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Having a toddler with a food allergy is a scary situation. Not only are food allergies potentially life-threatening, but young children also do not fully understand the risks associated with coming into contact with an allergy trigger. Our guide discusses important ways to keep your little one safe when they have a food allergy.

Learn to read labels.

Learning how to read your child’s food labels is one of the single most important things you can do to keep them safe. Unfortunately, there is still a great deal of misunderstanding surrounding precautionary allergen labeling, and while many food manufacturers do add quick-read, front-facing labeling, it’s not a legal requirement. Instead, food producers are simply required to list any ingredients that may cause an allergic reaction. Because of this, it’s exponentially important that you scrutinize new product packaging carefully. Read the entire ingredients list, and know of any other names your child’s trigger might go by. 

Avoid cross-contamination.

Chances are that you prepare most of your toddler’s food at home. In doing so, you must pay careful attention to direct and indirect cross-contamination. This occurs when an allergen trigger is inadvertently introduced to the food you are serving your child. One example of direct cross-contamination is removing an egg from a breakfast sandwich. Indirect cross-contamination would be using a spatula that you used to prepare eggs for one child to turn bacon for a little one who’s allergic to eggs. In both cases, small traces of the allergen — the egg — will likely still be present. 

A few ways you can limit or avoid cross-contamination altogether are to replace all of your cooking appliances, completely remove trigger foods from your home, and section off a dedicated food preparation area that is used exclusively for the allergic child. If preparing a meal with potential allergens, cook those that you know are safe first, and then cover these foods while you finish cooking.

Use substitutes for common allergens.

Many foods can be made safe for your toddler simply by switching out certain ingredients. You can use coconut milk instead of cow’s milk, for example, in cereal. Similarly, mashed bananas, applesauce, or baking powder can help hold things like muffins, cakes, and cookies together when eggs are not an option. If your child has a peanut allergy, almonds or toasted oats might be a safe and satisfying substitute.

Know your child’s symptoms.

Food allergy symptoms are different from one child to the next, and they can change without warning. Make note of your child’s reactions when they were last exposed to a known allergen. You should also pay close attention any time they try new foods. A few of the most common symptoms of a food allergy are hives, trouble breathing, intense stomach pain, diarrhea, and swelling of the lips, throat, and tongue. Introduce new foods slowly, and watch for any unusual response. 

Talk to your child’s other care providers about their condition.

If your little one attends daycare, talk to the center’s administrators about their condition. Approach this conversation with a positive attitude, provide your child’s caregivers with trusted educational resources, and make sure they have a copy of a food allergy action plan in case your son or daughter is exposed.

Be honest with your child. 

As a parent, you want your child to experience everything the world has to offer, but when they have food allergies, they might have to skip peanut butter sandwiches, omelets, and cereal. Let your child know as early on as possible that there are certain foods they can’t eat. Tailor your communication to their age and understanding, but do get the basic point across that certain foods will make them sick. Your child should be taught not to touch, smell, or put anything into their mouth that is not given to them directly by you or a trusted caregiver. You can also read books, play games, and watch videos about food allergies with your child to help them better understand and cope with their condition.

Dine out with caution.

Food allergies can make it exponentially difficult to eat out. Fortunately, many restaurants have dedicated menus for people with food allergies. Take some time to research chains and small eateries in your area that offer allergen-free options. If you do decide to eat out, make sure that your wait staff is fully aware of your child’s condition, particularly if it is severe. While they likely cannot fully prevent the possibility of cross-contamination, making them aware of the situation might make it possible for your son or daughter to enjoy greasy chicken nuggets and salty French fries like everyone else.

Get cozy with epinephrine.

Your child’s pediatrician may have prescribed epinephrine, an auto-injecting emergency medication that works by reversing the most dangerous symptoms of anaphylaxis. While using an EpiPen does not prevent exposure to allergens, learning how to use one correctly may save your child’s life in an emergency.

Living with an allergy means making lifestyle changes. However, it is possible for your child to enjoy everything from going to school to dining out if you take the time to put precautions into place.