Friday, August 31, 2012

Food Allergy-Friendly Labor Day Celebrations, plus, my Favorite Brownie Recipe!

Heading off on a Labor Day road trip? Here are some tips for a a food allergy-safe good time.
Traveling to visit friends and family or just getting together for a cookout is traditional on Labor Day weekend, the official "end of summer" for many of us. Food allergies can make things trickier, but they don't have to get in the way of a great time.

For those who haven't seen them, here's a link to some of my best suggestions for taking a road trip to celebrate with friends and family.

One thing that I get asked about all the time is how to find out if a homemade food is safe for a child with severe food allergies? The fact is, unless you made it yourself, you don't know if the food is OK for your child.

I remember the early days of dealing with nut allergies when I used to go around questioning and second-guessing every food on a party menu, trying to determine if it was OK for my child to eat. Besides being unable to get very good answers on this topic, it finally occurred to me that it would be much easier to bring foods to share that I either purchased or made myself. That way, I  have full knowledge of ingredients, plus I know the environment the food was prepared in and the other many criteria that determine a food's safety.

I urge everyone in my shoes to do the same thing. Bring your own food and load up a cooler if you must, but don't rely on others to provide safe foods. A lot of parents don't like this idea at first, because they worry that their child will be upset if they can't eat what others are eating. I've found that if we, the parents, don't make a big deal about it, bringing some yummy treats of our own to share with the group usually satisfies kids. In fact, once we started bringing our own food to share we all ended up having a lot more fun because nobody was worried about the what-ifs, including my daughter. She knew what she could have before we even arrived at our destination and could move on to having fun, engaging in activities and all the rest.

One thing I love to bring to a party is an easy dessert that doesn't need to be refrigerated. The following recipe is my favorite for brownies. They are so chocolaty and delicious and you don't even need a mixer--just two bowls and a pan.

If you're looking for something to share at a party, my favorite brownie recipe (below) has always been a hit. Double the recipe and use a 9 x 13 pan if you are serving a large group. If you must avoid dairy and/or eggs, read the labels to find a dairy-free margarine in place of butter and add 1 tablespoon of canola oil plus 1/4 cup unsweetened applesauce instead of the eggs. The baking times may vary and the resulting texture might be a bit different, but still chocolaty and good. You might want to slightly under bake the dairy-free, egg-free brownies to make sure they don't get too dry. In fact, under baking, in general, is good for brownies.

Brownies, anyone?

Jenny's Nut-Free Brownies

1 stick unsalted butter
1 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs (organic or free range if possible)
2 squares unsweetened chocolate; I use Baker's brand
1 tsp vanilla
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp baking powder; this gives you a cakier brownie with a higher rise. If you want chewier, flatter brownies, omit the baking powder.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Chop chocolate and butter into chunks. Melt chocolate and butter in a microwave safe bowl until butter is melted and chocolate is almost completely melted (about two minutes.) Remove from microwave and stir until all of the chocolate is melted. Set aside to cool slightly, about 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, mix flour with salt and baking powder if using, in a small bowl. Pour sugar into larger bowl that can hold all of the batter. Using a heat-proof spatula, scrape melted chocolate mixture into the bowl with the sugar and stir until fully combined. Add eggs one at a time and mix thoroughly. Add vanilla.

Gradually add flour mixture into chocolate-egg-butter mixture until combined.

Bake for 16-18 minutes until a toothpick inserted in the center comes up with a few fudgy crumbs clinging to it. (The 9 x 9 inch pan will bake up more quickly). Do not over bake.

Allow to cool, then sprinkle with confectioner's sugar and serve.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Food Allergy and Classroom Parties: The Food-Free, Stress-Free Approach!

Does this look familiar? If you're spending too much time trying to find safe,
edible, affordable party treats for school, read on.
School is back in session for many of us and that means that classroom party season is back in full force. As parents of kids with life-threatening food allergies, this can mean the following things: late night baking sessions, marathon grocery store trips in search of allergy-friendly, tasty foods (that won't break the bank) and dealing with the sometimes mystifying efforts on the part of party planners to include some type of edible treat  -- no matter what! Even if several kids in the class have food allergies or intolerance, this unfortunately does not deter some determined foodies. To me, it just seems easier-- not to mention safer-- to skip the food rather than try to come up with a food that fits multiple allergies or food intolerance. I've had moms tell me that they were asked to home bake a treat free of numerous allergens-- even ones they don't personally deal with -- just so that party planners didn't "have to" opt for a non-food or limited food event.

