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Tuesday, May 10, 2016

The Silver Linings of Multiple Food Allergies

It is SO easy to wallow in despair when you're living with multiple life-threatening food allergies. There is a lot of anxiety that goes hand in hand with the vigilance required to keep a child safe from the dangerous crumbs lingering around every corner.  Every parent of a child with life-threatening food allergies has shed plenty of tears over their child's diagnosis before picking themselves back up, dusting off, and plowing forward like a superhero.  You start to focus on the silver linings of every food-allergy cloud which can keep the food allergy blues at bay for a while.  These are ours:


This one is probably at the top of every food-allergy family's list.  Filtering out unsafely processed foods is a must when you've got food allergies. Well before my son was even conceived, my husband and I had been pretty good about the foods that came into our home.  We didn't buy sodas or candy, and the foods we purchased were locally grown, fair trade, humanely raised, and organic whenever possible.  We were, however, much less strict when it came to eating out, and while we made extra efforts to regularly patronize local restaurants that did offer organic, local, ethical, and humane dining fare, we were willing to turn a blind eye when we went out for authentic Dim Sum, or street tacos, or whatever hot spot of the moment, and we wouldn't ask about where they sourced their proteins.

We still maintain the same standards for the food we eat at home, only now there's only a handful of safe pre-made foods in our freezer (and since we can't eat fast food, we cherish these 5 freezer foods like the precious things they are! They're the only way we can catch a break from cooking from scratch every day.)  Since my husband and I don't eat out at restaurants with my son, that means we don't eat out unless we've got child care, which means... we rarely eat out.  The restrictions at home and the reduction in dining out combine to make us healthier overall.  In fact, I've lost almost 20 pounds since my son's diagnosis and that's the only modification that's been made.


Before my son's diagnosis, I wasn't much of a cook.  I had the basics (pretty much whatever Alton Brown taught me while watching Good Eats) but many of the recipes in my arsenal featured canned soups, premade flavor mixes, boxed mixes, or convenience food shortcuts.  I was good at assembly.

All shortcuts are off the table with food allergies. Anything that is processed in a factory, or manufactured on a production line means I've got to make sure there's no chance of cross contamination with O's allergens.  Cooking everything from scratch used to seem intimidating, but now it really is much less stressful and it gives me back a little bit of control. 

I now know how every element tastes and how I might be able to replicate all our old favorites.  I'm no longer intimidated by cooking food the way our great grandparents did.   I've made entire Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners for eight from scratch (including ice cream!), become a pro with cassava and corn flours to replicate my Colombian mother's bunuelo, arepa, and empanada recipes... I even figured out how to make a killer nacho cheese sauce so we could have chips and dip on Superbowl Sunday.  Considering how much I resisted cooking in the past, I'm pretty proud of myself for coming this far and I'm grateful that I've been able to learn.

When I was a kid, candy was the ultimate in reward.  To me, nothing said "great job" like a Three Musketeers bar (weird childhood side note: I used to eat all the chocolate off first and then roll the nougat fluff into a large ball that I'd eat like an apple.)  Safe candy can be hard to come by in the food allergy world, but there are still plenty of allergy friendly sweet treats if you do some homework and plan ahead.

What's ten times easier to find in stores and never spoils in your diaper bag? Non-food treats!  Did you know Hot Wheels are 99 cents at Target?  Do you know how long my two-and-a-half year old is willing to patiently wait through a shopping trip with the promise of a brand new Hot Wheels at the end?  A VERY LONG TIME.  We participated in the Teal Pumpkin Project last year and ran out of our non-food treats before the end of the night and unexpectedly had left over candy that's still sitting in our pantry getting stale.

I only recently realized that I associated food with reward when I was growing up - we went out to dinner to celebrate good report cards, picked up ice cream after acing tests, got a candy bar for working really hard on something.  Even as an adult, I struggle to break the habit of rewarding myself with a food treat when I've worked a long day or when I've been stressed out.  My kid still has fruit snacks (they're basically candy) and cookies more than I'd like him to in theory, but he doesn't consider those things rewards.

It's scary to come down with a common virus when you have food allergies (and worse when you have asthma which frequently goes hand in hand with food allergies and eczema) because many allergic reactions can mimic viral symptoms.  When our kid gets sick, there's always a lot of anxiety as we're trying to decide if the sudden rash, or coughing, or runny nose, or upset stomach is viral, or the start of an allergic reaction that might require use of epinephrine.

Thankfully constant hand washing, surface wiping, hand and face wiping, and the phrase "hands out of your mouth!" keep him safe from both allergen exposure and disease carrying-germ exposure.  Hand washing is the best way to prevent the spread of disease and if everyone got into the habit of hand washing before and after eating, it would also help keep children with food allergies safe.


Food allergies are an invisible illness most of the time.  Unless you know me personally, you don't know what we cope with on a daily basis to get through the day safe and sound.  I know how amazing it feels to have friends or family go out of their way to help you out, and I also know what it feels like to have a someone look at you with a smirk when you tell them your kid can't eat something because he has a food allergy.

I'm somewhat ashamed to admit it now, but there was a time when I thought I knew it all.  If someone had a Disabled Person Placard and seemed to strut into a store without a problem, or if someone used a motorized scooter at a store without a cast on their foot, or even if someone used a family restroom when they didn't have a baby, my judgey-judge meters would have gone through the roof.  Now, I know better.  I have no idea what other people are struggling with on a day to day basis or why they are grateful to be able to use the accommodations available to people with disabilities. No one benefits from my judgement or approval and I'm happy to make whatever accommodations we can to make someone else feel comfortable and included - and I'll do it with a smile.


We have a friend who has made her non-allergic children's birthday parties totally accessible to us.  She even buys her kid's cakes and cookies (including her daughters first smash cake) from the dedicated Top-8 allergen free bakery that we buy our treats from.  She reads the labels on every snack she puts out for the kids to make sure my son's allergens are not an ingredient, and she plans her children's birthday parties between lunch time and dinner so that food is not a major player in the fun. Even if O doesn't eat many of the snacks, it means that he can play with or near other kids who are eating snacks and not worry about what they've just been eating.  We never asked her to do this, and every time we remind her that she doesn't have to worry about us, but that we're grateful for her thoughtfulness.  Every time (it's now been 3 birthday parties) we show up and are just overwhelmed by how far she's been willing to go to make us feel included and at ease.  We are so blessed.

We moved into my parents' home while we remodeled and put our home on the market. We talked to them about making their house allergen-free.  It's been a few months in and things haven't been perfect, but they let me go through their refrigerator, freezer, and pantry and throw out the things that were not safe for O so I could replace them with a safe substitute and they let me have total control of the grocery shopping while we're living with them.  Having once eaten eggs, lentils, barley, wheat, peanut butter, and almond milk on the regular - they gave it all up so our shared home would be safer for all of us to relax in.   We are so blessed.

No matter how many random people downplay the seriousness of our son's food allergies, we know we've got incredible people in our circle of friends and family that take things as seriously as we do and we are so grateful for them.

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