School Lunch Spy


I want to preface this post by saying that there are many ways to skin a cat, so to speak. (You’ll see why I chose to use that disturbing expression in a few minutes!) I believe there are many ways to make school and school lunch a safe environment. What may be right for us, may not feel right or be feasible for you.  So this is one way but not the only way.

Our school does not have a nut-free cafeteria. They have a nut-free table in the cafeteria. The problem for us is that table isn’t even the littlest bit safe. The children who eat nut-free lunches still have cheese sandwiches on wheat bread or frosted cupcakes that only an egg could make so fluffy and moist. But my boys are allergic to these foods so where in the cafeteria is safe for them?

We decided that they would sit at yet another table with just the two of them.  When we got to lunch and they realized that no one else was sitting with them, they looked at me as though I was Judas, in the midst of some grand betrayal.  I could see that they felt like I didn’t trust them.  They told me they knew everything about their allergies and promised they wouldn’t eat any food if it dropped on the table or the floor. I wanted to show them that I did indeed trust them (insert your parent’s voice saying, “We trust you. It’s your friends we don’t trust.”) so I let them sit at the nut-free table with any of their friends with nut-free lunches and all of their other potentially deadly allergens…

On one condition: I was there. Every lunch. Every day.

And so I go to school lunch every day.  With Gino’s exquisitely sensitive immune system and history of severe reactions, I feel better about being there and frankly, so do the teachers.  It was not an easy decision though. I walk a fine line. And the boys have drawn me an even finer one.  Upon request of Gino, I must walk around and help all the kids in his class. I prepare my boys’ lunches, opening water bottles and unscrewing impossibly tight lids. Then I move on, contaminating myself with other children’s yogurts and milks and muffins, always keeping my boys and their table neighbors within my sightline. I am a spy.

We have dealt with spilled milk that traveled uncomfortably quickly and close to Gino’s lunch, a short-lived food fight, and an episode of hives around a mouth to which we had no known trigger. So for me and for now, going to school lunch seems to work. I have been able to ward off some potential problems but I have also been able to overhear some pretty cute conversation about food allergies. I’ll share one.

During the first few weeks of school, the kids were talking, getting to know each other. Milo told his friends that he is allergic to egg, soy and nuts. Gino said simply that he is allergic to “too much.” The other children began to chime in, all wanting to be included in the allergy talk. One of the boys told the others that his mom is allergic to milk and he is allergic to dog. Another boy stated that he can only eat a “little milk” and one of the boys is allergic to cats.  Cats.  Milo suddenly flashed a smile that stretched across his face. That same smile you get when you think of the next funny thing you want to say but someone else is still talking. So when there was a nanosecond of silence, he blurted out “I’m not allergic to cats so I guess I could eat one if I wanted to!” The table erupted in laughter and the conversation deteriorated from there with each child listing (louder and louder) what they would eat if they weren’t allergic to it. I’ll let you imagine what 5 kindergarten boys could think of… I’m just going to say that if I would have been eating, I’d have lost my appetite.

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30 Responses to School Lunch Spy

  1. Bridget Bond says:

    I love it! A dozen things come to mind when I think of what they said, and none of them are appetizing. But how funny that everyone else wanted to be included in something that we fear makes our kids feel excluded? I shouldn’t talk, I pretended that I had double vision just so I could get pastel-rimmed glasses when I was a kid :)

    • Sarah says:

      Thank you, Bridget!! If you weren’t already one of my friends, after the comment about the glasses, I’d ask you to be one!

  2. Sysan says:

    Ohhhhhh that sounds like the best spontaneous and free support group ever for those kids!!! Your lunch table job is WORK for you but those kids are so lucky to have you!! We, too, are entering the phase where our girl is wanting more control. We are seeing this, and having to make those riskier choices, with her food allergies and with her environmental allergies. It used to be much easier to ignore and skip fall functions with hay and leaves and camp fires that turn on her wheeze machine, or birthday parties that I know are going to be a nightmare. Now that she reads the invites or the signs and doesnt want to miss out, I have to step it up, like you do at the lunch table!!
    We struggle equally with each dx of our trifecta of food all, asthma, and excema…fighting MRSA off due to her severe skin breakdow, going to ER for asthma, etc. I’ll stay tuned to see if and how you and others handle things on top of avoiding and reacting to food. Thanks a million for another great read!!!

