Banned From Flying: My Son's Favorite Lunch

On Monday I will publish an article about how to travel with a child who has severe allergies. If you (like me) have children without allergies, you'll probably think "don't care" and skip right past it. And that's fine, because you don't need to think about the logistics of traveling with a child who could go into shock from sitting next to someone who eats the wrong thing. But I want to share with you why I think this is important, and why I care, and why I will took the time and energy to write these articles. Most importantly, I want you to understand why you should care too.

Back when I first started this website, I recommended that parents pack peanut butter sandwiches for travel days. I packed them myself. PB&J is easy, it doesn't need refrigeration, it tastes good, and it is a great way to get some protein.

And then one day, a reader politely and gently told me it wasn't a great idea. She shared that "people with allergies can react from the smell or particles in the air or on the seats." I realized she was right, and I updated the text of the article, but secretly I thought "I'm still going to do it" and I had a thousand reasons: "I'm busy," "My son is a picky eater, and this is his favorite lunch" "The chances of sitting near someone with an allergy are small."

The next time we headed out of town, I started to pack him PB&J, and then a funny thing happened... I felt guilty and I packed something else. And in my guilt, I started to be more aware of this issue, and started to be more open to messages in the media about severe allergies. Gradually I learned things like:

  • The incidence of food allergy has doubled in the U.S. over the last 10 years and scientists don't know why.
  • Peanut allergy doubled in children over a five-year period (1997-2002).
  • The incidence of food allergy is highest in young children – one in 17 among those under age 3.
  • About 3 million children in the U.S. have food allergies.
  • Even trace amounts of a food allergen can cause a reaction.
  • A recent analysis of data from U.S. hospital emergency departments (ED) estimated a total of 20,821 hospital ED visits, 2,333 visits for anaphylaxis, and 520 hospitalizations caused by food allergy in just a 2 month period.
  • Death can be sudden, sometimes occurring within minutes.
SOURCE: The Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network

Bit by bit, I started to notice more news stories and blog entries about parents who travel with kids who have severe allergies. As DeliciousBaby grew, I started getting periodic tips or questions from parents of allergic children struggling to make their own family trips work. Bit-by-bit the issue became real to me.

Finally, a few weeks ago I started looking for good resources I could link to. I didn't find anything that felt "complete." I asked around, and nobody could point me to one an a resource as detailed as, for example, my recent posts on Breastfeeding on a Plane. I realized that it would be a service to my readers to write more about traveling with severe allergies. I sent out a query, and the stories I got back were nothing short of inspiring, and some of them even brought tears to my eyes.

Finally, I'm beginning to put myself in the shoes of a parent with a child who has a life threatening allergy. I realize that every fiber in my body would tell me to keep my child locked up safely at home. I would want to feed her food I made at home made from produce I grew in my own garden and flour I milled myself. And I'm guessing the parents that I heard from feel that too... but they know that doing that would be wrong for their child, wrong for their families, and wrong for themselves. So they put their kids in school where some well meaning parent might send peanut butter cookies as a snack one day, and they fly across the country or across the world.

They travel not just to visit family, but also to explore new places and cultures, and to have family time, and for all the other reasons that our family travels.

The stories I heard ranged the full gamut of experience. I heard from parents who had nerve racking trips made more difficult by well intentioned strangers who offered their child food when they weren't looking. I heard from parents who had amazing experiences in places as far reaching as France, Spain, Vietnam, and Morocco. Parents told me how they make it all work, from wiping down every surface on the airplane seat, to shipping food ahead, to interviewing local bakers in a foreign language, to renting apartments where they can cook each meal themselves.

And each of them seemed to feel that the experiences they had made the strain and worry worthwhile. In every email message there was an amazing spirit of willingness to make it all work. Why do they do it? Just for a vacation? To check some things off on a list of monuments? I think it's something deeper, I think these parents are giving their kids THE WORLD.

And what they need from the rest of us is simple in comparison. It's nothing really. Don't pack a bag of nuts or a pb&j in your carryon, don't offer a child a snack without asking the parent first, and the next time you see a parent trying to set up a nut-free zone around their child on an airplane, say "come sit next to me." Because really, if we can't help keep each other's children safe, then who will help keep our children safe?