I get that food is fun and social. But in school, except for lunchtime, it isn't necessary. In this day and age, a better option for parties is non-edible treats, games, crafts, etc., especially because the foods designated as safe for the top allergies can be expensive and difficult to find. Not everyone has the budget or the time to seek these out these specialty items.

With school underway again, I'm sure that many of us will be facing class party issues with regard to food. Our elementary school does not allow any edible or non-edible birthday treats, but we do have food for class parties several times a year. Even so, the "food-free" aspect of kids' birthdays takes a huge weight off of our shoulders, so this is a good thing to propose to your school.

I want to offer some solutions for food-free class parties, because with 1 in 12 kids suffering from a food allergy, it's bound to affect more classrooms with each passing year.  Plus, many kids' allergy health plans have "food-free" classrooms as part of the requirements. Clearly, all of us could use some alternatives to edible treats.

Here is a list to explore and please feel free to share it with your child's teachers. To gather these supplies, instead of sending individual parents out to buy food for parties, why not ask parents for a set amount of money and then designate "buyers" for these items? Set a budget for parties and go from there whenever craft items or non-edible treats are needed.

Food-Free Class Party Ideas

Crafts. These are always a hit. If you are not one of those naturally "crafty" parents, you can find some wonderful ideas and deals online. I love the crafts page at Family Fun magazine, since you can search according to age, event and season, among other things. Check out Oriental Trading Company online for some other festive craft ideas for fall like this small pumpkin faces craft kit and this kit for a turkey headband.

Games. Your teacher will undoubtedly have some fun game ideas, but again, online sources abound. I really like the Class Parties website and its suggestions for crafts and games.

And if you're one of the creative parents, even better. For example, one mom in my daughter's class had the kids team up to write their own Halloween stories and then act them out. The kids loved it! Plus, I've seen some really great seasonal games at Target and other discount stores. Last year I bought an inexpensive but cute "Halloween bucket" game for my youngest daughter's classroom. Use the season to spark your imagination and ask your kids for input. You'll soon see that you don't need food to have a good time.

Non-edible treats. Why not skip the traditional sugary foods and give students small toys (available at places like Oriental Trading Company or local party stores for low prices, especially if you buy in bulk), stickers or personalized pencils. One of my favorite online sources is the For Teachers Only website. Personalize pencils for the class with their names or a message like "Happy Thanksgiving." The cost might even be cheaper than food depending on seasonal sales, etc.

You can find other affordable novelties at the always entertaining and resourceful website for Oriental Trading Company.

Share printed recipes. Is your school having a World Cultures Day? A food-free alternative would be to have students bring in printed recipes and tell the class the stories behind the recipes. You can learn so much from hearing these stories and if kids make the foods at home, maybe they can be given a chance to discuss them at a later date. This approach takes the focus off of managing so many homemade, unlabeled foods which in turn, helps teachers as well as allergic kids.

For reasons of time and general health as well as food allergies, many schools are choosing to limit the food at parties, but if you can offer some replacements, that's a great step in the right direction.

For more on organizing class parties around food allergies, read and share this article I wrote for Chicago Parent magazine.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Peanut Allergy News: Nut-Free Bakery Alert! Nutphree's Cupcakes Grand Opening