    • Sarah says:

      It is so tough to make a riskier choice than we’re used to! But I keep reminding myself that a big responsibility we have as a parent of any child is standing by them as they seek greater independence. It’s hard and it’s a lot of work but hopefully it’s all worth it. Thank you for reading. I’m so happy you enjoyed this post! Have a great day!

  3. YADIRA says:

    Cute conversations! Thanks for posting this about school lunch. Our son is 3 and we have already been thinking about what school lunch might look like. He is beginning to understand that he is allergic and cannot eat other’s food, but it is still hard. Thanks for sharing.

    • Sarah says:

      There is a lot that goes into school lunch and snacks. It can be a very daunting and complicated process but one that can work out with lots of cooperation. I’m sure I’ll be talking more about this topic in the future! Thank you again for reading!

  4. Jen says:

    Love it! I just want to thank you for writing this blog at all. It is comforting for me as a mom to hear another mom, who happens to be an allergist, has the same fears and takes the same precautions we do. So often I feel judged for my choices, and it is so great to hear from someone in the field who feels the same way I do!

    • Sarah says:

      Jen, I often feel judged too. Especially at the beginning of the year when other parents would ask why I was there every day or stare as I wiped down the table and chairs before the boys sit down. If they had one glimpse of the reactions we’ve witnessed or the fear we have, they’d do the same. That’s why I am trying to get this blog as widely spread as possible. Sometimes education is the only path to empathy. Again, thank you for reading!

  5. sarah says:

    Great story! My nut allergic son is 5 and in kindergaten as well. We live in the burbs and I work in the Loop, so I am only a Tuesday lunch spy. In September I thought I’d be more like a hawk, piercing my eyes at my child with every bite he or a nearby child took. Now I find myself lucky to get a glance here and there, and drifting among the 90 some odd kindergarteners, opening sticky syrup (why I volunteer on waffle Tuesdays I’ll never know) and answering questions like, “Are vampires real?” I will always have anxiety about the lunchroom, snacktime, and holiday parties. I admit I have even scoped out which colleges have allergy-friendly cafeterias (too soon?) but I do enjoy my Tuesdays.

    • Sarah says:

      Sarah, Your comment made me smile. The kindergartners are such a blast! I am seeing this blog goes two ways. I share with you and you share with me. I recently mentioned to my kids that if they went to school close to home, I’d cook for all their friends and do their laundry :) Yeah, probably too soon but plant the seed… I have real hope that by then, we’ll be talking about treatment! Thank you for reading, Sarah!

    • Bridget Bond says:

      College will be here before we know it :) I recently left my job at a local university, but after we learned of my son’s food allergies, I became the unofficial ambassador for new students with food allergies and celiac. It will absolutely be a big part of our college search! You’re not alone in your scope :) Cafeterias are scary, but there are safe ways of being fed by the university if the students advocate for themselves. There are partnerships to be made with the food service manager, the head chef, and the office who handles the meal plans, and I have to say, there were eager ears in my experience. I didn’t sense any of the tension that you hear in all the grade school nut-free debates. They know more and more students with food allergies are in their future and labeling changes are already underway most places. However, one exciting thing that I think will really benefit our community is the sustainability effort to get universities to serve whole, organic foods from as local a source as possible. It’s a change driven by students and is something they ask about when taking college tours. So as food becomes real again, their will be far less “ingredients” to investigate which will cut down on risk. Overall, there should be more transparency in what the food is and how the food has gotten there in the first place. I do see comfort in that. The major difference is that the schools need your meal plan money, but can’t require that you get one if they can’t feed you safely. Paying customers are harder to ignore. And if any parents of older food allergic children are reading this, thanks for pioneering this for those of us just starting out :) Eek-sorry for the tangent!

      • Sarah says:

        Not a tangent! This is all very important information. Thank you a million times for your great additions to this blog! What a fun group of people we have here!!

