March 9, 2020

Educating Extended Family About Food Allergies

Photo of mother and child in the kitchen

If it seems like the number of people with food allergies has skyrocketed since you were a kid, you’re not imagining it.

The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) found that food allergies in kids increased by 50% from 1997 to 2011. That’s a huge jump in just 15 years. Along with that increase comes the urgent need to educate family members who may never have learned how to accommodate food allergies.

Some people just get it. They don’t need to be convinced that food allergies can be life-threatening, and they realize that what they serve or eat around someone with food allergies can mean a scary trip to the ER or worse.

Often, explaining everything to relatives presents an enormous challenge. Negative reactions when it comes to children with food allergies may include:

  • “Why don’t you trust me to care for your child properly?”
  • “You’re being a helicopter parent. Relax.”
  • “We always serve these foods at holidays. It’s tradition!”
  • “Just watch [your very active toddler] the whole time to make sure they don’t eat any food they shouldn’t eat.”
  • “They’ll just get some hives. No big deal. It can’t be that serious.”

It’s important to remember that people who haven’t had to manage food allergies before aren’t used to reading ingredient labels or thinking about cross-contact (when an allergen is unintentionally transferred to another food). Plus, food allergies are invisible until they make themselves known through a reaction, which vary widely on a spectrum from mild to anaphylactic. Someone who has never witnessed or experienced a severe food allergy reaction may have a tough time conceptualizing the very real dangers that lurk daily.

When it comes time to communicate food allergy needs, it pays to be prepared and purposeful. Here are some tips to make this experience constructive:

  • Set aside the time to discuss the most critical food allergy rules with close relatives well before the next family event. Springing it on them last-minute will likely lead to misunderstandings and resentment.
  • Don’t inundate them with every bit of information you have gathered through hours upon hours of careful research. You may eat, sleep, and breathe food allergy safety, but it’s a lot to impart upon people all at once. Explaining the restrictions in stages may make it easier for them to digest piece by piece.
  • Offer examples of what can happen when an allergen is accidentally consumed. Concrete examples can help clarify why this is such a serious matter.
  • You may want to bring safe foods with you at first until you and the family members are confident that they have the hang of the rules.
  • Be both understanding and vigilant at events with food. While you may always have food allergy safety in mind, it’s normal that even well-intentioned people may get distracted.
  • Keep the conversation going. This isn’t something to discuss once and assume people are on board. Give kind reminders and update with new information periodically.
  • Putting it in writing can help family members refresh their memory as needed. Writing it down is really the only way to give crucial details like the different names for allergenic foods on ingredient labels.
  • Don’t forget to tell them what to do if they suspect a food allergy reaction! Even if you’re nearby, you may not be the first person to see the reaction unfolding. They should know what it may look like, as well as how to operate an epinephrine auto-injector and when to call 9-1-1.

If you do not feel like family members are prepared or willing to keep an event food-allergy-safe, you can offer to host. This is a great way to demonstrate how to accommodate the allergies and still break bread together.

You may find that you need to opt out of some social gatherings if others resist adhering to the food restrictions. While no one wants this as a permanent solution, you should trust your gut when it comes to ensuring your family’s well-being. It takes some people longer to get on board with food allergy management in social settings, so don’t give up if a cherished family member doesn’t get it at first. They may come around with a little extra time and education.