Nutphree's new storefront in Mt. Prospect, IL.
Chicago-area nut-free cupcake lovers, rejoice! Nutphree's Cupcakes now has a new storefront open for business.
Many of you have told me you've ordered Nutphree's Cupcakes' tasty, nut-free treats online, but now you can visit their very first storefront location! Nutphree's has been a long time supporter of this site and I know this project has been in the works for awhile. A huge congratulations to the Walker family for this amazing achievement! Nutphree's even has delivery available throughout most Chicagoland locations. For more info on ordering and delivery, visit their web site.
Nutphree's luscious red velvet cupcake.
For those of you who miss enjoying the storefront bakery experience with your kids like I do: Imagine walking into a neighborhood bakery and emerging with delicious cupcakes that your allergic kiddos, family, and friends can enjoy together. If you've been dealing with both peanut and tree nut allergies for any length of time and living in the Chicago area (like me), this has been an impossible scenario-- until now. Nutphree's Cupcakes is the only dedicated, peanut-free AND tree nut-free storefront bakery in the Chicago area that sells cupcakes. No peanuts, no tree nuts and no ingredients with cross-contamination.
Nutphree's chocolate cupcake..decadence.
To celebrate their grand opening, Nutphree's Cupcakes is hosting a customer appreciation day this Saturday, August 25th, from 1-4! Here are the details: Nutphree's Cupcakes: 259 E. Rand Rd. Mount Prospect, IL, 60056 (847) 754-4320
Once again, congrats Nutphree's Cupcakes! If you live in the area, I hope that you will consider turning out this weekend and showing Nutphree's how much YOU appreciate their new, nut-free storefront bakery.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Back to School with Food Allergies: Resources for Educating Others

Many of us are heading back to school with food allergies and are looking for easy ways to educate others about what food allergies are and how to manage them. The following video, hosted by Dr. Scott Sicherer, a leading allergist and researcher at Mt. Sinai hospital and the Jaffe Food Allergy Institute, was sent to me by Nut-Free Mom reader Kelly O. She uses the video for teaching relatives and her child's teachers all about food allergies-- this short video is really useful, clear and informative. Thanks again, Kelly!

Another great resource for school  is this free downloadable tutorial offered by FAAN, The Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network. Allergy Ready (TM) is tailored to helping schools learn about food allergy and how to reduce risk of reaction; it also teaches emergency procedures. Forward it to your district nurse, school health aide, child's teacher or anyone who needs concise and accurate information on managing food allergies at school.

Are you a parent of a child newly diagnosed with nut allergies (peanut or tree nut?) My short e-book offers a guide to navigating the parenting challenges that go hand in hand with this condition. It also includes advice on educating others, including teachers, family and friends, all in a concise and easy-to-use format. Click here to learn more!

School presents challenges, no doubt about it, but educating others about food allergies goes a long way in getting everyone up to speed.

For more Nut-Free Mom articles on food allergies and school, click here.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Back to School with Food Allergies: Taking that Leap of Faith

Since my daughter with severe food allergies is beginning middle school this year, I've been quite nostalgic lately thinking back to her first day of kindergarten and what that was like for us. In a word: scary. Let me explain.

The year before kindergarten, my daughter experienced her first anaphylactic reaction to a peanut butter sandwich. Then she was diagnosed with a tree nut allergy. A few months later, she started experiencing asthma due to seasonal allergies. It felt like a triple threat, and a lot to absorb.

 At the time my daughter first entered school, I felt like I still had a lot of unanswered questions and unknowns that I was facing. I had been fortunate to find a nut-free preschool for her to attend, but elementary school was an entirely new world. It was a place where many of her allergens would be present each day, in one way or another.

Once you start heading down the slippery slope of "what ifs?" you can find yourself in for some serious stress. For example, I wondered if my daughter was going to be exposed to constant allergy triggers and possible reactions. I wondered: How much allergen in the environment would be too much? Then I started projecting into the future: As her school career went on, would she be able to participate in birthday parties, extracurricular activities and play dates? Would her school life be a happy one or one filled with allergic reactions and stress? Would today be the day I get "the call" telling me there was a reaction?

I look at old pictures of my daughter back in kindergarten and I think to myself: How did I let that little face out of my sight? She looks so small, so vulnerable, especially when I look at her now, so grown-up and poised.  I imagine that many of you are thinking similar things about your kids, as you send them off to school carrying backpacks that are nearly bigger than they are. It's not easy to hand over care of your child to others when they deal with serious food allergies, especially when they are very young.

