• By Deanna Segrave-Daly
  • In 2019
  • May 8, 2019

Empathy, Education & Eating: How To Create a Safe Space for Individuals with Food Allergies

by Caroline Passerrello, MS, RDN, LDN

What are your first thoughts when I say ‘Meal Prep’?  For most clients, I hear that if they could figure out when they have time to prepare a menu and do some food preparation that meeting their health and wellness goals would be more achievable.

What if I said you HAD to prepare for all of your meals ahead of time to survive, where would you make time?

This may sound drastic for someone who is meal prepping for weight management or heart health, but this is the reality for families with food allergies. Everything they eat has to be planned and thought through.  You may think, “I don’t have a food allergy so why should I care – random strangers aren’t supporting me with my food goals”. The difference is that dealing with a food allergy is not a choice and the alternative could be immediately life-threatening.

I spoke with two close friends, who are both mothers of boys with food allergies, to provide a little insight into their lives and share some simple actions that everyone can do to help support individuals with food allergies.

Vandana Sheth is a Spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and has a son with food allergies in college.  Jen Kara spreads food allergy awareness and joy – her son is heading to kindergarten soon.

Q. What have friends, family and teachers done to make life a little easier for you as a food allergy mom?
(J) First and foremost, they have and continue to show empathy. Everyone around us understands the severity of his allergies and recognizes how challenging it must be at times. Close friends never eat peanuts/tree nuts around us and are careful to make sure playing surfaces/ tables are wiped down before we visit.  While it’s difficult to accommodate all of my son’s allergies, most friends and family offer to provide safe snacks or foods.

(V) Having a child with food allergies affects everyone in the family as well as so many social situations. Being constantly vigilant can take a toll. It is important to build a support system with family and friends who understand and allow your child to thrive and enjoy life in a safe way.

Q. How do you explain ‘safe or unsafe’ foods to your kid’s friends?
(J) When talking to our son’s friends we say that it is really important to keep him safe because there are certain foods that can make
him really sick. He could get a tummy ache and throw up or may even have trouble breathing. We tell them he can’t eat or touch those foods and if he ever looks like he’s sick or can’t breathe it’s important to immediately get a grown-up for help.

(V) From when my son was very young, we made it a point to discuss his food allergies in a matter of fact way, practiced situations, role-played, etc to help him become an advocate for himself. We spoke to family members and friends about any situation that involved food. We would bring “safe” food for our son but also need to discuss the menu. Depending upon the severity of allergies we did not want our son around foods that had peanuts, tree nuts or sesame. It was not just a matter of our child not eating eat it, but also the chance that he may have an allergic reaction to someone else eating these foods and touching him, etc. I took an active role in his school from preschool all the way to high school as far as promoting food allergy awareness and education goes. I helped set the protocol to keep all kids safe without banning food and fun.

Q. What has been the most frustrating thing a stranger has said or done as a result of your son’s food allergies?
(J)  When people say ‘He’s still young. I’m sure he’ll outgrow his allergies.” Maybe. Maybe not. This drives me crazy. Yes, some people do outgrow their allergies, others increase in severity, or even develop new ones- it’s even possible to become allergic as an adult! I always try to be optimistic when someone says this and I might acknowledge it by saying “Yes, it is possible, but with some of my son’s allergies, they are so severe we can expect him to always be allergic.” So, occasionally it’s as if people think it’s a huge inconvenience now, but it will only be for a few years. We deal with it as if this is how life will be and equip Pars with the knowledge to navigate his life safely with these allergies. If he outgrows any along the way, great.

(V) What can be most frustrating is when people don’t understand how serious this can be and just brush it off. Or, people who are not actually allergic to foods using the term lightly.

Q. What do you wish the general public knew about what it is like to live with a food allergy?
(J) People with foods allergies (or moms with kids with allergies) do not want to inconvenience anyone or take fun/joy from anyone else. It’s just about keeping them safe from a life-threatening reaction. While our family recognizes that many people are faced with even greater life challenges, food, meal times, eating at restaurants is unavoidable- any given day we are faced with choices about what my son can eat so he avoids a reaction. What it comes down to is basically just that, helping a person avoid an allergen and educating people on what to do when someone does ingest an allergen.

(V) Education and knowledge can significantly empower families with food allergies. The key is to ensure that your child and anyone interacting with your child knows that food allergies are life-threatening. They must be taken seriously.

So, then next time you find out you can’t send your child to school with a PBJ or don’t get served peanuts on a plane – remember that while you may have to think about an alternative for that one time – you are making it safer for those with food allergies who have to think of alternatives every time.

Food Allergy Facts

– Every three minutes, a food allergy reaction sends someone to the emergency room.
– Food allergy limits a major life activity and may qualify an individual for protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
– Compared to children who do not have a medical condition, children with food allergy are twice as likely to be bullied.
– More than 40 percent of children with food allergies have experienced a severe allergic reaction such as anaphylaxis.



Caroline Passerrello, MS, RDN, LDN is the owner of Caroline West LLC, a nutrition consulting practice that specializes in science-based savvy solutions for companies and individuals, she is part-time faculty at the University of Pittsburgh, and is a Spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.