Tips for Parents of Teens
Educate and Empower Food-Allergic Children
Teens crave independence, and dining out with friends is a social rite of passage. The key to success is for parents to educate and empower food-allergic children to manage their food allergies on their own, ideally at an early age. Here are some teen tips to help parents on that journey:
- Insist That Your Teen Carry Epinephrine – Everywhere.
Some teens find it embarrassing to carry their medications, especially around their friends. Remind them that it’s critical to have their epinephrine with them at all times. Make this a non-negotiable family rule. Teens that appear reluctant may feel better if they get a carrying case that appeals to their personal style. Different auto-injectors may also help your teen keep their epinephrine with them in a less conspicuous way. Also, remind them not to leave their temperature-sensitive epinephrine behind in a hot (or cold) vehicle.
- Teach Your Teen. Before teens dine out independently, they should understand all of the “aliases” for their allergens (e.g., casein and whey are dairy; barley and rye contain gluten), questions to ask at restaurants, cues that a restaurant does or does not “get it”, and signs of an allergic reaction. Your teens need to know that even a little bite of their allergen can be life-threatening. Educate food-allergic teens about the type of behavior that indicates whether restaurant staff is “getting it” or not. Include food-allergic children in conversations with restaurant managers, servers and chefs, starting when they’re young (ideally in elementary school). When reading labels or allergen menus at restaurants, point out allergen terms to your child.
- Use That Smartphone – It Really IS Smart. Teens can download the AllergyEats app and use it to find restaurants where the food allergy community has had positive experiences. During dining experiences on their own, they may find it helpful and reassuring to snap pictures of food labels and text them to you for a second opinion. They can also compile lists of questions to ask at restaurants, information about their allergens’ aliases and other key materials about their allergies right on their phones, and refer back to this information as needed.
- Take a “Virtual” Road Trip. If your teens know in advance that they’re heading to a new area – with friends, teammates, school or a club – do some advanced research and find allergy-friendly restaurants at their destination and along their route. Are there any chains that they’ve successfully visited before? Or a particular type of cuisine that usually works well, given their specific food allergies? Go through menus online and write down possible food choices. Make calls to a few restaurants to inquire about allergens. In a small notebook (or on a teen’s smartphone), record possible options to eat at each place. Note any requests that they should make when they place their order. Food-allergic teens may be nervous about dining out without their parents, and may forget what to ask or order. Having information about specific venues at their fingertips is useful.
- Coach the Coach. Planning ahead can go a long way in creating a stress-free dining experience. Have conversations with coaches or teachers before school or sports trips. Make sure the adults in charge understand your child’s allergies, how to recognize an allergic reaction, and how to use an epinephrine auto-injector or other medications if a reaction occurs. Also share relevant information from your restaurant research, including some of the more allergy-friendly options where their team/club might stop for a bite.
- Teach Ownership. While the coach, teacher, friend’s parent or relative may be the one who decides where the group dines, food-allergic teens should be empowered to “own” their allergies, speaking directly with restaurant staff about their dietary restrictions. Remind them that they likely know more about their food allergies than non-food-allergic adults. Teach teens to respectfully take charge of their food requests, and they’ll feel more confident eating the meals that are prepared for them.
- Suggest Speaking to the Manager. Like the principal at a school, teens should know that there is always an authority figure in place at a restaurant. Even if the wait staff is friendly and willing to accommodate, teens should ask to speak to a manager or chef if it makes them feel more comfortable.
- Encourage Communication. Teens should learn to make eye contact, and speak clearly and confidently so servers understand their requests. While food allergy protocols vary from restaurant to restaurant, some reasonable accommodations can be made to prevent cross-contact, including asking a fast casual attendant to put on new gloves, or asking the chef at a casual dining venue if a clean pan or foil could be used to prepare a meal on the grill. Lastly, it’s critical to have food-allergic teens confirm not only the ingredients of the items, but the manner in which they are prepared. For instance, shared fryers or buttered grills are not always taken into consideration if a server is asked about ingredients in a particular meal.
- Familiarize Their Friends. Teens should be encouraged to explain their allergies to close friends. That way, food-allergic teens have extra sets of eyes watching out for their allergens and for a potential allergic reaction at restaurants. Let friends try out the epinephrine practice devices. Some people will naturally be frightened at the idea of an injection, but be matter-of-fact about the process and it will be reassuring to anyone that might need to use the device. Have your teen ask his or her close friends to put your cell phone number into their phones. Instruct the friends to call 911 before they call you if a reaction occurs. Of course, some teens might not want to draw attention to themselves by talking about food allergies with their friends. That’s a personal issue that each family can decide together.
- Talk About “What If”. Sometimes, plans don’t work out. Teens may take all the right steps, but yet, a restaurant just doesn’t work. Perhaps it is at maximum capacity, the menu has changed, or the restaurant isn’t taking the allergies seriously. Whatever the case may be, food-allergic teens should be prepared for the unexpected. Have them carry some small, non-perishable snack items for emergencies or encourage them to walk to a nearby venue, if appropriate, to pick up something else to eat. Let them know it’s OK to NOT order if they feel uncomfortable.
One final thought to consider is that food allergies don’t define any child. Every teen, whether they have food allergies or not, wants to feel like they fit in. So, if teens with food allergies wind up at a restaurant that is not an ideal fit, yet they want to stay and spend time with friends without eating, allow them the opportunity and worry about food later.