This is one reason why I believe so strongly in teaching kids to be their own best advocates. As parents, we do our best to be informed about everything, but sometimes that is impossible. If you teach your child to question foods and refuse anything that isn't approved by you, that is a huge step in keeping them safe. Of course you must work with the school, too--that's absolutely crucial. However, teaching kids to stand up for themselves and self-manage can never begin too early in my opinion. I've found that this approach has definitely helped my daughter throughout elementary school.

And now comes the really hard part. Once we've taken care of our must-haves for school (like our medical forms, formal written health plans for our kids, communication with school staff and the like), then what?

Eventually, there comes a time to do the most uncomfortable thing of all -- taking that leap of faith that you have taught your kids well, communicated with your school and that it will be OK. It can feel like a very scary leap. In fact, I still feel like I take "the leap" each year and we've been dealing with this for 8 years. Don't beat yourself up if you feel uncertain or unsure. But if you know you've taken all the safety steps you can, it's good to feel happy and excited for your kids, too.

I wish all of you the very best for a wonderful school year whether your child is just beginning school, starting a new school or just starting a new grade. Let us know how it goes for you! We are all in this together.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Nut-Free Recipe for Back to School: Nut-Free Granola Muffins with Honey

Enjoy Life Cinnamon Raisin Crunch...yum!
Back to school time is upon us and that means parents are looking for healthy but yummy foods that kids can use to refuel. Why not try these nut-free granola and honey muffins? I adapted this recipe from several muffin/quick bread recipes I already use. They are wholesome, tasty and perfect for a quick breakfast or energy-boosting snack.

What I love about this recipe is that you can vary it to your family's own tastes. For example, add some dried fruit in place of some of the nut-free granola (from Enjoy Life Foods--it's awesome) or add some coconut if your kids can have it. Use some whole wheat flour in place of the all-purpose (but be sure to add a little more liquid or the muffins will be dry.)

If you like, add about 1/2 cup of Sun Butter to the recipe instead of honey. If you deal with egg allergies, replacing the eggs with a half cup of unsweetened applesauce or a mashed banana would be delicious. Even if you don't deal with egg allergies, adding a mashed banana to this in place of honey would increase the nutritional value and taste great. (Those of you with egg allergies, feel free to add your own egg replacements.)

Hungry yet? Here's the recipe.

Nut-Free Granola Muffins (basic recipe)


1 stick of unsalted butter, slightly softened
2/3 cup brown sugar (I use dark brown)
1/4 to 1/2 cup honey (adjust according to how sweet you want the muffins)
2 large eggs
1 2/3 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp cinnamon or pumpkin pie spice ( I use McCormick)
1/2 tsp salt (Morton's fine sea salt is really good for baking)
1/4 cup 2% milk (a little more if using any whole wheat flour)
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup plain Greek yogurt (I like Fage brand)
2 cups Enjoy Life nut-free granola (I use the Cinnamon flavor)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F and line two 12 cup muffin pans with 16 cupcake liners.

Using a standing mixer or an electric handheld mixer, cream the butter, brown sugar and honey in a large bowl until very well mixed and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time (or egg replacer), mixing well after each addition. Stir in the vanilla extract.

Stir together the milk and yogurt. Set aside.

Sift together dry ingredients except for the granola. Add the dry ingredients to the butter mixture a little at at time, alternating between the milk/yogurt mixture. Do not over beat.

My trusty Kitchen Aid.

Turn off the mixer and stir in the granola by hand until well-combined.

Fill the muffin cups about 2/3 full, not all the way to the top. Bake about 20 minutes (I check at 18 minutes) until golden and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

Let cool on a wire rack. Serve with butter, honey, cream cheese,  a sprinkling of powdered sugar or just plain. These are also great served warm.

The finished product!

Friday, August 10, 2012

Food Allergy News: It's Time to Draft Your Food Allergy Emergency Action Plan

At this time of year, I'm often asked about the best ways to keep kids with food allergies safe and healthy at school. Have I got a document for you: the Food Allergy Emergency Action Plan. This document, which explains symptoms and specific actions to take in a food allergy emergency, is crucial to supply at school. You should also have one of these at home, displayed somewhere were you and any other caregivers can easily find it. It's a wonderful document to have no matter where you are -- but it's a school must-have.

