Childhood Food Allergies, Intolerances and Sensitivities: Back-to-School Tips for All AgesJul 31, 2023 09:30AM ● By Veronica Hinke
It’s back-to-school season, and for students with food issues, meal planning is as important as lining up classroom supplies and extra-curricular schedules. Paramount in their minds is to avoid ingredients that might cause unappealing reactions or compromise health, while not stressing about the risks or feeling cheated that they cannot eat the same things as their friends.
Often, food allergies, sensitivities and intolerances are incorrectly used interchangeably when, in fact, the symptoms, treatments and safety recommendations differ. Consult a physician for a proper diagnosis and a nutritionist for dietary guidance.
Food allergies cause an almost immediate, potentially deadly immune response (anaphylaxis) requiring an epinephrine shot. Symptoms include a drop in blood pressure, narrowing of the airways, rashes, nausea and vomiting. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 20 percent of students with food allergies will have a reaction at school. Eight ingredients account for 90 percent of food allergies: milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat and soybeans.
Food intolerances result from an inability to digest certain items due to an enzyme deficiency or irritable bowel syndrome. The most common forms of intolerance are caused by lactose, histamine and gluten.
Food sensitivities provoke delayed symptoms (sometimes days after eating a problematic ingredient), including diarrhea, rashes, joint pain, digestive problems, fatigue and brain fog. Among children, common triggers are lactose, gluten, grains, legumes, soy, corn and yeast.
According to Karen Raden, an Illinois-based registered dietician and certified clinical nutritionist, the goal is what she calls “food freedom”: the empowerment of students to make informed choices that feel best for them and their bodies. “Even if a child’s options are limited, it’s important to allow them to make substitutions. The least restricted, the better. It’s not just about the science; there’s a lot of emotion that goes into it, too,” she says.
Dr. Dawn Huebner, a psychologist, author and parent coach in Sacramento, California, says, “There is danger associated with allergies, and anxiety results when you overestimate the danger. In children, this can morph into anxiety about eating with other people or touching things in the classroom. Many parents are intent on making uncomfortable feelings go away, so they end up minimizing feelings, telling their children to simply not worry.”
A better approach, Huebner says, is to acknowledge the child’s reality and empathize with them. “Say to your child in a really direct way, ‘Yes, that’s hard to see your friends eating ice cream or cupcakes that you don’t get to have.’ Even though there are food substitutions, it doesn’t make up for the fact that a student doesn’t get to be a regular kid, eating what everyone else gets to eat.”
Huebner suggests that parents help their children develop skills to overcome temptation, rather than berating or punishing them for occasionally sneaking forbidden foods. At all times, delicious alternatives should be readily available.
Theresa Diulus, a Texas-based nutrition coach, believes in empowering kids by keeping ready-made foods in clearly marked bins that kids can easily access. She stocks the pantry with gluten-free oatmeal and coconut or cassava flour cake mixes, and stores frozen, gluten-free waffle or pancake batter in batches to save time when a safe and delicious treat is needed.
Replacing essential nutrients that might be missing once certain foods are eliminated is another key objective. “If dairy is the problem, for example, we worry about bone health and need to make sure the child is getting calcium from nondairy sources,” Raden explains. “I like to find out what their favorite foods are and modify them. Food issues are more prevalent these days. We’re really lucky now that there are very good substitutes for eggs, dairy and gluten.”
Raden recently adapted a shepherd’s pie recipe by using gluten-free flour and almond milk. For people that cannot tolerate regular eggs, she recommends using a “flax egg” in baked goods, which combines one tablespoon of flaxseed meal with three tablespoons of water.
Family Meals Made Easy
When they were little, Caroline Somers’ two daughters developed extensive food intolerances and food allergies with inflammation, gastrointestinal bloating and digestive distress. Tasked with reimagining her family’s diet, the president of Suzanne Somers Companies created new versions of her favorite recipes, which will be featured in her upcoming cookbook Served: From My Family Table to Yours.
“Many people deal with family members who have food preferences or intolerances to foods, and it can turn the person preparing foods into a short-order cook—no gluten for this one; vegan for that one; this one will eat fish but no dairy. It can make your head spin,” says Somers. Her Vietnamese Spring Rolls recipe addresses this predicament by serving the ingredients family-style and inviting each person at the table to assemble their own spring roll according to their food preferences and restrictions.
Veronica Hinke is a food historian and author of The Last Night on the Titanic: Unsinkable Drinking, Dining and Style. Learn more at FoodStringer.com.
Try these healthy recipes for different food restrictions: