It Takes a Village – And Then Some!
by Erica Leon, MS, RDN, CDN
While not easy, I somehow launched my children into college and beyond. With fellow empty-nester friends who are also health professionals and moms—one a nurse, one a psychologist—I took a walk down memory lane. We reflected on teaching children good self-care, particularly when they have health concerns related to food.
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Carpooling was challenging enough, but when I thought three-year-old Thomas had shared my son’s peanut rice cakes, I panicked! Thomas was severely allergic to peanuts as well as tree nuts. Still parked at the nursery school, I hoisted Thomas like a football, screamed for the teachers, and rinsed his mouth, hoping I did not have to administer his EpiPen. He never ate any of the rice cakes, but I learned a valuable lesson on scrutinizing food items when you have or care for a child with allergies!
According to Hildie Kalish, RN, an elementary school nurse whose child has a severe nut allergy, “Keep your child safe by constantly checking and then rechecking ingredients in food products. Never assume an item is safe as it is not uncommon for food manufacturers to change ingredients or processing techniques. As soon as children are old enough to understand, teach them to read labels and avoid sharing food with other kids. When they are responsible enough, have them carry Benadryl and their own Epi-pen or Auvi-Q, and make sure they know how to use them.”
My nutritional skills were put to the test when I rescued ten-year-old Luke, my son’s friend, who was dizzy from playing baseball in the summer heat. Driving up with hydrating sports beverages and a mom’s wisdom, I remembered that Luke had an endocrine condition that made dehydration particularly dangerous. When a child exercises, their muscles generate heat, which in turn raises body temperature. The body cools itself through sweating, which must be replaced by fluid or the body will overheat.
Dehydration is more common in children, and young athletes are particularly prone to dehydration. Encourage your young athlete to drink fluids before, during, and after sports to prevent heat-related illnesses. Recommend fluid-rich foods such as fruits and vegetables and have your youngster carry a water bottle and drink a sports beverage when his/her physical activity level exceeds one hour.
I became a celiac expert when Rachel, a good friend of my daughter’s, was diagnosed. From that day forward, I stocked my cabinets with gluten-free items and helped her mom educate other parents about which foods to keep on hand for play dates.
Merle Keitel, Ph.D, counseling psychologist and parent of a child with celiac, says,
“It is important to establish a support system that is aware of your child’s dietary restrictions and has food on hand that your child can eat if at their homes for an extended period of time. In the case of celiac, fruits and vegetables work but if other children are having sweets, it is helpful for there to be chocolate or other gluten-free sweets so the child does not feel cheated and self conscious about being ‘different.’ Friends and extended family who are educated and willing to help can be a gift to the child with special dietary needs.”
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These real-life scenarios portray what can happen when a child has a chronic health condition. Says Kalish, “At school I work with families of kids newly diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. I always say that education is key. I see parents overcompensating with extra treats for fear that their child will feel deprived. Diabetic children do not need extra treats. It is important to treat them like any other child and learn the merits of a healthy balanced diet with plenty of ‘everyday’ foods and occasional ‘sometimes’ foods.”
While we can try to protect our children from all types of threats, educating your child, caregivers, schools, and trusted friends about a chronic health condition is essential. Allow your child to take the reigns and manage his/her own health as soon as he/she are emotionally and intellectually ready. We want our kids to remember the lessons that we teach them at home, as they will eventually leave the nest.