Allergy-Free Season?The holiday season is a filled with parties and family gatherings. Seasonal treats and traditional feasts take center stage, and partaking in holiday goodies is all part of the fun. However, it can certainly be a challenging time of the year for families with children who have food allergies.

Are People More Knowledgeable about Food Allergies?

According to the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology (ACAAI), 8 percent of children underage 17 have food allergies. Reactions to food allergies can range from mild to life threatening. 

Dr. Myron Zitt, past president of the ACAAI, says. “As the prevalence rate of food allergies has increased, so has public concern, but there is an education gap. People are more aware of allergies, but may not really understand the implications.” Natalie Packman, a mother of two children, one with a peanut allergy, says, “I think that there is a greater awareness of allergies in the last several years. However, I also think that some parents of non-allergy kids are so sick of hearing about the rise in allergies that they may dismiss an allergy as not legitimate or not that serious.”

Understanding Food Allergies

 Ali Seeger, a mother of three children, one with multiple food allergies, says, “Most parents want to be helpful and will ask, ‘Does your child have a food allergy?’ but I don’t think they really know what to do when I say, ‘Yes.’” 

Dr. Ruchi Gupta, an associate professor of pediatrics and mother of a child with a food allergy, says, “It can be difficult to understand food allergies, as they differ from child to child and reactions are widely varied. Parents of children with allergies differ, too, in their confidence level and how they handle situations. For example, I may allow my peanut allergic child to eat something that another parent would not.” 

Being a Good Holiday Host 

If you are hosting a holiday party or family get together, the best way to accommodate children with food allergies is to let guests know in advance what you plan to serve. Gupta says, “On a party invitation I recently received for my daughter, the host wrote, ‘Please let us know of any food allergies or dietary restrictions.’ This made it easier for me to contact the parent and let her know about my child’s allergies without feeling like I was being a burden.”

Hosts can also go one step further. As guests may be allergic to a wide variety of items, Zitt suggests, “Keep the ingredient labels from the food you are serving for allergic guests to review before digging in.” 

Don’t be insulted if parents choose to bring their own allergy-free treats; it’s just so they can relax. Seeger says, “I appreciate it when someone provides a treat that is nut-free. But my son has a lot of other allergies, and I can’t ask people to avoid all of them. Plus, sometimes it is almost pressure if they make something specifically for him that is nut free and then he can’t eat it because it has other things he may be allergic to. I feel guilty.”

If you are invited to someone’s home for the holidays, check in advance to see if anyone attending has any food allergies so that you don’t bring something that’s on the no-no list. Or ask the host if you can bring a non-food related item, such as paper goods or flowers. 

School Parties 

Parents of children with allergies are mixed on whether they like having class treats in school. Some of these parents choose to bake for the whole class to make sure the item is safe while allowing everyone to enjoy the same treat. Others prefer that every child bring in their own treat to eat at the party. And many of these parents reported choosing to take time off from work for class parties or school trips because they feel more comfortable being on hand. 

Stacy Weiss, a mother of three, one
with multiple food allergies, says, “These days there are so many kids with food allergies, diabetes, and other dietary issues, it is too hard to accommodate everyone with one special snack; and no one wants to be left out.” Instead of
treats, consider celebrating the holidays in school with non-food items, such as stickers, games, or craft projects. 

Kids Want to Feel Included 

Parents of children with food allergies want to keep them safe, but they also want their kids to be able to have fun and enjoy the holidays just like their allergy-free peers. While parents appreciate family and friends being cautious, they also don’t want their child made to feel uncomfortable due to their allergy. Packman says, “It makes me (and my son) sad at family gatherings when people make a big deal of what he can and cannot eat. Obviously, I can’t expect everyone not to eat certain foods to accommodate his allergy, but I prefer it be handled subtly.”

“There is an emotional component for kids with allergies. They feel left out when they can’t eat certain treats at parties, says Dr. Gupta. But, she adds, “they also learn to be strong and to advocate for themselves, which is a great life lesson.” f

High Cost of Allergies 

Childhood food allergies result in significant economic impacts to families and the US healthcare system, according to a study published in JAMA Pediatrics this fall.

According to Dr. Ruchi Gupta, who led the research, “Food allergies place a considerable economic burden on families.”The overall economic cost of food allergies was estimated to be $24.8 billion annually—approximately $4,184 per child.

Of the $24.8 billion, $1.6 billion was due to the higher cost of groceries. Stacy Weiss, a mother of three, one with multiple food allergies, says, “Our food bill is higher due to my son’s dairy allergy. Alternatives are more costly, and some can only be found at specialty stores.” 

Direct medical costs—visits to the emergency room, doctor visits, and medications—amounted to $4.6 billion. “Opportunity costs” relating to a caregiver needing to change leave or change jobs cost $14 billion.  

Dr. Gupta says she herself turned down work-travel opportunities because she felt uncomfortable being away from her child when she was first diagnosed with her allergy. 

Dr. Gupta says, “There is an underlying anxiety when the child is outside of our presence or eating food that we have not checked or prepared ourselves.” 

Randi Mazzella, mother of three, is a freelance writer from Short Hills. 

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