The Link Between Food Allergies and Cooking

Want to give kids with allergies more options? Help them navigate the kitchen. (photo: Shutterstock)

Want to give kids with allergies more options? Help them navigate the kitchen. (photo: Shutterstock)

“No cheese because I have a dairy allergy.”

Hearing these words in my son’s sweet voice made me swell with pride this evening at dinner. At 4 years old, he has learned to tell restaurant servers “no cheese” or “no butter” — but also to tell them why. He’s learned to advocate for himself, and I’m grateful for that. I’m also immensely proud of his early cooking skills — because he’s going to need them too.

What Food Allergies Mean

There was a time not long ago when it seemed like we wouldn’t be able to eat out anywhere. After all, where can you go where you can find options that don’t contain dairy or eggs or nuts or peanuts or soy? Those were the five allergies he was diagnosed with at 10 months old. Back then, the road seemed so long. Would he outgrow any of them? Perhaps. Statistically, it was probable.

But what if he didn’t? What would that mean for him? It was nothing we couldn’t get through. The thing is that food allergies are definitely NOT the end of the world. They are challenging for sure, especially when you consider that a person eats multiple times a day. But it’s manageable.

Still, lasting food allergies would mean challenging mealtimes forever. Perhaps very few options at restaurants. Sitting at a different table at school. Not being able to share snacks with friends. Having to skip out on the birthday cake at parties. Having to bring his own grilled chicken and rice to events where we know pizza is being ordered for the group. Having to carry an EpiPen.

Why Cooking Matters

We’ve been very fortunate. Today, dairy is the only off-the-table food. But that, as you can imagine, is a challenging one. Restaurant cooks like their cream sauces and all things butter. And multiple days a week, the lunch at preschool is out because of dairy.

As my son gets older, I want him to choose healthy whole foods, and I want him to have variety in his life. Knowing how to cook ensures he will have the opportunity for both of those things. No need to resort to processed foods. Forget ordering the same restaurant dishes every single night. Cooking at home is a way to give a person control. It’s a skill a person can use throughout life.

And we don’t need to teach kids to be master chefs (that’d be cool, though). We need to give them confidence in the kitchen. We need to show them that it’s not a horrible chore. We need to demonstrate there is joy in preparing your own meal. And for kids with food allergies, when we teach kids to cook, we are empowering them. We are giving them choices they won’t otherwise have. We’re letting them be safe.

Cooking is, I believe, an important skill for all of us. But as we approach Food Allergy Awareness Week, I encourage my fellow food allergy moms and dads to consider the opportunities that home cooking can offer a child with food restrictions.

While my son advocated for himself at dinner tonight, we’ll be back to eating at home tomorrow. He’s already picked the menu, and we’ll be talking about how to do chili in the Instant Pot. He’ll get to stir and maybe chop and definitely push a button or two. And he’ll make a little bit of progress toward becoming a competent home chef — toward being an adult who can take care of himself and his health and well-being both at home and at a restaurant. As a mom, there are few things I want more for him.