Playdates 101: Playing Safely in the World of Food Allergies
Updated: Jun 27
The playdate: a rite of passage for any preschool or elementary school-aged child, but a real source of anxiety for many food allergy families. I absolutely love when my kids meet new friends and want to spend more time with them outside of school. I also really enjoy meeting new moms. But, my stomach flip-flops every time I have to open the proverbial food allergy "can of worms" for the first time with the parent of one of my boy's new friends. Even after all of these years of navigating food allergies, this is still challenging for me.
If I had to psychoanalyze myself, I'd say that part of my apprehension is rooted in the fact that just don't know what to expect. And, I'm afraid. Yeah, there's that. How will these new parents receive the information that I'm throwing at them? Will I terrify them? Or, even worse, is there a possibility that they aren't really taking me seriously? Do they truly understand how quickly a reaction can go south? Will they be able to respond properly if there is an emergency? This is just the tip of the iceberg of questions swarming through my head when faced with a first time playdate.
But, there's no reason for me to prevent my kids from living their lives to the fullest when it's possible to do it safely. That's why I'm so passionate about making a way when there is a way. Here are a few strategies that I use all of the time when my boys have playdates, and my hope is that they will help make these moments safe, fun and doable for your food allergic child, too.
Host the playdate at your house. This is a no-brainer, but if you don't know the parents of your child's friend well, then offer to host the playdate at your house. This will give you some time to get to know this new friend and his or her parents, and it will also provide you the opportunity to have some conversations about allergies before placing your kid in this other family's care. It may also make your child more comfortable if there is any apprehension on his or her part. It's a win-win strategy and a rule of thumb that I actually follow with my non-food allergic kids, too; if I don't know the family, I proceed slowly, even without allergies in the picture.
Meet on neutral territory for the playdate. There is no better way to get to know a new family than meeting outside of both of your homes for some fun. Meet at the park, a bouncy place, the mall... and let the kids play under both of your supervision. Watch how this new mom interacts with her child and yours. Then use this opportunity to talk freely about your child and how you manage his or her allergies. What I've learned is that building relationships is the best way to elicit empathy and understanding, no matter what the situation. And, it might be less intimidating for parents to learn about your child's allergies in the midst of this type of casual conversation than as a part of a quick chat as you hand them an epi pen and walk out of the door.
Make sure the parent understands how to use epinephrine. There is absolutely no wiggle room with this one: Do not EVER leave your child anywhere without showing the adult in charge your epinephrine autoinjector and explaining exactly how to use it. I know this can be scary to take in for a person whose never had to deal with an epi pen, but it is better to leave parents a little freaked out than ill-equipped to properly care for your child in an emergency. Make sure that you also leave Benadryl (something not every family keeps stocked) and explain the signs to look for in case of an allergic reaction. Ensure that the parents of your child's new friend know exactly the steps to take if they think there might be a problem, and how they can contact you if they have any questions.
Bring your own snacks. Most kids like to have snacks when they are playing, so if you want to be absolutely certain that your child is snacking safely at a playdate, bring your own. Sure, not everyone is used to reading and understanding food labels - that is problem number one. But, something that people may not think about is that snack bags are potential landmines for cross-contamination (my family has learned this the hard way). If your child's friend had a peanut butter sandwich yesterday and dug his sticky hands into the chip bag, those chips are totally unsafe for your child. So, take that potential problem out of the equation. I usually send a couple of options with my boys, and I try to provide enough to share with their friends and any siblings. I can't tell you how many times my friends have thanked me for this; it takes the pressure off of the adults in charge, also.
Take into consideration other siblings and friends at the house. This may seem over the top, but I've actually said "no" to a playdate at someone's house after getting to know the family and observing how chaotic things were at their house. Now, I understand there is an underlying level of crazy in every home (I say this as a parent of four children), but sometimes you get a sense that there might not be the degree of adult supervision necessary to ensure your child's safety at a playdate. The siblings and other children in the home need to be just as mindful about food and your child's allergies, and it is the job of the adult in charge to make sure that happens.
Listen to your spidey sense. As always, DO NOT IGNORE YOUR GUT. If your insides are dinging away, please listen. If for any reason you don't feel comfortable dropping your child off at a playdate, don't do it. If you've gotten to know a parent and just don't feel like they totally "get it" then only do playdates at your own house. What is worse - a little bit of embarrassment because you've decided at the last minute to not to let your child play at someone's house, or meeting your kid at the emergency room because they've had an allergic reaction? Your instincts are invaluable. Push back on any hesitancy you may have to ignore your gut, and listen.
The next time a mom calls you and invites your child over for a playdate, I want to encourage you to try and make it work because I believe that you can. This is a part of childhood that you want your kiddo to freely enjoy! Just don't be afraid to do it on your terms. And, as with anything related to your child's allergies, when you work to build relationships and allies along the way, and always listen to your gut when something isn't right, you truly can't go wrong.