You can download a free copy of this important form from The Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network website. This is the form I use year after year; my allergist loves it and said it's the best one out there.

The Food Allergy Emergency Action Plan can be provided as part of your child's IHP (Individual Health Plan, that is, a health plan you create with school health officials and administrators and sign off on) or 504 Plan (legal document created to protect severely allergic students.)

The Food Allergy Emergency Action Plan is completed by your doctor and distributed to key school staff, along with any supporting documents such as medication forms or other required doctor's notes.

If your child ever suffers from a reaction at school, this form is a great go-to in terms of helping teachers or staff know what steps to take. Our teachers and school staff have always really appreciated having us present them with this form because it spells out everything they need to know in an allergic emergency.

From personal experience, I have a few more tips about this form:

- Present the FAEAP on brightly colored or neon paper so that it's easy to spot.

- Be sure to provide a photo of your child in the space provided. (Save a school photo from the previous year and use it on the form.)

- Have  a new FAEAP completed each year and dated for the current school year. Most schools require this to be renewed each year.

- Make note of any medication changes--for example, depending on weight gain and growth, your child may now require a regular dose of epinephrine, not the "jr." version. Your form should reflect this.

- Our daughter's teachers have kept a copy of the Food Allergy Emergency Action Plan in the classroom with them where they can see it. One teacher had it taped to her desk, but any easy access area is good. You want substitutes to have access, too.

Back to school with a food allergy can be stressful, but the Food Allergy Emergency Action Plan has always provided me with greater peace of mind. Download yours now!

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Peanut Allergy News: Nut-Free Snack Perfect for Back to School: Mini Pops!

Look how cute these are! But they pack a good crunch.
Here is the basic flavor; they've got 9 in all.
Just in time for back to school -- here is a nut-free snack that is also gluten-free, organic and corn-free -- Mini Pops! My family got to sample these recently and they were a snack-time revelation: air-popped sorghum grain. This tasty little snack is even better from my perspective because it is made in a nut-free facility (and says so right on the package.)

You might be asking: why sorghum? Turns out that sorghum grain is "greener" and more eco-friendly than corn as it requires 50% less agricultural water consumption. However, with so many more people needing to avoid corn these days due to allergies, celiac disease or other issues, it is also a great popcorn alternative. I thought it tasted a lot like popcorn with hearty crunch and lots of flavor. Both of my daughters loved this snack, and so did my husband and I, especially the "Cutie Caramel Clusters," "Nano Pepper and Herb" and "Petite Plain." The smaller bags they sent us were demolished in pretty short order. There are 9 flavor varieties in all; some contain dairy.

I just had a mom ask about organic, nut-free snacks the other day; another mom asked about corn-free -- here you go, ladies! Mini Pops give you a lot to like in one snack, as they fit a lot of people's dietary needs while also tasting delicious. Mini Pops are all-natural, certified gluten-free, organic, non-GMO and made in a nut-free facility. They are also kosher. The labels are clear and well-marked, so this is a great snack to share with family and friends who ask what you can have. Or just bring it to a gathering or kids' play date!

The company shares that a nice side benefit to this snack as opposed to popcorn: Mini Pops have no hulls that can get caught in the teeth or gums. My daughter with braces appreciated that fact!

You can order Mini Pops online and the product is also available in select U.S. stores. Check the company website for details on where to buy.

The company is also devoted to good causes. Right now, Mini Pops is offering a giveaway contest right now that benefits the Fisher House Foundation. For every entry Mini Pops will donate10 cents to the Fisher House, a organization that donates "comfort homes," built on the grounds of major military and VA medical centers. These homes enable family members to be close to a loved one at the most stressful times - during the hospitalization for an unexpected illness, disease, or injury.

 There is no cost to enter the giveaway and someone will win two Mini Pops sampler packs. The giveaway is through the company's Facebook page: here is a direct link.

Thanks, Mini Pops, for creating a delicious, healthy and nut-free snack that everyone can enjoy. Readers, if you try these, let us know what you think.

FTC note:  Samples of the product were provided, but I received no compensation for this review. All opinions are my own (and my family's).