Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Easy Bake Ovens and Nut Allergies--A Safe Recipe!

I hope everyone had a safe, nut-free holiday season so far. New Year's is next so please keep on being cautious if you're attending parties and gatherings with nut-allergic family members.

I recently received a great question from a blog reader and since many of you may be in the same boat, I wanted to share it. This reader wanted to know what to do about an Easy Bake Oven that her daughter had received for a gift. Many of you may already know that these ready-made mixes have several food allergy warnings including peanuts and tree nuts.

I was in the same situation a few years ago. In fact, my daughter's first Easy Bake Oven and nut allergy diagnosis occurred within months of each other. Back in 2004 when we were new to nut allergies, the Easy Bake mixes did NOT contain any food allergy warnings so we used them. It wasn't too long before the allergy advisory warnings showed up and that definitely put a damper on our mini oven baking!

Luckily, I discovered several cookbooks on Amazon.com (all self-published, I think) that dealt with Easy Bake Ovens and I ordered one--the Baking with Mommy Cookbook by Kristen Joyal. The book is geared towards any kid-sized oven. Even though some of the recipes contained nuts or peanut butter, there were many that didn't or could be altered by leaving out nuts as an ingredient.

Take a spin on Amazon.com--there could be even more of these books by now. In the meantime, here is one of our favorite recipes for homemade Easy Bake chocolate cake mix. The best part is that you make it in large quantities and then store it in a sealable plastic bag. You'll have baking mix whenever you want it and you'll save $$.

I tweaked this from the original recipe and it works great.

Nut-Free Chocolate Cake Mix for Easy Bake Ovens
1 1/4 cup flour
2/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder (I use Hershey's or Vermont Nut-Free www.vermontnutfree.com)
1 tsp. salt
2 1/4 cup sugar
1 tsp baking powder

Mix all ingredients together and store in an airtight bag or container

To make a cake: Mix 1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon cake mix with 1 tablespoon melted butter or margarine and 1/2 a beaten egg (you can also use egg subsitute like Egg Beaters)

Pour into Easy Bake baking pan that's been greased and floured

Bake in mini oven for about 15 minutes.

Use this same basic recipe to make yellow cake mix as well--just leave out the cocoa. I'd add a little vanilla with the wet ingredients for better flavor.

Now, enjoy those Easy Bake Ovens!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Merry Christmas from The Nut-Free Mom!

I thought now would be a good time to provide a link to a holiday party tips post that I offered on the blog last year at this time. Please take a look before you go to another Christmas party! When you know what to look out for, it's a lot more fun to attend.

Also, I wanted to wish all of you a Merry Christmas! When you're dealing with nut allergies, it can sometimes seem like the holidays are all about avoiding foods and not what you can have. While baking gingerbread people with the kids yesterday, I realized that food allergies provide unexpected ways of offering bonding experiences and a healthier, simpler approach to eating.

For example, we can't just run out and buy cookie dough at the store. So cookies are a treat around here and that makes the whole thing more special to my kids (though I confess that I do try to bake safe treats for them on a pretty regular basis. They're definitely not deprived.) :)My kids and I ended up really enjoying the whole process of baking and decorating gingerbread cookies from scratch. We are also lucky to have been able to buy some "safe" candy for decorating but we are still limited a bit in what we can use. The girls ended up using lots of creativity and their cookies looked great.

So when you're going about your holiday celebrating with nut allergies, realize that even though finding safe foods can be tough at this time of year, the process of making food together really is a blessing in disguise. Making cookies is time-consuming so it helped us to slow down as a group until the job was done. There is so much go-go-go all year long--I for one enjoyed being "stuck in the house" with our cookie project. I'll always remember this stuff and I hope my girls do as well!

Happy, healthy, nut-free holidays everyone!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Nut-Free Christmas Dessert Tips and a Nut-Free Christmas Recipe!

I realize that I just posted a Christmas cookie recipe, but I've got sweets and desserts on the brain since this is my big "baking from scratch week" of the year. Also, after attending some holiday events this past weekend, I have a few pointers on keeping nut-free desserts "safe" once they leave your kitchen.

It doesn't make sense to spend time baking and cooking a special nut-free dessert, only to bring it to a holiday party and have it placed on a tray with walnut-laden cookies or peanut butter cupcakes. Once your "safe" option is served on a platter or dessert stand next to those other guys, it's no longer safe.

Recently my daughter spied some Fig Newtons and a few other "safe" packaged cookies at a holiday event. However, they were arranged on a plate with lots of other cookies of unknown origin. So the "safe" cookies were now rendered unsafe. Cross-contact with allergens is a big risk factor with all foods, but dessert trays are especially challenging since they are usually arranged for visual appeal and not "separation of allergens."

I suggest always bringing your own plate and serving utensils along with your homemade, nut-free dessert. Keep these items covered until it's time to serve (this is a great tip I got from Linda Coss!) and make sure that you offer the nut-allergic people the dessert first. That way, cross-contact risks are virtually eliminated.

Now, onto the holiday recipe. Since many people have e-mailed me asking for nut-free holiday dessert ideas, I've got another one for you-- I'm also going to try it this year. I like to collect vintage cookbooks and this is a recipe that I found in a 1964cookbook from "The Pirate House" restaurant in Savannah, Georgia. This dessert is relatively easy, charmingly old-fashioned, festive and nut-free though it does contain milk and egg.

Just to clear up any confusion on one of the dessert ingredients: Nabisco Famous Chocolate Wafers do contain coconut as an ingredient but this is a fruit, not a tree nut. I use coconut in recipes for my daughter with her allergy doctor's approval. Of course, if you have any questions about ingredients to avoid, please ask your doctor.

Here's the recipe! I hope you enjoy it.

Chocolate Peppermint Cream Mold

1 tablespoon gelatin
1/4 cup cold water
1/4 lb. peppermint candy (I use Bob's Candy Canes--from any supermarket)
1 teaspoon peppermint extract (I use McCormick brand)
1 pint milk
6 tablespoons sugar
3 tablespoons cornstarch
1 egg
1/2 pint heavy cream
10 chocolate wafer cookies (I use Nabisco Famous Chocolate Wafers)

Have ready an 8 x 8 inch square pan.

Soak gelatin in cold water. Add candy to milk. (If using flavoring, add after the custard is cool.) Make a custard by adding 3 tablespoons of sugar, cornstarch and beaten egg to milk mixture. Cook this over low heat, stirring constantly. Add gelatin; set aside to cool. Whip cream and add 3 tablespoons of sugar. Save one-half cup whipped cream for top of dessert. Fold rest of cream into cooled custard. Pour into square pan. Lay chocolate wafers on custard. Spread whipped cream on top of wafer cookies and sprinkle crushed peppermint candies on top of the whipped cream. Cool in refrigerator for at least 3 hours. Cut into squares to serve. Serves 8.

Friday, December 18, 2009

My Favorite Nut-Free Christmas Cookie Recipe

Here's my all-time favorite Christmas cookie recipe, "Snowballs." I came up with this recipe to replace the powdered-sugar coated pecan cookies that my grandmother used to make at Christmas time. My recipe is based on a Greek butter cookie called "Kourambiethes", a cookie that has the same shape and powdered sugar finish as my grandma's pecan cookies--except without the nuts. It's very unusual for a Greek cookie to be nut-free so these are a find! I skip the spirits usually called for in the recipe to make these more palatable to children, but if you like, add a tablespoon and a half of brandy or ouzo to the dough.


1 lb. (4 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1/4 cup confectioners' sugar + 2 tbsp, plus lots more for sprinkling on cookies
1 egg yolk
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1/4 tsp pure orange extract (optional)
1 scant tsp salt

5-6 cups of all-purpose flour

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Using a standing mixer, beat softened butter until very light and fluffy. Add powdered sugar, egg yolk, vanilla and orange extract if using, beating thoroughly after each addition. Add flour a little at a time until soft dough is formed that can be handled easily. Taking about a teaspoonful at a time, (I use a tiny ice-cream scoop) roll into a small ball. Place on a non-stick cookie sheet and bake for 15-20 minutes. Sprinkle liberally with powdered sugar while still hot.

If you're looking for a version of this cookie that is also dairy- and egg-free, try The Food Allergy Mama's Baking Book. Kelly has a great recipe for these. And while I'm on the subject, this book makes a great Christmas gift. I just saw the book in my local Borders bookstore in the food allergy/cooking section. You can also get a copy at Kelly's website.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

It May Be Getting Easier to Dine Out with Nut Allergies

Recently I asked my readers about the biggest concerns they have with regard to caring for a child with nut allergies. Not surprisingly, many people expressed anxiety about dining out at restaurants and for good reason. Eating at a restaurant is a leap of faith for the food allergic because you have to trust someone else to A) understand your allergy in the first place and how to avoid a reaction and then B)prepare the food under the right conditions so that cross-contact with an allergen doesn't take place. Still, for most of us dealing with nut allergies, dining out is a part of life, especially when you want to travel with your family.

I've both written about and heard some scary dining out stories, so I wanted to share some positive tales of dining out that I've read about recently. First, my local food allergy support group sent out a very encouraging e-mail about a member's recent experience at Wildfire, an upscale restaurant chain in the Chicago area and other cities. This support group member's son has peanut and egg allergies, as well as others. She did all the right things--mentioned the allergies when she made the reservation, made the reservation for an early dinner (5 p.m.) and then told her server when she arrived.

