Kids & Food Allergies: 4 Ways to Keep High Costs in Check

Kids & Food Allergies: 4 Ways to Keep High Costs in Check

The first time that my daughter had dairy-based infant formula, we ended up in the emergency room.

Following skin and blood testing, a pediatric allergist diagnosed my five-month-old baby with peanut, tree nut, egg, dairy and sesame allergies. At that point, my husband and I had no previous experience with food allergies or specialty diets. We can’t explain it, but our second child, born two years later, has no food allergies.

Once our daughter was eating solids, I quickly realized just how expensive her diet was going to be. We spend almost $4 for half a gallon of soy milk, and because we were so paranoid about accidentally mixing up our kids' sippy cups, both of them only drink soy milk. After my daughter finally outgrew her dairy allergy last year, I tried to switch them to cow's milk, which is half the price. But they don’t like the taste of it now—and won’t touch it.

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The longer the list of allergies, the harder it is to find healthy and safe ways to feed your food-allergic child. Luckily, my daughter has also outgrown her sesame and egg allergies. But we still spend a chunk of money on everything from granola bars to pasta labeled “peanut- and tree nut-free.”

And those products aren't the end of it. Every year, I buy $100 prescription EpiPens and $30 of Benadryl for my home, purse and daughter’s school. While I could have returned to an office job after my stint as a stay-at-home mom, I decided to do freelance work, in part so that I’m always available in case of an emergency, and so that I never have to worry about safe after-school care. I’m also clocking extra hours as a volunteer parent, so I can help plan parties and chaperone field trips where accidental exposure may occur.

My family's situation is not unique. Nearly 8% of children in the United States live with food allergies—or 6 million kids. And a recent study published in JAMA Pediatrics estimates the overall cost of food allergies to clock in at around $24.8 billion annually. That’s $4,184 per food-allergic child. To put that in perspective, raising a kid with food allergies increases your annual costs by about 30%.

It's clear that childhood food allergies are taking a toll on families across the country, but there are some smart ways that you can keep costs down.

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The Hidden Costs of Food Allergies

It’s been over five and a half years since a chocolate chip cookie with walnuts caused Julie Poppe’s eight-year-old daughter to experience a serious allergic reaction.

Poppe, a policy research analyst in Littleton, Colo., has to purchase three sets of EpiPens to cover home, school and after-care for her daughter, who was initially diagnosed with egg, dairy, peanut and tree nut allergies. “EpiPens are $100 an order, and they expire,” she says.

To reduce the risk of exposure to a food allergen, Poppe, who works part-time, goes out of her way to attend her daughter’s school parties, and shops at specialty stores, like Peanut Free Planet and Natural Grocers. Poppe’s daughter goes to a nut-free after-school child care provider and attends a nut-free summer camp that costs about $450 a week—about three times as much as a camp closer to home. Poppe figures that she spends close to $3,200 extra a year to keep her daughter safe.

Medical costs—trips to the doctor, E.R. and hospital—come out to $4.3 billion annually. But that's only a small portion of the total cost of food allergies.

“Parents of children with food allergies carry a heavy financial burden, including the costs of special food, caretakers, camps and lost career opportunities, such as parental job changes,” says John L. Lehr, C.E.O. of Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE), which funded the JAMA Pediatrics study.

Direct medical costs—trips to the doctor, E.R. and hospital—come out to $4.3 billion annually. But the most surprising finding, according to Lehr, is that direct medical costs (which may be covered by insurance) are only a small portion of the total cost of childhood food allergies.

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“Families are entirely responsible for $20.5 billion per year,” says Lehr, explaining that this includes $14 billion in "opportunity costs," such as restricted career choices in order to care for a child with food allergies, which amounts to $773 million in lost labor productivity. Another $5.5 billion goes toward such out-of-pocket expenses as medications, allergen-free foods, and special schools or camps.

How to Save Money While Keeping Kids Safe

There's no disputing that no cost is too high when it comes to your kid's health. But here are four practical ways to combat the budget-busting expenses associated with childhood food allergies.

