Friday, July 30, 2010

Nut-Free Bakery in Chicago! Cafe Twist Is Delish!

We've been planning to visit Cafe Twist--Kim & Scott's Gourmet Pretzel Cafe since it opened this past May and are we glad we did! Even our overheated and subsequently towed car couldn't stand in our way--the car chose to break down just one block from Cafe Twist, so while my wonderful husband waited with the car, my sister and I brought my two girls to Cafe Twist, a nut-free bakery and resto in Chicago. (And of course we brought back some goodies for Dad.)

The reason for our trek to Lincoln Park? Cafe Twist is a nut-free gourmet pretzel cafe that offers sandwiches and cookies made in a nut-free environment. This kid-friendly cafe serves NO peanut butter, but uses Sunbutter instead for one sandwich choice. They are also very allergy aware and allergy-friendly--in fact, a mural on the wall states "allergy aware."

What's especially delicious about the sandwiches at Cafe Twist is that each sammy is made using a warm gourmet soft pretzel. My kids are soft pretzel fanatics so this is a big treat for them!

My oldest daughter got a ham and cheese pretzel sandwich and my youngest opted for the pretzel dog--essentially a hot pretzel wrapped around a hot dog. Pretty ingenious and delicious!

I asked for clarification on some of the items and while they do offer granola for a breakfast item, it is nut-free (though made in a facility with nuts.) The cookies are also safe and nut-free.

Cafe Twist also offers scooped ice cream and while I didn't notice any nut flavors, we don't do scooped ice cream as a rule so that wasn't an issue for us that day.

I know that some of us deal with allergies other than peanuts and tree nuts, but a nut-free cafe is definitely a step in the right direction. It was a great feeling for my nut-allergic daughter to know that she was in an environment that was safe for her and that she could have the baked goods she wanted. As we know, baked goods are a no-no for people with nut allergies as a rule. To wrap up their massive meal, my oldest asked for a chocolate stuffed pretzel and the youngest wanted the cinnamon stuffed pretzel.

My youngest daughter was amazed by the cafe because "I didn't know you could do so many things with pretzels!" Turns out you can. They even have pretzels that kids can twist themselves and then have baked.

So if you've got kids with nut allergies, please visit the fabulous Cafe Twist and tell your friends and relatives! I love to support these places because in this economy, especially, we've got to show them that nut-free is loved, appreciated and NEEDED.

Thanks to Kim & Scott's Cafe Twist for a great meal that put smiles on all of our faces that day, even my husband, despite the car breakdown.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Food Allergies in the Classroom--My Tips in Chicago Parent Magazine

Here's a link to my new article that appears in the current issue of Chicago Parent magazine.

This short piece was exciting for me to write because it addresses families without food allergies and strives to explain the food allergy situation to them. This is something I do every year at school, along with all of you, so I hope it's helpful!

Click here to read the entire story.

Monday, July 26, 2010

It's Food Allergy Action Plan Time!

This post is a reprise of one I did this time last year. It's an important piece of the back-to-school puzzle, so here it is: key info for new readers and a reminder for the rest of us!

Many of us are getting our paperwork ready for back to school, or for a lot of us our child's first year of school--the big K--kindergarten. Even a seasoned food allergy parent like me gets a little queasy just thinking about what can go wrong at school. What helps me feel a lot, lot more in control is having a current copy of my daughter's Food Allergy Action Plan on file at the school office.

Do you have your Food Allergy Action Plan ready yet? Here is a link if you need a copy, available from the FAAN website.

The action plan will show the school staff every symptom to look for and action to take in the event of a reaction. I know that schools use these--we've had a reaction at school and the school health aide followed it to the letter. Although Benadryl was enough, without the dose of Benadryl, who knows? Bottom line: you may need this so make sure you feel certain that it's complete and accurate.

