Monday, June 29, 2009

Ming Tsai, Food Allergy Dad and Chef Speaks Out

Anyone who knows about food allergies has to know about Ming Tsai. He recently helped get food allergy legislation passed in his home state of Massachusetts and also is the father of a 9-year-old boy with multiple food allergies.

His restaurant Blue Ginger is a food-allergic diner's dream--they are extremely careful in their protocols due to the fact that Ming is well aware of the possible outcomes of eating an allergen if you've got a life-threatening food allergy. In fact, Jennifer B of Food Allergy Buzz brought her allergic son there for his birthday and if I'm not mistaken they got to meet the man himself. This guy is so inspiring to me for being a foodie who dares to speak out about food allergies--not always welcome news to those in the restaurant biz. And he also is a great role model for all the dads out there--moms aren't the only ones dealing with food allergies, obviously!

Here is a link to a recent Q&A by Ming during his appearance at the recent Aspen Food & Wine Festival. Rock on, Ming! On behalf of all the food allergy parents (and kids) out there, thanks for all you do!

Creative Food Allergy Products from Allergy Essentials

Moms of kids with food allergies seem to have rediscovered the old adage "Necessity is the mother of invention." I was recently contacted by Alison of Allergy Essentials, a mom of two food-allergic kids who obviously faces the same challenges that we do as food-allergic parents. For example--who of us hasn't forgotten to carry the EpiPen, especially when we are first prescribed it? And how about dining out at malls, outdoor venues like zoos or picnic tables at the park? It's not so convenient--not to mention very uneco-friendly--to cart around a roll of paper towels for use as an impromptu placemat to protect your allergic child from allergens on table surfaces.

To that end, Alison has come up with several creative products for use by food-allergic kids and their families. I was able to try out two of her items--the Epissentials Epi Pen carriers and a special Food Allergy Placemat.

The Epi Pen carrier was kind of a revelation because you can attach it to your own body or to your child's body, making it that much harder to forget. And it couldn't be closer to you if you ever need to use it! The Epissentials carriers are available in different sizes or colors, so boys, girls and adults can choose what suits them best.

The Epi Pen is worn in a pocket of the carrier, while the straps adhere to your leg with Velcro. For adults, this is practical for day trips or times when you are already carrying a lot of stuff. Really, if you don't carry a purse or bag (or tend to change them a lot, like me!) then this carrier will work wherever you go.

For kids--especially those who are active and don't generally carry a bag--I find this less restrictive than the "fanny pack." And if they've got long pants on, they are the only ones who know that they are carrying it. Obviously for sports or very active play, kids shouldn't wear it. But for everyday life, it's really easy to use and especially helpful if you tend to forget the EpiPen or have ever left it to overheat (or get overly chilled) in the car.

The Food Allergy Placemats are a straightforward means of protecting the dining surfaces, but with a twist. They also have a pocket for an EpiPen and they each are labeled with the words "Food Allergy." This is great for building awareness, especially if your kids are really young and can't communicate about their allergies themselves. Also, there are different styles to choose from so boys and girls can take their pick. My daughter really liked the sparkly butterfly print on the placemat that was sent to us.

For more products and information, check out the Allergy Essentials web site. I'm always happy to hear about products from moms of kids with food allergies--they've been there and know what we need most! Let me know what you think of these items.

Note: This is my unpaid, personal opinion of the products mentioned above. I received no reimbursement for my review other than sample products.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Grilling Season and Food Allergies

The grilling season is upon us and of course that means more cookouts, barbecues and get-togethers with family and friends--and of course that means we need to be on the lookout for food allergy issues. Grilled foods are so good and can often be a really safe choice for the nut allergic. However, any cooking vessel like a grill carries a cross-contact risk.

FAAN recently e-mailed some grilling tips that I want to paraphrase here for all of us as we partake in summer dining. I may have blogged about some of these before, but these tips are definitely worth repeating!

