Did you know that one in 13 U.S. children has a food allergy?1 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 must decide what kind of camp makes you feel most secure. Would you like day-only or sleepaway? 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 child. If, as a family, you’re not comfortable with a sleepaway 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). 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 (here), an overnight camp based in Oregon 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 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 staff about managing food allergies while at summer camp:
- What kind 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.
Staff members are likely asked these types of questions yearly, and it’s in their best interest to know the answers. You can’t ensure your child with food allergies will have a happy and safe experience at summer camp 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 stress. Some helpful 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 off your child with food allergies at camp, even though some dread may be kicking in, it may be worth asking 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
You’ve chosen the camp, talked to the staff, read the menus, and shared emergency care plans. Now it’s time to speak with your camper. As fun as summer camp is, kids can get nervous about the new environments, new people, and new expectations. Especially kids going off to sleepaway camp for the first time. This is doubly true for kids with food allergies. However, having a conversation with your child can be 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 sure 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 allergies or speaking up to unfamiliar people if something doesn’t feel right. Children need to learn to trust their gut.
Organizing phone calls with your child in advance is a great way to check up on them. Allow them space to talk about concerns to the person they trust the most – you. It’s their allergy, and they will have to live with it. You may be surprised by their confidence and maturity by giving them some responsibility for it. 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.2 Thousands of new families learn to cope with and navigate through food allergen territory every year. Finding a strong support network is paramount as you will 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 (here).
Remind Them to Write!
You’ve gone over it a million times – with the camp director, the counselors, the kitchen staff, and your kid. You’re feeling confident. Kind of. That’s okay. No matter how much you’ve prepared, you’ll likely feel a little anxious when your kid’s away. But pat yourself on the back for all the work, forethought, and planning you’ve done to get your kid off to camp. No kid should ever miss out on fun childhood experiences due to food allergies.
Thanks to you, your kid has the opportunity to have the safe and super awesome summer experiences they’ll write home about – if they remember to write.