The chef himself came to their table and informed them he would prepare the allergy-free meal personally, then asked what the child wanted to eat. He also told the family that they are prepared to deal with food allergies and handle them daily.

Obviously, this is excellent customer service and the family reportedly had an enjoyable meal with a level of confidence in the safety of the food that was unusual to them (in a good way, of course!). I live near this restaurant and I can't wait to try it out with my own family. Oh, and this meal happened on a weekend--a busy time for restaurants. That tells me that if chefs/servers are informed on food allergies, a meal like this doesn't have to seem special, but can be the norm.

Another dining out tale: I was reading a restaurant review in The New Yorker magazine about The Vanderbilt restaurant in Brooklyn. Near the end of the article was a mention of a nut-allergic diner. Apparently, one of the people in the food critic's party was informed by the server that they should avoid a certain dessert containing almond flour. (I always advocate avoiding desserts at a restaurant when you have a nut allergy, by the way. Too risky.)

The reason I mention this review is that it was the first time I ever saw nut allergies mentioned in a New Yorker restaurant review and I've been a subscriber to the mag for about 12 years. Despite the fact that the food critic in the article felt the server handled the allergic diner a bit poorly (they did not offer the chance to re-order a dessert), to me this story indicates a new level of awareness about food allergies that is exciting and hopefully helpful.

Finally, some of you may have read my recent post about chef/restauranteur Emeril Lagasse and his work with Enjoy Life Foods on YouTube. Well, just last week Emeril was honored by the Food Allergy Initiative at their New York benefit with a lifetime achievement award. Also present were many prominent chefs that have restaurants not only in New York but all over the world. The fact that they would attend this event and feel compelled to support a food allergy organization speaks volumes about how much progress has been made.

Does all of this mean that you can let your guard down while dining out? No way, but these are encouraging signs. It also shows that if you speak up about what you need to stay safe and use good judgment, it is possible to have a good experience at a restaurant, even with severe food allergies.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Nut-Free, Gluten-Free, All-Natural Olive Oil Condiment--Kenzoil!

Like most food allergy moms, I cook at home A LOT and so that means I am always on the lookout for ways to jazz up my repertoire. I like to use olive oil for both taste and health reasons. I've found that flavored or enhanced olive oils that are also nut-free are tough to find, which is a shame because these can add a lot to say, a basic pasta dish.

So imagine my delight when I was recently alerted to the existence of Kenzoil, a nut-free, gluten-free olive oil blend that contains fresh garlic and basil. Yum! It is made of all fresh ingredients with no preservatives so you need to keep it refrigerated.

Kenzoil (named after it's creator, Ken Carlsen) has a terrific fragrance and freshness. I used it last weekend in a couple of pasta dishes and my husband used it as a dip for Italian bread. A little bit goes a long way--it adds a lot of flavor without any effort--chopping basil and garlic, for example. If you're pressed for time (and what mom isn't) this is a great thing to have on hand.

Also, with the winter holidays upon us, this would make a nice hostess gift--and you'd be giving your friends and family something safe and nut-free. Even better.

You can find Kenzoil in stores and farmers markets if you live in the Ann Arbor or Detroit, Michigan area. Otherwise, it's available online and will be shipped to you with its own refrigeration pack to keep it fresh.

Since this is an olive oil product I'm talking about, I feel compelled to mention the following. Many times, the way olive oil is processed is a concern for the nut-allergic. Kenzoil's web site states that the product is handled in their own nut-free facility. Their olive oil is originally imported from Greece--a place that's notorious for the pureness of its olive oil (I should know--my husband is a Greek American!). If you want more info about this product, please visit the Kenzoil web site: www.kenzoil.com.

I'm always glad to learn about ways to enhance my home-cooking and I hope you will be too. Let me know what you think of this product!

Note: I received no compensation for this endorsement, other than a sample of the product.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Nut-Free Holiday Sweets and Treats!

Whew! It's been a busy week around here with work, holiday prep and all the other stuff that goes along with the holiday season. With all of the holiday magic I'm trying to create, it occured to me that many of you may be wondering where to find safe, nut-free sweets and treats for the holiday season. If you're new to nut allergies, the holidays can be an especially confusing time. What is safe to serve? Where do I find allergy-free treats that I can really trust?

You're in luck because I have some great suggestions! First, A & J Bakery in Rhode Island has some super-yummy holiday treats at their in-store bakery right now including -- gasp!-- nut-free Yule logs! I love those. They are also the home of the allergen-free gingerbread house, complete with plastic decorations, allergy-free candies and a full set of directions. You can order these kits online, so get going! Visit their website to learn more.

Next up is my all-time nut-free candy favorite, Vermont Nut-Free Chocolate! They've got their usual delicious array of Christmas-themed treats including peppermint bark--a family favorite--as well as chocolate "Skippers"--a nut-free M&M-style candy that are great for decorating cookies or cakes.

In addition, Vermont Nut-Free has chocolate coins for Hannukah as well as other Hannukah-themed candies. Be aware that Vermont Nut-Free, while completely safe for nut allergies, does contain milk, soy and egg in many of their products.

If you're looking for nut-free, dairy-free or egg-free cookies and candies, Divvies is the answer. They've got many delicious and colorful options, perfect for stocking stuffers or Hannukah treats.

If you're looking for treats that are free of the top 8 allergens, then of course you've got to check out the assortment from Enjoy Life Foods. Their site even has recipes that use their allergy-free ingredients, so be sure to stop by and see what's on offer.

If you're looking for delicious nut-free, egg-free and dairy-free baked goods--and you don't have time to bake-- look no further than Sweet Alexis Bakery. They've got a delicious assortment that my family is crazy about. These tasty baked goods are extremely high quality and they make a great gift! Or bring them to the family holiday party. Either way, you're gonna love them.

I hope this gets you off to a good start! And to my Jewish readers, Happy Hannukah!

Monday, December 7, 2009

'Tis the Season to Be Nutty

Five years ago when I discovered that my oldest daughter had a life-threatening nut allergy, I wasn't fully aware of the impact that this diagnosis would have on the holidays. But I should have been. Let's face it — a big part of any holiday is the food. Add nut allergies to the mix and you’ve got a recipe for a stressful situation.

It seems to me that the world becomes increasingly more infatuated with nut-containing recipes starting around Halloween and continuing until after the New Year. Food magazines, TV news segments and newspaper cooking sections are filled with nuts, nuts and more nuts. There appears to be a primal desire to stock up on foods that highlight walnuts, pecans, cashews and almonds, almost like a squirrel stocks up on acorns for the winter.

For example, as I flipped through current issues of my favorite magazines, I found recipes for caramel nut cheesecake, Roquefort salad with walnuts, kugel with pecans, green beans with almonds, broccoli casserole with pecans, pecan pie, peanut butter blossom cookies, bourbon balls with crushed walnuts, candied nuts, pine nut chutney and pecan-laced turkey stuffing. Also, a homemade front-door holiday wreath devised of walnut shells.

Yes, nuts are everywhere you look this time of year (that's not even including our nearest and dearest) and as the walnut wreath proves, sometimes tree nuts greet you at the door even before the hosts do.

Because of the recipes and nutty crafts floating around, holiday parties and dinners pose major challenges to the nut-allergic. Unfortunately those two warhorses of holiday entertaining — buffets and potlucks — can be a health hazard. Standard buffet fare such as complicated casseroles with 20 ingredients or cookie recipes with crushed pecans are off-limits. Sometimes the food doesn't even have to contain nuts but has come into contact with them. If we don't know for sure about a particular food, our daughter doesn't get to eat it, so often she doesn't get to partake of holiday treats made outside of our home.

Food isn't the only thing that's dicey about holiday dining with nut allergies. Since food is so deeply rooted in tradition and emotion, the potential to either offend or be offended during what I’ve come to view as “the nutty season” is endless. It’s almost inevitable that a nut-allergic family will encounter a friend or relative who just doesn’t believe that food allergies are real or who are certain that "just one bite" of their treasured recipe won't hurt, when in fact, it could. People who wouldn’t dream of questioning a child’s diabetes or asthma diagnosis may peg you as a “nut” for asking about every ingredient in a dish, or label your child as "picky" if you are obliged to bring them a separate meal for safety's sake.

For the most part, my family is able to focus on the fun aspects of holiday celebrations and not the food gaffes. We've been fortunate to have a lot of support from family members and friends. Plus, my husband and I enjoy entertaining at our home, which helps eliminate the need for others to concern themselves with the menu. When we do attend a holiday party, I'm always willing to whip up a nut-free side dish or decorated cupcakes.

Perhaps because an individual with food allergies is denied so many treats at this time of year, food allergies teach you how to appreciate the most important things in life. Family, friends and the good fortune to be eating a delicious dinner at all come to mind. Plus, my entire family has discovered newfound compassion for others due to our own struggles with a medical condition that affects every aspect of our lives.

Despite the fact that we sometimes feels as if "Life is a bowl of cashews," it's wonderful to be present at the table with those we love most. And even though my family has to be more cautious about what foods we place on that on that table, "the nutty season" is worth it.