  6. What a wonderful mother you are. Your sons are very lucky to have some one who takes the time to make sure they are safe! –Shanon

    • Sarah says:

      Shanon, I think you’re a pretty wonderful mother too! I saw the list of foods that your family avoids, looks like ours. It’s not easy but through a lot of hard work and creativity, it works! I may be reaching out to you as I try to plant food in pots on my city balcony this spring!!
      Best, Sarah

  7. Jennifer says:

    I love that our kids can make light of their allergies and have a little laugh about it. It’s all so serious most of the time, and I’m sure it wears our kids down, so this cute little round about your children had at the lunch table is wonderful to hear. Thanks for sharing!

    • Sarah says:

      Jennifer, It was pretty cute. It’s good for them to take tiny break from the seriousness of it all, in a safe way, of course! Thanks for reading!

  8. Sarah Shaw says:

    Thanks for posting this. My twins are allergic to peanuts……hoping it passes at 4 but…..meanwhile, I have to read every label – every time. It is hard to shop at times but we get by. Is there a website that lists brands that are nut free?

    • Sarah says:

      Sarah, I hope they grow out of it too! Since we are not only nut-free, I don’t frequent these websites too often but one that I have looked at before for these products is I can’t make any guarantees about it but maybe it will be a starting place for you. Let me and the other readers know what you think!

  9. Susan says:

    My FA son is in 4th grade now at a public school. Since we began there, the school has made a TON of improvements in the food dept! My boy eats at his class table with the other kids but sits at the end of the table so 1 side is totally safe for him. All the kids n his class (grade really, he’s been with these kids 5 yes now) are aware and alert to E’s allergies and if they are eating foods unsafe for him they do not sit next to E. We ae allergic to milk, eggs and peanuts but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t sit with kids drinking milk, it’s impossible to avoid but everyone, including the lunch monitoring teachers watch out…there is a school policy of absolutely NO sharing of foods of an kind! Ive even gotten caught giving a child a fry from my lunch….birthday treats are only in the classrooms so the teachers make certain that well meaning but uneducated parents don’t poison my son with baked goods. There is much we can do to protect our kids and still give them the freedom t be kids, although. Do not go to lunch daily, I do go weekly and have since kindergarten! It gets easier, and the schools will step up so yo won’t have to do it all yourself.

    • Sarah says:

      Thank you so much for reading my blog and for commenting. I am so happy to hear that things have progressively gotten easier in terms of school lunch. Sometimes going everyday is tough but the benefits outweigh the risks for us… at this age at least! I do feel like the learning curve at schools is becoming much steeper as more children are dealing with food allergy. We just really need to keep educating our school’s administrators and teachers and other parents in our schools. It is the only real way to increase understanding!
      Happy New Year Susan!

  10. Laura says:

    My youngest daughter (4) is severely allergic to milk. Touch, ingestion and even breathing air filled with milk (especially those cheese chips) send her into breathing trouble and eventually anaphylaxis. I have even given her hives from my eating slice of cheese, washing my mouth and kissing her and seen her react to putting a toy in her mouth as a baby.
    I go to lunch, with my older daughter in public school, once a week and I am freaking out about sending my youngest to school there. I have seen kids spill milk and ice cream on the table, seat, floor, themselves, friends, crash into each other and spill everywhere, etc and the image still haunts me! Even if my little one sits by herself, how do I keep her safe from the kids COVERED in milk products? How do I tell her teacher that one rouge M&M or goldfish cracker could be the death of her, how do I ensure that her teacher even pays attention to her hours after she’s eaten? I can’t make kids wash their hands, change their dirty clothes, or not touch her. I have no idea how to deal with that except to avoid it at all costs. She is desperate to go to school “like sister does” but I am thinking I will homeschool her. I can’t think of a single accommodation that would make school a safe place for her. Not to mention, allow the other kids to be kids and not be on “lock down”.

