Our Allergy Home: Our First School Lunch Experience

If you follow The Willing Cook on Facebook, you know that the first day of school didn’t go as smoothly as I would have wanted.  In fact, a series of events left me ready to pull my son out of school and back home with me.  I didn’t, though, take him out of school.

Mom, are we done yet?

The weeks leading up to the return to school and my allergy son’s first lunch experience away from me, was ridden with anxiety.  A few days before school started, I felt a peace about sending him and I was trusting that God would take care of him.

First Day of School

We entered school with smiles on our faces (and maybe a few sleepy eyes), shouldering the weight of school supplies and lunch boxes.  I had a lunch room helper meeting that morning, where I addressed the other parents regarding the care to take with food allergies when monitoring and cleaning tables.

Fast forward to lunch time.  The older students have 1st lunch and it went rather smoothly as far as the first day of school is concerned.  All the helpers were sort of racing around helping and cleaning, but it was fine.  I was careful to get all the tables for 1st grade cleaned well since I knew my son was about to come for 2nd lunch.

Downward Spiral

The younger kids now enter the lunch room and a portion of them have no idea what they are doing.  Two-thirds of the 1st graders (and all the full-day kindergartners) had very few lunches away from home.  Eight boys were piled around my son.  Peanut butter and banana sandwich directly to the left; cheese stick directly to the right.

The teacher walks up and starts to panic.  She said, “What should we do? We can’t have all this food around him.  You should just take him to the classroom to eat today until we figure something out.”  (She was packing up his lunchbox all the while.)

Smelling all the peanuts in the air (literally, I could), I calmly told her to just leave it as it is for now and let’s figure out something better.  I did not want to remove him and make a big deal of everything on the first day.  His teacher said “ok” and asked the “peanut butter boy” to move further away from my son.

Finally, lunch is over!  My son survived his first lunch, but just barely (or at least it would have seemed by the adult reactions).  You see, I have always said that it’s not my son that I’m concerned about because he knows not to eat anything that I haven’t sent.  My concern is for others that don’t have to constantly think about the dangers of food.

The lunchroom lady and teacher decided that we should bring in an extra table to make it the non-specified, specified food allergy table (of which my son would be its only occupant).  She asked someone to bring another table to the lunchroom and explained that peanuts and cheese are everywhere and there are food allergies.  The response, “Well, it is school.”

As I was cleaning a nearby table, I heard this remark.  This was the blow that I needed to take me down.  So much for the confident peace with which I arrived at school.  The problem with what he said was that it’s the truth.  It is school.  It is not a peanut-free school and I have not requested that it become one.  I felt the load of emotion fill me because I (bold “I”) was the one sending him into this field of landmines.  Nobody else, just me.

The lunchroom lady came to me at this point and asked if I had any suggestions on how to make lunch work better.  I had none.  In fact, I had nothing to say.  I was emotionally unable to speak at this moment.  She embraced me and confidently said that we would figure it out.  She does not want to hurt my son.

I left….without my son.

After speaking and praying with my supportive sister-in-law and husband, we came up with a few ideas.

  • Ask the class to go peanut-free.
  • Ask a few select parents to go peanut-free and have those children sit at a separate table with my son.
  • Remove him at lunch time and eat with him in the classroom everyday.
  • Remove him from school.  (This wasn’t really an option, but at the moment, I felt as if it was the only option.)

But at what cost are all of these options?  I am and always will be willing to choose inconvenience and alienation over pain, and even death, but are inconvenience and alienation necessary? He’s never had an airborne peanut reaction before, but it could happen.

I returned to school at pick-up and met once again with my son’s teacher.  I gave her the options listed above.  She didn’t like any of them.  She suggested that we make a non-dedicated dedicated peanut-free table in the lunchroom for him and any children that do not eat peanuts.  I agreed to this, but said I would return for lunch until I felt comfortable leaving him.

Day 2

Lunch starts and my son comes back to his spot.  I spread out a cloth napkin that is now to accompany him to every lunch to be used as his “tablecloth.”  Four boys sit at the table with him and none have peanut butter.  The teacher told me that she asked the children who did not like peanut butter and would never have it in their lunch, while my son was not in the room.  Lunch turned out great this day and I was feeling more comfortable about leaving my boy in this field of landmines.

