Food sensitivities and allergies can make parents nuts: they’re worrisome, potentially dangerous, and you have to think about them all the time.

If only kids ate less frequently. Or lived in a bubble.  Then there would be no worries.  As it is, though, most kids eat 5-6 times each day. And, every day they’re exposed to other people who give them food! Food that looks tasty and tempting, but which might just prove to be quite lethal.

If you’re the parent of a sensitive/allergic kid, you know what I mean.  It’s exhausting.

  • You want your child to eat well.
  • You want your child to be adventurous.
  • You want your child to be able to share playground snacks.
  • You want to let Grandma within striking range!

But you’ve got to be cautious.  (Too cautious, though, and your child could become a picky eater. More on this later.)

Knowing how to parent a sensitive/allergic child can be tricky, especially if your child is young.

I know that parenting a kid who has food-related medical issues probably makes you feel like you have to become a food-label sleuth, identifying even minute traces of gluten, peanut, dairy, soy.  I’m not denying the importance of seeking out problem ingredients wherever they may appear.

The problem is you can never entirely control the food environment.  That means if you want to be sure that your little ones are safe around food, you’ve got to focus on teaching them eating skills and habits.

Skills and habits determine what your kids put into their mouths.  All the nutrition-knowledge in the world can’t do that.

Quite frankly, teaching your kids good eating habits is the only way you’ll ever be able to let them out of your sight, confident they won’t go into anaphylactic shock while at play dates, attending birthday parties, or even at their college graduations.

The first step: teach allergy-prone kids to ask you for the go-ahead before eating anything that’s offered outside the home. 

Even very young children have developed sufficient language skills to comply with this simple instruction.

Unfortunately, this isn’t a practical strategy in the long run.

You’re not always going to be around.  And, even when you are around, sometimes you’re going to be out of reach (on the phone, in the bathroom, lost in thought fantasizing about your next beach vacation…).  What is going to happen when some other kid’s well-meaning parent, a person who is accustomed to dishing it up and doling it out, offers your children something they simply can’t resist?

The only thing you can do is teach your kids to manage their food sensitivities/allergies themselves.

The next step: teach your kids about foods, not about nutrition.

When it comes to eating in the real world (as opposed to in the hermetically sealed one you can provide at home) young kids with food sensitivities or allergies need to know which foods they can eat, not which nutrients or ingredients they’re allergic to.

Think of it as the difference between teaching your children about wheat vs. teaching them about bread, toast or crackers.

Here’s a two-step strategy:

1) Categorize your children’s food world into three categories: SAFE, UNSURE, and UNSAFE.

Then, teach your kids that they can eat the SAFE, have to avoid the UNSAFE, and that they need to ask you about anything that’s UNSURE.

  • It sounds harder to identify foods by category (safe, unsure, unsafe) than it is.  Most parents tell me that they can predict fairly accurately which product lines are “safe,” and which ones are not.
  • Be conservative: If most Nabisco products, for instance, contain the allergen, put all Nabisco products into the unsafe column.

2) Make an easy-to-follow visual food chart.

Make a picture chart with your children using photos of foods and brand name products by cutting out pictures from magazines.  Organize your cut out items into the three categories (safe, unsure, and unsafe.)

  • Practice identifying foods by categories with your kids while you’re out and about—in restaurants, at the grocery store, and at Grandma’s house.
  • The food chart won’t just keep your kids safe, it will help to reduce their anxiety as well.

Kids who are allergic sometimes take on their parents’ worry.

And worried kids have a hard time eating well, especially when making a mistake can have serious consequences.  In fact, the more serious the allergy, the more likely your kids will come to think of food as more foe than friend. Kids in this condition often restrict their diets to ensure they’ll be safe. Who can blame them?  (Consider this if you are parenting a picky eater.)

The answer is to empower your kids by arming them with practical information.  This will help calm their fears, and enable them to expand their diets. Then, work hard to expose your kids to as many safe items as possible. Read House Building 101 and Slackers Rule.

Allergies can be a challenge, but they offer one clear benefit.

Since most kids aren’t allergic to broccoli, peas, pears, apples and other goodies, many allergic kids end up with healthy eating habits—ones that will serve them for a for a lifetime of healthy eating.

~ Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~