When you have a child with food allergies, everything related to food becomes more challenging. Cooking at home, going out to eat and going to the grocery store all gain a new level of importance and scrutiny. Once you know that your child is allergic to one or more foods, what was once a simple trip to the grocery store now is more like a treasure hunt, a search to find the foods she can eat. To make those trips easier, to avoid overspending and, most importantly, to avoid bringing home foods that will put your child at risk, take these steps for allergen-free grocery shopping.
- Plan ahead. Shopping with food allergies in mind requires more planning than you may be used to doing. Instead of going to the store and pulling whatever looks good from the shelf, you need to be careful and thoughtful about what you buy. To make it easier at the store, and to be sure you don’t make a mistake with ingredients, plan your allergen-free meals in advance for the week and make your grocery list based on that plan. Planning ahead will also help you save money because you will not be buying more than you need or reaching for impulse buys.
- Know the FDA rules. The Food and Drug Administration sets rules for how foods must be labeled with respect to allergens. It requires that foods clearly list the eight major allergens: wheat, soy, milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish and shellfish. If any of these is present in the food, it must be listed. An allergen may be placed in parentheses after the ingredient name, for example, whey (milk), or it may be listed separately. For the latter you will see something like this: Contains milk, soy and wheat. The FDA does not require that food labels warn that an allergen may be present or that a food was produced in a facility that uses allergens. You should watch out for these statements on labels as many companies voluntarily include them, but know that it is not required.
- Know your child’s allergen. If your child is allergic to something other than the top eight allergens, the FDA rules won’t help you. You need to learn the names of all ingredients that may contain that allergen and read labels carefully. This can be time-consuming, but eventually it will get easier and you will be able to scan labels more quickly. To be sure, especially early on, keep a list with you of all the ingredients you need to avoid so you can check it while you shop.
- Buy more whole ingredients. The fewer ingredients that go into a food, the easier it is to avoid accidentally getting something with an allergen. Whole ingredients are foods that are made of just one thing: fresh or frozen produce, rice and other grains, or beans. When you buy these instead of packaged and processed foods, you know what you’re getting. They will require more work on your part when you get home, but it may be worth it.
- Buy in bulk to save. Finding the foods your child can eat on sale means saving money. Stock up on those foods when they go on sale. You might even consider buying in bulk even when they are not on sale. Many stores offer bulk or carton discounts. You can even stock up on produce without wasting any food if you freeze your extras. For example, when blueberries are in season you can get a great deal on large amounts. Freeze it at home and enjoy berries for months.
By planning in advance, taking advantage of sales, and knowing your child’s allergen and forbidden ingredients, you can take the chore out of grocery shopping. You can also save money. Buying allergen-free foods doesn’t have to be too expensive. Take the time now to plan and learn, and in the long run you will save money, but most importantly you will keep your child safe.