The offender from the previous day approached me and apologized for his insensitivity.  It was not meant to hurt and was said at a time of heightened stress from it simply being the first day of school.  His Christian character that I already knew to be stellar spoke above all the hurt from a single comment.  We had a very warm and forgiving reconciliation.

Day 3

My son asked that I return to lunch one more time just to make sure everything went smoothly.  I was happy to oblige.  Lunch starts and only two boys sit at the table with my son.  I look across the table and there was a gooey PB&J being contentedly consummed.  The teacher promptly approached me to address the issue.  I told her that it is across the table and let’s just leave it alone.  We cannot address every single exception that is going to happen at school.  I can’t even address every single exception that may happen at home.  I did request another boy sit at the table so that it didn’t seem so isolated and empty.

You see, we are not the kind of people who live in a bubble.  The reason for this is simple: we trust that God will do what is ultimately good.  Sure, we may not see a life with food allergies as good, just as someone suffering from another ailment may not see it as good.  But we TRUST that God is good as are all His ways.  Period.  Do I ever falter in this faith? Absolutely.  Everyday.  And He picks me up and we keep on going.

Day 4

I did not go to lunch with my son on this day.  I decided that he has to be independent at some point and I have confidence in his teacher.  Besides, my 9 year old daughter graciously gave up her recess to have lunch with her brother.  She can be a good protector of him, when she’s not beating him up.

In Conclusion

Yesterday, I was at lunch as helper and all seems well.  I spoke with my son’s teacher and the lunchroom lady, confirming that all was going smoothly.  The four boys at my son’s table were conversing and I didn’t see any PB&J’s.

To many of you that do not have to deal with food allergies, you may wonder what the big deal is.  Why a whole post dedicated to this single event? Why the emotional breakdown on my part? One reason: at any moment things can turn tragic.  As a mother, I have to try my best to protect my son.

So, through this latest leg of our food allergy journey, I have learned that I need to be on top of things and always be prepared, certainly, but I also need to trust in God’s goodness.  And that’s it…until the next day when the boy sitting next to my son brings an ooey-gooey PB&J to school 🙂

How have you experienced school lunch for the first time with your food allergy child? How did you deal with it? I would LOVE any advice, encouragement or feedback on this issue.  (You may completely disagree with the decision that we have made putting my son in a lunchroom with possible risk, but it is the decision that we made after careful consideration.  I’d appreciate if you’d refrain from any negative comments geared toward this decision.)


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13 Responses to Our Allergy Home: Our First School Lunch Experience

  1. Tara Dudley says:

    Thank you for sharing your story. THough we don’t have the allergy issues, we have our own set of challenges. This was such a great reminder that ultimately we need to trust in God’s goodness and faithfulness. I loved this post!

  2. Heather says:

    Think back to when you first became a parent. If you were like me, so many decisions seemed critical, perfectionist that I am. I now laugh at how I approached some of these “important” decisions. But you are not deciding cloth or disposable, or even breast or bottle. I know the decision you have made was done with incredible amounts of thought and prayer. No one can reasonably question how difficult a decision this must have been for you. Something I have had to tell myself a number of times (and out loud a time or 2) is this: God has entrusted me with His kids to raise. He did not entrust them to my critics. Therefore, I will do my best. My critics can take it up with God.

    • Cook says:

      Thanks, Heather, for your support and encouragement. I never thought about the critics part, but you are so right.

  3. Very good post, and pertinent to my situation, as I send my 18 month old to our church nursery. I haven’t asked them to eliminate all his allergies (dairy, gluten, soy) from the classroom yet, as there’s been no time for them to go through all the crackers they have (we only just moved here). So I wonder how long it will be before I trust him in there with the leaders for snack time.

    • Cook says:

      I’m glad this post is helpful to you. I think you have to take it a day at a time and don’t leave your child until you feel absolutely comfortable. Don’t let the leaders try to force you into leaving him if you’re not comfortable yet. If necessary, meet with the leaders outside of church to go over the allergies with them, so that they fully understand the risks.

  4. Jennifer says:

    I was aware of your first day of school situation (from your SIL) and kept you and your son in my prayers. I’m glad it worked out!

  5. Judy says:

    As a mom to a soon to be second grader (school starts on Tuesday) who, like your son, faces the challenges of having a life threatening food allergy and living in a world surrounded by those who don’t have food allergies, I found myself nodding in agreement with the things that you face(d).

