"We use food to show affection, to show comraderie. It's all about sharing food," reflected Anne Munoz-Furlong, founder and CEO at the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network. Munoz-Furlong, who started the group 17 years ago when her daughter was diagnosed with milk and egg allergies, called restaurants "the group that serves the most people and where the risks are the highest."
"From the allergic person's perspective, it's a leap of faith that you're going to get accurate information about the ingredients," she said.
In northern Virginia, Dr. Richard C. Loria, an allergist who works with both children and adults, said traumatic allergic reactions can sometimes take an emotional toll. Some children may need help from psychologists and psychiatrists to confront their food fears, he said.
"There's a term I like to use, which is we have the occasional dietary allergic cripple," Loria said. "There are people that are so impaired by fear of their allergy or of using their epipen that they don't function well."
An epipen is a portable injection that looks like a pen, which allows people with allergies to administer ephinephrine in case of emergency.
Loria said most children do outgrow their food allergies, but severe allergic reactions can set them back in that effort. For those that do not outgrow them, he cautioned that it's unrealistic to think they would go from kindergarten through high school without having an allergic reaction that calls for them to use their epipens.
Loria said medical professionals need to have a very low threshold for giving a child an epipen.
"Most of the times if you think the word epipen, it means you should use it," he said.
Today, Brandon Brigner is set to start a new preschool in a few weeks. Brigner said she is worried but is taking the opportunity to educate his new community about the dangers that come with eating away from home for students like her son.
"I am extremely nervous," she said. "He needs socialization. I know I can't make him a bubble boy even though I want to sometimes."
As to whether restaurants should have epipens at their disposal to use in case of emergency, Loria said it's "a very difficult question," especially considering how that practice would be reinforced and how restaurants would know whether or not the epipens are expired.
Meantime, with more than 12 million Americans living with food allergies, what is certain on restaurants' end, Weiss said, is that there should be no secret ingredients.
"When you're cooking, it's a great secret that makes it taste better or makes it thicker, but those pieces of information should be fully disclosed to the customer," she said.
In addition to open communication, Weiss advises diners to keep it simple and avoid things like soups, souffles and stews that may have many ingredients to minimize concerns.
To prevent allergic reactions, the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network works with the National Restaurant Association and has already developed a training program for restaurants. At the National Restaurant Association, Weiss said they will also work to train managers and employees next month as part of a September education campaign.
"Restaurants are certainly more aware of food allergies than before and we are working more to educate our restaurant and members on food allergies," Weiss said.