Check out prepared burgers--some contain peanuts or tree nuts as fillers. Always ask to read the labels of these type of burgers. If at all possible, make them fresh so you know exactly what they contain.

Utensils, utensils, utensils! A big cause of cross-contact, so make sure that utensils used to touch marinades or allergenic foods are NOT used for you.

Sauces and marinades. These often contain unsafe ingredients so check the labels if using bottled brands or make your own.

And here's one of my own:
Public grills. Don't use them! Camp sites and some public parks contain public grills and you want to avoid these. Too much risk of cross-contact! Bring along a Smokey Joe --they're small, portable and inexpensive.

Just a note on recipes: I'm a little behind on those so I'll have some summer offerings later this week!

Monday, June 22, 2009

Food Allergies and Restaurant Anxiety

We had an issue pop up this weekend regarding restaurants, one that many of you with food-allergic kids will eventually face so of course I have to talk about it.

My family went out to a nice, al fresco dining Greek restaurant in Chicago for a pre-Father's Day celebration dinner this past Saturday. It was one that my family has been to many times and we've been over the menu items with the staff so we know what to order.

When it comes to peanut allergies, Greek food is a great choice. They don't use peanuts! (Of course, always ask about the oil for deep fried items--better yet, skip those. There are so many other good things on a Greek menu that you can order, esp. from the grill.)

For nut allergies in general, Greek desserts must be avoided. However, since we always avoid desserts in a restaurant for our allergic daughter (she usually brings her own) that's usual for her.

We try to make everything as normal and natural as possible when visiting a restaurant with our allergic daughter. We also try to stick to the same places--usually family-style, casual joints since we have fairly young kids.

We thought bringing the family to a more elegant location for a change would be exciting to the kids, and it was. However, my daughter was intimidated. Until we were seated, I hadn't known that she had anxiety about the situation. She'd seemed excited about going out, put her favorite dress and shoes on, etc. It was a whole other story when we got there--she was nervous. We all tried to soothe her, but until she'd eaten a few items, she wasn't comfortable. Pretty soon, when she saw that she was safe, she relaxed and everyone had a great time.

It taught me a lesson, though. Even though we may try to make everything seem normal, as kids get older they know that they have a risk of reaction. Even if Mom, Dad, Auntie or Grandma and Grandpa are looking out for you, kids can still feel afraid.

You can't tell a kid with a food allergy that they don't have to worry about it, either. You can tell them not to worry about a particular situation, but not that they can be completely relaxed about it. That's tricky, but these nuances of life are part of growing up. It's so much easier when the kids are small and their trust is complete.

The key is managing your food-allergic child's worries so that they can have fun at a restaurant. Usually, my daughter is fine when dining out and enjoys it. But I realized that even a small shift in routine can be anxiety-producing, so I need to help her through it.

Silly stories from Dad helped her get her mind off of things and then she was ravenous. By the time the meal ended and we took the kids to Millennium Park in Chicago for an evening stroll on the new Art Institute bridge and a splash in the fountain, she was happy and peaceful.

It's harder to convince an older child that "everything will be OK" all the time because once they've lived a little and especially when they remember their reactions, they know that danger is out there. I'm prepared next time to help when the dining out with food allergy anxieties pop up again. Every successful restaurant experience builds confidence but it's hard to watch a kid worry. Next time I know that it will be a little bit like entering a cold pool for her--she'll want to dip in one toe at a time. That's who she is--I suspect she'd be that way with or without a food allergy. I have confidence that she'll figure the whole thing out and if she needs me, I'll be there even if I can't take all the worries away.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Summer Camp Tips for Food Allergy Parents

I am just about wrapping up a camp with my nut-allergic daughter so I thought I would share some of the tips I've found useful for our family. Today I received a "sick" phone call and was able to be reached right away, thank goodness. It's time to share my pearls of hard-earned wisdom since I can be notorious for rushing out of the house in the a.m. If you're like me, it pays to be prepared.

