They are the words that every parent dreads: "Please can my friend who is severely allergic to milk, eggs, nuts and mustard come to tea? Oh and she doesn't eat meat or fish either. Thanks!"
But with an estimated five to eight per cent of children suffering from food allergies in the UK, this scenario might soon be coming to your house if you have a child at school.
Full disclosure: My child is the one mentioned above and I am always grateful to those can-do mothers who welcome her into their home. I'm also pretty nervous, because my child is an Epipen-toting, might-have-a-reaction-at-any-minute kind of a girl. It doesn't make for a carefree tea date.
So what should you do if a child with food allergies is coming to tea?
Most importantly you need to know what the child is allergic to, what the symptoms might be and what to do if she gets a reaction. It will be impossible to absorb that information in a rushed conversation at the school gate, so ask the child's parents to write out the key points and give them to you a couple of days before.
If you don't understand something, ask questions. Make sure they provide a list of contact numbers, then pin it up in the kitchen and add the numbers to your phone.
Meet with the parent beforehand and ask to be shown all the medication that might be needed and in which order you should give it. Allergic reactions are unpredictable and can be different each time, so ask the mum to explain what has happened in the past.
To date, my daughter has only needed anti-histamine medication to control a reaction, but she has only ever eaten/touched tiny amounts of food to which she is allergic. I have no idea what would happen if she took a swig of milk by mistake, so when she goes out to tea I have to hand over the full medical arsenal 'just in case.'
If the child carries an adrenaline injector ('Epipen'), unfortunately you need to know how to use it. It's a simple procedure but the idea of having to administer it can be stressful. Ask the parents if she has a 'trainer pen' that you can practice with. It will make you feel more confident about coping if the worst happens.
What do you cook the child who can't eat anything? Answer: nothing. When my daughter is invited out to tea, I provide the meal. It is simpler for everyone concerned.
I know what is safe for her, I know she will eat it and as long as it doesn't get 'contaminated' in the cooking/reheating process, then everyone feels more relaxed. If you have a child coming to tea and the parent hasn't offered to provide food, ask them to do so. Don't feel bad for asking; feel annoyed that it wasn't the first thing they suggested!
Once you have been given the food, only give the child that food. I do hate it when parents give other food to my daughter because 'I've seen you give it to her.' Food manufacturers can change ingredients with little or no notice and it's just not worth risking it.
The big day has arrived! Face facts: you are going to feel stressed.
The other parents will hand over food, medication and her child and then swan off for two hours while you tiptoe around like a cat on hot bricks. To minimise stress during the meal, it helps to feed your own child an 'allergy friendly' meal as well. So if gluten is a problem for the visiting child, don't break out the flour and make pastry, stick to rice or gluten-free pasta. If the child can't have milk, maybe macaroni cheese isn't such a good idea for your children? The same goes for omelettes and peanut butter sandwiches.
Seat the child with allergies at one end of the table and if there are any allergens on the table (grated cheese, bread and butter) put them at the other end. If you have a toddler, make sure s/he is away from the guest and can't grab them with buttery hands or cram a chocolate biscuit into their mouth. (Yep, it happens.) Remember to ask all the children to wash their hands after the meal.
Finally, don't underestimate what you have done. A child with food allergies is very aware that they are 'different' and eating is stressful. They have seen the teachers at school get nervous at lunchtime, they've watched their parents quiz waiters in a restaurant and they have listened as their friends eat ice cream and groan with delight.
But because you made an effort and spent two hours with a knot in your stomach - anti-histamines in one hand, emergency numbers in the other - you gave a child with allergies a 'normal' childhood experience.
So when your child asks this: "Mum, can the child with severe food allergies come to tea?"
There's no need to feel dread. All you need to say is this: "Of course they can darling! I just need to speak to the mum."
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