Why It's Important to Include Your Child in Your Allergy Planning
Imagine being 4 years old and being scared. You know you have a life-threatening food allergy, but it’s normally ok because mum’s always there, checking packets and keeping you safe. But now, taking the first tentative steps towards growing up, you’re suddenly in school, and she’s not hovering around, double-checking ingredients and being careful. She’s not there to make you feel reassured, to triple-check that everyone knows about your ‘special’ food. You are four years old and dealing with the intolerably heavy responsibility of making sure your food is safe, because now you’re at school and all on your own. It must be fundamentally terrifying.
I have been continually reassured by Eva’s school, and every week I get sent the menu with ingredients to double-check. Since she started in September, her school meals seemed to be running smoothly, but last week, Eva told me she didn’t eat her lunch or the milkshake she was given as she didn’t know if it was safe for her.
I felt devastated that she didn’t feel she could talk to anyone about this at school, and ask them to double-check her food. No one likes the idea of their child spending the day hungry, especially not if it’s because they are in fear of the food that’s given to them. It’s a reminder that it’s not only me that needs the reassurance, it’s not me who has the allergies, it’s Eva, and she is the one who needs to make sure it’s safe for her.
For allergy mums, this can be a difficult transition. We are so used to having (and needing) all the control. But as our babies grow up and go to school, become more independent and start to make steps into the world on their own, our role as a one-stop food-gatekeeper has to change too. We have to give our children the right skills and knowledge to empower them to know what is and isn’t safe.
I knew I had to start including Eva in the details of her care plan at school, so she could fully trust the procedures in place. I emailed the headteacher and asked if we could have a chat, including Eva in the meeting to hear for herself just what lengths are taken to keep her food safe. That week, we met with the chef, and he took us into the kitchen and showed us all of Eva’s food, kept separately in sealed, labelled containers, and his folders which contained her picture and the list of all her allergens.
He explained that the list of safe products to use was pre-checked by me. He showed Eva the products he uses, her oat cream and dairy-free chocolate, and she recognised the packaging and felt reassured. He showed her the purple utensils he uses only to prepare her food, a separate pan with a lid on so that no splashes from other food can contaminate it. His sous-chef explained that only she plates up Eva’s no food, and no one else (who might not be fully aware of her situation) is allowed.
The teachers explained what they would do if she had a reaction and reassured her they refresh their training every 3 months and that all staff know what to do in an emergency and what symptoms to look out for. The headteacher told Eva that she also experienced anaphylaxis, so knows what it feels like. She reassured her she’s not the only one who has special dietary requirements at school, there are students with diabetes, who are egg-free, vegan, and vegetarian.
We sat down and role-played on what she would say if she felt unsure or was uncomfortable with anything at school or felt unwell. For class, we created a ‘buddy-team’ with her friend who she sits next to, and who practised calling the teacher if Eva feels anything unusual.
There was still a bit of a concern in my mind which originated from what Eva said. Whenever I make any food for Eva, I’m in the habit of telling her what I’ve made and the ingredients used, e.g. “rice pudding using oat milk” or “a coconut milk smoothie”. I felt that she still needed more reassurance when her food is served at school, so she knows that her plate contains her safe food and feels comfortable eating it. So, the chef ordered her a fun new plate and cutlery set which Eva was so excited about, talking about it every day after school for a week! One of her friends asked why she had a different plate, and her teacher said it was because she was lucky!
Eva came away from the meeting saying she felt happy, and she certainly seemed more confident knowing the same strict guidelines were in place at school as at home. Whilst I always knew and trusted they were there, Eva must know too, and I’ll make even more effort to explain to her the safety measures around her in the future.
How amazing that instead of Eva feeling isolated, vulnerable or embarrassed about her allergies, she is feeling supported and loved by the people around her. What amazes me is just how much the school really care about my daughter. They were so happy to help, and we solved this quickly, as a team. She is truly lucky that she is at a school like this, and unfortunately, I know this is not the reality for many other children.
I know of many people with allergies who have been treated like a nuisance, using allergies an excuse, sitting alone at lunch, being removed from class when others are eating food or cooking. I’ve heard these stories, and I don’t think it’s fair, or right they should be treated this way. Anyone can be educated on the seriousness of allergies, but not everyone is kind.
I am so appreciative of the caring, solution-focused teachers Eva has at school, that not only keep her safe, but make sure she’s included and not made to feel like the odd one out. I’m aware new challenges are likely to present themselves at school, but I hope we will continue to work out a way to collaborate and tackle them together with love and support.
My one takeaway I will focus on is empowering Eva to take control for herself and speak up for what she needs. She’s growing up so fast and learning so quickly, it’s time to start encouraging her to use her own voice… but mine will always be there as back-up.