Make sure that your doctor fills out the form completely and that they include any special info needed. For example, does your child have asthma? Other health conditions? The form provides space for all of these. This form from FAAN is very clear and easy to read--my doctor said it was the best one he ever saw!

Here are a few other tips for a successful Food Allergy Action Plan:

- Print it on neon colored paper so that it's easy to spot in the event of an emergency.

- Be sure to include a current photo of your child--I usually use last year's school yearbook photo--so that substitutes and other staff visually recognize your child.

- Make sure the form is complete before submitting it and include a post-it with your phone number that offers to answer any questions about your child and their allergy.

You have time left before school starts so get this form into your allergists now--why wait? You'll beat the mad rush at the end of the month.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Food Allergy Awareness Made Fun--AllerMates!

Have you heard about AllerMates? This fun and practical line of rubber bracelets, dog tags and an upcoming line of allergy charms was featured in the most recent issue of Chicago's Special Parent magazine.

I hate to bring up back-to-school in the height of summer, but it's coming and since the fad for rubber bracelets doesn't look like it's fading anytime soon, AllerMates provide a great way for kids to remind others of their allergy. These would also be helpful on a play date or at daycare.

The AllerMates website also has fun and silly info about each character, such as "Eggie" and "P. Nutty."

If you've already tried these, let us know how you like them!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Are Food Allergies Getting Easier to Manage?

I was interviewed for the current issue of Special Parent magazine, a spin-off of Chicago Parent magazine. The story focused on Chicago-area businesses and restaurants that accommodate various food allergies and intolerances. The story also discussed the difficulties that parents have in managing food allergies with their children and how the new crop of businesses are beginning to make it easier.

Now, it's your turn. Can we have your input on allergy-friendly stores, restaurants or other establishments in your area?

Every little step does make it easier, especially when dining out with food allergies. I am encouraged by the article and am hopeful that more establishments will crop up to address our needs. We are definitely loyal customers once we trust a place, so the success of allergy-friendly establishments should be assured.

OK, let us hear from you!

Monday, July 19, 2010

Food Allergies and Travel: Dining Out Tips

My blog was quiet last week since I was on a short summer vacay with the family, so I thought I'd share some of the insights I picked up while out and about.

For me, the most stressful part of traveling with my nut-allergic daughter is restaurants. We do go to them at home, but not super frequently and when you're away from home and staying at a hotel, restaurants are your main source of food. And as someone who watches "Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares" every day on BBC America, that is a pretty scary reality for me. The bottom line is that you just never know what is going on in a restaurant kitchen and who is doing the cooking. As we know, restaurant workers vary widely in their knowledge and understanding of food allergies. So the pressure is on us to communicate and navigate menus and establishments on our own.

Here are a few things I've learned. Forgive me if I'm repeating myself on any points--some can't be emphasized enough. Also, I've been getting messages from several new readers and they may not have heard these before. Okay, here are my tips for dealing with nut allergies while traveling.

Less is more. When evaluating a restaurant for allergic folks, seek our restaurants with small, simple menus. Why? Well, big menus that feature everything under the sun usually contain several off-limits items and cross-contact risk becomes greater. Also, the bigger the menu, the more likely that several chefs are cooking at once and again, cross-contact is an issue.

Find out what kind of oil they use for frying. This is especially important if a fried dish is one of a resto's specialities. We called every restaurant in Lake Geneva, WI that we wanted to try and found out that several used only peanut oil for frying. In that case, we skipped the restaurant entirely. Too much risk of cross contact. In other cases, we were told only canola oil was used--we had staff confirm this from the kitchen. Those were the restos we felt good visiting. So peanut oil is out and canola is in. Minimize your risk ahead of time and you'll have a better experience.

Get the menu in advance. Most places have their menu displayed outside the restaurant and in many cases you can get menus online. This is hugely helpful--don't skip this step! Knowledge of the menu helps you to avoid places that emphasize items that your allergic family members need to avoid.