Friday, December 4, 2009

HomeFree for the Holidays...Allergen-Free Cookie Gift Baskets

If you're looking for something sweet and allergy-friendly for the holidays, you've gotta try HomeFree treats. Many of you are already fans of this great company, but I've just received word that they now offer cookie gift baskets that are perfect for holiday gift-giving.

Click this link to check it out!

The Home Free Cookie Gift Box contains 2 boxes of mini chocolate chip cookies (my absolute favorites!) as well as three individually-wrapped large cookies including oatmeal and chocolate chip.

The Home Free Cookie Gift Basket contains all of the above as well as an additional box of mini oatmeal cookies.

HomeFree is made with all organic ingredients and each product is certified whole grain. They have no trans fats, are kosher pareve and are also vegan. Plus, the treats are baked and packaged in a dedicated nut-free, dairy-free, egg-free facility. Clearly, there is something for almost everyone. Plus, they taste really good.

I know my daughter is really happy to receive a big basket of nut-free treats--it's rewarding when an allergic kids gets to have something you know is absolutely safe and delicious.

Please visit http://www.homefreetreats.com/ for more products and information. Just so you know--they've also got nut-free, dairy-free baking ingredients!

If any other allergy-friendly food companies have special deals going for the holidays, please let me know and I'll be happy to post about your offerings.

One more thing. Tonight Dec. 4th is the Food Allergy Buzz/Best Allergy Sites Twitter Party. The topic is coping with food allergies at the holidays and editors from the wonderful Allergic Living Magazine will be on the panel! Go to http://www.foodallergybuzz.com/ for more details!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Enjoy Life Foods Nut-Free Granola and Nut-Free Breakfast Cereals!!!

Recently I had the pleasure of receiving some samples of Enjoy Life Foods products including two varieties of nut-free granola and two breakfast cereals: Enjoy Life Crunchy Rice and Enjoy Life Crunchy Flax. Both of the cereals are
100% natural and sweetened with fruit juice and honey. The Crunchy Flax also has whole grain, Omega-3s and lots of good fiber.
When my daughters tried the Very Berry Granola and Cranberry Apple Granola, the response was the same: "Mmmmmmm."
My oldest daughter (pictured) is the one with the nut allergy and she's now mixing the cereal with the granola as a "trail mix" to bring for her school snack. Her little sister is really enjoying the granola as well--even though she doesn't need to eat nut-free. I think that's a testament to how tasty Enjoy Life products are!
It's hard to find nut-free granola so needless to say we are thrilled with these and will make a point of stocking up once our supply runs out (and the way things are going that may be today!)
My kids also love the breakfast cereal--and so do I. The flavor is great and the other thing I like is that it's not overly sweet. I'm always looking for ways to add flax to the diet and this is a delicious way of doing so. A few readers have asked recently about how to make a nut-free "streusel" topping for baked goods. I think either these of these cereals or the granola are a great way to add crunchy texture without the nuts! So there's another reason to love these products.
Best of all is the fact that all of these products are made in a dedicated nut-free facility. In fact, Enjoy Life is free of all of the top 8 allergens and are gluten-free as well. These items are "allergy-friendly" as every package states. "Nut-free facility" and "allergy-friendly" are two terms that mean SO MUCH to us when we're looking for safe foods for our kids. As many of us have discovered, natural foods can mean "chock full of nuts" or at least they will have had cross-contact. Not so with Enjoy Life Foods--you can eat nut-free as well as naturally. To me, that's like the Visa commercial: Priceless.
You can find Enjoy Life Foods products at many supermarkets including Whole Foods and your local grocery store. Or order online by visiting their web site: http://www.enjoylifefoods.com/. You can even download grocery store coupons on the site. Enjoy Life Foods are also now available in Canada.
Be on the lookout for more Enjoy Life Foods products--they're always coming up with more allergy-free choices.
Note: I received no compensation for this review other than food samples. The opinions expressed are mine and mine only.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Thanksgiving Rehash

I hope that everyone had a safe and happy Thanksgiving! Now that it's over, I'm wondering how all of you did with this food-filled holiday. I cooked for my relatives this year for the first time in a long time, so although I was hoppin' in the kitchen all day, I didn't have to face my usual worries about food cooked by others for my severely allergic child.

In past years, I've had some cooperation (such as no pecan pie served) and some not-so-great moments, like a child who refused to eat the Thanksgiving dinner but instead insisted on a peanut butter granola bar at the "kids table" with my daughter. At Thanksgiving, just like at school, we need a peanut-free table for her so that was awkward, especially since it wasn't even my home.

I've also been concerned about things like what type of bread is used in making stuffing, what's in the turkey gravy and of course, desserts.

What about you? I had posted Thanksgiving tips--did any of you find that those strategies worked? What did you feel was your biggest problem with food allergies--if any--over Thanksgiving? And please feel free to share your success stories--we need those too!

I'm open to your comments and questions. With more winter holidays coming up quickly, we're going to need all the nut allergy strategies we can get!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Nut-Free, Egg-Free Sweet Potato Recipe!

Just in time for Thanksgiving--a sweet potato recipe that tastes great and is so easy to make. Plus, unlike so many of the sweet potato recipes floating around during the holidays, this one has no pecans, walnuts or marshmallows. I like my sweet potatoes "clean tasting" so this is perfect for me besides being safe for many food allergies. And you can make it in your microwave. What could be better?

I adapted this recipe from the wonderful cookbook "How to Cook Everything" from food writer Mark Bittman.

Microwaved Sweet Potatoes

2 pounds sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks
2 tablespoons canola oil or butter (you can also use dairy-free margarine)
2 tablespoons maple syrup or brown sugar
1/4 cup orange juice, or a few tablespoons fresh lemon juice
Salt and pepper to taste

Combine all ingredients and 2 tablespoons of water in a microwave-safe bowl; cover with a lid or plastic wrap. Microwave on high for 3 minutes, shake the container and continue to microwave at 2-minute intervals until the sweet potatoes are very tender. Serve hot.

Told you it was easy. Plus, it frees up much needed oven space!

I'm hosting Thanksgiving tomorrow and I'm pretty much making everything from scratch, so let me take the time now (while I have it) to wish all of you a very happy, safe and joyful Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 23, 2009

A Safe, Nut-Free Thanksgiving with the "Non-Cooks"

I realized after talking with a few friends about Thanksgiving that I'm surrounded by "cooks" in my own family and not used to attending family gatherings with the "non-cooks" of this world.

It's difficult enough to try to make sure your child has a safe meal at a dinner party if the hosts are cooking the food. But what about people who choose to cater the entire meal? Obviously that's the best choice for some people, but a catered meal can be a nut allergy minefield.

Treat a catered meal like a restaurant meal. You need to know everything that goes into the food and the environment in which the food is prepared--just like at a restaurant. It also means that you may end up discovering that the meal doesn't meet your standards for allergy safety. For example, the roast chickens on a spit that are sold at my local supermarket say that the chickens were processed in a facility with nuts, as well as several other food allergens. I'm guessing if your hosts go the supermarket catering route, the same goes for turkey.

How do you find out what's safe? You need to ask your hosts where the food is coming from and then call the venue to find out how the food is prepared. Sometimes the food won't be safe for your family because of cross-contact concerns or ingredients you can't have.

Here are some questions for the caterer:

What other foods are being prepared in this kitchen?

Are you able to accommodate food allergies? Do you have any procedures for separating foods?

What in the menu contains nuts or may contain nuts? (Of course, you will want to avoid desserts or sauces--just like in a restaurant. Too much risk.)

Are there any nut products in the turkey stuffing or side dishes? (Pecans are a popular addition to stuffing as well as sweet potatoes).

Please be aware that simple foods like mashed potatoes--when prepared outside of a home kitchen--sometimes contain ingredients like peanut oil for smooth consistency. You must ask about everything.

Personally, I'm not comfortable serving a catered meal to my daughter because there are just too many variables. And not everyone has the same level of food allergy awareness, so they may believe something is safe when it isn't. It's good to have a backup meal for your allergic child and it's always a great idea to bring a side dish or dessert that's safe for your family. That way, your child can participate in some of the foods on offer.

It's hard to single your child out at a party as having to avoid foods, but it's very important to be cautious. Tree nuts turn up everywhere in Thanksgiving recipes. I always want everyone to be safe, even if it means skipping one or two dishes--or even the entire meal--in order for that to happen.

Holidays are a time when it's tempting to let your guard down, but don't. You need to keep the same rules for food and eating that you usually do, now more than ever.

How do some of you handle the catered meal challenge?

Friday, November 20, 2009

Ian's Natural Foods---Nut-Free Snacks!!

Recently I was contacted by Ian's Natural Foods, a food manufacturer that specializes in organic, gluten-free and allergy-free foods.

I received two sample packs of their Fruit-a-Bits crispy fruit snacks to try. In size and shape, they reminded me of the candy "Nerds" but they had a crispy, fruity flavor that wasn't overly sweet.

My kids were each handed a bag when they got home from school and the snacks disappeared shortly thereafter. I take it that they liked them! In fact, my youngest daughter told me that "they're nice and fruity." The company suggested that they would make a good ice cream or yogurt topping as well and I could also see them as a good, nut-free choice for mixing up your own nut-free snack mix.

