More kids than ever have food allergies, it seems. Here’s what you need to know if your child’s classmate is one of them.

By Amy Leibrock
Updated September 07, 2018
A Young Girl Eating Lunch at School
Credit: Blend Images - KidStock/Getty Images

A food allergy is different from a food intolerance, which means the person has trouble digesting a particular food properly. With a true food allergy, even a trace amount of the food can trigger a reaction, and there’s no way to predict how severe it will be, which is why parents and children must be vigilant in avoiding these allergens. Some children may have prescription medications that they carry with them (or keep in the classroom or nurse’s office) in case of an allergic reaction, but it's always best practice to know your school's guidelines for outside food. Here's everything you should know about food allergies before sending your child to school with a packed lunch.

Why Do We Hear So Much About Food Allergies These Days?

While you may not remember any of your grade-school classmates having a food allergy, the odds are that at least two kids in your child’s classroom have been diagnosed with one, according to a 2011 study in Pediatrics. The reason for the rise in food allergy diagnoses is unknown, but it does mean that awareness is also rising, and more schools are putting guidelines in place to keep these children safe.

What Happens If a Child Eats a Food He or She Is Allergic to?

If children are allergic to peanuts, for example, their immune systems incorrectly thinks peanuts are dangerous and tries to protect them by releasing chemicals into the bloodstream that can trigger a range of reactions—anything from a runny nose and wheezing to immediate, life-threatening anaphylactic shock.

Which Foods Cause Allergic Reactions?

Eight foods cause 90 percent of food allergies: peanuts, tree nuts, milk, eggs, wheat, soy, fish, and shellfish. Since children—especially young ones—share toys and supplies, some classrooms have strict policies against sticky foods like peanut butter that can easily travel on busy little hands: Kids can ingest a potentially dangerous dose not only by eating but also by rubbing their eyes or nose with contaminated fingers. Seemingly innocuous craft materials, like empty egg or milk cartons or certain kinds of clay, can also contain potential hazards.

What Are Schools Doing About Food Allergies?

“Schools have gotten so much better at handling this issue,” says Maria Acebal, CEO of the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network and the mother of a child with food allergies. “Different states have different guidelines; some are mandatory, some are not, and some don’t have any at all.” A school that’s proactive on this issue will train staff about food allergy safety, have a written policy about food allergy management, and have food allergy action plans on file for each allergic child detailing his or her allergies and how to respond to an ingestion. The school may also have cleanup procedures in place, including guidelines for proper hand-washing.

The bottom line is to respect whatever rules are in place, whether they’re state-mandated or requested by a single parent, says Acebal. This might mean that you can’t pack a PB&J sandwich for your child’s lunch, but it also presents an opportunity to teach him or her about compassion for others.

What Kinds of Items Can I Bring for Parties in My Child’s Classroom?

Start by following your school’s guidelines. If you’re faced with a daunting list of “banned” foods, don’t panic. “I don’t expect nonallergic families to always understand what is safe for my child to eat,” says Jenny Kales, author of The Nut-Free Mom Blog. If you have questions, ask your child’s teacher or the parents of the allergic child for a list of “safe” foods and brands. “Food labels vary in terms of what allergy warnings they offer, so having those go-to foods is a huge help,” says Kales.

Choose packaged foods over home-baked. (Even if your homemade cupcakes don’t contain allergenic ingredients, there is a risk of cross-contact from the utensils and cookware you use to make them.) Always bring along any packaging so the teacher or parent can double-check the label. If you’re still unsure, consider nonfood treats, like inexpensive toys, stickers, or art supplies. As part of a nutrition initiative, some schools don’t even allow outside food in an effort to avoid introducing not only allergens but junk food as well.

What Does My Child Need to Know About Food Allergies?

“You definitely don't want to scare kids or make them overly concerned,” says Kales. “But you do want them to know it's an issue they should respect. Something simple like ‘Alex can get really sick and go to the hospital if he eats anything with peanuts’ will usually suffice.”