Pay attention to salads. Salads are one of my daughter's favorite meals, especially Greek salads (no doubt a heritage thing since my husband is part Greek.) However, salads can be high risk so before you let your child order one, examine what other salads are on offer. Do any of the salads contain nuts or nut oils in the dressings? If so, don't order a salad. The reason? Sometimes chefs untrained in food allergy simply pick the nuts off of a prepared salad and serve it--this makes for a potential reaction because the salad is then contaminated. Dressings look alike and can be mistaken for each other. Side note: my daughter knows to do this already. When she ordered a Greek salad, I opened my mouth to say--let's look at the other salads first--and she already had read the menu. None of them contained nuts. One more reason to involve your kids in the menu-reading process, even when they are young. It's great when they take responsibility for their own allergies.

Take the pressure off with some non-restaurant meals. We made sure to get a room with a refrigerator, enabling us to give our kids some cereal for breakfast or simple snacks. We also had a picnic dinner and lunch during our vacation using items we purchased from the local grocery store. Our kids really enjoyed picking out foods for our picnics and our allergic daughter felt more in control. Our picnics were some of our best times while on our trip--and it was the one time I wasn't on alert for allergic reaction. I needed a break--and so will you. Adding a few non-restaurant meals to your trip is not only stress-saving, it's money-saving as well.

Readers, please feel free to share your tips as well. The bottom line is that we had a great, allergy-free trip by using some simple "menu detecting" and common sense precautions--and you can too. Still, I admit it's nice to be home in my own kitchen where I know what is being served!

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Summer Fun, Food Allergy-Free!

Summer means more play dates, visiting more relatives and friends, and can generally be more risky. 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.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Nut-Free, Food Allergy-Friendly Summer Recipes: Fresh Pasta Sauce and Stuffed Bell Peppers

What's for dinner? That is the question, especially when caring for kids with food allergies. Since it's full summer and we have garden-fresh vegetables from our own gardens, farmer's markets and even the supermarket, I thought I would share two family favorites. Both of these recipes, Pasta with Fresh Tomato Sauce and Stuffed Bell Peppers are a great way to get your kids to eat vegetables and both are nut-free, of course. They can also be made dairy-free and if you use gluten-free pasta, they can be gluten-free.

My kids love herbs, vegetables and garlic, but if you're feeding very young children or picky eaters, you can go easier on some of the seasonings; just be sure not to skimp on the salt and pepper.

I hope you enjoy these easy main dishes as much as my family has.

Pasta with Fresh Tomato Sauce

This is an uncooked sauce that you place on hot pasta and it can be pulled together literally in minutes. It is so refreshing on a hot summer evening and if you can involve your kids in picking the tomatoes and/or basil from the garden, all the better. My kids seem to enjoy their food more if they're involved in the process. This recipe is adapted from one I saw in Real Simple Magazine a couple of years ago.

Serves 4

12 ounces linguine or pasta of your choice
1 1/2 pounds tomatoes (plum or beefsteak work well), quartered
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 clove garlic, chopped
kosher salt and black pepper
1/2 cup fresh basil or parsley, chopped
1/4 cup grated Parmesan (1 ounce) (Skip the cheese if you are dealing with dairy allergies.)

1.Cook the pasta according to the package directions. Drain the pasta and return it to the pot.
2.Meanwhile, in a food processor or blender, puree the tomatoes, oil, garlic, ¾ teaspoon salt, and ¼ teaspoon pepper.
3.Toss the pasta with the tomato sauce and half the basil. Sprinkle with the Parmesan and remaining basil and serve.

Stuffed Bell Peppers
In the summer months, I like to use ground turkey in this dish because it tastes lighter. And it's healthier, too, but the ground beef version is delicious. This is typical of a dish that would be served as an appetizer in our favorite Greek restaurant, but with a salad and bread it makes a full meal. If you like (and can serve dairy to your kids) a sprinkle of cheese at the end of cooking is a nice option. Without is great, too. In fact, that's my preference.

