(And Why Kiddos Cook and Food Allergies Go Together)
Mac and cheese. Pizza. Chicken tenders. String cheese. These are staples of childhood. And they are things my son can’t have. In fact, these foods could make him very sick — or worse.
His food allergies aren’t the end of the world, but they do make life harder — for us as parents trying to find foods he’ll eat, yes, but mostly for him. We remain hopeful that he’ll grow out of them, but we’re also keenly aware he might not. And if he doesn’t? Well, he’s going to need certain skills when he gets older.
Reading food labels
Right now, he’s learning his ABCs, but after he learns how to read, he’s going to need to learn how to read food labels. Beyond where to find the ingredients and allergen information on the package, he’ll need to know things like “lactose-free” doesn’t mean he can have it. To save time, it also will be easier if he can start to learn things like: Dairy is common in pesto, and eggs are in mayo.
The confidence to ask questions
Then, he will need to learn how to ask questions at restaurants and not eat anything that has a question mark around it. We really can’t assume anything is dairy-free without asking — because some places put butter on everything (WHY!?). And without asking, you might not know eggs are in that vinaigrette (because, yes, of course, my boy will order a salad someday).
If a server can’t tell him what’s in a dish, he may need to have the determination to request a conversation with someone more informed, and ultimately, he may need to have the resolve to leave the restaurant.
Managing social pressures
He’ll also need to accept that kids around him are eating things he’d love to have — but can’t. Cupcakes with frosting. Grilled cheese. String cheese. French toast.
Today, we keep him away from these foods. Sometimes I can anticipate the need to bring him something sweet to have while others are indulging in cake. But in time, he’ll need to be able to be at a friend’s birthday party and stay away from all the foods they’re having. I’m not sure when he’ll truly understand that those things will make him sick or cause his airways to close. But I also realize that understanding that foods can make him sick is one thing; managing the social pressures that go with that recognition is another.
Cooking for himself
Because of our son’s allergies (and to be fair, his limited palate), we dine out at only a select number of restaurants. Fortunately, I enjoy time in the kitchen and am happy to hit up the local market, so cooking isn’t a dreaded chore for me … except on the nights that it is.
I’m not a gourmet chef by any means, but I do believe that basic cooking skills are important, and the sooner we can impart these skills to our kids, the better. Food allergies or not, cooking with raw ingredients you’ve purchased (or grown, if you’re ambitious) is the one way to ensure you know what’s in your food — how much sugar, how much salt, the quality of the oil, whether there’s dairy or egg or peanuts or any other allergen.
And for my son and millions of other people with food allergies, I see cooking as a means of survival — and an ability to enjoy food. It creates options.
When we go out to breakfast, my son can have some sausage or bacon and a tortilla, maybe a fruit smoothie. Again, his picky toddler palate is part of the issue to be sure, but you try eating breakfast out when you can’t have eggs or dairy. At one time, we had to avoid nuts and soy too, which ruled out vegan places. At home, though, I can make dairy-free, egg-free pancakes, allergy-friendly breakfast burritos or a hash.
As my son gets older, maybe a friend’s family will want to take him out for a meal. If cooking is part of my son’s toolset, he also will have the ability to mix and match entrees and sides to arrive at a dish he can eat. We’ve frequently ordered a side of grilled chicken and a side of rice or beans or had to mix and match pastas and sauces. He’s 2, so I’ll give him a pass for not having this skill just yet. But one day, this knowledge of food and how it’s prepared will be a powerful weapon in his arsenal. And will come from cooking and being around adults in the kitchen.
When my son thinks about being in the kitchen, I want it to be enjoyable and easy. It shouldn’t feel intimidating or laborious. As he gets older, I want preparing healthy, safe meals for himself to be a natural part of his day rather than a chore. I know a lot of us wish we felt this way about cooking, but for people with multiple food allergies, it’s more than a luxury of attitudes; it’s an essential life skill. While none of us should live on frozen meals and fast food, people with food allergies really can’t.
So, let’s start teaching our kids sooner than later. Let’s impart a sense of joy around preparing food and even grocery shopping and meal planning. Let’s model healthy behaviors and positive attitudes. Let’s teach our kids with food allergies to appreciate food rather than fear it. And let’s teach them basic cooking skills that will give them the ability and the confidence to live and eat safely as they mature.
That’s not to say that this is easy or stress-free. Some days, like a lot of things related to parenting, it feels like an impossible task. But as a mom, I believe it’s one of the greatest gifts I can give my son.