Monday, August 31, 2009

Healthy, Nut-Free Ideas for School Snack Time

My nut-allergic daughter attends an elementary school that permits a mid-morning snack from home--either eaten in the classroom or on the playground, weather permitting. As you can imagine, I've had to do some fancy footwork to make sure that the allergy risk to her is minimal with regards to this snack. The teachers have been helpful in this task and last Friday, our child's teacher sent a note home asking that the mid-morning snack be both healthy and nut-free.

In my experience, sheer numbers make it more likely that a classroom goes nut-free. For example, this year, 3 other students in my daughter's classroom alone (not counting the rest of her grade level) have a peanut/tree nut allergy. One child also has a dairy allergy. So the class is taking many extra precautions such as more frequent hand-washing and also limiting certain foods.

I realize that this can be difficult for other parents to comply with if they have no knowledge of food allergies. To help out, I am planning to share a short list of "nut-free" snacks with the teacher (and by this I mean they don't contain any nuts in their ingredients list) that can be eaten by everyone. As always, I welcome more suggestions from all of you, but here's my short list:

- Fruit. If you child likes it peeled and cut up and you're short on time, you can even buy prepared fruit slices or chunks at most supermarkets. Check out the produce section for varieties of pre-sliced fruit.

- Enjoy Life snacks. Enjoy Life provides allergy-free foods that taste great even if you don't have an allergy and this product is available at many more supermarkets than it used to be. Enjoy Life is sold at Whole Foods but also now at many of the larger supermarket chains. Plus, it's healthy!

- Whole grain cereals (nut-free). Many of these are good even eaten dry--Cheerios and the newer Multi-Grain Cheerios are favorites in our family.

- Rice crackers or mini rice cakes. Check the labels but many of these don't contain nuts.

- Small boxes of unsweetened raisins. They satisfy a sweet tooth but are loaded with iron and give an energy boost without sugar.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Acorns, Pine Cones and Tree Nut Allergies

Medical note: Please always refer to your doctor if you have any questions about what is safe to handle for your child's tree nut or peanut allergy. I am not a medical professional, so I can only speak for myself or those with tree nut allergies similar to my daughter's. Thank you!

Recently, I had an e-mail question from a reader who wanted to know if their 3-year-old who is allergic to tree nuts could safely handle acorns and pine cones. This mom was concerned because her child's school did a lot of outside exploration and the teachers wondered if these natural objects were safe for this child.

I realized I didn't really know the answer--I've let my daughter handle pine cones (normally they don't have pine nuts in them--that I've seen) but just recently she asked me about acorns since they're falling from all of the oak trees right now.

Acorns are nuts from oak trees so they do qualify as a tree nut. However, check out this link from FAAN: -according to them, it says kids with tree nut allergies don't have to avoid these objects. However and this may sound like a "Duh": please don't let your kids eat acorns without asking a doctor. According to my Internet research, some people do eat them and if your kids are studying Native American cultures, for example, acorns may be used to create foods. So as always, before you let your child ingest anything ask your allergist. Everybody is different in what they will react to.

That said, tree nuts such as walnuts, etc. do show up in fall decor and crafts and your child should not touch those or handle them. Even the shells have enough allergenic material to cause a reaction in some people.

Has this question come up for any of you as well? Please don't be shy about asking your allergists for advice on this one. But it looks like pine cones and acorns should be OK for most of our kids to use in a science lesson or craft project.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Lost EpiPens on the Playground

I'm having a crazy-busy week getting my kids back in the swing of things at school, so this one will be short but I think it's a good reminder.

Our school's health aide told me that last year an Epi Pen was found on the playground and they never knew who it belonged to because it had no label. This is disturbing for many reasons, not the least of which is that an allergic student may not have had access to their Epi Pen in the case of an emergency.

I know we've got a lot of details to worry about as we enter school, such as getting all of the meds together in the first place. A lot of parents are wonderful at remembering to label all of their child's belongings but if (like me) you weren't born with the labeling gene, take a minute to make sure that you place an adhesive label on the container that your child's Epi Pen comes in. You should mark it with their name, teacher, grade and the expiration date of the medication. I also did this with my daughter's asthma inhaler.

The health office at your school is probably super-busy right now so if we can save them some time by being good little labelers, we will be generating goodwill while ensuring that our kids have the right meds with them if they need them.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Don't Forget About the Non-Edible Peanuts/Tree Nuts Items!

I'm heading over to my kids' school today for a mandatory meeting with staff and all of the fourth grade teachers regarding my daughter's food allergies. Hooray for her school! They take the time and the initiative (they called me, I didn't call them--how refreshing!) to set up meetings with each allergic family to discuss any potential pitfalls as well as medical needs, emergency procedures, field trips, snacks, lunchtime, etc.

As I get my forms ready to go, I started thinking that the biggest problem we face as my daughter gets a handle on her own allergies and is less likely to knowingly ingest peanuts or tree nuts. And that problem is peanuts and tree nuts don't only show up in the school cafeteria or in the Halloween treats bag. They can turn up in the unlikeliest places.