Here are a few basic tips to remember as you take your kids to camp:

Keep the phone charged. If your phone is dead, they can't reach you! Plug that sucker in ASAP after returning home from camp each day. If you can't remember, write yourself a note.

Have your child memorize cell phone numbers if old enough. Occasionally clerical errors will result in camp staff having the wrong number, or maybe your home number isn't the best place to reach you during the day. In my case, I sent my daughter to school with my cell phone number memorized--our home number is on her allergy bracelet and since her day camp was far from home, I did not return there after drop off but hung out in town nearby instead.

Meet key staff in person. It's really helpful to match names with faces and it gives a personal touch to the staff to show them that you care enough about your child's well-being to seek them out. Involved parents get better service from staff and teachers!

Double-check the Epi Pen's expiration date. You may be transferring Epis straight from the school health office to camp. That's fine, but inspect their date and color (if the liquid looks yellow, it may be invalid) and determine if they've had heat or cold exposure.

Stock plenty of allergy-free snacks and "cold packs." Depending on the camp, your child may be eating snacks and/or meals there so always have safe snacks that they can grab as they go. Keeping a supply of frozen cold packs on hand ensures that your child's bag lunch stays at a safe temp on a hot summer day.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Asthma Inhaler Alert for Peanut Allergy

I just received a rather disturbing e-mail alert written by an ER worker and felt the need to make us all aware of its contents. Apparently the asthma inhaler called Atrovent contains a peanut oil derivative. The nebulizer and nasal spray do not, but patients with peanut allergies should check with their physicians about avoiding all Atrovent meds.

According to the e-mail alert, ER patients who enter the hospital due to an asthma attack are routinely given both Albuterol and Atrovent, so if your child has asthma and a peanut allergy you will not want this given to them.

Here is a link that talks more about who should take Atrovent.

I would ask all of you to follow up with your doctors about this--I will do the same with mine. I'm not an allergist but I thought I would put this info out there since the last thing we want when our child is having an asthma attack is for them to be given peanut oil via the inhaler!

Also, it goes to show how important it is to communicate to all medical people who work on your child--including dentists--that they have a peanut allergy.

It's official: peanut products really are everywhere! Sigh.

I'll let you know what I find out and please feel free to chime in if you've heard anything about this product.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Hershey's Candy Follow-Up

I got a lot of questions and response from my previous Hershey post regarding the safety of their candies. I understand why--we'd love to have a few more choices at the supermarket for our allergic family members.

Good news, kids. Hershey, at least, has several products that the nut-allergic can use. For all other allergies, check the labels, please. Those of you with milk or dairy allergies should probably stick to Enjoy Life or other dairy-free chocolate brands.

Check out this link from the FAQS page at Hershey. It confirms what I have been told--if there is any concern about crossover contact, they will have an allergy warning such as "may contains" or "processed on equipment with." If you don't see this type of allergy warning you can then deem the product "safe."

So that would mean plain Hershey's milk chocolate kisses are safe for nut allergies--for other varieties--and there are so many--please read the labels carefully. Also, Hershey's semi-sweet baking chips are OK--good to know since Nestle are off limits.

Of course, companies can make mistakes so we never have guarantees when purchasing prepared foods. However, kudos to Hershey (located in my husband's hometown!) for taking food allergies seriously. If you have questions about specific allergy needs, you can call Hershey at 1-800-468-1714. Hours are Monday-Friday between 9 and 4 ET.

I hope this helps clear up some of the confusion!

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Allergy-Free Food Deals!!!

I just found out about two great allergy-free food deals going on right now. Enjoy Life Foods are now 10% off at Peanut Free Planet. Just type in code Enjoy10off at checkout. Many of you are Enjoy Life junkies already, but for those not in the know, they feature tons of allergy-free foods including snacks, chocolate chips, cookies, crackers and much more. I just posted about stocking up on summer snacks so what about giving them a try? The sale ends June 30th.

