Playgroups and food sharing

Failsafers often comment about the problems of taking food intolerant children to playgroup. It’s hard to keep a child on a restricted diet while surrounded by endless temptations of non-failsafe food and for children with true life-threatening allergies, it can be even more of a nightmare. But you don’t have to avoid playgroups. The aim of playgroups is caring and sharing and while all groups are autonomous and work differently, some groups are prepared to work together to help their members. For many children, a few simple guidelines can make the difference between avoiding or enjoying playgroup.

A word of warning: not all playgroups will agree to change. That is their right. Be prepared to compromise, or to try several playgroups.

Members of the failsafebaby group have contributed to this factsheet. They have many years of playgroup experience between them, so if you want join in the discussion, you can join, see below.

Background: true allergies

Peanut allergies are considered to be the most deadly of all allergies, accounting for about half of all allergy-related deaths. For some children, playing with a toy previously touched by a child with peanut butter on his or her hand could be a death sentence. Some children are so sensitive that even the smell of peanuts can be fatal. As a result, some childcare centres with nut allergic young children have declared themselves a nut-free zone.

Peanuts are not the only problem food for children. Other common allergens include eggs, milk, soy and fish. There are also other types of food sensitivity. Increasing numbers of children and adults are diagnosed with coeliac disease, a sensitivity to the gluten in wheat, barley, rye and contaminated oats. Coeliacs need to avoid gluten in products such as bread, biscuits, cakes, thickeners, crumbed products, breakfast cereals, malt and many others.

Background: food intolerance

As well as true food allergies and coeliac disease, which can be diagnosed by laboratory tests, children can be affected by intolerances to chemicals in food, including certain food additives (see box) and – a big surprise for most families - natural food chemicals in some ‘healthy’ foods including fruit and cheese. Reactions to food chemicals are related to dose, so as the amount of additives increase every year in processed foods, we should expect more children to be affected - and that is what appears to be happening.

Compared to true allergic reactions, which generally occur within 30 minutes, effects of food intolerance are slow. Reactions are usually delayed by at least a few hours and up to a few days, or they can build up over several weeks if small doses are eaten frequently, so parents rarely realize the cause of their children’s problems until they trial a low chemical elimination diet to find out exactly which foods affect their children.

The most misunderstood and overlooked of all food effects, food intolerance tends to run in families, affecting parents, children and breastfed babies and often remaining undiagnosed.

Some symptoms of food intolerance

  • sleep disturbance in babies, toddlers and adults including difficulty settling to sleep, frequent waking, insomnia, night terrors or restless legs syndrome
  • frequent tantrums or temper outbursts, mood swings or grizzly, unhappy, defiant, oppositional, grumpy or angry behaviour, silly noises, restlessness, depression, anxiety and panic attacks, unexplained tiredness.
  • itchy skin rashes, hives, eczema, nappy rash
  • airway problems including stuffy or runny nose, frequent cough or throat clearing, frequent colds and flu, sinus and asthma
  • gut problems including reflux in babies or adults, stomach aches, bloating or discomfort, bedwetting, mouth ulcers, toddler diarrhea, ‘sneaky poos’, constipation and/or diarrhoea, and ‘a feeling of incomplete evacuation’ that can resemble constipation
  • headaches and migraines

For children who are food intolerant, a wide range of foods may have to be avoided, from junk food to ‘healthy’ foods including most fruit and some vegetables. Some of the worst foods for food intolerant children are sultanas, dried fruit bars, fruit yoghurt, orange juice, tomato paste and Vegemite, chocolate and cheese.

Most of these items contain high levels of salicylates that are natural pesticides in plants. Kids’ diets these days are much higher in salicylates than they were forty years ago, partly through high concentrations in processed foods such as juice and strong fruit flavours and partly because supermarket fruits and vegetables that have been developed to have long shelf-life are picked firm and unripe, when salicylates are at their highest. Natural food chemicals called amines in cheese and chocolate can also be a problem.

Touching and inhaling are problems too

Foods are not the only source of worrisome chemicals. Salicylates and other chemicals can be absorbed through the skin from craft items such as paints and playdough, and inhaled though scented perfumes, airfresheners and cleaners.See factsheet on inhaled salicylates, see factsheet on fumes and perfumes

Effects can last three weeks

Some children have both food allergies and intolerances. To my surprise, some of the mothers I talk to say that although their children’s food allergies are life-threatening and frightening, they find food intolerance reactions most difficult to live with. ‘With allergy, it’s a quick reaction, you treat it with antihistamines or an adrenalin pen, and you can get on with your life’, says Nelida from the failsafebaby group, ‘but with food intolerance, the reaction doesn’t even start until long after you’ve left playgroup and you have to live with this whiny, clingy, sleepless child for the next week or more.’