If you're looking to avoid chemicals and such in your kids' snacks, Ian's snacks contain no artificial flavors, colors or preservatives.

The best part? Ian's Fruit-a-Bits are made in a tree nut- and peanut-free facility.

I'm always happy to find a nut-free snack or treat choice for my family and I love the fact that Ian's is organic. I hate giving my kids regular fruit snacks because they're loaded with chemicals and they stick to their teeth. Not so with these. The texture was much less "tooth-adhering."

You can find these Ian's Natural Snacks at natural foods stores, Whole Foods and many supermarkets. Ian's has a store locator on their web site so chances are you can find their variety of foods near you.

See what you think and let me know!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Study Shows a Rise in Food Allergy Among U.S. Kids

Well, a lot of us suspected it, but it looks like the number of U.S. children with a food allergy is bigger than previously thought. A study that will come out in December in the journal Pediatrics reports that 4% of U.S. children have a food allergy. That adds up to about 3.2 million U.S. kids. Peanut and tree nut allergies are one of the top food allergies in children.

Previous estimates stated that 1% of the U.S. population--in total--had a food allergy. Some food allergy opponents liked to quote this 1% as if it were proof that food allergies weren't very common and that people with them weren't very important--even though this added up to more than 12 million people. This number was also used to support arguments against peanut-free tables in schools, peanut-free airline flights and any other accommodations for people with this life-threatening allergy.

The bottom line is that it looks like a lot of children have food allergies. The study showed how it cuts across ethnic, economic and racial lines--eradicating the other argument of food allergy naysayers--that allergies to food are the inventions of bored, rich white yuppie parents. Also, food allergies don't just affect young kids. I just got a note from a woman whose 14-year-old child was just diagnosed. Plus, I hear from adults with this allergy all the time.

The important thing to remember is that the exact numbers are not the most significant point about this issue--it's more important to concentrate on the fact that many, many people are facing severe food allergies. And they don't just affect immediate family members--they also impact grandparents and other relatives, daycare workers, school teachers and other caregivers. So we should focus on figuring out why and putting a stop to it.

I hope that this study is the first of many that exposes food allergies for what they are--a growing, serious and important health threat that needs further study, broadened treatment options and ultimately, a cure.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Gluten-Free Pasta Brand Now Lists Nut Allergy Advisory

One of my blogger/writer buddies, Wendy, from the wonderful blog Celiacs in the House, sent me an alert about a gluten-free pasta that contains an ingredient called "lupin."

Some of you may have heard of a product in gluten-free pasta brands that can cause an allergic reaction in people allergic to nuts--lupin is that ingredient. It contains proteins that are similar to the ones that cause an allergic reaction in people with nut allergies. So we definitely want to avoid it.
Click here to read a previous post I wrote about lupin and gluten-free pasta.

Wendy shared the above photo with me to illustrate that brands of gluten-free pasta, such as Bi-Aglut now has a peanut allergy advisory warning. Progress, definitely! In the past, no such warning was listed on the package.

However, Wendy did tell me that another gluten-free pasta that she uses called "Schar" does not have a nut allergy advisory warning on the package, though it definitely should since it does contain lupin as an ingredient.
The bottom line--if you're nut-allergic and also have allergies to wheat or celiac disease, be very careful of gluten-free pasta. If lupin is an ingredient, avoid it. And of course, ask your allergist for more details. This is a fairly new ingredient but with the influx of gluten-free foods on the market these days, it's something we should be aware of.
Thank you, Wendy, for your consideration in letting us know about this. It's really important info! Anyone living gluten-free should check out Wendy's blog for terrific GF recipes, photos, info and much, much more.

Also, a big thank you to all of you who commented on my previous post asking you about your top concerns as a nut allergy parent or caregiver! I will spend the next several weeks addressing them. And of course, keep your comments and questions coming, either by commenting on the blog or e-mailing me.

And just one word of encouragement to the nut allergy "newbies" out there: You can do this. It does get easier with time and soon you'll see that your child and/or you can live a full life despite the occasional glitches or pitfalls. Don't get discouraged. :)

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Nut-Free Mom Wants to Hear From You!

As we approach the end of the year (and the second year of this blog) I am curious to know what nut allergy questions are still floating around out there. I know I've addressed many of them, but certainly not all of them.! And new questions will always arise.

If you're new to nut allergies, what are your biggest concerns? And if you've been dealing with them for awhile, what are the areas that are most problematic for you?

Likewise, what solutions are working for you? Or do you just feel overwhelmed by the whole thing?

In order to serve you all better, please feel free to post or e-mail your questions or comments. I would love to feature some Q & A on my blog, so let 'er rip!


Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Enjoy Life Foods Has a New Blog

Just wanted to give a shout out to one of my favorite companies, Enjoy Life Foods. They have a brand-new blog and I look forward to reading it.

Enjoy Life Foods also has the added bonus of being available in many grocery stories nationwide, so not only are they a tasty allergen-free choice, but they are also a convenient one.

Also, The Nut-Free Mom Blog appears on their blog roll. I just found out a few days ago and I'm honored to be in such great company--I see a couple of my blogger buddies there as well.

I have a little story to share about Enjoy Life Foods that illustrates why I love it so much.

A few weeks ago my youngest daughter was at her Daisy Scouts meeting and one of the leaders called me. She knew that I know about nut-free foods and was double-checking a snack they were about to serve the girls. One of the girls has a severe nut allergy, just like my oldest child.

Well, it was unclear from the label if the food was nut-free and I hung up the phone unable to shed any light on it.

I told my oldest daughter what had happened and she said "Don't we have some Enjoy Life Coco Loco Bars?" Yes, we did. In fact, I'd just bought them a day before.

She then offered to bring them to the meeting so the allergic Girl Scout could have a safe snack that we KNEW without a shadow of a doubt was nut-free. My daughter took the short walk over to the school herself and hand-delivered the goods. She told me later that the girl with the nut allergy had her face light up when she saw a "safe" food arrive in a package with the words "nut-free" all over it. Plus, Coco Loco are darn tasty.

Later, the Daisy Scout leader told me that she would keep the Coco Loco box for future meetings and that the girl's mother was ecstatic to learn that Enjoy Life Foods had saved the day. I think ELF got a few new fans that day.

So for all of you who may not have heard of this fabulous allergen-free food company, be sure to check out their web site and look for them at your local grocery store.

Monday, November 9, 2009

How to Have a Safe Thanksgiving with Nut Allergies

The days are getting crisper, the leaves are falling in Chicago and every magazine I flip through seem to feature recipes like these: pecan pie, pine nut turkey stuffing and pumpkin nut bread. That can only mean one thing: Thanksgiving is just around the corner. And so is a nut allergy minefield if you're not prepared.

Don't get me wrong, I love Thanksgiving--it revolves around feeling thankful, celebrating family and eating a ton of good food. What's not to love? However, we've all got to keep our guard up if we're caring for an allergic child. Something about the fall/winter holidays makes people crave tree nuts, so this is a particularly difficult time for this allergy. Peanut butter and its many related food items seem to be favorites year round, but tree nuts don't usually turn up in such massive quantities until now.

My family has been celebrating Thanksgiving with a nut allergy for nearly 6 years (!) now and I've seen a lot of nutty things happen in the kitchen (that's not even counting the behavior of me and my relatives) so I have a few tips to share that should make it easier for you to cope.

I've said some of these before but they bear repeating. And if you're new to nut allergies at the holidays, take heart. Once you've been through it once, you learn A LOT so you're much better prepared next time. You must not apologize for the allergy or worry about seeming "over the top." Believe me, that's better than winding up in the ER with your child.

The other thing to remember is that family recipes and traditions are different, but one thing is the same at Thanksgiving: the emotional ties to favorite foods. So don't be shocked if you meet resistance to a "nut-free" or altered Thanksgiving menu at first. Your family and friends will get the hang of it as time goes on. And if they don't, you may want to consider hosting the celebration.

Safe Thanksgiving Tips for Nut-Allergies:

1. Communicate about the allergy early and often. Whether you plan to attend a dinner outside of your home or you are the host family, you want to put the word out now about your nut allergy concerns. Things to discuss would be safe brands of bread for stuffing, gravy sauces or sauce enhancers or mixes, stuffing recipes in general (many contain pecans, pine nuts or other nuts), desserts and cross-contamination when cooking or baking. You want to give people plenty of notice about the food to help ensure safe choices. Many times people set their menus and decide what they plan to bring to a dinner early, so go on, make that call today!

2. Offer to provide safe alternatives to family favorites. Does someone always want to make pecan pie or peanut butter blossom cookies? See if you can make an alternative pie or offer to make the cookies using Sunbutter (sunflower seed butter) or soybutter. Or, introduce a new recipe that may become a nut-free family favorite.

3. Be careful at the buffet table. Buffet tables present cross-contact problems, since serving spoons may be used for more than one food. You may ask to serve your child first to prevent cross contact, or prepare a separate plate for your child in the kitchen.

4. Suggest an alternative to "mixed nuts in a bowl" and peanut-laden Chex mix-style snacks from the party. Yes, these are a big hit with many family members, but see if you can bring an alternative snack. These are particularly dangerous because younger allergic children may grab these items and eat them before you can stop them. Also, people spread the nut dust and residue around with these snacks.

