Food allergies are becoming more and more prevalent in today’s society. There are several theories about why this is happening, but none of them have been proven. According to statistics, there are 15 million diagnosed with food allergies in the US and 2.5 million people with self-reported food allergies in Canada. Six - 9% of these are children, but 50% of new diagnoses are adults with food allergies. A new diagnosis can affect family and other relationships in surprising ways. Both of my daughters have had severe food allergies. My oldest daughter was lucky enough to outgrow her allergies to milk and egg, but just as she was outgrowing hers, my youngest daughter was diagnosed with peanut and later tree nut allergies. So in total, we have been living with food allergies in our family for almost 10 years now, and through a lot of trial and error, I have come up with some things that have worked for us as we navigate the food allergic life. Here are 7 tips to help your spouse and family deal with a food allergy diagnosis.
1. Look for blessings, even when it’s hard. This is number one because it’s one of the most important things both for your family and personal mental health. A food allergy diagnosis is hard, but there is the possibility of a full, exciting life. We need to be intentional about finding blessings and seeing how we have been provided opportunities to grow.
2. Plan for the financial impact. The cost to take care of food allergies is real. It is estimated that the cost to a household with a severe food allergy could equal up to $3500 per year in unexpected expenses. And this doesn’t account for more than one person with the diagnosis or multiple allergies. These expenses could include taking days off to care for food-allergic children, driving to appointments, paying for special foods and special childcare and other expenses.* In order to offset the strain this may cause for the family, find ways to set aside $100-$250 each month. At the end of the year, half of the accumulated money can be used as a reward if there has been no allergic reaction. The other half can be put into your allergy savings fund. Use the reward portion for a family vacation or a weekend away with your spouse.
3. Learn Empathy. When one partner or a family member is diagnosed with food allergies, it often means that the whole family or both partners are forced to change their eating habits to accommodate the severe allergy. As hard as this is for the allergic person, this can be stressful and especially hard for the non-allergic family members and difficult to accept. Although the allergic person will not be able to partake, have “cheat nights” or “cheat treats” for the non-allergic members so they are able to enjoy the food they once loved occasionally. Make sure the food is not enjoyed directly in front of the allergic person, or allow them to have a special safe treat at the same time.
4. Leave extra time to grocery shop and do food-related errands. Grocery shopping with a food allergy is a whole new experience. Because manufacturers change their processes, labels must be read in detail every time something is purchased. This can be time consuming and daunting. If grocery shopping is left up to one partner, then be lenient with time and delegate one or more of the other household chores to be taken by the kids or the other spouse.
5. Deal with friends and family as a team. There will inevitably be some family or friends who do not understand the importance or severity of food allergies. This is a huge issue that often takes years to iron out and has the potential to cause a lot of stress in your relationship. Address these issues together with your spouse. When dealing with family members, it may be best to sit down with each member of the family together with your spouse to show a united front and discuss needs calmly and clearly. Remember to be firm, but kind when discussing your new needs. These people are part of your community and you want to keep relationships strong! Even so, not all family members will understand right away. When this happens, one of the most important things to remember is that our spouse IS on your side, not against you. You are working towards a common goal.
6. Have fun with new foods together. Even though you are required to completely eliminate items from your diet, it doesn’t mean that you can’t have fun with food. As cliche as it seems, try to focus on what you can eat instead of what you can’t. Explore foods that you wouldn’t have tried before. You would be surprised how long the list of food you can eat might be if you really think about it and research it. Make sure you have high quality cooking equipment. For example, just having a really great knife or two in the kitchen can really make chopping a quick and more fun experience. Restaurants may not be able to adequately accommodate your food allergies, which gives you the excuse to have romantic date nights or family fun nights at home. Make meals special by creating the restaurant atmosphere with candle light, flowers, and wine if appropriate. Have fun with the food and the experience!
7. Get help when you need it. Experiencing and watching anaphylaxis can be an extremely scary and difficult event. If this happens, don’t hesitate to see a psychologist specializing in anxiety. Even if you or your children didn’t witness or experience anaphylaxis, it is always a great idea to know how to handle day-to-day food allergy anxiety as a pre-emptive measure. Seek out support groups such as Friendly Pantry Community on Facebook which can improve your day-to-day life by connecting you with other people in similar situations and creating a sense of community. Similarly, Food Allergy Consultants such as Friendly Pantry Consulting Inc. are another form of help available to empower you to understand the allergy and offer tools, tips and tricks for living fully with the allergy.
*From American National study by Dr. Ruchi Gupta published in the Sept. 16, 2013 edition of JAMA Pediatrics.