    Like you and your family, we believe that our daughter must live in the world and the world doesn’t revolve around her and her allergies. That being said, it is our job as parents to make her world as safe as possible and that includes while she is away from our home at school. I appreciate your stance about trusting God and know how tough that can sometimes be as we feel the same way.

    There is a nut free table at our daughter’s school and we insist that she sit there despite the fact that she is not allergic to peanuts but to tree nuts. Ironically it seems that peanuts are one of the few things that she can have but because so many other kids are allergic to them she cannot have them at school. It breaks my heart when I hear my daughter say that she doesn’t want to have to sit at the nut free table because she isn’t allergic to peanuts and everyone thinks that she is. She also doesn’t like to be away from her friends and her friends will at times bring in pbj’s and sit elsewhere yet we cannot risk our kiddo sitting at a table where tree nuts might come into play. Some of her friends are sensitive to the fact that our daughter cannot sit elsewhere and make sure to sit with her on a regular basis and for this I am grateful.

    You are correct in saying that you need to be prepared because I find that is one of the small ways that I gain some peace of mind, but believe me when I say that I am always praying that things go well. I also mentally check the clock each school day and say a little thank you prayer when the lunch hour is over because I didn’t receive a phone call that something went terribly wrong.

    My advice is to continue doing what you are doing as your son knows that you are advocating for him while at the same time building up his independence. I have also learned through the years (my daughter has been eating lunch in the school setting since pre-school) that I have to continue to reinforce that she doesn’t eat anything that I haven’t sent or approved. What has happened is that when my daughter accidently dropped the lunch that I sent onto the floor and it was rendered inedible, a well meaning lunch lady graciously gave her an alternate meal never thinking about the threat of cross contact because after all there were no nuts in the alternate meal. Thankfully nothing happened, and when I questioned my daughter as to what made it okay for her to eat the food given to her by the lunch lady, she innocently replied “because Mrs. P gave it to me”. Despite the number of times we talked about only eating food that mom or dad made or approved, this little 6 year old trusted the adult in charge. Believe me when I say that the lunch lady was horrified when we calmly discussed the situation as it wasn’t until then that it dawned on her the ramifications of giving an alternate meal without first checking with me. She was after all, tending to my child who was in need of a lunch and was only trying to help and my little one was after all, taught to trust the adult in charge. So for all of the preparing and practicing what to do when things go wrong, it was only by the grace of God that nothing did go wrong and for that I am very thankful!

    Hang in there as things do fall into place as routines of the school year unfold and I will be reminding myself of the same thing as we embark on yet another new school year.
    Thanks for your post and your honesty!

    • Cook says:

      Wow, Judy, it’s words of encouragement like yours that keep us going. I appreciate so much your understanding and sharing your story with us as well.

      It’s kind of funny what you said about watching the clock. I too watch the clock and got a phone call from school this past Friday right at lunch time. The very first thing they said when I answered was, “Everything is okay!” Our school is relatively small and does not have a kitchen, so lunches are packed everyday. Pizza is ordered on Fridays throughout the year to give parents a break and something fun for the kids. It’s nice to have this alternative once a week. Anyway, the school (or actually the lunch room lady) wanted to make sure that I knew all of this pizza (cheese) would be around him. I let them know that I was aware (my daughter ate it) and that I didn’t think it would be a problem. Let’s just continue to go with things the way they are and pray for the best. It all worked out fine and only 1 boy had pizza at his table (plus the boy with the ooey-gooey PB&J again). They are spread out around the table now and I feel much better about the care being taken for my son’s safety.

      That’s very interesting that your daughter can have peanuts but not tree nuts. My son is the opposite. He can and does have tree nuts but not peanuts. In fact, his doctor encourages it. I hope that your daughter is able to find some encouragement/contentment in her seating situation. It is difficult, I know!

      Again, Judy, thank you for your words of encouragement. I hope you share your experiences with me/us often as we all forge our way along this narrow road.

      Many blessings to you!

  6. Wow…this is going to be me next year. This year my son is in 1/2 day Kindergarten and I don’t have to deal with “lunch” just yet. I’m glad you posted about this first day/week with school lunches…get’s me a little more prepared for next year!~

    • Cook says:

      Things seem to be going well now. It was a learning curve for everyone involved. Just stay vigilant, realistic and calm!

      Hope it’s a good 1/2 year for you!

  7. Pingback: Allergy-Free Wednesdays: August 22, 2012 | The Willing Cook

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