IN THE BEGINNING
Having kids with food allergies is no easy task. Whether it’s a nut allergy, dairy allergy, or anything else, living with food allergies is just different. I remember when our son was just 2 years old (11 years ago) and I had just given him almond milk for the first time. It was such a casual decision. He had drank milk and soy milk many times, why not try a new flavor of milk? Almond is supposed to be healthy, so we got it and brought it home. Little did we know our life was about to change. He broke out in hives and we were thrust into the world of food allergies. Like most other new parents, we had not heard of this epidemic of kids with food allergies. We certainly didn’t have this when we were growing up.
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Today 1 in every 13 children in the U.S. is affected by food allergies.
NEWLY DIAGNOSED BY THE ALLERGIST
Our son thankfully survived that incident. We followed up with food allergy testing at the allergist’s office to see what else he could be allergic to and discovered that he tested positive for so many foods! The thought of feeding him anything now seemed impossible! We were given a prescription for Epinephrine, told to avoid the trigger foods, and sent on our merry way. Strict avoidance was the allergist’s answer. We felt alone, as no other family members or friends had kids with food allergies. We were confused and scared and didn’t know how to keep him safe.
On a side note, do be wary of skin test results — there seems to be a lot of false positives so there is no sure fire way to know what you’re truly allergic to unless you do additional testing with a blood test and food challenge at the doctor’s office.
What was the best way to move forward? The first thing was to learn about “The Big 8” or “The Top 8” Food Allergens. These 8 foods account for 90% of allergic reactions in the US. You can still be allergic to foods not on this list, but these are the most common.
THE BIG 8
- Tree nuts (walnut, almond, hazelnut, cashew, pistachio, and Brazil nuts)
From that moment, we avoided the Big 8 allergens that he had not tried yet. Those were tree nuts and peanuts. Luckily he had eaten the rest of the 8 and never had any reactions.
WHAT DO WE EAT NOW?
We felt uncertain about all other foods not on The Big 8 list as well. We felt like our hands were tied behind our backs. How could he try new foods while staying safe?
LIVING WITH FOOD ALLERGIES
The answer was to try one new food at a time. No smorgasbords here! Only introduce one new food (read ONE INGREDIENT) with a meal of tried and true foods. This way, if there’s an allergic reaction, we’d know exactly what the offending food was. We’d try one new food a week to make sure there was enough time in between and we could be sure the food was OK before moving on to another. For example, one week we’d try corn, then the next week, we’d try sesame.
Going to a restaurants was a different story altogether. How do you know all the ingredients in each dish? What about the cross contamination? I mean, at home, we can control everything, we know exactly what touched what and we know how to keep it safe.
Our extended families loved Chinese food, so we often ended up in Chinese restaurant for big family meals. We did have a few mishaps through the years which involved all levels of severeness, from a little itchy mouth solved with Benadryl Chewables to full out reactions with stomachaches, vomiting, itchy mouth/throat, diarrhea, and hives. With the popular dishes of walnut prawns, bird’s nest with cashews, and of course the ever present appetizer bowl of roasted peanuts on the lazy susan in the center of the table, there was bound to be trouble. And after they roast those peanuts in the wok, what do they cook in the unwashed wok next? Well, there’s cross contamination waiting to happen. We can’t blame the restaurants. Who has time to wash the wok? For most of the patrons, cross contamination is fine… just not for kids with food allergies.
Different cuisines seem to have more nuts than others, so choose wisely and try to pick cuisines that have less of your allergic foods. We tended to go for Japanese food as there seemed to be less or no nuts in their dishes. My husband and I loved Italian food, but with the presence of pine nuts in the pesto, it was off limits. We saved those for adult only date nights.
So when we go to restaurants, we try our best to bring food (doesn’t always happen!) for our son to keep him safe and happy. He tended to prefer his familiar foods anyways so it was all good. Safer for him and less anxiety for us.
As our son got older, we had to worry about his time away from us. Daycare and preschool was tough. We had to learn to entrust him to others. We had to evaluate the staff and the care he’d get with a careful eye and lots of forward thinking. Trust your gut. If the school doesn’t feel right, move on. When you do find the right place, you’ll know.
At the preschool we selected, they had a prominent sign posted up on the fridge with the list of kids with food allergies and their allergic foods. I’ve found the key was open communication. Build a good rapport with his teachers and trust them. Work together for success. If the school provides food, check all their ingredients. Which ones are unsafe? Ask how they serve the snacks and meals. Does their process lead to cross contamination? What’s their policy on sharing food and how do they manage food allergies at birthday and holiday parties?
In elementary school, I kept a watchful eye on him until he was 10 years. I would volunteer to help at holiday party celebrations and chaperone field trips. Together with your school, creating a food allergy management plan called a 504 would be a good step. This would outline how the school’s staff would accommodate your child’s individual needs with his food allergy.
What will your policy be about parties (both in school and out)? Depending on what your child is allergic to, certain parties may be dangerous and you might want to avoid them altogether. If your child is allergic to dairy, you might want to skip the pizza party. Who needs greasy cheese-filled hands touching your dairy-allergic child? Or in some cases, you might want to attend but stay to chaperone your child. I was one of the last moms to constantly stay with him. Up until about 5 years old, most parents seemed to stay, but it slowly dwindled into a drop-off as he got older.
For birthday parties, I would stay to help. Not wanting to be intruding, I would talk to the host parent beforehand to tell them about his food allergies and how I would like to stay to keep an eye on him. I also didn’t want to be a burden, so I would offer to help the host with anything she needed during the party. With many kids to keep track of, it was often a welcome offer. It also relieved the host from having to worry about my child’s food allergy.
After years of strict avoidance of the offending foods, we discovered a way to be proactive, to fight the food allergy head on. Our son avoided all nuts until he was 11 years old. At that time, he was accepted into a 3 year long Food Allergy OIT (Oral Immunotherapy) trial. Finally, a way to be proactive and to do something besides sit and wait. That changed his and our whole family’s life so much for the better.
KIDS WITH FOOD ALLERGIES
What tips do you have for families and kids living with food allergies? Please share.
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