Related Links
Tips and Advice for Traveling With Severe Allergies

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  1. Believer in Balance on June 20, 2008 at 8:23 a.m.

    I too used to think food allergies didn't affect me, until a few months ago when my third child was diagnosed with a peanut allergy. The fact that my baby has a life threatening allergy is still tough, but we immediately took steps to make sure she was safe at home. The scary part is not only when we're traveling, but also on our daily outings. Just this month, I had two scares in the same week! One was at school concert when another toddler put an animal cracker in my toddler's mouth. I immediately ran over and scooped it out. The other mom said, "Oh, it's just an animal cracker." I check the ingredients label and it was cross contaminated with peanuts. Two days later I drop her off at the childcare room at the YMCA where there are large posters prohibiting any food in the room due to severe food allergies, and doesn't my daughter pick up a peanut that dropped out of another child's pocket. The childcare provider didn't know if my daughter had eaten one or just found one. It took me hours to stop shaking, I was so freaked. So anyway, I really appreciate you shedding light on how food allergies affect us all, even if we don't have a child with one. Thank you!

  2. minnemom on June 20, 2008 at 8:25 a.m.

    Debbie, thank you for this article. It brings tears to my eyes to see non-allergy parents being so caring in helping keep our children safe.

    My son is allergic to peanuts, and as you know, that doesn't keep us home. It does, however, require a little more on every journey. A little more thought into where and what we'll eat, a little more attention paid to where the nearest hospital is in case of a reaction, a little more care taken to keep the epi-pens within reach at all times and at the proper temperature, and a little more hope that our outing will be a safe one for our child.

    The kindness of strangers (and friends and family) definitely helps in the journey.

    Thank you for writing about this.

  3. on June 20, 2008 at 12:12 p.m.

    You have me crying too. I very much hope that the next time we fly, we are sitting next to you -- or to someone who has read your post. I am so thankful and appreciative when I encounter parents who have not lived through allergic reactions who are sympathetic to what we are going through. This type of understanding allows me to breathe easier as I try to allow my daughter to live as normal a life as possible -- going on vacation, playing at the park, going to school and camp. Thank you.

  4. Aimee on June 20, 2008 at 12:39 p.m.

    Thank you!! Thank you for your compassion and understnding. I am very touched. I have 2 children with multiple severe allergies. It is rare to find a non allergy mom who is so considerate of the needs of other kids. I wish more people were like you.

  5. Maria on June 21, 2008 at 6:42 a.m.

    I found you through Google Alerts and this is much, much appreciated!!! You have a new fan in me!

  6. Claire on June 26, 2008 at 9:46 a.m.

    I appreciate your concern about food allergies and agree; I never knew about this.

    On the same wavelength, I am annoyed that airlines allow pets to be brought on board airplanes even though there very often times are people on board with severe allergies to cats & dogs.

  7. Chrystal on July 3, 2008 at 3:08 p.m.

    My son also has food and environmental allergies, although not to peanuts. A peanut butter sandwich (on gluten and yeast-free bread) is one of the few "take-along" items he is able to eat, and I admit that the "peanut-free craze" has irritated me to no end. Where do we draw the line? Do I have the right to ask that anyone he may come in contact with not eat dairy, wheat, soy, or yeast? When boarding a plane, do I have the right to insist that he not be seated anywhere near someone who has a cat at home for fear the dander on their clothing will cause him to swell up like a balloon? Should I ban him from visiting the homes of friends who have flowers, trees, and grass in their yards? No, I don't believe I do. We will continue to manage his allergies, the way we have been doing. By avoiding what we can and treating him for what we can't.

    There is such a small percentage of the population that actually has a documented airborn allergy to peanuts that I think it's ridiculous to ban such a healthy food.

  8. Janet on July 17, 2008 at 1:21 p.m.

    Thanks for your support!

  9. alison on July 20, 2008 at 4:19 p.m.

    It was great meeting you at BlogHer and I want to thank you for writing this post!

