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Ask The Allergy Chef: Should My Child Sit at an Allergy Table in the Cafeteria?

Ask The Allergy Chef: Should My Kindergartener Sit at an Allergy Table at Lunch?

    Hi. My 5 year old has never been to school before (preschool seemed like a bad idea with their allergies). We’re preparing notes for a 504 plan meeting and I’d like your opinion: should my son sit at an allergy table during lunch? I’m told all children eat in a large cafeteria.

    Hi There, honestly, this is a tough question, as no two kids are the same. Without knowing more about your son, I’ll outline what I would personally do to determine what the safest option would be.

    First Step: Determine Airborne Tolerance

    In a medically safe environment, the first thing you need to know is: can my son be in the same room as the allergen(s). I’ve seen many kids allergic to peanut have a reaction from being in the same room.

    If you can smell the food, then there are small particles of said food in the air. For some, this is enough to trigger the reaction where others are fine. For reference, most people with food allergies are not airborne allergic.

    To do test this, you have him sit in the room with the allergen(s). Have him on one side of the table and the allergens on the other. You can move him closer to the allergens to simulate a cafeteria setting.

    I will add this, if the allergen(s) are in your home, and you cook with them, there’s a very, very, good chance your son will be fine.

    There is a third category with this – threshold. In my own child, we always thought he didn’t have an airborne issue until the right situation presented itself. He was in a cafeteria where loads of hot pizza had just been delivered. That was the first time he’d ever had an airborne reaction to milk. There was enough of it in a closed space, and he was aware enough to get himself out of there.

    He can sit next to milk. We can cook milk at home. He can go to a restaurant that uses milk. All of these areas however are generally well ventilated. In his case, there are key requirements to trigger the reaction.

    I share that to say this: no matter what tolerance you determine your child can have, watch from outside the cafeteria the first couple of days of school. With a child that young, I’d want one more layer of peace of mind.

    Age is a Huge Factor

    Let’s face it: little kids are messy. One of the protections that an allergy table offers is preventing cross-contact via accidental transfer. If a child is getting animated and talking with their hands and particles of allergens are being spread around, your son is protected from that if he’s at a separate table.

    Think about how messy your dinner table and floor are after a meal. Now multiply that by a lot, and that’s a school cafeteria. You know your son, how would he fare in that situation?

    One helpful tool in this case is a Flat Box Lunchbox. It can help create a visual “barrier” for your child’s place at the table. Alternatively, a large placemat can do that as well.

    As kids get older, it becomes more reasonable for a child with low tolerance to join others at a large table.

    Request Extra Cleaning & Supervision in Your 504 Plan

    Before your son sits at the table, make sure it’s cleaned again, preferably by his teacher. The staff can claim all they want that the table is clean, but you’ll want to be sure that it’s clean.

    It’s also very important that the lunch staff be aware of your child’s needs. This can be a lunch monitor, cafeteria staff, etc. However, they need to also know to watch.

    In some cases, these monitors are in a corner on their phone and take action in extreme cases. You’ll want to request that they truly monitor your son, especially in the first couple of weeks to make sure he’s settling in well.

    The Social Impact

    Kids can be amazing and incredible. Kids can be cruel and awful. Like Mr. Gump said, you never know what you’re going to get.

    In some cases, the social impact is amazing. You’ll see other little ones rally around your son and do what they can to keep him safe. I’ve seen this again and again, and it never ceases to amaze me. Kids will police themselves, tell other kids to be careful, etc.

    If that’s the kind of group your son is around, an allergy table will take him away from that. In my personal opinion, experiencing that kind of support is priceless. Personally, I wouldn’t put my son at an allergy table if I didn’t have to in that scenario.

    On the flip side, if your son is around boundary-pushing, ride little kids, I’d be concerned for his safety. I won’t go into details, but you can read about food allergy based bullying in this article. It’s a case study related to your concern.

    Whilst an allergy table does provide protection, it also creates isolation. As someone who has shared a meal with another human maybe 10 times in the past 15 years, I can tell you: it’s extremely isolating. The kind of isolation I’d never wish on a child.

    If the allergy table is the only option, make sure the 504 plan allows for your son to have a friend or two at the table, and that friends can rotate as well. I’ll level with you: it might get expensive for you in both time and money.

    The whole point of the allergy table is that his allergens aren’t at said table. It means the friends have to have a free-from lunch that’s safe for your son (and any other kids at the allergy table). In some cases, other parents can adapt well when told what to pack and send. In other cases, the allergy parent has to send lunch for the friend(s).

    If you have to send the lunch, do it. Lunchtime is when all the kids get very social and if your son can’t engage, it will have long-term effects. I can promise you this: if you have to send three lunches everyday for 12 years, when your son graduates, you won’t regret it.

    At the end of the day, I want you to remember this: the 504 plan and the accommodations you request can be updated and changed. If your son starts at the main table but needs to move, you can always request that later. These plans aren’t set in stone, and can grow/change with your child.

    No matter what you decide, I’m rooting for you, and hope your son has a blast in kindergarten.
    ~The Allergy Chef

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