It’s probably safe to say that most of you reading this post grew up celebrating Valentine’s Day in school by sending each other paper valentines and having a party complete with candy, chocolate and cupcakes. Fast forward to present day and we find today’s classroom celebrations quite different. With so many of our children struggling with food allergies and other health conditions, there has had to be a shift in focus in order to keep our classroom safe (and, to be quite blunt, kiddos alive). Of course, Valentine’s Day is not the only holiday in need of an adjustment, so the question is frequently asked by other parents, “Is it even possible these days to have a classroom party with all these restrictions?” I say, with utmost confidence, absolutely YES and let me show you how!
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Celebrations Should Be Inclusive
Nobody should be left out. We’ve seen this happen way too many times to so many children and it’s just not fair to isolate a child who has dietary restrictions. We have been managing food allergies in our family for nearly two decades. It started with our oldest, who grew out of them, and now our youngest has severe, anaphylactic allergies that just simply won’t resolve (13 years and counting). Since both started when they were very young (the youngest being born with his), we’ve had the chance to experience nearly every classroom scenario out there. I’m talking from teacher bullying and parents acting younger than their children to principal support and school-wide embrace.
When it comes to classroom parties, food has always been a HUGE portion of the celebration. Cupcakes, candy, donut holes, you name it ~ people love to eat when they celebrate. While I completely understand the drive to do so (and enjoy it myself), unfortunately a lot of these foods have become dangers to many. Whether it’s eggs, wheat, peanut, milk, tree nuts, soy or something else, some people simply suffer excruciating circumstances if they come in contact or ingest such ingredients.
For instance, our son is allergic to eggs, peanuts and tree nuts. It used to be that if he came in contact with any of those, he would blotch and swell. If it was in the air, he would blotch and swell – especially his ears! If he ingests the allergen (even to this day) ~ well, he would go anaphylactic and I could potentially lose a very large and special part of my heart.
What is anaphylaxis?
Anaphylaxis is when the body treats a contact or ingested substance as foreign and dangerous and it automatically goes into protection mode. This “protection” can present in various forms, such as hives, swelling, vomiting, itching or the cessation of breathing due to swelling of the airway. It’s not a pretty sight and it’s most certainly not a comfortable feeling for the person experiencing it. Not to mention, it could prove fatal.
For our family, we have watched our son experience varying degrees of anaphylaxis on a handful of occasions. It’s not fun. It’s not enjoyable and, frankly, it’s downright terrifying.
But how does a classroom of youngsters who are so accustomed to celebrating with sugar change that mindset? Below I share just a few ideas for both the schools AND food allergy families to consider. Mind you, this list is not exhaustive and perhaps you have a few ideas or examples yourself that have worked. Nonetheless, my hope is that these ideas inspire and encourage teachers and parents to work together to create a safe, but festive holiday celebration for the students while in the classroom.
Managing Food Allergies In The Classroom
To the Principals, Teachers and Fellow Classroom Parents:
I know this task seems daunting and that it doesn’t thrill you in the least to have to pay close attention to what you are bringing or sending into the classroom. We are ALL busy, I know. However, I also know for a fact that you would hope that I would take such consideration if it was your child, or even your niece, nephew or grandchild. Our children are precious – no matter what age they are – and no one should want to see a child hurt in any way if we can be proactive.
Now, the following ideas are going to be dependent upon a number of factors ~ parents, teachers, severity, environment, etc. I do want to single out the strength and confidence of the principal, however. I truly believe that, if the principal has the respect of his/her teachers and is well understood, received and respected by the parents / guardians, he/she can encourage and foster an engaging community mindset.
Celebrating Without Food – Period
Yup – we’ll go extreme first and, yes, this can be done. I’ve seen it and watched it work. By prohibiting any kind of food items in the classroom, this eliminates nearly every chance of allergy danger that could present. (I say nearly because no one can ever guarantee 100% protection).
What can be done instead? Well, there are any number of things that could replace food. The class can do a craft together, create a gift for a family member, bring in non-edible items (see list below), or do something loving for a group in the community (can drive, deliver Valentines to a nursing home).
Now, if the classroom decides to ultimately go the non-edible food item route, here are a few ideas you could take into consideration. Please be age-appropriate.
- small gift certificates / cards (small classrooms, of course)
- small craft
I know, I know ~ not the most popular idea. In fact, probably not even as creative as one could go. So, let’s go the other way. Let’s explore what can be done if food is going to be a part of the celebration. Shall we?
Celebrating WITH Food
I know I have some doubters and I won’t deny the reality that some classrooms just won’t be able to manage this scenario (particularly the younger classrooms). However, if food is going to be allowed or there is no way around it, it should be highly emphasized that foods brought in must be safe for every student in the classroom (if not the school). How can this done? Well, check this out:
- A list of acceptable items could be sent home EARLY (like February 1st – maybe even a reiteration of a list that could have been sent home at the beginning of the school year). For example, the list could include raisins, Smarties, Skittles, Starbursts, Enjoy Life products, Yum Earth products….and the list goes on, believe it or not. This will be highly dependent upon the allergies involved and their severity.
- Food brought in should ALWAYS be prepackaged and have clear ingredient labels. They should be kept unopened in their original box/bag, as well.
- Packaging should have any and all disclaimers clearly and blatantly visible (may contain, manufactured on the same equipment as…etc.). If the food you are bringing into the classroom does not have this clearly displayed, it probably should return home with the parent/guardian.
Other thoughts and suggestions that might provide a safer environment include:
- having the holiday treat in conjunction with lunch. We’ve seen this one work successfully. This allows the containment of allergens to remain in one room that already has food in it. It would also hopefully keep students with food allergies at a table that has already been designated safe for them.