    I would love to know if the previous commenter's son is deathly allergic to dairy, wheat, soy and yeast. My kids also eat no dairy, wheat or soy, in addition to other food allergies (for which we carry an epi-pen). As for peanuts being such a healthy food... um, people are just asking that you not give it to your kid on an airplane, where there is little emergency treatment available if something were to happen. You can't skip just one meal of the pb sandwich? Give him just jelly that day. Or Sunbutter. Or whatever. It's not that hard.

    Sorry about the rant, but it's disturbing to see a mom of a child with food allergies not supporting other mothers of children with food allergies. I don't get it. We are all in this together.

    So, again, thanks Debbie for supporting us!
    Alison @

  10. Debbie on July 20, 2008 at 4:27 p.m.

    Thanks Alison, it was great meeting you too!

    I personally don't think it's a big deal to give up peanut butter sandwiches on a plane (or in my son's school). Sure, peanut butter is easy and well liked, but there are lots of other options

    IMO, if the parents say that the child has a severe airborne allergy, then the people around them should either not expose the child to the allergen or move further away. I don't think anybody is asking that nobody ever eat peanuts on a plane, but I find it easier not to pack them knowing that they could make another child sick.

    Furthermore, if it were my child, I would want to minimize the number of times we had to administer an epi-pen (let alone the risk of having an allergic reaction on, for example a transatlantic flight).


  11. jodi on August 9, 2008 at 11:39 a.m.

    Thanks so much for your understanding and support. I simply cannot believe Chrystal has any first hand knowledge of food allergies. I have a 12 year old peanut allergic child and we have never experienced the lack of human kindness that her comments reflect. Instead we have had wonderful support from strangers....a woman once even gave me a package of wipes from her diaper bag before a flight so I could wipe down the area (I had forgotten mine). My son's safety often depends on others, and people have rarely let us down. I am thankful for your helpful article. You have helped a great many people with it!

  12. Lauren on August 26, 2008 at 2:55 p.m.

    Thank you so much for this article. I have a daughter with severe peanut allergy, and I am very nervous about her starting preschool. This was such a nice piece about how you can help a very growing population of people with a dangerous allergy. It's true that it's relatively rare, and it's true that it can be a real incovenience for kids (and adults) to forgo nuts, especially if they have limited protein sources. But on an airplane it truly could save someone's life. One thing non-allergic persons might not know is that allergy sufferers cannot predict the severity of their next reaction. A reaction might be hives time after time, then progress to anaphylaxis or worse without warning.

  13. Marlen on September 21, 2008 at 9:28 p.m.

    My son thanks you...

  14. susan on April 12, 2009 at 5:47 p.m.

    i am so moved by your blog on food allergies. i was so sad to see Chrystal's comments, so laced with ignorance despite her own child's allergies.... many people out there just do not know (or care about) the horror of anaphalaxis... clearly Chrystal's child will not suffer a life threatening reaction if she ingests one of the listed allergens...she has cited numerous environmental and/or food allergies which cause discomfort BUT NOT DEATH. Note to Chrystal: it is this type of ignorance that puts our children at risk every day. My beautiful boy is severely (deathly) allergic to peanuts, treenuts, fish and shrimp. The rash he might get from his allergy to egg whites is not what worries me. I always say "it's just the ones he'll die from that I'm focused on". A small smear of your child's peanut butter on my son's airplane seat.... and my son's hand on that smear... and then his hand in his mouth... and he could be dead before we land. Thanks to everyone out there who takes the time to get it... and thanks to all moms who look out for eachother's kids.... there is no greater loss than the loss of a child, i wouldn't wish it on anyone and we need more people out there to recognize that this is what we are talking about, not a rash... but possible death.

  15. Jenny on August 29, 2009 at 9:43 a.m.

    You need to read the Aug. 2009 review article in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology entitled "Management of food allergies in schools: A perspective for allergists". It summarizes all the scientific research into food allergies dating from the 1990s and is available from PubMed. The Peanut Allergy Answer Book by Michael Young M.D. is also a good resource, and should be available at any local library or bookstore.

