12 Tips for Grocery Shopping with Food Allergies

Some people get upset when they see Christmas displays in stores starting in September. While I roll my eyes at that, the thing that annoys me is seeing the holiday nut displays in the produce department as early as September. Those loose nuts make grocery shopping with food allergies much more dangerous for me.

A large holiday display of nuts | Food Allergy Superheroes

Believe it or not, I actually don’t like to bring my purse to the grocery store. I think this dates back to when my children were babies and my “purse” was the diaper bag. When escaping to the grocery store by myself, I wanted to travel light. My mantra became “Keys, Wallet, Phone, List.”

I don’t know why, but back then I didn’t include my epinephrine on that list. It even took me years of mystery hives and itchiness during grocery store visits before I started using the free cart wipes. 🙄

Many of those mystery hives probably came from the inevitable cross-contamination that can occur at grocery stores. Particularly when one’s allergens are loose and easy to touch (like the loose tree nuts during what I call “Open Nut Season.”)

A shopping cart full of tree nuts | Food Allergy Superheroes

I can’t predict or control what surfaces people touch after bagging their own tree nuts. Long ago, I came to the conclusion that I can’t be paranoid about every surface that might be contaminated. I can’t live with that level of anxiety. So I take precautions to control what I can. And I’m happy to report that now I always carry my epinephrine to protect against the things I can’t control. “Keys, Wallet, Phone, List, Coupons, Bags, Epi.”

I don’t know why I was so dense on the subject of taking basic safety measures at the grocery store (despite my food allergies) for so long. Fortunately, it didn’t take an emergency to wake me up. Just increased awareness. And now I have some hard-earned safety tips to pass to you, so you won’t be as dense as I was. Perhaps I can even alleviate a little of your anxiety, in helping you know that you are doing the best you can to stay safe while grocery shopping with food allergies.

Carry your Epinephrine

Carry epinephrine when grocery shopping with food allergies | Auvi-Q | Food Allergy Superheroes

The importance of this cannot be overstated. Epinephrine is the only drug that will shut down an anaphylactic response. And when you go into a grocery store you are literally surrounded by food. Even when you don’t intend to eat anyting, exposures can occur. So have that epinephrine handy for anytime that you need it.

Hand washing

Hand washing removes allergens | Stay healthy! | Food Allergy Superheroes

This is one of the most important things you can do. Hand washing will remove any allergens you may have touched. On top of that, it’s also good hygiene and will keep you from catching everyone’s colds. I have discussed the merits of hand-washing here.

It’s also important to keep your hands away from your face when they are not clean. Allergens can enter your body through any mucous membrane. Now don’t panic, because it would take a perfect storm of allergen residue and the right touch to create a truly severe reaction. However, you can prevent minor reactions by not rubbing your eyes, picking your nose, or touching your mouth when your hands aren’t clean.

Use the free cart wipes

Shopping carts can contain traces of allergens. Use the free cart wipes! | Food Allergy Superheroes

Most stores have this incredibly easy resource. They work great for removing germs the previous cart user left behind, but they will also physically remove allergen residue from your shopping cart. Wipe off the handle and any other surfaces you expect to touch. You can carry your own wet wipes if your store does not have these, or if they run out.

Use the cart basket

If you are shopping with an allergic child, particularly a small one, then it’s best to keep them contained in the shopping cart basket. That way they can’t impulsively grab anything while you are shopping. It’s the simplest and easiest way to keep little kids from touching spills or other dangerous items.

Investing in one of those fabric shopping cart seat covers will give you even more protection. It would be hard to use the wipes on every part of the basket your child might touch. You could use it well beyond babyhood if you have a particularly sensitive little one.

Use grocery shopping as a teaching moment for kids with food allergies

If you must shop with your allergic child, you can use shopping trips as a teaching opportunity. Make sure you teach children what their allergens look like, and also that they are dangerous, from a young age.

Tailor your activities to your child’s age. Young kids can learn what their allergen looks like, and begin to recognize safe and unsafe brands. Older kids can practice identifying their allergen on an ingredient label, and learn how to look for it.

Read every label when grocery shopping with food allergies

Several food package ingredient lists | Food Allergy Superheroes

While this could be the subject of it’s own blog post or even a novel, it’s an important reminder. You should read the ingredient label for every food that has a label. The only foods that will not have a label are single ingredient things like produce.

