Look closely at this picture. If your life does not revolve around food allergies, you may not catch it at first glance. This is no ordinary cafeteria lunch. To this six year old girl, this is JOY ON A TRAY, cleverly disguised as taco salad. So what the heck is so special about this taco salad? Absolutely nothing. Its just another typical, questionably nutritious, school lunch to everyone else in the room.
But to a first grader with food allergies who has never been allowed to eat from the cafeteria before, this is a monumentally memorable day. The kind of day that warrants pictures and a gleeful phone call to grandparents. The kind of day that sends her running down the driveway, jumping up and down outside daddy’s car window before he can even open the door to hear her shrieking, “This was a great day! I got to eat cafeteria food like all the other kids!”
Like all the other kids…
When you have a child with food allergies, there’s always the obvious safety concerns, which thankfully are not life-threatening for any of my children. THANK YOU LORD. And then there’s always the issue of finding substitutes and replacements for things they can not eat, which seems to get a little simpler by the year, and just flat out easier with practice as you settle into “the new normal.” But the aspect I never considered before my kids were diagnosed, and one I feel most people just honestly can’t imagine from the outside looking in, is the social implications of food allergies.
I think we, as adults, often think of children with food allergies as just mini-adults on another special diet- as though a 2 year old would ever voluntarily go Paleo because its just a healthier way of life? Children don’t choose their allergies. They are not the result of informed and intentional lifestyle choices. Young children may not even understand what they are allergic to or why they can’t eat like everyone else. Food is so. very. social. Have you ever been to a birthday party that did not serve any food? I doubt it. What do moms of young children bring with them everywhere? Snacks. What does my daughter get if she sells enough cookie dough for a school fundraiser? A feel trip in a limo to go eat pizza. How is every school holiday celebrated? With a party full of snack foods, of course! How was the end of kindergarten celebrated? With an ice cream sundae bar. Little kids eat. All. The. Time. And, then of course, there’s our overall culture of celebrating anything and everything everything with food, reconnecting over food, rewarding with food, and consoling ourselves with food. On the first day of first grade, my daughter walked out of school and said, “I was having a great day, but then everyone else got candy and I didn’t.” She went on to explain that the candy was given as a reward to the class for being good listeners but that it contained something she was allergic to. (Gluten, Dairy, or Peanuts)
“Good thing there are so many new allergy options out there nowadays!”
And yes, as so many well-meaning moms have tried to encourage me, “there are so many gluten-free products out there now” and “its a good thing she can just have almond milk instead.” Yes, that’s true, and thank God for those options. But when your child is too little to read labels, ask the right questions, and determine what is or isn’t safe, that means your child is either left out completely or mom has to come to EVERYTHING… with whiney younger siblings and a big nerdy cooler of “alternative food” in tow, just in case the whole school didn’t already know she was “the allergy kid who can’t eat anything.”
Allergy Kid for the Win!
Bu not today! Today, after weeks of collaborating with our pediatrician and the school cafeteria manager, we were finally able to find one meal that could be modified enough for her to safely eat lunch from the cafeteria… “like all the other kids.” You would have thought it was the most exquisite of gourmet kids meals! She could not stop grinning as she dipped her tortilla chips in luke-warm refried beans and ground beef. I offered to open her little carton of juice for her, but she was so excited to try it herself, because of course- she’s never opened a carton of anything. And the pear she gnawed on was reportedly the most delicious pear ever picked at the peak of perfection. As the lunch period came to a close, kids were dismissed to line up and dump their tray on the way out the door to recess. But not mine. She wanted to skip recess to stay inside and finish her lunch. As each child passed her on the way out the door, she just kept waving with her ridiculously goofy grin, announcing to each of them, “I’m eating cafeteria food!” And though I did come for a lunch visit to make sure her prescription diet was actually followed, I did not bring along the circus in a cooler this time. I just showed up and followed her through the cafeteria line, with all the other visiting parents, trying to conceal my own excitement, which was at least as palpable as my daughter’s. Because unlike so many other parents, who are understandably imparting the value of being unique and encouraging their kids to stand out from the crowd, this mama wishes desperately that her kids could feel “like all the other kids” just a little more often. And today, this little girl went through the lunch line for the first time, just like all the other kids.
Do you have a child with a food allergy? What’s your most recent “food-allergy win?” Please let me celebrate vicariously through you!
- Legally Blind Mom of Three
- Childbirth Educator & Doula
- Former Special Ed Teacher