5. You bring (or make) dessert. Desserts are one of the top foods to cause allergic reactions, so don't chance it. You do the dessert. It may seem like a lot of work but honing your dessert-making skills is a must if you're a nut allergy caregiver. Also, everyone loves desserts, so if you make a good one you'll be one of the "heroes" of the dinner! :) Another thing I plan to do this year is give each child a chocolate turkey from Vermont Nut-Free Chocolate. A way to promote awareness, yes, but also a way to include your child and impress their cousins with a delicious treat. If chocolate is out of reach for you due to other allergies, any little "extra," whether a safe candy or even Thanksgiving-themed pencils, helps your child feel like they brought something special to the party and helps them cope with having to avoid certain foods.

6. If you're really concerned, bring a safe meal for your child. Sometimes, despite your best efforts, you may not feel the meal is safe enough for your child to eat. That's OK--it happens. Just bring something extra for them and serve it to them without a lot of fanfare. If anyone asks, use the situation to increase awareness: "Alex can't eat the dinner because of her nut allergy." You never know--this simple statement could result in more cooperation from others for the next celebration.

This is just a start. I'll have more tips as we get closer to the holiday, but if you have any that have worked for you or if you have any questions about managing this nutty holiday, let me know!

Friday, November 6, 2009

Nancy Drew and the Tree Nut Allergy Mystery

My daughter LOVES everything Nancy Drew. She is a fan of the books, from the vintage hardcovers that belonged to my Mom, to modern Nancy series available at bookstores today.

She is also a huge fan of the games from Her Interactive. These award-winning games are a blast even for adults like me who love mysteries and still think Nancy is pretty cool. They always involve educational elements like history, science or social science and they've won a ton of awards.

My daughter is such a fan of these games that I am usually suckered into being among the first to buy new ones when they emerge, every 3-4 months or so. The latest is called Warnings at Waverly Academy and it's all about "mean girls" and a not-so-nice prankster at a girls' boarding school.

When she began the game recently, my daughter ran to tell me about about a character with a tree nut allergy who was put out of commission right off the bat by the school's mystery prankster known as "The Black Cat." The tree nut-allergic character speaks to Nancy's game character via cell phone (I know! It's so fun) and tells Nancy what happened with her accidental ingestion.

According to my daughter, Her Interactive did a pretty good job of explaining that this allergic character needed to use an Epi Pen and that she needed to go to the hospital. My daughter was excited to find validation for her own situation via this tree nut-allergic character in one of her favorite games, even though (ugh) this person was basically poisoned.

A couple of things bothered me, though. The allergic character told "Nancy" that she didn't use the Epi Pen till she got to the hospital (no, you'd use it immediately) and that she winds up in the hospital all the time because she's "not careful." Actually, the latter is actually not a bad reminder to be careful with allergies.

The biggest worry I had was that, as nut allergies become more prominent, they are being used as a way to "off" people in both fiction and film--or at least the attempt is made to do so.

"The DaVinci Code" (book, not movie) used a peanut allergy reaction to kill of a character; likewise the novelist Joanne Harris (of Chocolat fame) devised a character who purposely poisoned a peanut-allergic student in her fairly recent novel "Gentleman and Players." The character survived, BTW. (Incidentally, this a great novel overall.)

I love Her Interactive and their wonderful series of games and I commend them for including a tree nut-allergic character in their latest venture. It does raise awareness, and the fact that the character is hospitalized underscores the seriousness of the allergy and the need to be cautious.

I just wish that nut-allergic characters in literature, film or any form of fiction (like games) weren't always portrayed as victims or used as pawns by malicious characters. As a writer, maybe I'll meet that challenge myself.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Bam! Emeril Takes on Allergy-Free Cooking

My kids have always loved famed chef and TV star Emeril Lagasse--maybe because he talks directly to the camera (as kids shows tend to do) or maybe because he made a Sesame Street cooking video several years ago--one of their favorite videos back in the preschool days.

Either way, he helped get them interested in food and cooking which turned out to be a good thing once we discovered my oldest daughter's severe nut allergies. We cook and bake all the time around here now and the kids enjoy pitching in to help.

So I was happy to discover this joint venture between Emeril and Enjoy Life Foods on YouTube. In it, Emeril visits a Whole Foods store and talks to families with all manner of food allergies and intolerance, including gluten intolerance and nut allergies.

Then, he demonstrates how to make allergy-free brownies that can be enjoyed by families with multiple food issues.

No matter what you think of Emeril, it's clear that the man loves food and is very enthusiastic about the subject so I think he's a great person to advocate for allergy-free food. His participation in this video also shows that food allergies have come a long way in reaching the public consciousness. First Martha Stewart posted allergy-free trick-or-treating tips on her web site and now Emeril tackles allergy-free cuisine! I'm encouraged when I see mainstream figures addressing the subject of allergy-free cooking and baking. It's just becoming an accepted thing--and as Martha would say, that's "a good thing."

Enjoy the clip!

Monday, November 2, 2009

Nut-Free Granola Bars--Where to Find Them

Granola bars are a great, quick and healthy snack--unless you have nut allergies. These bars are usually loaded with nuts or at the very least have come into contact with nuts during the manufacturing process.

I always enjoyed granola bars as a snack and have wished my children could enjoy them as well. They are so easy to pack in a backpack or lunchbox.

The good news is that there are more and more nut-free granola bars on the market these days. Two delicious versions that I've discovered are from Vermont Nut-Free Chocolate and Enjoy Life Foods. The only downside would be that these are a bit pricey. To help with the cost, click here to get an Enjoy Life Foods coupon. You can also find nut-free granola and similar nut-free snacks at FAB Snacks, founded by Jennifer B of the blog Food Allergy Buzz.

Enjoy Life Foods are available at many supermarkets across the U.S. including Whole Foods Market. They are also now available at Jewel grocery stores in the Chicago area--that's where I buy mine.

What are some reader favorites? I can't try them every granola bar out there, so let me know!

Friday, October 30, 2009

Trick-or-Treating with Nut Allergies

When my daughter was first diagnosed with life-threatening peanut and tree nut allergies, we considered not doing the whole trick-or-treating thing. It just seemed counterproductive and potentially harmful emotionally. Why be handed lots of candy that you can't eat? We thought about doing other Halloween activities, like attending Halloween-themed events at the zoo and Chicago museums, but seriously thought about just skipping the candy routine.

My daughter was 5 years old at the time and all she cared about was dressing up like a Disney Princess (that year, I think it was Sleeping Beauty.) She really wanted to go door to door in her fancy costume and I didn't want to have her miss out. Thinking back to my own childhood, Halloween was never only about the candy. It was mostly about dressing up and hanging out with my friends after dark. Candy was a nice side benefit--but definitely not the whole show.

Why should it be any different for my daughter then? We decided to take her out and just have her hand us the obvious unsafe candies--Snickers, Reeses, Butterfingers, M&Ms, and sort through the rest of it later.

It was amusing to see the reactions of neighbors who tried to hand my daughter a Snickers bar. She would politely refuse, ask if they had anything else and then say "OK, then. Thank you anyway" and skip back down the street. Most were like "huh?" A few thought she was being ungrateful or picky. So what? She was so empowered. Finally, I said "just take the candy and I'll put it in a separate bag." That's what she did and all was well.

When we got home, I traded her unsafe candy for a Halloween treats bag: Bonne Belle lip balm, stickers, safe candy and a Halloween book. She loved it!

By the next year, she was running back to me to hand me Snickers bars and the running to the next house without a second thought. Let me tell you, people love their Snickers. I had a bag full of them by the end of the night. No matter. Being with her buddies and dressing up was enough for my daughter--plus she knew she got her own special goody bag later.

A lot of you may wonder "what's the point" about trick-or-treating with nut allergies but if your child really wants to do it, I say go for it. It's a way to show them that they can participate with other kids, while still being careful about their allergy. Now that my daughter is older and her trick-or-treating days are numbered, I'm so glad she enjoyed this. I don't think she'll remember the bag full of Snickers as much as she'll remember the good times she had dressing up, seeing "spooky" decorations and running around in the dark with her friends.

Have a Happy and Safe Halloween!!!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Countdown to Halloween--Are You Ready for the Class Party?

If you're like me, you're gearing up for the classroom Halloween party. Have you done your homework with regard to this school activity yet?

Here are 5 tips for your child's class Halloween party:

1. Find out what foods are allowed. Store bought only? Any other food allergies to consider? Get the info so you can either bake a safe treat or buy something the whole class can enjoy. Now is the time to ask about a nut-free party environment as well.

2. Consider contributing non-edible treats. Stickers, Halloween-themed pencils or small toys add allergy-free fun to a party and best of all, everyone can enjoy them. Check the shelves at Target, Walmart or other discount retailers for great bargains and creative ideas.

3. Contribute some goodies for the entire class. Even if there are other foods at the party that are off-limits to your child (it happens) at least they will able to enjoy one thing that everyone else is eating. This will really help them to feel a part of things.

4. Be available the day of the party. Even if you can't be there, keep your cell phone on and be ready to answer questions. I've been called more times than I can count during a class party and answered questions about specific treats. I don't mind--I'm glad to either steer my child from an unsafe treat or allow them to have it if they can.

