Teens, Food Allergies & Dining Out (Without You?!)
Each “phase” of being a food allergy parent comes with unique challenges.
At first, it’s all about figuring out what your children can and can’t eat and keeping the allergens out of their reach. In the entering-school years, it’s practically a part time job to communicate with teachers, nurses, and lunch staff, while prepping for birthday parties and play dates. This period is soon followed by the “sports and activities phase” and all the snack handouts and celebrations associated with those. Then finally, while never ceasing our vigilance, there’s a slight “gap” between these early elementary school phases and the later middle school years in terms of new food allergy scenarios.
We were in that zone – comfortable with our food allergy routine. Then, in 5th grade, it was time for my daughter to go through a rite of passage in our community: to walk “uptown” from school with friends to eat lunch on a half day. After popping into each of our local sandwich shops together, we found one that could accommodate her food allergies. We took notes on what/how to order and tucked them into her medication case. We discussed how to handle different situations, such as lots of kids in the sandwich shop all trying to order at the same time, causing confusion, or the possibility that the server couldn’t guarantee the exact same sandwich ingredients as on a prior visit, and of course, what to do if she had an allergic reaction.
During this time, when our daughter’s friends came to our home, we also reviewed how and when to use the EpiPen. We even bought an inexpensive phone and programmed it with our numbers so our daughter (or her friends) could reach us easily in an emergency. Together, we created a plan that made all of us feel comfortable.
On the day of the walk, I was a bundle of nerves. I had a handbag packed with extra medications, and was ready to hop in the car on a moment’s notice. When the clock struck 12:30, I knew that we were likely in the clear. As if on cue, the phone rang. My daughter told me that it all went well. Mission accomplished.
While I was able to manage this first experience of solo dining for my tween, I realized that I won’t be able to plan every outing she has to come, nor will they always be in our hometown. Knowing that this was the first of many independent dining out experiences, I needed a plan to help our daughter in the years ahead.
Based on this experience, here are my tips for parents and their food allergic teens/tweens:
- Carry Epinephrine– Everywhere. Some teens are embarrassed to carry their medications and need a firm reminder that it’s critical to have epinephrine with them at all times. Your teen needs to know that this is a non-negotiable family rule. If your teen appears reluctant, look for a carry 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.
- Teach Your Teen– Before your teen dines out independently, it is important for s/he to understand all of the names of her/his allergens, questions to ask at a restaurant, cues that a restaurant does or does not “get it”, and signs of an allergic reaction. Your son/daughter needs to know that even a little bite can be life threatening. To educate your child and demonstrate the type of behavior that indicates whether someone is “getting it” or not, include them in conversations with restaurant managers and chefs, starting in the elementary-age years. If you are asked to read a label or look at an allergen menu at a restaurant, point out allergen terms to your child.
- Use That Smartphone – It Really IS Smart. Your teen’s smartphone may actually be good for doing something other than “selfies”! Have your child download the AllergyEats app so that they can find restaurants where the food allergy community has had positive experiences. During dining experiences without you, they may find it reassuring to snap pictures of food labels and text them to you for a second opinion.
- Take a “Virtual” Road Trip – If you know in advance that your teen is heading to a new area, with friends, teammates, school or a club, and will be dining on the road, once you’ve found some restaurants to consider, take a closer look at them. Are there any chains that you’ve visited before? Or a particular type of cuisine that usually works well for your child? Go through menus online and write down possible food choices. Take time to make calls to one or two restaurants to inquire about allergens. In a small notebook, record possible options for your child to eat at each place – and any requests that they should make when they place their order. Your teen might be nervous to dine without you or have forgotten which restaurant served certain items, so having information about each venue at their fingertips is useful.
- Coach the Coach– Planning ahead can go a long way in creating a stress-free dining experience. Along with your teen, have a conversation with coaches or teachers beforehand about some of the ideal dining options, referencing your research, where their team/club might stop for a bite. 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 one occurs.
- Teach Ownership– While the coach, teacher, friend’s parent or a relative may be the one who decides where your teen dines, your teen should be the one who speaks directly with restaurant staff about his/her allergies. They likely know more about food allergies than non food-allergic adults. Teach teens to respectfully take charge of their food requests. They’ll feel more confident in 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, your child should ask to speak to a manager or chef if it makes them feel more comfortable.
- Encourage Communication–Encourage your teen to make eye contact, speak clearly and confidently so the server understands their requests. While they may vary from restaurant to restaurant, some reasonable accommodations can be made to prevent cross-contamination, including asking a fast casual attendant to put on new gloves and get fresh containers of food from the kitchen, or asking the chef at a casual dining venue if a pan or foil could be used to prepare a meal instead of the grill. Lastly, it’s critical to have your child confirm not only the ingredients of the items, but the manner in which they are prepared – shared fryers are not always taken into consideration if a server is asked about ingredients.
- Familiarize Their Friends– Strongly encourage your teen to explain their allergies to close friends so that they too are aware of the ingredients your son/daughter must avoid at restaurants. Let friends try out the epinephrine practice devices. Some people will naturally be frightened at the idea of an injection, but if you and your food-allergic teen are matter-of-fact, it will reassure his/her friends that this is the right thing to do. Have your teen ask his/her close friends to put your cell phone number into their phones and instruct them to call 911 before they call you if a reaction takes place. [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 you and your child can decide together.]
- Talk About “What If”– Sometimes, plans don’t work out. Your teen may have taken 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, make sure your teen is prepared for the unexpected. Remind your teen to carry some small, non-perishable 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 the child. Every teen, whether they have food allergies or not, wants to feel like they fit in. So, if your teen ends up at a restaurant that is not an ideal fit for their allergies, yet they want to stay and spend time with friends without eating, allow them the opportunity and worry about food later.
Can you relate to this experience? How does your tween/teen manage their food allergies? If your teen has a favorite spot where they dine, please let us know about it by rating it on the AllergyEats app or website and commenting below!
This blog entry was written by AllergyEats team member, Jesse, who has a 12-year-old daughter with a dairy allergy (she was allergic to egg until recently).