As someone who has lived with food allergies my entire life, I know what I can control with food allergies. I’m sure that it can feel overwhelming when you or your child are first diagnosed, but as you learn what you do have control over, you will see there is so much that lies in your hands. Here are the top ways I take control of my life with food allergies.
I CAN control what I KNOW
Education is how I better understood my food allergies right from the beginning. From what is happening to my body to what I need to do in case of an allergic reaction. Learning what kinds of foods my allergens are found in, other names for those allergens, and safe foods to eat instead, were ways I felt empowered to take control of the situation. I was taught before I could even read that I needed to ask a grown-up to read ingredients to me and was modeled what to say to explain my food allergies to others. My parents taught me to take control by educating me. They gave me the tools to speak up, to know what I was allergic to, to know how to keep myself safe and what to do in an emergency. Educating yourself by using reliable resources will help eliminate any of the built-up anxiety of not knowing, and will give you the power to decide what feels safe and what doesn’t.
I CAN control what I EAT
I focus on what I can safely buy at the store and cook. I tend to buy mostly whole foods, however there are more allergy-friendly brands and packaged options than ever before. None of this existed throughout my entire growing up, so it is constantly surprising how many new options there are in the stores. I know if you are not used to reading ingredients it may feel overwhelming, but it will become routine and you will feel less inhibited with time and practice. Many people with food allergies or the parent of someone with them become even better, more creative cooks. I’ve seen it and I’ve tasted it. There are ways to still eat delicious foods even with multiple food allergies. I also have control over the food I eat when I dine out. I may not be cooking the food, however I can decide my comfort level at the restaurant and if I feel safe dining there. I make this decision based on multiple factors that I wrote about here.
I CAN control what I SAY
If you are in the beginning stages of learning about food allergies, it may feel difficult to paint any of it in a positive light, however I promise it will get easier. I always think that if food allergies are the worst health issue I ever have to deal with I will feel forever grateful. If you are a parent of a child with food allergies, finding those spoken positive words in front of your child are essential. This isn’t a pity party. This is a lifestyle adaptation. Yes, it is life-threatening, but it does not have to be life prohibiting unless you say it is. Kids listen to how you speak. They hear your tone. Even if you’re not finding the silver linings yet, reach for them because your child is the one who is listening and learning from you. How they speak about their food allergies is a reflection of how you speak about them. For example, when I was little my mom would say, “what special treat would you like to bring to the party? Let’s pick something yummy together!” I never once heard her complain that she had to spend more time or money or anything else because of my food allergies. My parents never made me feel bad because I had them and that was a decision. When I was a child, they had the control over what they said around me and the tone they used. I’m thankful they chose to be grateful and show kindness when they spoke about my food allergies. It definitely influenced who I became and how I felt empowered into adulthood with my food allergies.
I CAN control how I ACT
I make the decision if I leave the house with everything I need in the morning. Do I have my epinephrine auto-injectors? Am I wearing my Medic Alert bracelet? Did I pack safe snacks in case I can’t find safe food to eat out? Do I have hand wipes to clean my hands before eating or touching my face? These are all actions I have control over. If you are a parent of a child with food allergies, you are the one modeling these actions. Whatever you want your child to be able to accomplish independently, is what you need to show them with your actions. For example, if you actively model the routine of storing their medicine by the door and taking it with you before leaving the house, this should eventually become their routine and lead to independent action. Something else that I have control over, is how I treat others when it involves situations that I don’t have as much control over. It isn’t just what I say but also what I do that shows how I feel about my food allergies and my expectations of others when managing them. Back in high school, I remember large group outings where it was more than my immediate group of friends meeting at a restaurant. Often it was somewhere I couldn’t safely eat. Knowing this, I would proactively eat ahead, pack an extra snack, and then go and enjoy time with my friends. I never acted upset or angry and I never expected everything to revolve around my food allergies. I did what I needed to do to keep myself safe and then enjoyed being out. My parents modeled this for me growing up, and I took on those actions independently.
I CAN control how I REACT
Sometimes people just don’t “get it.” When you don’t live something every day or even one day, it is hard to understand. For some, empathy is a part of who they are naturally and they can try to put themselves in your shoes more easily. While for others, it may not be their strength and if they have no experience with food allergies, it is likely going to be challenging for them to understand what your needs are immediately. This is something I’ve learned to accept because I only have control over myself and how I react to a situation. If I am out at a restaurant and I explain I have a fish allergy and they hand me a gluten free menu, it doesn’t mean they are trying to be rude or dismissive. They likely understand it as the menu for people who can’t eat everything and that’s probably the way they think they are accommodating me. When you don’t live it, you don’t know it. That’s not just food allergies, that’s anything in life. Imagine you are the host in the restaurant and you don’t have food allergies or know anyone close to you that does. You probably wouldn’t pay attention to the difference either. So yes, it comes back to education. I try to educate the restaurant host calmly and take note to make sure the manager and chef understand, but I’m nice about it. Just because we are living with food allergies doesn’t mean everyone else is. Most aren’t, and even though there are more of us now than ever before, we are still very much a minority. Remember, the ways you react leave a lasting impression on people. I once went to a restaurant in Nashville, where the chef had one bad experience with a guest who had food allergies and was afraid to serve anyone else with allergies ever again. He only warmed up to me because I was calm, explained using my chef card, was open to anything he could safely make me, and he realized I understood he would do his absolute best to keep me safe but that he could not guarantee anything. The chef was able to read my assurance in him and the way I reacted to his story. I ended up having a delicious and safe meal and restoring a chef’s confidence in cooking for someone with food allergies. Be the person that educates or restores faith in someone cooking for those of us with food allergies. It is no easy feat to be the chef who willingly accommodates food allergies safely. I try to always make sure they know how much I appreciate them before I leave.
I CAN control where I GO
There are certain places I don’t usually choose to go with my food allergies. Although there are not many, I do typically know where I feel uncomfortable, which means I have to decide whether it’s worth it to me or not. For example, I know I can control whether I decide to go to a baseball game or a restaurant that has open containers of nuts on the tables. No one is forcing me to go, so I have to make a choice about what is more important. I remember a few years ago my aunt had an extra ticket to a baseball game and invited me. Although baseball is not a passion of mine, I love spending time with my aunt and an opportunity to go to a game with all of the fun, crowd energy was worth it to me, especially since I rarely go. I knew I would be near people eating peanuts and I knew shells would be all over the floor. I was already aware that it wasn’t the most comfortable for me but I made a choice to go anyway. I ended up having a great time and focusing on what I could control while I was there (like washing my hands before touching my face). Life with food allergies can feel uncomfortable sometimes, but we have the control to decide where we go, and once there, how to manage feeling safe and in control.
My suggestion? Focus on all that you CAN control with food allergies.