I’m an allergy mom. My 10-year-old son is anaphylactic to peanuts and milk. This means that exposure to these foods can lead to a severe, potentially life-threatening reaction, including blocked airways and sudden blood pressure drop. Something changes in you when you watch your one-year-old enjoy an ice cream one minute, then gasp for air the next. Food becomes a potential enemy. It is not fun, but we have been dealing with it for almost ten years now, and are trying to help him become proactive about his allergies. He sits at the peanut-free table at school, asks the Chipotle workers to change their gloves before they make his order because he has allergies (which they always willingly do, plus they get him fresh guacamole to be sure no cheese has jumped into it), and he, so far, hasn’t complained about taking the bag with his Epipen and his own snacks when he goes to a friend’s house.
Though many things about his allergy make me anxious (especially as the teen years and more independence approach), there are several things that have helped me get through these years:
- When my son goes to a birthday party of a friend who has the same allergies as he does! One of his good friends has the same (and even more!) allergies than he has. No need to pack his own cheeseless pizza or milk-free cupcake for his parties. “Mom! I could eat everything there and it was all SOOO good!” Joy!
- That my son has friends with allergies, too. I wouldn’t wish food allergies on anyone, but I am so thankful that he has a core group of friends who all have allergies. I had always heard about how alienating the peanut-free table is in the cafeteria. I am sure it is for most kids with allergies, but we are very fortunate that at least 4 other boys in his grade need to sit at the peanut-free table, and they are among his closest friends!
- When a classmate’s parent asks what she can pack (and what to avoid) in her son’s lunchbox so he can sit with my son at the peanut-free table. Love! Love! Love!
- No food at school for birthdays. I know that kids enjoyed eating cupcakes at school birthday celebrations, but life is so much less stressful now that food is outlawed. Since milk is in virtually every dessert, I would always bring in his own cupcake. I vividly remember my son’s expression when I picked him up from kindergarten on a day there was a classmate’s unannounced birthday celebration. He sat there with nothing while the rest of the class enjoyed the treat.
- Houses that offer peanut- and milk-free Halloween candy. Many homes offer candy my son can eat, but, usually, at least a third do not. I am always proud when he doesn’t make a fuss, thanks the person for the candy anyway, and then drops it in my daughter’s bag as they walk to the next house. (My daughter often gives him most of her sugary candies in return when they get back to the house.)This year I plan to participate in the Teal Pumpkin Project, a growing movement to make trick-or-treating safer for kids with allergies. We’ll paint a pumpkin teal and put it on our doorstep to show that we provide non-food treats like bouncy balls, stickers, and pencils (in addition to candy) at our house.
- Food brands that are peanut- and dairy-free. I love the brand Enjoy Life! The company prides itself on making products that are free from the top eight allergens: wheat/gluten, dairy, peanuts, tree nuts, egg, soy, fish and shellfish. I’m amazed at the variety of delicious products they can make without these ingredients: cookies, chewy bars, chocolate chips, chocolate bars, baking mixes, etc. Incredible!
- When I find a new snack my son can eat. My fellow allergy moms and I often send each other photos of products and ingredient labels when we find new foods our kids can eat, and tell them where we found it. Rice Whip and Soy Whip (alternatives to Redi-Whip) at the local ShopRite? I’m there!
- Kosher symbols. In Judaism, dietary laws prohibit meat and dairy to be eaten in the same meal. So, all foods are classified as meat, dairy, or pareve or parve (foods that contain no meat or dairy). Many foods are labeled with the circled U or K to show they are Kosher. If there is a D next to it, the food is “dairy.” If there is “Pareve,” “Parve,” or just the circled U or K, it does not contain dairy. At the Hanukkah event in our town each year, they serve dairy-free donuts. Not just little powdered ones – huge, delicious “cream” filled ones. They get them from Zadies Bake Shop, a nut-free Kosher bakery in Fair Lawn, NJ, about 40 minutes from Madison. I’ve never been there, but I definitely need to make a trip!
- When food vendors at baseball games and skating rinks save all the ingredient labels of their foods, and don’t roll their eyes when I ask about cooking methods. It always amazes me when I ask a food vendor for ingredient labels and they look at me like I have three heads. Really? Am I the only one who has ever asked to see them?
- Watching my son order for himself and explain his allergy to the server—and they listen! I know in the near future, he will be going out with friends on his own. I’ve been coaching him on how to order and check food labels, and to avoid ordering food altogether if he doesn’t feel comfortable.
- Grandparents who “get” his allergy. My parents and in-laws are awesome (in so many ways!). They always stock up on my son’s Almond Milk before we arrive, check out the local vegan take-out shop near them, and make meals that we can all eat! These types of allergies were not things their generation had to deal with, so to have them understand the severity of it all is invaluable! I actually sat next to the grandmother of one of my son’s friends at a birthday party. She commented something to the effect of “I don’t get this whole peanut allergy thing. They should just give him a little peanut butter. It won’t harm him, and it might even help him get over it!” Uh-oh!!!
- That my son doesn’t mind bloodwork because it means that there is a chance his allergies might be getting better. Though I love that he doesn’t fuss at bloodwork, it also makes me sad to see how much his allergies affect him. My hope is that, one day, research will find cures to food allergies, food will no longer be a potential enemy, and that we can enjoy all sweetness that life–and Reece’s Peanut Butter Cups–have to offer, together!