    • Sarah says:

      School is a very challenging, emotional, scary topic. For preschool, we hired a teacher and got together with a few other food allergic children. It was amazing. I never worried. We ended up choosing to send the boys to a traditional kindergarten where my older son was already going. I worry everyday but they have a blast. We worked and still work VERY closely with the school to ensure that the boys are as safe as they can be. The whole school only allows fresh fruit and veggies for snack in the classroom (and none that Gino is allergic to). At lunch they sit at a nut-free table… not that that helps us too much!! But I do go to school lunch everyday to monitor their table. Everyone at the table uses a tray. The teachers have all the children wash their hands and faces after lunch before re-entering the classroom. I think that the safe classroom really is the key. Start by looking at a sample food allergy 504 plan. This will really help guide you in your talks with the school. Here’s a link: Feel free to reach out again to talk about this topic any time.
      Thank you for reading!

  11. Cathy says:

    I’m glad to have found this post and blog! Our family is gluten, egg and dairy free. Throw in several spices that bother me, and it gets complicated, but nothing like yours! We thankfully have no anaphylactic issues, but long term affects are nothing to mess with either.

    My son is 7 and is attending a small Christian school. His grade has less than 40 children, and several families have made efforts to bring safe treats for their birthdays, etc. So sweet! His teachers also been willing to keep a small “special snack stash” for him to use on unexpected occasions.

    I don’t “spy” at lunch, but I do pack his every day, and he is dedicated to eating only his food. Last week, a friend gave him something he knew he couldn’t eat. He didn’t want to tell her he couldn’t eat it, so he brought it home. Since none of us can eat it, the treat made it’s way to work for a friend that sends him hand-me-downs. He is just happy to share. I am so proud of him for making the right choices for himself!

    I look forward to reading more of your blog!

    • Sarah says:

      Thank you, Cathy! I am glad that you found my blog too! That is just so wonderful that your son made such a safe and smart choice for himself! I am always so thrilled when I hear stories like that. It sounds like you have had a great experience at school – that makes things so much easier! Thank you again for reading and please share as you can. Have a great night!

  12. Kim Hillis says:

    That is the most hilarious story!! I have three boys, one of whom is peanut allergic, so I can imagine just how quickly that conversation deteriorated! Thanks for the great writing, it’s parents like you that make parents like me feel less alone in our struggle with our kids :)

    • Sarah says:

      It was really funny, Kim! He will still talk about not being allergic to cats with great pride!
      Thank you for your comment!

  13. Meddie says:

    Hi Sarah,
    I loved this article! I’m a mom with a daughter who is in preschool with life threatening food allergies too. She’s allergic to milk, peanut, egg, wheat and oats. I can totally relate to why you choose to be at your kids school during lunch. My daughter has another year before she starts kindergarten and I’ve been feeling stressed out worrying about how will she be safe in school and afterschool care too. I’m currently a full-time working mom but I just don’t know how I can continue my work schedule without driving myself crazy worrying about her and then there’s all those school breaks. I know I can’t expect the same level of care and attention she gets at preschool in kindergarten. Please let me know if you know of any mom bloggers or support groups in Hawaii. Thanks =)

    • Sarah says:

      I don’t know of any off-hand. I can ask on my Facebook page for you. I will follow up with you via email.
      Thank you!

  14. Michele says:

    Hi Sarah,

    Very cute story. I am a mom to 2 adopted sons and in the process of adopting my 3rd. We are foster parents to medically needy infants and toddlers. My 5 year old came to us thru foster care and we noticed all kinds of problems with diarrhea, slow growth, lack of energy and other GI issues. We had many many Dr’s appointments and finally found out he was allergic to Casen and Soy. He does not have anaphylactic reactions, but rather GI issues including GI bleeds and malabsorption. We are headed to the drs again this week for more tests due to a recent GI bleed. My youngest son (2) who we will be adopting soon has CSID, food allergies including Milk, Soy and coffee along with other allergies that cause him to sound like a washing machine. His allergist says he is to young for his tests to show positive yet. He has liver damage so most allergy meds are out of the question. People we have met thru the school often feel since they boys allergies are not immediately life threatening (they don’t understand the seriousness of GI bleeds) that there is no need for me to be as cautious as I am. I do not feel the same. I worry as my son prepares for Kindergarten. His pre-school teacher was very good, I provided foods for the school and classroom and packed his lunch, but he was only one of 10 kids. School has so many food related events, birthdays, they teach with food, holidays…I worry even more for my youngest with even stricter food requirements. Any ideas on how to educate others on food allergies?

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