For Suse from failsafebaby, asthma is the major issue. If her two year old son eats salicylates or additives at playgroup, they have to live with three weeks of asthma

Some playgroup guidelines

Between them, Nelida and Suse have suggested the following guidelines. Since children with allergies and intolerances have different problems, what works for one may not be necessary for another.

  • Food containment – there is a dedicated time and place for morning tea, eating is supervised and cleaned up afterwards. At Nelida’s playgroup, this includes handwashing for all children.
  • Playgroup members avoid perfume.
  • Safe craft items. See the recipe (box) for gluten free, colour free playdough. Sometimes the mother of the affected child provides safe playdough for the entire group. Rubber, not latex, gloves can be used for finger painting.
  • For a peanut allergy consider banning nuts, including peanuts, peanut butter, Nutella and nut-containing snacks such as biscuits or fruit and nut bars.

Parties are another minefield. Since most food sensitive children can manage sugar, there are safe party foods such as homemade cakes, honeycomb, marshmallows and cordial with suitable ingredients. Suse’s playgroup has been exceptionally creative about providing support. When the mother of a two-year-old baked a Spot the Dog birthday cake, a separate chocolate-free, colour-free, gluten-free cake in the shape of Spot’s bone was provided for Jack.

It can take some effort, but establishing a safe playgroup is worthwhile for the child. Jan from failsafebaby had struggled with the diet for nearly a year till she finally figured out her son Dan was OK in the holidays, and it was the resources at playgroup – such as playdough – that were causing her son’s problems. ‘At one point I thought I’d need to stop him going to playgroup’, she commented, ‘but we got there in the end, and he had another couple of enjoyable years.’

Some craft suggestions from Jan:

  • Things that were easy to make, I provided for the whole Playcentre with so he wasn’t different. I coloured playdough (see recipe below) with red-cabbage juice (blue) or the same with citric acid (pink). Adding glitter makes it fun.
  • Things that are partly fun because they’re messy, like finger paints, I covered him up, and got the smallest rubber gloves I could order - I know some have a problem with latex, but we don’t.
  • Some things like dyes or texta felt-tip pens, I just forbade as they seem to be absorbed instantly into the skin, and can’t be washed off no matter how soon.
  • I trained him, trying to tread a fine line between taking all the fun out of it, and a sensible care about going to wash off any spills on his skin straight away.
  • The white PVA craft glue has never been a problem, though flour glue is easily made if necessary.
  • I have been given a wonderful little set of watercolours, made in Germany, which are all made with ‘natural’ ingredients and plant extracts (lovely colours from berries and leaves). It works for us, and anyone else who can tolerate some salicylates I can send the details. – Jan can be contacted through the failsafebaby group.

Others also suggest that safe paints can be made from the natural colours listed above, as well as from beetroot juice or saffron (yellow).

A gluten-free playdough recipe

This playdough has a commercial texture and will last about one week. Refrigerate when not in use.

½ cup rice flour

½ cup corn flour or glutinous rice flour

½ cup salt

2 tsp cream of tartar

1 cup water

1 tbsp sunflower oil

Place all ingredients in a saucepan, mix well and bring to the boil, stirring constantly. Reduce heat and cook, stirring, for three minutes or until the mixture forms a ball. – recipe from Ruth of the failsafebaby group

More information and support

Introduction to food intolerance

To join the failsafebaby email discussion group: email "subscribe" to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Information about true allergy:

Fed Up and The Failsafe Cookbook by Sue Dengate, published by Random House.

Nasty additives

COLOURS Artificial colours and natural colour annatto (160b) in a wide range of foods


200-203 sorbates (in margarine, dips, cakes, fruit products)

210-213 benzoates (in juices, soft drinks, cordials, syrups)

220-228 sulphites (in dried fruit, drinks, sausages, many others)

280-283 propionates (in bread, crumpets, bakery products)

249-252 nitrates, nitrites (in processed meats like ham)

SYNTHETIC ANTIOXIDANTS in vegetable oils, margarines, softened butter, fried foods, frozen chips, not always on the label. Antioxidants 300-309 are safe

310-312 Gallates

319-320 TBHQ, BHA, BHT

FLAVOUR ENHANCERS the 600 numbers in tasty foods, fast foods, snack foods

621 MSG (also HVP, a natural form of glutamates)

627, 631, 635 Ribonucleotides (can be associated with itchy skin rashes)


There are thousands of man-made flavours that don’t have numbers and don’t have to be identified by number because they are considered to be trade secrets.

The information given is not intended as medical advice. Always consult with your doctor for underlying illness. Before beginning dietary investigation, consult a dietician with an interest in food intolerance. You can see our list of experienced and supportive dietitians 

© Sue Dengate update July 2005