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Devoted Teachers Dealing with Food Allergies in the Classroom: 8 Things to Know

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Most teachers have at least two students in their classroom with food allergies.

Imagine, it’s Open House, and a new student rushes into your classroom excitedly with his parents struggling to keep up. The student’s eyes enthusiastically survey the landscape of chairs, desks, brightly colored pictures, and books.

Suddenly his expression changes to something less excited… perhaps even dejected. 

And it’s not just him, it’s his parents, too. An air of anxiety enters like a cold breeze through an open window in February. 

Their eyes are fixed on the classroom pet bird, Pevie, happily and sloppily eating a bowl of sunflower seeds. The little boy looks up and says, “I have an allergy to sunflower seeds.”  

Teacher with food allergies in classroom

Remember: this post is for informational purposes only and may not be the best fit for you and your personal situation. It shall not be construed as medical advice. The information and education provided here is not intended or implied to supplement or replace professional medical treatment, advice, and/or diagnosis. Always check with your own physician or medical professional before trying or implementing any information read here. Keep in mind food production can change, always check food labels to be sure products are free of your particular food allergen. For further information please see full Disclaimer.

Here’s the Problem

Teachers don’t always know how to respond to students with food allergies. Food allergies may feel out of the teacher’s comfort zone.

Food allergies are a medical issue, the food allergic individual must rely not only on medical professionals but a community of trustworthy empathetic adults for support in preventing an allergic reaction.

Dealing with food allergies in the classroom doesn’t have to be tricky. Starting the school year with a concrete plan is key.

So, how do you make the classroom a safe welcoming environment for your student with food allergies?

Here are the 8 things I want you to know.

  1.  Have a Clear Plan

When having an open house, do something to show your support for students who have food allergies. Write something on the dry erase board or chalkboard or send an email stating that if a student has food allergies that caregivers should feel free to reach out to discuss how to keep the classroom safe.

Once an open dialogue has been created, teachers can ask what they should know about that student’s allergies. Have conversations about how celebrations are handled or what food-type activities are planned for the school year. Plan to accommodate.

Teachers should not contact caregivers of students with food allergies last minute regarding treats or food being used in the classroom.

In most cases, it is unrealistic to expect caregivers to respond the same day over a cupcake or treat that another classmate brought in for their birthday. Be considerate of this.

Know that caregivers of students with allergies will often need to see the full ingredient label and not just a picture of the product.

Check your school’s health and wellness initiatives. Many classrooms no longer allow treats to be brought in for birthday celebrations. Consider adopting a policy in your classroom.

If a food-related activity or celebration is planned, contact the student’s caregivers well in advance to coordinate.

  1.  To Restrict or Not to Restrict 

This is tricky. The impulse might be to forbid students from bringing in food that another student is allergic to. But that might be very difficult when milk, bread, or peanut butter is a staple in other students’ snacks and lunches. 


Whether or not to restrict an allergen completely in the classroom is best decided in concert with the caregiver. Some students can be highly allergic. In the story above, that child could get sick from sunflower seed dust in the air – or they may only get sick from direct ingestion.

Some children, for example, only avoid foods when their allergen is a direct ingredient. Other children will avoid a food if the label says “made in a facility” or “on shared equipment” as their allergen. I cannot stress enough, discuss how caregivers would like food allergies to be handled in the classroom.

Some caregivers may like for their student with food allergies to eat at a separate table from other students who have the allergen in their lunches. Statistics show, most caregivers of kids with food allergies do not prefer this.

So to restrict or not restrict? Talk with the student’s caregiver and your school’s nurse to figure out the most appropriate way to keep the student safe AND comfortable.

Restricting Food Allergies in the Classroom.  Peanut Free Classroom
To Restrict or Not to Restrict?
  1. Leave a Stash

Things pop up. While it is best to give caregivers lots of notice about treats coming into the classroom, it can be a challenge. Sometimes, caregivers of students with food allergies might be more comfortable leaving a stash of safe treats for special occasions with teachers.

Let’s say Steve the firefighter brings in some treats unexpectedly during his fire safety talk. Having safe treats on hand (provided by the student’s caregiver) may make things more manageable in the classroom. 

Treats coming in – just go to the stash.

  1.  Wash Hands and Tables

While you shouldn’t say, “Hey everyone, let’s go wash hands because of Sam’s food allergies,” you should establish good practices such as handwashing after every meal or snack. This helps with avoiding cross contamination of the food allergen.

Be sure to also wash tables after meals. Keep in mind that if you have children take turns with classroom chores, do not have the child with food allergies wash the tables. Give him/her a different classroom chore.

  1. Watch Those Arts, Crafts, and Curriculum 

When dealing with food allergies, it’s not just about food. Food allergens can be found in many arts and crafts or in curricula. Be careful with all of these items.

Our student with a sunflower seed allergy may not be able to participate in a birdfeeder activity involving seed. A child with a milk allergy may not be able to do a math game using M&Ms. Used egg cartons are often unsafe for an art project for students with an egg allergy.

Inclusion is so important when considering food allergies. Avoid activities that make the student with the food allergy feel alienated.

I have a whole post dedicated to this topic:  Food Allergens in Arts and Crafts:  What You Need to Know.

Food Allergies in Arts and Crafts
  1.  Coordinate with the School Nurse

If you have any food allergy concerns and need an immediate response, contact your school nurse. The student should have an allergy action plan on file.

Keep in mind that epinephrine auto injects need to be handy in case of an emergency. This includes field trips. Talk to your school about how they address things like field trips, epinephrine auto-injectors, and how to keep injectors at proper temperatures during warm field trips.

  1.  Guinea Pigs et al.

Be mindful that if you have a classroom pet, the food that that animal eats could cause risk for someone with food allergies.

If a classroom has a guinea pig that eats commercial guinea pig food that contains soybeans and wheat (common) you may need to address what to do about your classroom pet if you have a student with a soy or wheat allergy.

Passing the guinea pig around or letting students pet the guinea pig can increase the risk of an allergic reaction from cross-contamination for some students with food allergies.

  1.  Bullying

Bullying a student about their food allergies is completely unacceptable, but not uncommon. While there may not be a circle of kids laughing and pointing at your food allergy student, food allergy bullying occurs frequently. Be on the lookout for teasing, social omission, taunts, or other subtle forms of bullying. Intervene promptly.

bullying someone with a food allergy

Conclusion

If you are a teacher who took the time to read, I applaud you.

Avoid dejected looks from a student with food allergies, and be sure to take appropriate actions in your classroom.

Remember, food allergens come from more than obvious sources. Think about classroom pets, curriculum, and art supplies.

As a teacher, you can make an incredible difference in a student with food allergies life and make the student feel safe and included.

If you know a young child who has a recent food allergy diagnosis, check out my children’s book.

Last Updated on July 31, 2022 by Amber DeVore, RD, CSSD, CLT

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