Monday, June 22, 2009

Food Allergies and Restaurant Anxiety

We had an issue pop up this weekend regarding restaurants, one that many of you with food-allergic kids will eventually face so of course I have to talk about it.

My family went out to a nice, al fresco dining Greek restaurant in Chicago for a pre-Father's Day celebration dinner this past Saturday. It was one that my family has been to many times and we've been over the menu items with the staff so we know what to order.

When it comes to peanut allergies, Greek food is a great choice. They don't use peanuts! (Of course, always ask about the oil for deep fried items--better yet, skip those. There are so many other good things on a Greek menu that you can order, esp. from the grill.)

For nut allergies in general, Greek desserts must be avoided. However, since we always avoid desserts in a restaurant for our allergic daughter (she usually brings her own) that's usual for her.

We try to make everything as normal and natural as possible when visiting a restaurant with our allergic daughter. We also try to stick to the same places--usually family-style, casual joints since we have fairly young kids.

We thought bringing the family to a more elegant location for a change would be exciting to the kids, and it was. However, my daughter was intimidated. Until we were seated, I hadn't known that she had anxiety about the situation. She'd seemed excited about going out, put her favorite dress and shoes on, etc. It was a whole other story when we got there--she was nervous. We all tried to soothe her, but until she'd eaten a few items, she wasn't comfortable. Pretty soon, when she saw that she was safe, she relaxed and everyone had a great time.

It taught me a lesson, though. Even though we may try to make everything seem normal, as kids get older they know that they have a risk of reaction. Even if Mom, Dad, Auntie or Grandma and Grandpa are looking out for you, kids can still feel afraid.

You can't tell a kid with a food allergy that they don't have to worry about it, either. You can tell them not to worry about a particular situation, but not that they can be completely relaxed about it. That's tricky, but these nuances of life are part of growing up. It's so much easier when the kids are small and their trust is complete.

The key is managing your food-allergic child's worries so that they can have fun at a restaurant. Usually, my daughter is fine when dining out and enjoys it. But I realized that even a small shift in routine can be anxiety-producing, so I need to help her through it.

Silly stories from Dad helped her get her mind off of things and then she was ravenous. By the time the meal ended and we took the kids to Millennium Park in Chicago for an evening stroll on the new Art Institute bridge and a splash in the fountain, she was happy and peaceful.

It's harder to convince an older child that "everything will be OK" all the time because once they've lived a little and especially when they remember their reactions, they know that danger is out there. I'm prepared next time to help when the dining out with food allergy anxieties pop up again. Every successful restaurant experience builds confidence but it's hard to watch a kid worry. Next time I know that it will be a little bit like entering a cold pool for her--she'll want to dip in one toe at a time. That's who she is--I suspect she'd be that way with or without a food allergy. I have confidence that she'll figure the whole thing out and if she needs me, I'll be there even if I can't take all the worries away.


Jane Anne said...

I agree with you - it is so important to pay attention to the kid's feelings. My son is only 5 and I have been caught off-guard a few times by his worry. Once it was when we were at a parade. I brought safe candy for him to eat but when he got some "safe" candy thrown from the participants in the parade, I was going to let him eat it. He kept saying, you have my bag, right? (The bag with his Epipen.) He said "but we didn't read the label". I was sure that this candy was safe but I decided to yield to him. Why go against it when his worries were based on me acting in a way that didn't seem right.

I don't know if all of that makes sense. I was suprised at how worried he was. I didn't like the worry level and decided it wasn't worth it. He seemed so relieved when I said, "Let's just stick with the candy we brought."

Paul said...

Simple put... great post.

Unknown said...

Interesting post. My son (age 5) never asks about his epipens. He just waits to get the OK from me on food. If I don't give the OK on food as fast as he'd like, he'll ask about it. I wonder if he will start to feel anxious as he gets older. I know he is starting to really get frustrated by eating different snacks than the other kids...

Thank you for sharing this story. Good to know how other kids deal with it and how their feelings may change over time.

Anonymous said...

That's great that you were so aware of her feelings! I like the "cold pool" analogy!