5. Role play with your child before the party. If your child is very young or new to nut allergies, this is especially important. Practice with them how to politely refuse food or ask to see a label. In general, tell them to avoid anything they're not sure about. It's never too early to start teaching kids how to handle their allergy.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Chicago Tribune Food Allergen Investigation: Promising Update

Last year, The Chicago Tribune published a series of stories about hidden allergens in foods. Among them were chocolate bars sold at Whole Foods and at that time, marked as nut-free due to "good manufacturing practices." That wasn't true and the Tribune followed many food suppliers and their labels to find alarming inaccuracies.

Last Friday, the paper published an update of this story. You can read the short blurb by clicking this link. Scroll down until you see the heading Allergens. There is a lot of good news for allergic consumers--many of the foods in question have been removed from the Whole Foods shelves, for example. Others companies have pulled product and promised to label the foods accurately.

I get asked about food labels a lot and the fact is, as I just posted about in my recent ice cream post--food labels are random and not policed in many cases. Some companies really have their act together with regard to food allergies--but so many don't.

My best advice is to steer clear of high risk foods if you have any doubts. The old "when in doubt, do without" rule works when labels don't. High risk foods for nut allergies can include chocolate, candy, many ethnic foods, baked goods and baking ingredients.

Always, always ask the company if you don't know what's in their food. If they seem glib or uncertain, avoid their products. Even if they're convincing, you need to do your homework by being aware of who owns the company, what other products they make and what their understanding of "nut-free" is. To some it means a nut-free facility. To others, it means no nuts in the final product. We need to find out where food companies stand and asking them shows them we care.

Still, it's great to know that the Tribune investigation helped pull unsafe foods for food allergies and intolerances. Newspapers are suffering throughout the country but this proves how much they're needed.

One other piece of good consumer news, courtesy of Jennifer of Food Allergy Buzz. Nut-free candy corn is here! A & J Nut-Free Bakery now sells this online. It's made in the U.S. in a nut-free facility. Finally! Go to http://www.foodallergybuzz.com/ for more info.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Nut-Free Halloween Cookie Recipe - A Family Favorite!

Last year I came across a really fun recipe for "Frankenstein Monster Toes" cookies that was a big hit with family, friends and blog readers alike. So I thought it deserved another mention this year, just in time for Halloween.
I found the recipe for this basic sugar cookie in a Halloween-themed food magazine (I think it was Pilsbury) and modified it to fit my own nut-free specifications. If you have kids with dairy, egg or wheat allergies or celiac disease, you can substitute your favorite "safe" sugar cookie recipe. Just be sure to refrigerate your dough for at least an hour.
Frankenstein's Monster Toes Cookies
1 pouch (1 lb. 1.5 oz.) Betty Crocker sugar cookie mix--or use your favorite from-scratch sugar cookie recipe
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/3 cup melted butter or margarine
1 large egg
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract (I use McCormick)
7 drops NEON green food color (McCormick makes this--check the supermarket baking aisle)
36 Mike and Ike or other "safe" jelly beans such as Surf Sweets or Vermont Nut-Free
1. In large bowl stir cookie mix, flour, melted butter, egg, vanilla and green food color until soft dough forms. Cover and refrigerate for one hour.
2. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. For each cookie, roll heaping teaspoons of dough into 2-1/2 inch finger shapes. Be careful not to make the shapes too big or too flat--the dough spreads a lot during baking!
3. About 1 inch from the end of each "toe" squeeze dough slightly. With knife, gently make lines in the dough to look like "knuckles"
4. Bake 6-8 minutes until set. The edges of the cookies should not be at all brown. While still on cookie sheet and working quickly before cookies cool, gently but firmly press a jelly bean into the edge of each "toe" for fingernail. Cool cookies one minute; remove to cooling racks. Let cool completely, about 15 minutes.
This recipe makes 36 cookies.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Nut-Free Halloween Treat--Pumpkin-Seed Brittle

Since many of us have been visiting pumpkin patches lately or plan to do so in the near future, you may be wondering what to do with all of your leftover pumpkin seeds. Toasting them with a little olive oil and salt is always a nice option, or sprinkling them with cinnamon sugar is a nice sweet treat for fall. But we've been there, done that, right?

Leave it to Martha Stewart to find a really creative treat using pumpkin seeds.

For those of us dealing with nut allergies, peanut brittle is off-limits so I was delighted to find a recipe for pumpkin-seed brittle while flipping through "Martha Stewart Halloween" magazine. (I can't resist her holiday-themed anything.) It's really easy as well as being an inventive and tasty way to use pumpkin seeds leftover from pumpkin carving. Here's the recipe:

Pumpkin-Seed Brittle from Martha Stewart magazine Halloween special issue, Fall 2009
(This magazine is available at all major booksellers, newstands and supermarkets.)

(Toast the pumpkin seeds by spreading them on a baking sheet in a 350 degree oven for 7-10 minutes, turning occasionally.)


4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, plus more for baking sheet

1/2 cup packed light brown sugar

1/4 cup honey

1 cup hulled pumpkin seeds, toasted

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Butter an 11-by-17-inch rimmed baking sheet.

Melt butter in small saucepan over medium heat. Stir in sugar and honey. Bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve sugar. Cook, without stirring, until mixture is medium amber in color and a candy thermometer registers 280 degrees, about 6 minutes. Stir in pumpkin seeds. Cook until mixture reaches 300 degrees on the candy thermometer, about 2 minutes. Pour onto prepared sheet and let cool completely before breaking into pieces.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Organic, Allergy-Free Halloween Candy and Recipes from Surf Sweets!

For kids with nut allergies, candy like gummy worms and jelly beans are usually off-limits due to cross-contact warnings on the package. That's a bummer because so many Halloween-themed recipes this time of year make use of these two popular candies.

Well, I was really happy to learn about a relatively new (founded in 2008) Chicago-area candy company that makes gummy worms and jelly beans that are free of the top 8 allergens--Surf Sweets! The best part, besides being allergy-free, is that these candies are also naturally sweetened and made with natural, organic ingredients. Plus they are free from artificial colors and flavors! Awesome. Also, Surf Sweets are made in the U.S. in a dedicated, nut-free facility. Even better.

According to their press release, Surf Sweets are available in mainstream grocery stores across the U.S. and Canada and they are also found in natural foods stores and at online retailers including Peanut-Free Planet.

To get some ideas about Halloween-themed treats you can make using Surf Sweets, check their website for a video demonstrating how to make Popcorn Candy Worm Cake, Mummy Gummys and Witch's Cauldrons. Room Moms and Treat Moms, take note.

I know I'll be sending some of these to the class Halloween party. Not only are they safe for nut allergies, but they are also good for the other students in my daughter's class who have multiple food allergies, including dairy.

Anyone else found some good allergy-free candies for Halloween that they care to share with us? Let me know.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Potential Nut Allergy Nightmare at the Museum

With the early onset of winter-like weather in Chicago (and around the country) I imagine that many of us are trying to find ways to entertain the kids indoors. Last Monday (day off the for Columbus Day holiday), my family ventured out to The Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago for a family field trip. We had a great time but I was reminded--yet again--that you can't be too careful when it comes to nut allergies on the road.

Of course, food is always a concern on any day trip, since at least one meal will have to be eaten away from home. In the early days of my daughter's nut allergy diagnosis, I was definitely a lot less prepared for the kind of thing I encountered at the Museum's "Brain Food Court." I hadn't visited the museum in a while, so when I researched their in-house restaurant offerings, I saw that they now had a food court.

As a veteran Nut-Free Mom, I had already packed my daughter a complete lunch in our insulated "Thermos tote"--kind of like an insulated purse. You can buy them at Target. A placemat really is a nice thing to have on hand when using a community table at a place where lots of kids are visiting. Because as all of us know by now, "lots of kids" = peanut butter. And since PB is sticky, the more sensitive allergy sufferers may react if they get some of this onto their hands or in their food. My daughter has had reactions in cafeteria-like settings, so she really feels more confident with a placemat--I highly recommend it! What an easy way to set your minds at ease so you can enjoy lunch.

To cut down on the amount of stuff I needed to lug around the museum, my husband and I decided to buy lunch for the rest of us on site. As I went through the deli line (a generally safe place for nut-allergic people) I discovered that they served PB & J. I was curious to see if they separated the PB from the other foods, since PotBelly's and Panera seem to do this.

Here's what I found: a huge, much-used and messy open container of peanut butter practically spilling over onto about 3 other open containers that surrounded it. Truly a nut allergy nightmare if you hadn't thought to pack a lunch beforehand, especially if you were a tourist, for example. Even though I confront this type of thing (as many of you do) almost every day, it really bothered me. This is a world-class science museum catering to kids and lots of school groups, after all. They should "get" cross-contact even if they plan to serve PB. For example, Kohl Children's Museum in Glenview, Illinois has Kim & Scott's Pretzel's ( a nut-free bakery) as their in-house dining option. The place is completely nut-free and peanut butter-free--especially nice since the kids use interactive buttons, levers, etc. If Kohl Children's Museum can have nut-free dining, then anyone can.