    The article summarizes research that concludes you can't have an allergic reaction from just the smell of peanut butter because protein particles are required for allergic reactions, and pure odor doesn't have protein. So peanut butter on an airplane is okay unless your child is an extremely messy eater and gets the peanut butter into an allergic passenger's eyes, nose, or mouth. More problematic is multiple people opening up packages of peanuts/nuts on an airplane which can aerosolize the particles. However, if a room is well ventilated, such as in a school cafeteria, it should not be a problem. It is one thing to give up one PB&J on an airplane trip, but another to ask an entire school population to give up all peanut/nut products or any other food allergens permanately.

    Also, casual contact with peanut butter can cause localized skin reactions, but not always in every allergic child. Casual skin contact with trace amounts of peanut butter does not cause systemic anaphylaxis because all food allergens must be ingested to cause anaphylaxis. The Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis website has links to an article detailing effective methods to remove peanut butter residue with common household cleaners. Dish soap on surfaces is not as effective as other cleaners, and hand sanitizer is ineffective--thoroughly washing hands with soap and water removes any trace of peanut butter. Since you can't count on airlines or public buses and trains to clean seats thoroughly between passengers, it is a good idea to wipe off the seat if your child has food allergies, and to teach your child to not touch his eyes, nose, or mouth (very difficult in babies and toddlers though). Airlines will usually give an allergic passenger a "buffer zone" if notified ahead of time, but will not guarantee that their flights are peanut/nut, dairy, soy, etc free.

    Since most cases of allergic reactions and anaphylaxis are still from accidental ingestion of food allergens as hidden ingredients in food, it is a good idea to teach a food allergic child to never eat anything unless you give it to him. Traveling is problematic since you can't always trust restaurants to always know the ingredients in every dish they serve, and they can't be held accountable for accidental cross-contamination from suppliers. The best plan when traveling is to have a doctor's note detailing your child's allergies in case of emergencies, and to always have extra Epi-pens on hand.

    Not an allergist, but an M.D. with an interest in food allergies

  16. Sophia on December 17, 2009 at 8:24 p.m.

    Uh huh. I can tell that Jenny the MD is a doctor without kids. It's fairly obvious she has no experience with kids as she would understand that even when armed with knowledge of their own allergies, kids simply lack either the in depth knowledge of food prep or the cleanliness habits of their mothers. Any mother will tell you kids just simply don't know how the offending ingrediants are snuck into foods or that kids are just filthy sometimes. My 4 year old is very well versed in the allergies that he has (peanuts,shellfish, eggs and milk) but the other day in school, his best friend snuck him a piece of candy without the teacher knowing it. This is his BEST friend from whom he was receiving a gift. All he saw was a shiny colorful yellow ball. Thank goodness it was a regular M&M and not a peanut M&M. He's 4, and never been given a peanut m&m. How is he supposed to know they make candies in chocolate and peanut. As for limiting peanuts in schools, we teach our kids to wash our hands but kids are just too busy and active to wash their hands or realize when something is dirty. Let me give you a real scenario any mom can agree with. A girl in my son's class had PB on her sandwich while my son had just the Jelly on his bread. She gets it on her hand and smears it on her chair or clothes which make contact with chair. After lunch, the kids wash their hands and prepare for a game of musical chairs. My son touches the chair and now has bits of it on his hand. All he has to do now is lick the offending sticky stuff of his hand, cover his mouth with the contaminated hand while yawning, or wait to snack time where he picks up food with the contaminated hand. It's so easy for young kids to cross contaminate even with handwashing. Think this can't happen? My kid's classroom couldn't keep the PB smears from spreading to toys, tables, chairs, etc because of this so finally made his class Peanut Free. And if you think it's only PB that can dirty a class like this, they have the same issues with cream cheese, jelly, playdough, elmers glue and other arts and craft stuff. So while Jenny may be certified to practice medicine, she doesn't quite understand kid's aren't lab rats in a vacuum environment. She's obviously never experienced the paralyzing fear of seeing your child go into shock and knowing there's nothing you can do to stop what's going on in his small body.

  17. Tamar Warga on August 20, 2012 at 6:49 p.m.

    What an incredible article. It is very re-assuring to see a mom without food allergies be so sensitive. Kudos to you for your awareness efforts. Those of us in the food allergy trenches don't want to keep our children in bubbles and rely on the sensitivity of others to keep our children safe. It really does take a village to keep a food allergic child safe!