Allergy, Sensitivity, or Picky Eaters?

Nuts are forbidden at your child’s school, her best friend is allergic to strawberries, and every birthday party or play date starts with a summit meeting detailing every kid’s sensitivities. Now your child has announced that she’s allergic to everything green… except pickles.

Food allergies have become such a common conversation that it’s understandable when kids get confused. They may not want to be the only kid in their group who doesn’t have a food sensitivity. It’s even understandable when a sharp kid decides to play the allergy card to avoid meatloaf. How can you tell whether your child really has a food allergy?

Identify food allergies

Your family doctor can help you identify actual food allergies, or refer you to a specialist if needed. Basically, a food allergy will cause symptoms like rashes, difficulty breathing, itching, or swelling of the face or throat. Allergies have clear symptoms.

Intolerance is different from an allergy. Many people, for example, suffer from lactose intolerance. Their bodies don’t have the enzymes needed to digest milk sugars, and dairy products make them feel nauseated or lead to stomach cramps. If your child is intolerant to a food, it won’t “agree with” her and will make her sick. You should not serve that food to her.

People also may have a sensitivity to a food. Sensitivity is much less clear and harder to identify. People may get headaches, joint aches, skin breakouts (not rashes), insomnia, or other symptoms that aren’t obviously related to foods. Food choices can even affect your child’s mood. Talk with your doctor if you have concerns, and try keeping a diary of foods eaten and the symptoms you notice.

Not an allergy?

Eating a variety of healthy foods in childhood is important. In fact, it’s one of the best ways to avoid food sensitivities. If your child resists eating certain foods — or all new foods — and you’re sure it’s not an allergy, try to be compassionate without encouraging picky eating.

  • Reward adventuresome behavior toward food. While focusing too much on food likes and dislikes can encourage unhealthy attitudes toward food, acknowledging and praising bravery at the table is fine. Do the same thing away from the table when your kid tries something difficult and the focus won’t be on food — it’ll be on a willingness to try.
  • Have a healthy stand-by alternative to less-favored foods. Sometimes kids whine at the table or refuse to eat and then wheedle chips or cookies out of you in the evening because they’re hungry. Make a standard alternative plan instead. Instead of fussing over meatloaf, your child knows he can have peanut butter on whole wheat. Teach him to make his own sandwich, let him know it’s okay to make that choice, and it won’t become an issue.
  • Limit choices. If the choice is between oatmeal and a doughnut, plenty of us would go for the doughnut. If meals are healthy but your home is full of unhealthy sugar- and salt-laden snacks, your child may be tempted to skip meals and wait for those chips and sodas. Make sure that tasty, healthy foods are the rule at your house. Kids will make healthy choices because that’s what’s available.
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