You can imagine how glad I was that I didn't have to choose a food from the food court for my daughter. I wasn't able to see all of the other offerings at the food court, since the place was packed, but I didn't have a lot of confidence that I would have gotten a nut-free meal there based on what I saw at the deli.

The museum turned out to be an educational place in more ways than one! I share this story to remind all of us, especially those of us newer to nut allergies, that it really pays to pack a lunch and a placemat when you can. Plus, reminding your kids (especially younger kids) to wipe off their hands after using an interactive exhibit is a great idea.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Allergy-Free Food from Welcoming Kitchen

Have you heard of Welcoming Kitchen? This food allergy resource consists of a dynamic duo--Kim Lutz, the mom of a child with multiple food allergies, and Megan Hart, MS, RD, LDN. I first found out about this great, Chicago-based food allergy resource about a year and a half ago when they were featured alongside my Chicago Parent article about coping with food allergies and play dates. You can read the Welcoming Kitchen article that appeared with my story here.

Recently, I was contacted by Welcoming Kitchen with news about a few of their most recent ventures. They have a new blog that offers recipes and kitchen tips for allergy-free, gluten-free and even vegan meals. Plus, they have a book coming out in 2010.

It's always great to hear about the creative ways that food allergy moms help their food allergic kids eat healthfully and deliciously! Be sure to check out out this great resource--and tell them The Nut-Free Mom sent you!

Friday, October 9, 2009

Allergy-Free Travel Tips for Columbus Day Weekend

This is a big weekend for travel so I thought it was a good idea to review some tips for safe travel with allergies. Travel with food allergies goes much, much more smoothly if you have all your ducks in a row before you leave. Hey, you're packing for the kids anyway, so here's just a few more things to remember. If you're kids are old enough, be sure to include them in the process. It's good practice for them.

The important thing is to be prepared for anything, so with that in mind, here goes:

- Bring extra medication. Asthma meds, EpiPens, etc.: make sure you have extra in case one goes missing.

- Make sure you've got your doctors' phone numbers and info easily accessible. Program this info into your cell phone to make sure you've got it if there is (hopefully not!) an emergency.

- Bring your food allergy action plan. In the event anything goes wrong, having this doctor-approved plan will help you stay calm and take the right steps in the event of an emergency.

- Bring a small cooler with a couple of meals (for car travel) or at least one meal in an insulated lunch bag (if necessary) for air travel. Traveling with food allergies is like a box of chocolates--you never know what you're gonna get. Eliminate the need for possibly unsafe food by being prepared with some of your own meals. You can always buy more safe when you get to your destination. You also won't be forced into feeding your child a restaurant meal from a place you haven't researched.

- Stock up on safe snacks. I love Enjoy Life Foods snacks--they are delicious and free of the top 8 allergens. Plus, they are individually packaged for convenience. Fruits, raisins and cut up veggies are also good, healthy choices.

- Bring a placemat. A washable vinyl placemat or one of the useful placemats from AllergyEssentials USA is a great way to cut down on cross-contact when feeding your child away from home.

- Make sure you've got a couple of safe restaurant options at your destination. A quick Internet search and a couple of phone calls will ensure less "dining out drama" on your trip.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Good Witch and Other Allergy-Free Halloween Fun

One of the hardest things about Halloween with food allergies is that the kids who Trick or Treat come home with bags full of candy that they can't eat. Still, for a lot of kids (and parents) Trick or Treating is a big part of Halloween that they don't want to eliminate.

So what do you do to help the kids cope with treats they can't touch?

I just got the most recent FAAN newsletter and a mom had a great suggestion. She said that she has her kids place the unsafe Trick or Treat candy outside their bedroom door on Halloween night. Then, the next morning, "The Good Witch" takes the bags but leaves them a special treat, like a toy or safe candy instead.

I love this idea. It reminds me a little bit of what I do with my daughter who ends up having to give away about 3/4 of her treats bag each year.

We started a Halloween "Treasure Hunt" the first Halloween after we discovered her nut allergies. While Dad took her trick or treating, I placed "clues" around the house leading to special Halloween treats bag filled with safe candies, plus non-edible items like small toys and a Halloween book. This was such a big hit she didn't mind giving up her candies at all. In fact, at age 9 she still looks forward to it!

The only caution I have is for those of you with non-allergic kids--you will have to do something similar with them or they will feel left out. They don't need as much as the allergic kids since they're not giving up their candy, but making it a family activity definitely cuts down on the sibling rivalry and makes it a lot more fun.

What are some of your "tricks" to compensate for the unsafe treats? I'll have more of my own time-tested suggestions soon, but reader ideas are welcome!

Monday, October 5, 2009

Nut Allergy Awareness, One Neighborhood at a Time

Yesterday was our annual "block party." We have a lot of kids on our block and they had a great time, breaking a pinata and playing "Ghost in the Graveyard." (Anyone remember that one? It's so retro but apparently kids still play it!)

Last year, my family and I were new to our block. At last year's block party, we encountered a "Peanut Hunt" where the kids searched for peanuts in the grass. Also, the pinata may have had some peanuts in it, I'm not sure.

At any rate, peanuts were everywhere so we really had to keep an eye on my daughter. Being new to the neighborhood, we didn't know about these activities in advance. I'll admit that I felt that I was in a difficult position this year. I still didn't know most of the block party organizers very well and many had lived on our block for several years. I did casually mention skipping the Peanut Hunt to one of the moms and had planned to contact the main organizer to confirm.

Well, a couple of weeks ago, my next door neighbor (and longtime resident of my block) approached me as I was walking the kids home from school. She told me that she had seen my column in a local newspaper "OnLagrange.com" and the link to my blog. She then brought up the block party and said she hadn't known about my daughter last year and that she would see to it that no peanuts were present at the party.

I was so grateful and I thanked her profusely. Sure enough--no Peanut Hunt, no peanuts in general. And, best of all, nobody seemed to miss them.

As we approach the holidays and parties, I thought this was a good story to bring up because it shows you that many, many people will accommodate you if they understand the situation. (Of course, it also helps if you have great neighbors!) Don't be afraid to ask for a few tweaks to a menu. In a lot of cases, it's not a big deal and you'll have saved yourself and your child a lot of needless stress.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Nut-Free, (Mostly) Allergy-Free Halloween Treat Ideas

Wow, if Target is any indicator, Halloween is like, tomorrow, and Christmas is next weekend! I realized that it's high time I share some nut-free, (mostly) allergy-free Halloween treat ideas that are easy to find anywhere. Of course, there are a few online vendors that I love, but I will get to them in a minute. It's great to have some options to throw in your supermarket cart with the knowledge that it's safe for food-allergic kids.

I found several candy choices that are free of the top 8 allergens and definitely free of peanuts and tree nuts. A lot of the following candies are even available in Halloween-themed snack-sized bags.

While perusing the SuperTarget Halloween candy aisle today I found these "safe" choices: (Important: Please keep in mind that no candy is safe for everyone. Always consider your specific needs and/or call the candy companies if you have additional questions.)



Mike & Ike Jelly Beans

Junior Mints (not safe for all allergies, but safe for nut allergies)


Tootsie Pops

Carmel Apple Pops (made from the Tootsie Roll company, a completely nut-free facility!)

Life Savers



Sweet Tarts

Dum Dum Suckers

Dots (including "Candy Corn" Dots and "Bat" Dots)

Ring Pops

I even found "Candy Corn Hershey Kisses" that meet nut-free criteria. My kids LOVE these but these candies are soooo sweet. Hershey labels their candies very well and uses good manufacturing practices, so if there is any cross-contact chance, they will list it. These do not contain any nut allergen warnings at all. They are not dairy-free, however.

While all of the choices above are nut-free, they are certainly not sugar-free and not so great for the kids' teeth. If you'd like to skip edible treats altogether, here are some non-edible Halloween treats to try. Don't forget to tell the class Room Moms and teachers about some of these. I found many of the following items in the Oriental Trading Company catalog--the prices are not bad, either, when you consider how much you spend on candy. Buy in bulk and you'll save $$...just keep leftovers for next year.

Some of my favorites are:

Spider rings (classic!)

Halloween stickers (buy rolls of these and cut them off in segments to pass out at the door)

Halloween pencils

Pumpkin-shaped Ring Pops

Small, Halloween-themed toys

Another thing that I've heard some moms are doing is placing a little stack (5-10) pennies in a little baggie with orange and black ribbon ties. Little kids love to get money so this is a great non-edible idea. Unfortunately older kids won't go for this as much--they'll probably expect an iPod in the little baggie, so use your judgement.

If your allergies are nut only, as always, I recommend Vermont Nut-Free Chocolates. A great variety of Halloween-themed chocolates and jelly beans are available here.

I hope this gets everybody off to a good start and please share your ideas, too!

Monday, September 28, 2009

Nut Allergy News from Canada Prompts Questions about Accuracy of Current U.S. Stats

Recently I began subscribing to Allergic Living Magazine and they sent me their Summer 2009 issue. In it was a report about a 2008 statistical study that showed there are more nut allergies among Canadian children than children in the U.S. Read about it here. For example, 1.52 percent of Canadian children were found to be allergic to peanuts. A comparable study, performed in 2002 in the U.S. found that .83 children are allergic to peanuts. Tree nut allergy in Canada was also found to be about 120 percent higher for Canadian children, compared to .51 percent in the U.S.

