Education and Empowerment in Action


As an allergy parent, one of the things you worry about is how to teach your child about their allergies. How do you teach them what foods they can have and which they can’t? How do you teach them to ask questions and speak up for themselves? How do you encourage them not to fear food in spite of their allergies? How do you teach them to be educated about food in general? And how do you do this when they’re not even 5 years old?

I can’t pretend to have all the answers. But a recent episode with my own son filled me with pride and gave me tremendous hope.

“I have a dairy allergy.”

Our family recently took a holiday getaway to the “North Pole.” At lunch, my son ordered a burger. Prior to ordering, he told me he couldn’t have cheese on it because of his allergies. “That’s right,” I said. After he ordered his cheese-less burger, I reinforced with the server that he has an allergy, as I often do.

Later that day, part of our North Pole experience was visiting with Mrs. Claus, who had prepared treats and hot chocolate for the children. When her elves brought the snacks, my son spoke up immediately and said he couldn’t have the the cookies and hot cocoa because of is dairy allergy.

My husband and I proceeded to ask questions about the cookies to see if he could have them. (Ultimately, we determined he could have the cookies, but he didn’t like them anyway.) Regardless, that day, in that moment, the thing that meant the most to me was knowing that at 4 years old, he feels empowered and confident enough to speak up and advocate for himself. Truthfully, I have every confidence he’ll outgrow his allergy, but if he doesn’t, this skill is so, so important.

He may not currently have the knowledge to be able to press a server (or even a family member) on the ingredients in a dish. But after watching him that weekend, I’m confident that that will come.

Assumptions and Advocacy

My dad has raised the question of whether I might be making it harder for Conner to understand what he can and can’t when I make allergy-friendly foods. For example, if I make allergy-friendly risotto, does he think he can have all risottos? I don’t discount this argument. Because certainly, it makes sense. How can I expect a child to understand? Things need to be black and white for kids, and I’ve introduced so much gray.

Still, my response to my dad is that lots of foods can be made lots of different ways. Some chefs might add butter to a steak. Or what about vegetables? Do you assume everything is sautéed in olive oil or steamed plain, or is it possible there’s butter?

I remember in the days when I was avoiding dairy, one breakfast spot said their hash browns were cooked in a combination of butter and oil. My assumption would’ve been that it’s just oil. But I asked — because the truth is you can’t operate under assumptions when you’re dealing with allergies. And that’s why the willingness to ask questions or tell somebody about your allergy and advocate for yourself is such an important skill.

It’s also essential to have an understanding of food and how it’s prepared so you know what questions to ask — because not everyone understands. One year, a family member stressed to me that a pie didn’t have egg in it (an allergy of ours at the time). And I thought about it, and asked, “Yeah, but isn’t there condensed milk or a cream of some sort in the filling …?” She said yes, and I reminded her that that’s dairy and we’ll need to pass on the pie.

I sometimes grow frustrated that people in our lives still don’t get it, but I have to remember that this isn’t their daily life. It’s ours. And part of that experience has to be a willingness to speak up, to ask questions, to advocate … every single day. And to know that my son can feels like a tremendous victory.