Did you know that one in 13 U.S. children has a food allergy? That’s an average of two kids in every classroom. More than you thought, right? Being the parent of a child with food allergies can come with a few extra trials and tribulations – especially during the summer.
With the warm starry nights, summer is also the time of great weather, BBQs, and, best of all for parents and children alike, camp. Children often dream of the final school bell ringing for the year before their long-awaited break. Summer camp can also be an anxiety-inducing time for many parents of kids with food allergies. But food allergy families shouldn’t struggle with feeling like they must restrict their children’s activities to keep them safe.
There are some things parents can do to navigate the maze of food allergens. Here are some simple tips to think about this summer to help put the fun back into summer camp for kids with food allergies.
Set Your Boundaries
Your family shouldn’t feel pressured into doing something outside your comfort zone; summer camp is no exception. With so many options available, you first need to decide what kind of camp makes you feel most secure. Would you like day-only or sleep away? Do you need an allergen-free camp, or can you arrange for your child’s needs to be met?
Ideally, you want plenty of time to discuss these questions with your family and your child. If, as a family, you’re not comfortable with a sleep-away camp this year, you can always build up to that down the road.
Once you have answered these questions, you can use websites like the American Camp Association. Here, you can search for camps that match different criteria like location and cost and include your child’s food allergen within the search. On the ACA’s website, you can discover places like Camp Blue Spruce, an overnight camp based in Oregon that’s exclusively for children with food allergies. They’ve created an environment free from the top food allergens plus gluten and have qualified medical staff on site. Tools like these can make whittling down your camp choices as easy as pie (allergen-free, of course).
Who’s in Charge of Your Child’s Medical Care?
A parent’s ability to trust those they leave their children with is absolutely vital. Without it, turning down the parental worry meter is near impossible, leaving you unnecessarily on edge throughout the day.
So, to combat this, once you have chosen a camp, find out who oversees the campers’ medical care. Then, contact them with your food allergy emergency care plan. Also, if your child needs to carry epinephrine, check that they have somewhere to store it, as epinephrine is temperature sensitive.
You never want your child to feel singled out due to their allergies. And yet, it’s also critical to their welfare that you ensure all the staff knows that your child has a specific allergy. Everyone must also have the proper medical training, from the cafeteria helpers to the volunteers.
These are the types of questions you can ask:
- What type of training have they had?
- Do they understand what food allergies are?
- Why is avoiding cross-contamination so important?
- How would they recognize and treat a reaction?
All staff members need to know this information because camps often don’t have full-time medical employees.
It’s likely that staff are asked these types of questions every year, and it’s within their best interest to know the answers. At the end of the day, you can’t ensure your child will have a happy and safe experience without the answers to these questions. Your child’s safety and your peace of mind are worth it.
Food: What’s the Situation?
Can you name the eight most common food allergies?
The big ones are milk, eggs, wheat, soy, tree nuts, peanuts, fish, and shellfish. Awesome job if you got all of them!
After ensuring camp staff are in solid food allergy-fighting shape, knowing about their food-providing services will also help relieve your stress. Some valuable questions may be:
- Do campers bring their lunch, or is it provided?
- Are allergen-free meals made separately to avoid cross-contamination?
- Do any arts and crafts projects involve allergens, like macaroni?
You might also ask how often they serve veggies, too!
When dropping your child off at camp, even though some dread may be kicking in, it may be worth it to ask to see the cafeteria and the kitchen. Seeing the environment firsthand can help you gain a better understanding of their processes and what precautions are in place. You may even be able to offer advice to ensure it’s smooth sailing from then on.
There’s also no shame in providing your kids with home-packed lunches. Kids will have fun at camp, getting up to mischief, making friends and memories they’ll never forget, no matter where their food comes from.
Communication is Key
Communicating with staff about your child’s needs is essential. As a parent, you need to know everyone at the camp has the information and skill set to care for your kid. However, also having a conversation with your child can be really helpful.
Make sure they fully understand what their allergy is. Do they know what they need to look out for? What questions to ask? And be certain they know to wash their hands before and after eating. Give them the confidence to talk openly about their allergies. This could be with friends who may have questions about their allergy or speaking up to unfamiliar people if something doesn’t feel right. Children need to learn to trust their gut.
Organizing some phone calls with your child in advance is a great way to check up on them. Allow them space to talk about any concerns to the person they trust the most – you. At the end of the day, it’s their allergy, and it’s them who will have to live with it. By giving them some responsibility for it, you may be surprised by their confidence and maturity. This will consequently provide them with vital skills for their adult years.
You’re Not Alone
With reports of food allergies in children rising by 50% between 1997-2011, it’s vital to know that you’re not alone. There are thousands of new families learning to cope with and navigating through food allergen territory every year. Finding a strong support network is paramount as you’re going to need people to rely on. Family and friends will be a big part of this group, but talking to people going through the same things can be helpful. You can search for support groups all over the country that meet regularly through websites like foodallergy.org.
Even with all these tips and nuggets of advice, being able to truly relax while your little one is away is always going to be difficult. But that doesn’t mean it needs to be a time of nail-biting and stress-eating. No child should ever miss out on enjoying summer camp and making memories to last a lifetime because of a food allergy. With a bit of forethought and planning, you can ensure you’ve done everything within your parental power to ensure your child has a super awesome safe time.