The originators of the study caution that the differences may not be as they appear. The Canadian data was collected 6 years after the U.S. data. Also, in the U.S. data, peanut/tree nut allergy was found to have doubled in the 5 year period between 1997 and 2002. Having no more recent studies to view, we can only extrapolate that the incidence of peanut/tree nut allergy in U.S. children may have doubled--or more--from 2002 to 2007. I hope that the U.S. will get some more recent numbers for us, because among other things, the more kids found to have the allergy the more public policy can be affected. I get so many e-mails and posts from Canadian readers who express amazement that the U.S. does not have consistent policies regarding peanut allergies in schools, for example. Numbers help make a case for changes so I'd love to see some more recent data for peanut/tree nut allergy sufferers. Those of you attending FAAN Walks for a Cure or donating to this event, this is what some of your fundraising dollars should go to.

Allergic Living magazine is a great resource for anyone dealing with food allergies or celiac disease. And unlike Living Without Magazine, they don't include recipes that contain nuts or nut oils! Big bonus in my book--I can find those recipes in any mainstream magazine or newspaper! :)

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Nut-Free School Lunch Ideas for Everyone!

After putting out a call to friends and Facebookers for peanut- and tree nut-free school lunch ideas, I was rewarded with several good lunch options. After reading one too many message board posters who claimed that peanut butter is the pretty much the only school lunch food that they will consider--non-perishable and all of that--I figured it would help to have a few more choices. And guess what? You guys made some suggestions that I never even thought of, so I'm going to shake up my own kids' lunch boxes from now on. I know that some of you have multiple food allergies to consider, so while these choices are nut-free they are not all dairy or egg free. However, I'd love to hear what moms with multiple food allergies are sending to school lunch! Let me know.

One more thing: you will need an insulated thermos and/or sandwich keeper with small freezer packs to keep these non-PB&J lunches cold and safe to eat. I found all of this stuff at Target--one sandwich container even had a freezer pack built in! Cool indeed. You can also find lunch accessories at www.litterfreelunch.com. This company is run by a fellow allergy mom so check it out!

Keep in mind: every one of the following options was from a mom with kids who do not have food allergies. So much for "all I can send is peanut butter, that's all they'll eat." Well, what if they had some more options?

OK, here goes: First some nice vegetarian options from Krysty in New York. She had several great ideas that her non-allergic kids enjoy. She sends them rice cakes with apple butter, veggie dogs in a thermos with a little veggie broth or water to keep them moist, tofu cubes to dip in ketchup (she said her kids will eat pretty much anything dipped in ketchup) bean dip with baked tortilla chips, cheese cubes, fruit and olives. She also suggested hummus in a tortilla or other filling like tuna. These are so creative and easy. Thank you Krysty!!

Genie from Chicago suggested pasta in a thermos, said her son loves it.

Leah from North Dakota says she sends hard-boiled eggs and also tofu cubes with dips. I love all these kids who like tofu. So do my kids!! I don't think I liked tofu until my 20s, but there you go.

I do a lot of turkey sandwiches with veg and fruit slices so I'm so glad to get these ideas. Anybody want to share some others? Thanks again to everybody who contributed!

Monday, September 21, 2009

Food Allergy-Friendly Family Recipe from Cookbook Author Linda Coss

Since it's a Monday and we're right in the middle of the back-to-school rush, I thought I'd share this fabulous and simple recipe that I received from food allergy cookbook author and advocate Linda Coss. As Linda rightly points out in a recent press release, "It's not necessary to prepare a separate meal for your food-allergic child and then pick something up for the rest of the family." Besides being a drag and excluding the child with food allergies, I find the pick-up and prepare method to be more trouble than it's worth.

The following dairy-free, egg-free and nut-free recipe comes to the rescue. I like it because my kids love salmon and for those of you trying to offer a meat-free option to your kids, the sweet and tangy sauce makes it even more appealing.

I'll have more recipes from Linda in upcoming blog posts. Enjoy!

Apricot Glazed Salmon
Reprinted with permission from "What Else Is to Eat? The Dairy-, Egg-, and Nut-Free Food Allergy Cookbook" by Linda Marienhoff Coss, available at http://www.foodallergybooks.com/
In this salmon dish a layer of garlic makes a nice counterpoint to the sweet apricot glaze.
Preparation time: 5 minutes
Cooking time: 10 minutes
2 tablespoons sugar-free apricot fruit spread
1-1/2 teaspoons honey
1/2 teaspoon white wine vinegar
1 pound salmon fillet, about 1-inch thick
1-1/2 teaspoons bottled minced garlic
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon pepper
Preheat broiler. Cover broiler pan with aluminum foil.
To make apricot glaze place apricot fruit spread and honey in a small microwave-safe bowl. Microwave on high for 30 seconds or until liquefied; stir in vinegar and then set aside.
Place salmon, skin side down, on prepared broiler pan. Place garlic, salt and pepper in a small bowl; mix well and then spread evenly over salmon. Broil for 6 minutes. Spread apricot glaze evenly over salmon. Broil for an additional 4 minutes until done; serve immediately.
Makes 4 servings, 4 oz. each.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Carrying More than One Epi Pen Recommended

My local food allergy support group just sent me an e-mail about a study done late last year that found that food-allergic kids with asthma should be carrying two Epi Pens with them instead of just one. Based on a study of more than 400 kids, kids with both medical conditions usually required a second dose in the event of an allergic food reaction.

You can read about this and the discussion that followed on the Allergic Living reader forum by clicking this link.

I didn't know about this and will definitely pack an extra Epi Pen in my daughter's pack at school. This is also a good question to ask your allergist.

Speaking of allergists: we visited ours early this week for a regular check-up and I told her what happened with my daughter's allergic reaction at school. Some of you may remember that I was concerned my daughter's sensitivity to peanuts/tree nuts had increased.

I received good news and bad news. The good news first: my doctor believes that the allergic reaction was not caused by heightened sensitivity or "airborne" allergy. She said that condition is very rare, and unlikely since my daughter had not experienced airborne nut allergy issues in the past. This made me feel better, because of course I was envisioning problems with air travel, field trips, you name it.

Here's the bad news: my doctor believes the reaction was caused by a very small amount of accidentally ingested peanut or tree nut--probably caused by the large number of kids eating those foods near her when the reaction occurred. She concluded this based on the symptoms: nausea, hives, facial swelling. In other words, some of my child's classmates' food got onto her food (obviously a tiny amount or her reaction would have been worse than what it was). She also said that kids with seasonal allergies (my daughter has ragweed allergy) will have a lower "reaction" threshold in general during allergy season--it takes less to cause one.

So, my conclusion about sticking with peanut-free tables holds even more after that discussion. As always, if you have any questions about your own situation, please ask your doctor.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Taming the Food Allergy Anxiety Beast

At a recent school Parents Night, the teachers passed out a child development fact sheet for kids ages 8-10 years old. For the 9-year-olds, one of the common developments was "increased anxiety about the world." Add life-threatening food allergies to the mix and you can have a recipe for one stressed-out kid.

It makes sense that as kids get older, they get more concerned about things going on in the world. After all, their understanding of the world's machinations only increases each year. I find that as my daughter has gotten older, she has gotten more anxious (at times) about her severe nut allergy. A recent hives and facial swelling scare just from being around PB&J at school as well as a restaurant "near miss" this summer has contributed to her overall concern. Hey, who can blame her?

Some of you with school age kids may be going through this too. What can we do as parents to help alleviate some of the food allergy anxiety? It's not like we can tell them that it will always be OK and nothing will happen. We don't want them to over-think their condition, but we definitely want them to take responsibility for their serious allergy. It's a tricky business. Here are some strategies that have worked for us:

- Have your child be responsible for carrying medication. This gives my daughter a sense of power, because she knows she always has it with her rather than relying on the adults around her. It's also good practice for the future and it seems to make her less anxious. Obviously a 3-year-old can't carry the epinephrine but as kids get a little older you can ask them: What else do I need to bring with us today? Early reinforcement of this will help them to be responsible later on.

- Let kids take the lead. This past weekend, we went to a new candy store in town that models itself after the old-fashioned ones. You know, candy in barrels, all the candy we liked as kids, etc. Since it is all tightly wrapped and there are many safe options for us, we allow her to visit there once in awhile. Recently, however, peanut butter-filled pretzels were lying in an open container near the cash register/counter. My daughter hates to see stuff like that, but because her foods were wrapped and didn't get anywhere near the pretzels, we deemed it safe for her. It took her a couple of hours to agree with us, however. After explaining the low risk to her, I let it go. It hurt me to see her not be able to enjoy her candy right away, like her sister did--until I saw her later that day, reading a favorite book and enjoying her new candy. Lesson learned? Let your kids determine what they feel is safe enough. Don't press them. It is their allergy, after all, not ours. They need to do what they think is right.

- Reinforce safe dining out experiences. It's tempting to want to avoid restaurants due to food allergy concerns, but it's good to occasionally go to them if only to show your child that you can. Thoroughly research the restaurant and then have your child order a simple menu item. We've become regulars at a few restaurants and it really boosts my daughter's morale (well, all of ours, really) to enjoy a restaurant meal successfully and safely. Plus, becoming adept at these situations will be a lifelong skill.