1. Make Your Own Food

Eating at home will almost always save you money, especially when you're cooking allergy-friendly. “Planning ahead is the key to keeping food costs down,” says Aviva Goldfarb, founder and C.E.O. of The Six O’Clock Scramble, a meal-planning website that sorts recipes by all of the major dietary restrictions, including such common allergens as nut and dairy. “Having a menu plan will help you save on your grocery bill," she says, "because you'll waste less food, make fewer trips to the store and engage in less impulse buying.”

Tracy Fitzgerald, an internal communications manager with BAE Systems in Bethesda, Md., does a lot of menu planning, since her 7-year-old daughter is allergic to peanuts and eggs. “On the weekends, I use my outdoor grill to cook all of the food for an entire week, and then put it in tupperware containers,” she says.

Goldfarb supports the idea of making enough food to have leftovers, which can make for an easy, inexpensive lunch or be stored in the freezer for busy nights. “When you’re preparing your own meal from scratch, you have the ability to tweak the recipe as needed, and not incur added costs for special ingredients,” she says.

RELATED: Are Organic Groceries a Waste of Money?

2. Seek Out Coupons and Stock Up

Visit your grocer’s website or peruse their flyer for allergy-friendly products. You can also check out the websites of allergy-friendly brands and print coupons directly. Fitzgerald always checks the Whole Foods circular before shopping, and she has started to scope out mainstream supermarkets as they begin to carry and provide coupons for more and more allergy-friendly brands.

For medication-related coupons, consider approaching your health care provider. “That really helps with the cost of EpiPens,” explains Fitzgerald. Recently, while refiling her daughter's prescription at the doctor's office, she picked up some coupons that a pharmaceutical representative had left for patients. “When I need another refill on EpiPens, I will ask the nurse if she has any special offers or coupons,” she says. “It's probably saved more than $100.”

Another option is to go directly to the product’s website. For instance, EpiPen currently has a savings program that can help save up to $100 per EpiPen 2-Pak. What you pay depends on the type of health insurance plan you have, so savings will vary.

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3. Buy in Bulk Online

My cupboard is always stocked with boxes of my daughter’s favorite nut-free Coco Loco Chewy Bars from Enjoy Life, which I buy at Soap.com (you get free shipping if you spend $35). I pay $21.20 for six boxes, which saves me $6 per order, compared to when I shop at my local store. While I don’t buy all of my groceries online, buying in bulk on the Internet allows me to shave about $30 a month off allergy-friendly products that tend to be more expensive in specialty stores. If you have the space, it’s a sure way to save money.

Sites such as Amazon.com also carry a variety of allergy-friendly brands, and you can usually get a competitive price on products that you may not be able to find as easily elsewhere. Since we do so much other shopping on Amazon, we signed up for “prime” membership ($79 annually), which gives us free, two-day delivery. We stock up with non-perishables like WOWBUTTER, a peanut- and tree-nut-free sandwich spread. At $27 for six 17.6 ounce jars, we are spending less than $2 more a jar than Skippy Peanut Butter, which is a great deal for allergy-friendly food.

RELATED: Why Amazon Subscribe and Save Is Great for Moms

4. Ask Your Local Grocer to Carry Allergy-Friendly Brands

Not everyone lives near a specialty store. To save time and effort, ask your supermarket to consider carrying allergy-friendly brands, like Enjoy Life and Cherrybrook Kitchen. A few years back, Poppe filled out a form at Wild Oats Marketplace and requested that they stock an Enjoy Life product for her daughter—and the grocer began carrying the allergy-friendly dessert.

If your local store doesn't have a system for customer feedback, you can use a form letter directly from companies. Food manufacturers like Cherrybrook Kitchen have “Store Request Letters” that you can print off their website, sign and give to your local grocer.

With these tips, you can make protecting your child from food allergens a bit easier—not to mention a bit less expensive.

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