Also, Sweet Alexis Bakery ( has a great "Starter Pack" deal going on for a limited time. You can purchase a huge slew of wonderful baked goods including banana bread, decadent chocolate cake, muffin varieties, cookies and more for just $29.99. The regular Starter Pack price is $46.50 so that's a great savings! I've personally tried these products and they're delicious! Save yourself some wear and tear and skip turning on the oven while you enjoy these treats.

Bon appetit, allergy-free!

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Summer Fun, Food Allergy-Free

Now that most kids are out of school, that means that they will be invited for more play dates, visit more relatives and generally be exposed to more risk. We've already run into some unexpected circumstances, so I figure that many of you will as well. However, that risk can be minimized and managed with a few simple precautions.

Here are a few of my top tips for dealing with food allergies at summer parties and play dates:

Always assume food will be present. It always is, so have an allergy-free alternative on hand for your child. I'm putting together a couple of "treat bags" that my daughter can grab as she heads over to a friend's house. The last thing you want is for parents to give your child an unsafe food just because the kid is starving. Make up some of your own treat bags and have them ready near the front door.

Educate other parents. What does a reaction look like? How do you read a label? What are your kids permitted to eat or not eat? All of these questions need to be answered, so be prepared to answer them. It will ease your mind as well as theirs.

Become the hostess (or host) with the mostess. If possible, host the play dates at your home where you control the food, especially if your child is very young. It's often the best way to ensure safety when kids are too young to take responsibility for their allergy themselves.

Give them the tools. If your child is older and can understand more, make sure they understand that they only eat approved foods. Teach them to read labels and "when in doubt, do without." When they learn to politely refuse foods and go about playing, you're giving them confidence to handle themselves in the world without you.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Whew! Made It Through Another School Year!

Today was my two daughters' last day of school---they just finished up kindergarten and 3rd grade, respectively, and I'm finding myself a little bit emotional today, but in a good way.

As I went to the school office to pick up my daughter's allergy medications, I remarked to the health aide "Thank you. And thank goodness we didn't have to use them."

This fact hit home with me even more as the school kids were released for summer break and they flooded out of the building. We had a good year at our new school and the best part--no allergic reactions. You can't ever take that for granted. I feel very thankful today.

Summer isn't without it's food allergy challenges--travel, food-related events, day camps that serve PB&;J (or other allergenic foods)-- but I for one am taking a moment to be thrilled that my daughter came through another year of school both healthy and happy.

OK--time to break up an argument in the back yard!

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Summer Soiree Tips for the Food Allergic

Recently, I contributed a short column to our local paper about hosting food-allergic guests at summer parties. My piece was geared to the non-allergic, so here's a slight reprise for use by all of us who deal with food allergies every day.

Talk about it. When you reply to an invitation, notify your hosts immediately about any food allergies or dietary restrictions. It's nice to give them advance notice so that they can tailor the menu or ask you to bring a dish.

Bring the dessert. Most people with food allergies have to avoid desserts from bakeries or even other people's kitchens because of cross-contact concerns or because they can't eat the ingredients--nuts, eggs, wheat. Offering to bring at least one of the sweet treats ensures that your family members will be able to enjoy dessert with everyone else.

Beware of double-dipping. A perfectly "safe" food can become allergenic if the same utensils used for one dish are then used in another. Buffets can become danger zones for this reason. If you are invited to a buffet, either ask to serve your child first or bring your child a separate main dish that only they will eat.

Consider the grill. Grills can become a food allergy nightmare due to marinades containing peanut butter, nut oils or dairy items and/or potentially allergenic proteins like seafood. (Or hamburger buns, if you've got wheat allergy or celiac disease). You might want to invest in a Smokey Joe (small size BBQ) to tote along to a party. That way, you can grill away without worry.

Own the allergy. Don't be afraid to bring your own food or to share your allergy concerns with your hosts. An upbeat explanation of why your child (or you) can't eat a particular food beats staying at home. In the end, it's more important that you enjoy time with friends and family than what you eat while you're there.