chool can be a difficult place to navigate, both for children living with food allergies and their peers. The ever growing number of children with food sensitivities and allergies can be challenging to manage for schools, parents, and children to ensure that the dietary and nutritional needs of all students are met.

This time of year can be particularly tricky as the holidays draw closer and festive snacks begin to make their appearance at school. While most of us can enjoy the temporary excesses of the season, they can spell trouble for children with severe food allergies.

“Communication is super important,” says Jamie Gervais, a nutrition educator with Alberta-based company FoodImpact. Gervais has been visiting schools since 2012, teaching children and their educators about nutrition and healthy eating as well as allergen awareness.

The most important thing is to have clear lines of communication between caregivers and the school faculty about a child’s allergies and dietary requirements. But it is also important to create an open dialogue between teachers and the children themselves about what food allergies are and what kinds of food are safe for their classroom to respect those students with food allergies.

Teaching children to advocate on their own behalf

As part of her school-based workshops, Gervais teaches children how to prepare snacks that are healthy, tasty, and safe for any child with food sensitivities or allergies in their class. Teaching children about different ingredients, how to read nutrition levels, and how to prepare food allows them to learn, from an early age, about what kinds of products or ingredients might be harmful to themselves or others.

“I think this dialogue should be happening as part of the curriculum in every classroom,” says Gervais. This hands-on approach teaches children how to enjoy food, promotes a sense of ownership, and involves children living with food allergies in the management of their own condition. This method allows them to become proactive and teaches them to advocate on their own behalf. It also promotes the understanding and cooperation of non-allergic students to choose food options that respect their fellow classmates and the severity of food allergies.

Food labelling laws in Canada have vastly improved to provide parents and children with the necessary information to select foods that are safe for the classroom. Since many common food allergens such as wheat, eggs, and milk ingredients lurk in the most unlikely of places, identifying them in the ingredient list is now much easier.

Finding delicious food that is safe for everyone

“I think the fewer preservatives and the fewer ingredients, the better,” says Gervais. It might feel overwhelming trying to make or buy food that will be suitable for everyone. A parent preparing a treat for a school bake sale might wonder how to avoid wheat, dairy, eggs, and nuts, among the many other allergens. But one of the benefits of updated Canadian food labelling laws and modern supermarkets — and a rising awareness in food allergies and sensitivities — is that it’s easier than ever to buy food products for kids, both big and small, that are nutritious, taste good, and are safe for everyone to enjoy. “Food should be something we enjoy,” says Gervais.