Ingredients on foods can change without notice, so it’s important to check the label every time you shop. Don’t just assume that the salad dressing you’ve used for years is still safe. (And be particularly wary anytime you see “New, Improved Recipe” on the package.)

In fact, it’s a good idea to read the label two or three times. I check when I purchase, and again when I’m ready to use a food. Some people will add a third check, when putting the groceries away. Every now and then, I find something on the second check that I missed on the first. We’re all human, and can make mistakes, so check for allergens often.

Be careful around your allergen

As previously mentioned, I hate Open Nut Season. Shells from people snacking in-store seem to follow me around every autumn.

Tree Nut Shell litter in the grocery store | Food Allergy Superheroes
Use an extra produce bag on the scale while grocery shopping with food allergies | Allergy Superheroes

Whenever you’re in a section of the store where your allergen is rampant, be cautious. Since the nuts are in the produce department, and I often use the produce scales, I grab an extra produce bag and use it to line the scale basket before weighing my produce. Be creative with other ways you can protect yourself from allergen contact.

Skip the bakery case

Foods in the bakery case do not have to be labeled. On top of that, if your allergen is ever used in bakery case products, there’s a very good chance that other items could pick up cross-contamination. They’re all in the same space, being touched and moved around by employees. Unless you’re allergic to something like fish that is typically not found in baked goods, unwrapped bakery items are not a wise choice.

Be wary of samples

This rule depends on how well-labelled and monitored the sample situation is. Nobody with a food allergy should eat an unlabeled sample. Even labeled, unmonitored samples could very easily have been touched and abandoned by an unattended child. These are not good choices for someone with a food allergy.

Warehouse stores like Costco, who use sampling as a big part of their marketing plan, have a better handle on their samples. They usually have the packaging nearby, and one employee’s exclusive job is to prepare one sample. Many don’t even let children take a sample without a parent’s permission, which helps reduce risk.

If you’re considering a free sample, make sure that you can check the ingredients. Don’t take a sample if any item on the same sampling table contains your allergens. The sample employees have likely cross-contaminated everything on the table.

Also, make sure that your hands are clean if sampling a finger food.

Don’t be afraid to speak up

If you notice a dangerous situation in the store, point it out to someone in management. The people arranging the produce department may not realize that nuts could drop on other produce displayed close together, potentially causing a reaction. Similarly, they might not understand that the flour that leaks out of bags could contaminate the packaging on nearby gluten free flour. If they don’t manage the same allergies, they probably don’t see the danger.

Be cheerful, matter-of-fact, and polite if you need to address a danger. That will give you the best chance of getting a positive response.

Also know that they can’t fix all dangers. Brands pay for shelf space, which can impact one product’s placement relative to another. Your feedback won’t change that. But making them aware is still important.

Don’t open and snack on anything in the store

This goes back to the hand-washing rule. While not always likely, there’s a chance you might have picked up traces of your allergen from something you touched in the store. You don’t want to open foods and start eating them until you have had the chance to wash your hands.

Wash your hands

Yes, I’m repeating a rule. It’s simple, but a big one. After getting home from the grocery store, you definitely want to wash your hands to remove any allergen residue. If you are concerned about the outside of your food packages, you could give them a wipe as well. And it goes without saying that you should wash produce before use.

Text conversation about how early nuts show up in the grocery store | Food Allergy Superheroes
Expressing my displeasure to my husband upon finding nuts already in the produce department two weeks ago.

You might be using some of these tips already. Others may be new ideas. Establishing new habits can take time, but once you establish your safety routines, you’ll enjoy safer grocery trips!

12 Tips for Grocery Shopping with Food Allergies | Allergy Superheroes

2 thoughts on “12 Tips for Grocery Shopping with Food Allergies

    1. This is a good question, and one I’m afraid I don’t have an answer to. Our family allergens are not typically found behind the meat counter, so I’ve never bothered to ask.

      That said, this seems like the sort of thing that would not have a universal answer anyway. There are no federal laws dictating allergen policies in the meat department–and cross contamination is currently only labeled voluntarily on any food product–so the answer to this probably varies from store to store. I would imagine some stores do, particularly if they’ve been asked to do so by a customer or if the butcher him/herself has a personal awareness of allergies. Others may not. I would recommend having a chat with the butcher(s) in your own store, and doing so during non-peak hours would probably yield the a more productive conversation. Thanks for commenting!

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