6 large bell peppers, (green, red, yellow, orange or a combo),
cleaned, cored and seeded
1 lb ground beef or ground turkey
1/2 yellow onion, chopped
1 tsp salt
1 clove garlic, finely minced
1 cup cooked rice (I use brown rice--if you use the Uncle Ben's Whole Grain rice (in the orange envelope) for the microwave, this recipe is even faster and easier!)
1 15-oz can of organic or natural tomato sauce
Oregano, fresh basil to taste
Shredded mozzarella or Parmesan, feta or other hard Greek cheese, if you like

In a large pot, bring about 5 cups of water to a boil and add salt to taste. Cook the peppers in boiling water for about 5 minutes; drain. For added flavor, sprinkle the bottoms of the peppers with a little salt and sugar (to boost sweetness of peppers.)

In a medium skillet, brown the meat. Add the onion and cook until tender. Drain the fat. Stir in salt, garlic, rice and 1 cup of the tomato sauce and heat through to blend flavors. Add oregano and fresh Basil if using and mix lightly.

Lightly stuff each pepper evenly with meat mixture. Stand the peppers upright in an ungreased baking dish, at least 8-inch square. Pour remaining tomato sauce over the peppers. Cover with foil or a glass cover and bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes. If using cheese, sprinkle on top. Uncover and bake 15 minutes longer.

Makes 6 servings.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Food Allergy Travel Tips for Summer Fun!

I hope everyone had a safe and happy Fourth of July celebration! It seems that this holiday kicks off the start of the summer travel season, and a lot of you have been contacting me about summer travel. As we know, getting to our destination can be tricky on an airplane. But what about when you get there? Or if you plan to drive? Restaurants are a part of travel and eating away from home needs a little more planning with food allergies.

Here are some tips to help you have a safe, fun summer trip with food allergies:

Do your homework. Research your location for restaurants that you know are safe and plan to visit them. You also want to know what types of eateries are available at your destination, so go to the city's web site and check out their offerings. If you aren't sure about a restaurant, call before you leave on your trip and ask them about their menu and practices. You will get a feel for the place and how they handle food allergies before you even set foot in the restaurant. This is a great way to head off problems before they can arise.

Consider your hotel accommodations. If it's possible to get a room with a refrigerator or a suite with a small kitchen area, this is ideal. The ability to give your child a few meals in the room will prevent you from having to deal exclusively with restaurants. It will also take a little of the pressure off and you'll have a more relaxing time.

One word: Picnic! Summer is the time for picnics, so why not make this a part of your trip? A visit to the local grocery store can also add some local color to your vacation and this way you'll be able to determine everything that your allergic family member will eat.

Make the most of allergy resources. For example, Allergy Eats and Allerdine are websites that have a list of restaurants and allergy ratings from consumers. Don't forget to add your own restaurant information to this website, whether good or bad.

Don't forget the safe treats from home. I usually bring along some home-baked cookies or several packaged treats that I know my daughter can eat, especially when driving to our destination. This saves a ton of time, money and worry. Who wants to scour a truck stop for a safe packaged treat when your kid is starving?

Make sure that you emphasize summer fun over food. One of the hardest things with our daughter's nut allergy is that we have to pass up the ice cream shops and sweets shops when we reach our destinations--they're not safe. Because of this, we really try to emphasize a special activity and the safe "summery" foods she can enjoy like certain candies, hot dogs and grilled foods.

Get the medical info in order. No one likes to think about it, but know where the hospital is and make sure it's not too far away. Also, bring an emergency action plan, several epinephrine auto-injectors and other meds (like antihistamine and asthma inhalers, if necessary), plus have your allergist's phone number at hand.

Most importantly, have fun! No, a food allergy doesn't take a vacation but it's important to get out and do things with your family. Make your plans, be cautious and then go out and enjoy.

Readers, any other tips? Let us know.