Managing Food Allergies: The Basics

in Food Allergy, Newly Diagnosed
Mom and son baking a pie in their kitchen.

Managing Food Allergies: The Basics
Photo: Getty

Finding out that you or your child has a serious food allergy can feel overwhelming. In the first appointment, a parent may hear the allergist say the term “potentially life-threatening.” Sometimes that parent doesn’t take in much else – other than to fill the prescription for the child’s new epinephrine auto-injectors.

It is usually only post-appointment, and on your own, that you begin to think through the ramifications of “avoiding that allergen.” It occurs to you that an allergenic food might turn up unexpectedly in the ingredients of packaged foods, or deep fryers, or personal care products. And what about school? Will my allergic child feel safe among the allergen-eaters and the many sets of little hands?

Suddenly, the effort to “avoid all traces of the allergen” can feel like the weight of the world. At Allergic Living, many of us have food allergies too, and we know the anxieties, especially at first. But like the many allergy experts and health journalists who contribute to our website, we also know this to be fact: food allergies are manageable.

Let us walk you through the food allergy basics, which also serve as a good refresher when training a family member or babysitter about allergies. A life with food allergies means planning and organizing since – we eat every day of our lives. As families or individuals living with allergies, what we don’t get to be is as spontaneous as others. But we can live safely, fully and well.

Food Allergy Basics: First Steps

The basics of managing food allergies start with organization. If you or your child have an allergy, avoidance of the trigger becomes second nature. As an allergy parent, you’ll become the person who always has the treat and the auto-injector in her bag. As well, you’ll have wipes and a mobile phone with easy 911 access.

There is a learning curve before you can start to feel comfortable with the new dietary restrictions and anaphylaxis precautions, and that takes time.

Importance of hygiene: The first step to managing a food allergy involves basic hygiene. Wash your hands – a lot. Residues from foods your child is allergic to (for instance nut dust, cheese powder) can be transferred from one person’s hands onto surfaces that your child touches. This won’t be a problem as long as your child (or you) always wash your hands before eating or touching the mouth, nose or utensils.

Warm, soapy water is the best way to wash your hands but hand sanitizer is better than nothing. Baby wipes are also a good idea. They can be used to clean tables and chairs, which is especially useful during travel (e.g. airplane seating area).

Cross-Contact: The second step involves learning and teaching others about cross-contact. This occurs when a food that you are allergic to comes in contact with something that you were going to eat. The allergen contamination may happen directly or may occur indirectly. For instance, through shared use of a pan or a utensil.

For an example of the latter, say there are two soups on the stove, one with cream and one that is safe for a dairy allergic individual. It’s essential to make sure that the same spoon isn’t used to stir both soups. It will be important to educate friends and relatives about cross-contamination when you go to their homes.

Food Allergy Basics: Shopping, Eating Out

Grocery Shopping: Buying packaged food at the grocery store can be particularly challenging, especially at first. That’s because you’ll need to get used to reading the label on everything you buy, and often more than once. This includes foods like crackers, breads, cookies, sauces, ice cream, candies and chocolate. Be sure to read the ingredient list, as well as any precautionary statements (e.g. This product may contain peanuts).

When you’re reading the ingredient list, look for a direct mention of the food you’re avoiding (e.g. soy, milk) and any hidden words or names. For example, sometimes the word “casein” is used instead of milk, and a sometimes allergenic food like mustard may be hidden in the word “spices”.

In the United States, labeling rules have been in place since 2006 that require manufacturers to use plain language when listing Top 9 allergens, and to declare all these top allergens. In Canada, regulations require manufacturers to list 11 priority allergens in plain language.

Keep in mind that an easier, safer option is often to prepare food from scratch. Shop for meats, fruits and vegetables that are safe for you to eat and create delicious snacks and meals at home. That way, you’ll know for certain what’s in your food.

In Allergic’s recipe section we have plenty of appetizing recipes free from top allergens.

Eating Out: While eating at home is always a safe option, you may find yourself wondering: will we ever dine out again? Can I trust any relatives or friends enough to deal with the changes? What about venturing to restaurants? Determining where you’re comfortable eating is a personal decision. Some people prefer to do all (or almost all) of their eating at home. Others feel comfortable dining out as long as they are careful to ask the appropriate questions.

If you have multiple food allergies that belong to different families (i.e. dairy, tree nuts, legumes) it may make life more complicated than you were hoping for. But don’t fret, dining out can still be safe and enjoyable. The trick will be to find a restaurant that you’re comfortable with and that demonstrates good allergy awareness, and then keep things simple. Choose grilled meats and vegetables, fresh salads with oil and vinegar and fruit and coffee for dessert.

The Basics: Speaking Up, Take That Epi!

Speak Up About Food: With food allergies, you have to ask questions and get over shyness. This is especially the case when someone – from Grandma to auntie, a waiter, a teacher or a colleague – wants to serve food to you or your child with allergies.

We teach kids to respect adults and authority. However, with an allergic child, it’s important to teach them not to eat foods that others offer. Unless mom or dad has pre-approved or (when they’re older) unless they’re sure of the ingredients. For adults, get past embarrassment. Be certain to ask about ingredients, and learn to do this in an efficient, confident manner.

See: When Relatives Don’t Get Your Child’s Food Allergies

Another important point to make is that you should always carry your epinephrine auto-injector with you and most importantly, never eat unless you have it with you. Even when something seems safe, if there is the slightest risk of cross-contact or the tiniest trace of your allergen, you cannot afford to have a reaction without your emergency medication with you. Allergic reactions are unpredictable and often progress quickly so you do not necessarily have enough time to wait for emergency responders to bring help.

Staying Informed: Finally, an ongoing part of managing food allergies is education. Learn as much as you can about your allergies, and teach others what you know. You may also want to learn about emerging treatments.

A note of caution: be careful where you get your information from. The internet is great for a lot of things but information found on it can also scare you and be inaccurate. Make sure that you find reliable websites from organizations that specialize in allergies or university-hosted websites.

Once you have the food allergy basics down, it is great to stay in the loop on great managing ideas and the latest on treatments, and other allergy progress. Signing up for Allergic Living’s e-newsletter is a great way to keep on top of things.

Explore our website and you’ll find many resources to help you educate teachers, friends, family and co-workers in a way that will be easy for them to grasp. And remember, if you remain cool and collected, those around you will, too. Food allergies are a life-changing experience, but let’s not let them take the joy out of life!

Related Reading: 
What to Know About Food Label ‘May Contain’ Warnings
Managing Food Allergies Section