access to the latest resources and news on food allergy. On our private support forums, you can talk with other families managing food allergies for support.