Navigating Food Allergies as a Teen
Most social gatherings as a teenager involve food. School dances involve going out to eat with your friends before the dance, and eating snacks during the dance. Going on a first date often involves going out to dinner or to a movie theater, where food is always present. Birthday parties almost always involve cake and ice cream during the celebration. We even have a holiday every year to celebrate being thankful for a plentiful harvest: Thanksgiving. All of these gatherings involve some sort of interaction with food.
When you have food allergies, however, these common social gatherings are not just a matter of socialization. They are a matter of survival.
I’m a teenager that’s just trying to fit in and be as “normal” as everyone else. This can make speaking up and asking for an alternative food option a scary task. What if they say no? What if they force me to leave? Worst of all, what if I have a reaction? All of these questions fly through my mind when I’m invited to hang out with friends, extended family, or to any other social gathering.
I used to “make plans” or say I was busy just so I could avoid the awkward first communication of “oh sorry I can’t have that.” Though I’ve had some extremely positive social experiences that have made it easier to manage my food allergies! I remember one birthday party specifically. I was talking to my friend’s mother about my allergy and how I was going to avoid the birthday cake. Out of nowhere, she surprised me with a 100-piece bag of Starburst. She explained that my friend wanted to make sure that I could enjoy his birthday even though I couldn’t eat the cake.
Dating can also bring about challenging situations. My freshman year of high school I took a date to watch a varsity high school soccer game. It was half time and she was hungry. I had eaten before the game, in order to prevent getting hungry at the game and being tempted to eat something there. We went up to the concession stand and she ordered a Snickers bar. Because I have a peanut allergy, this was a very awkward situation. Before we sat down, I reminded her of my allergy and she felt so bad—but I felt even worse. It was our first date and I didn’t want to do anything that would scare her. She quickly ate her Snickers bar and washed her hands.
Dating often involves food. Inevitably you will end up in situations like picking a restaurant or a snack at a movie theater, which is usually a good time to explain your allergy (and explain your choice of snack or restaurant). If your partner truly wants to be in a relationship with you, they’ll understand why you go to the same Mexican restaurant every week: it’s a safe choice for you.
As a teenager, I’ve learned to advocate for myself and not be afraid to reject food that doesn’t have a label or is “so delicious it’s worth dying for” (yes, I’ve had people that didn’t know I had an allergy say that to me). While our parents advocate for us when we’re younger, as a teen they’re not with us as often, and we have to learn to be our own advocates.
Every year I attend FARE’s National Conference and I hear a familiar discussion about the dialogue between food-allergic teens and their parents. Teens often talk about how their parents watch over them closely, and how they want to manage their allergies independently. Parents often ask me how their child can become more independent, and to that I say that they should give their teenager more of a chance to self advocate. I’ve always taken responsibility for keeping track of my auto-injectors, asking waiters about my allergies at restaurants, and speaking up in situations when I don’t feel comfortable. Teens don’t always do those things in front of their parents because their parents do it before the teen has the chance to.
This is a two-way street that involves cooperation and trust on both sides. As dangerous as the world can seem for a teen managing a food allergy, most food-allergic teens have looked that danger in the face for their entire lives. It isn’t going to stop them from living life to the fullest. Sure there will be times of difficulty, but that difficulty is only temporary.
The one thing I want everyone to take away from this blog is this: speak up.
Don’t be afraid of any challenge that comes your way, food allergies or not. Through my food allergy advocacy volunteer efforts I’ve met senators, mayors, CEO’s, entrepreneurs, and other amazing people with inspiring stories. Many have said that an issue becomes more impactful when a teen speaks up about it. If a teen is concerned, shouldn’t adults be as well? Every obstacle you face and every challenge that you meet can be overcome. Your voice is a powerful tool, so don’t be afraid to use it!
Daytona Hodson is junior in high school and has a life-threatening food allergy to peanuts. He’s on his high school debate team and he’s a member of FARE’s Teen Advisory Group. Daytona has contributed to articles and spoken on panels for both FARE and Spokin.