- send the treat home with the student in a prepackaged bag so that parents can make the decision (have to admit, I don’t like this one. Kids always get curious ~ with or without supervision)
But what if I want to make something myself for the classroom???
Trust me ~ I love a delicious homemade cupcake and make food allergy friendly ones myself. In fact, I’ve sent cupcakes in on our son’s birthday with clearly labeled index cards in the past. However, here’s why homemade items may not be safe enough.
While you may know each and every ingredient you are using for that treat, you cannot guarantee with absolute confidence that the utensils, bowls, baking sheets, etc. are 100% food allergy safe. If you don’t have anyone in your immediate family with food allergies, there is no reason to be wary of using a mixer that was mixing eggs in cake batter for the same egg-less food allergy friendly cupcakes you’re trying to make. Even if YOU’RE convinced it’s clean enough, trust me. You will likely not be able to convince a food allergy parent that they are. It’s not a you-thing….it’s a food allergy mama bear thing.
One of my favorite examples we experienced in school:
In 2017, when our son was in sixth grade, the principal took matters into her own hands. It was clearly evident how much she loved the students in her school and she was noticing the growing trend and population of students with food allergies and other health concerns. In an effort to protect all students, she sent a letter home that had the following message:
I love the fact that she placed attention on the fact that there was a national focus on health and wellness. Food allergies obviously qualify as a “health and wellness” situation. Because everybody’s understanding of health, wellness, food allergies and the like vary, she decided to do the research and provide the solution that year. SHE would take responsibility for providing the food allergy-friendly treat for the entire school that Valentine’s Day.
Not gonna lie – THAT was pretty epic!
Since her plan worked, the principal did this on several other special occasions and holidays, as well. The treats would usually be something such as lollipops or popsicles, something void of any food allergens she knew to be plaguing the students in her school. In fact, there were times she would clear an item with me first before serving it. It was such a tremendous act of compassion, kindness and understanding. Not to mention, she had that strength I was talking about earlier. Since she was well respected, every parent fell in sync. It was beautiful.
For the Food Allergy Families
Food allergy mama and papa bears, you can take responsibility here, too. I learned a long time ago that I can only ask for so much, but that I have a responsibility to influence the scenario for my child to the best of my ability. Once I got the hang of being a food allergy mama bear, I created a container that was stored in the nurse’s office during the school year. This container was packed with food allergy friendly snacks that my son could eat safely. Any time there was a birthday celebration or holiday, he was allowed to retrieve one snack from that box and have that in conjunction with his friend’s having theirs. Even if the treat was safe for him, this was our way to handle the situation. There was no question what he had was safe for him.
This is a picture of what we would normally place in that container. I would check on the container monthly to ensure that nothing had expired or to replenish anything necessary. It may even be wise to keep an index card at home with a list of the expiration dates, so you can keep track of it without having to bother the school nurse on a regular basis.
NOTE: This is not a sponsored post by any of the brands shown. I simply just wanted to show a realistic idea of what foods we have purchased that are safe for our egg, peanut and tree nut allergic son.
Another thing you can do as the food allergy parent / guardian….
Set the example and be proactive.
How? Well, this can be done in a variety of ways:
- Make sure YOU know what food allergies are represented in that classroom and provide something safe for all the students. You know full well that not every food allergy situation is identical.
- At the onset of the school year, provide the teacher with a list of safe snacks (updating as necessary). This will help him/her guide classroom parents in their snack purchases for the classroom. THIS works well – especially when YOU have taken the time to find snacks that may not be expensive and may very well be known by the parents. For instance, Smarties. While they are pure sugar, they are something safe my son can have (on a very limited basis, mind you). Parents know this treat – it’s easy to buy and a bag of them doesn’t cost much. It saves a tremendous amount of frustration. (For parents of diabetic children, you could do the same thing. Provide a few ideas to the teacher that may spark ideas in other parents).
- Offer to provide your child his or her own snack for party celebrations. You could also provide inclusive ideas on how to keep your child safe and every student in the room happy.
- ALWAYS MAKE SURE YOUR CHILD’S EPINEPHRINE AUTO-INJECTORS ARE AT SCHOOL AND UP TO DATE!!!! This is OUR responsibility and could be what saves their life. (sorry ~ had to do that one in caps….pretty important stuff).
I will confess that there have been years where I have had to keep or bring our son home early on a holiday because that was the best way to keep him safe. I was fortunate enough, of course, to work from home. In those circumstances, I always found a way to celebrate safely with him, so he didn’t feel completely left out.
Celebrating Safely and Festively
Valentine’s Day (and other holidays) do not have to be treated as the enemy or be devoid of celebration. It doesn’t have to induce argument or create tension. As times change, we find that constant adjustments are becoming the norm in our daily lives. Managing food allergies in the classroom also doesn’t have to be isolating or expensive. It can be done discreetly, respectfully, inclusively and in a manner that is cost effective and leaves a smile on everyone’s face.
Here’s wishing you all a Valentine’s Day filled with sweet memories and lovely moments to cherish!!
For a clearer picture of some snacks that could be considered for such classroom celebrations…
FOR EVEN MORE IDEAS, YOU CAN VISIT THIS PAGE ON THE FARE (FOOD ALLERGY RESEARCH AND EDUCATION) WEBSITE: VALENTINE’S DAY PARTIES
**Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional, nor do I pretend to offer medical advice. I am simply a mom who has raised two children with food allergies, one of whom continues to experience anaphylaxis with allergen ingestion. This post is simply a provision of ideas and suggestions based on personal experiences we have had in the classroom setting over the years. As noted above, every food allergy situation is different. Only you know your child’s true health situation. It is up to you to determine whether or not a scenario or food is safe enough for him/her. Good luck and celebrate safely!
Food Allergy Friendly Amazon Picks for the Classroom Valentine’s Day Party
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