Touching enough peanut or tree nut residue and then bringing that into your eyes or mouth can trigger reactions. The risk is there and it has happened to my daughter on her initial allergic reaction as well as to other kids that we know. For example, a neighbor boy played a video game after his friend ate peanut candy and he got hives, facial swelling and asthma symptoms. At the FAAN conference last spring, a speaker mentioned that her teenage son had a reaction from playing an air hockey game directly after someone who was eating peanuts. So, though the risk is lower than ingestion, it does exist and I need to bring it up.

I decided to provide the following list of non-edible items that may contain peanuts or tree nuts with a request to make sure my daughter either avoids these items or is given the chance to wash her hands after handling them. They include:

- Art supplies/craft projects. Many schools use food in craft projects -- like tree nuts and peanut butter -- and art supplies may contain nut oils. These need to be checked out.

- Small rodent food. My daughter's school has a science center that houses rabbits and guinea pigs--one of the kids' favorite parts of the day is visiting these pets. However, most small rodent food (hamsters, mice, plus rabbits and guinea pigs) almost always contains peanuts and usually some type of tree nut as well. For hygienic reasons I know the kids wash up after handling these animals, but it's good for the teachers to know that she may become exposed from these cute, seemingly harmless critters.

- Science experiments. One common chemistry experiment involves making peanut brittle; many other science experiments may use food. Make sure the teachers know that your child can't be involved in any science projects that contain their specific food allergens. By letting the teachers know early in the year, you give them time to accommodate your request.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Back to School Tips and a "Killer Peanut Butter Sandwiches" Article Link

Ready or not, here it comes! The school season is here or almost here and many of us find ourselves discussing our child's allergies with teachers and staff.

You will definitely want to print out this article by Linda Coss: "Attack of the Killer Peanut Butter Sandwiches" to bring along with you. It's a terrific explanation of what allergic kids (and parents) are up against at school and it takes the non-allergic point of view into account.

I'm on my way to a meeting on Monday (we begin school on Tuesday). I've been through several of these meetings already and have learned what to ask over the years. Here are a few "talking points" as you get ready to talk to the school about your child.

- Your child must carry the EpiPen at all times, to every location in the school. This is law in many states; for others you may be required to have a doctor's note. In any case, make sure that your child's teachers understand the need for an accessible EpiPen--every second counts. No locked cabinets, no "we only keep it in the health office." Explaining how a reaction works helps; a doctor's order will clinch the deal.

- Which staff members and teachers have EpiPen training? And will you use it? Asking them these questions helps identify what you may need to advocate at your school. It's been my experience that all staff are trained at our current school, but as schools all have different rules, please find out. Offer to train them or to have the nurse/health aide do a training. Make sure your child's teacher is comfortable using the EpiPen and ask what you can do to make her/him more comfortable. It's crucial.

- What are your emergency procedures? Get the exact details. You may discover that you want to revise these a bit.

- Please follow our Food Allergy Emergency Plan. Available at the FAAN website, this is the life-saving "go-to" guide if someone suspects your child is having a reaction.

- What's the "treats schedule" for the year? For example, any special holiday or event celebrations? If you can nail it down early, you'll be prepared to deliver safe treats to your child's classroom if necessary. You really don't want to be stuck making food at midnight. It makes you cranky.

- Make sure that you mark down the expiration dates for your meds--and ask if the school has a "reminder" policy for this. Many schools do, but you should be the one who really is on top of this so there are no gaps where your child is at school without their EpiPen. Just mark it down on your calendar for two weeks before it expires so you have plenty of time to get new ones.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Study: Food Allergies Not Understood by the General Public--What to Do About It?

I've been wanting to discuss this recent study about how the public views food allergies. Not surprisingly, most study respondents did not understand either what food allergies are or how serious they can be to someone's health. The study also showed that many people erroneously believe that medicine may be used that will prevent food allergy symptoms.

I had a real-life experience with this on a TV show a few weeks ago. "Monk" the detective series on the USA network happened to mention this misguided view of peanut allergies. Monk is a great show--for those of you who have ever watched it, you know that the title character is consumed with details. He had the chance to meet an actress from one of his favorite childhood TV shows and so he wanted to clear up some of the show's details from years past. It was funny. But here's what he asked: "On one episode you had a peanut allergy. But then on the next episode you ate something containing peanuts and didn't have a reaction. Why?"

Yes! I thought while watching. The USA network reaches millions of viewers and now they'll hear how wrong that is. However, here was the other character's disappointing response: "Maybe the doctor just gave me some medicine." Then the show of course moved onto other topics and that was that.

ARRRGGHHH! There is no medicine you can give someone to prevent an allergic reaction prior to ingesting an allergenic food. But this very big medical misinfo made it through the final cut of the show.

I mention this now, because as we go back to school, many of us may find ourselves faced with people who think we're making this all up. Or that there is a simple medicine that can prevent a severely allergic person from having anaphylaxis once they've ingested the allergenic food. If you're meeting with school officials, this is your chance to speak up and have the facts.

For example, one finding of the study was that parents of non-allergic kids did not want special accommodations, such as a peanut ban (understandable, since they never do.) But surprisingly the same group didn't even want a peanut-free table. Why?? How does it affect them? Just goes to show you that for some having the school try to help with a child's food allergy for safety purposes is considered "special treatment" even if it only affects the allergic child and not the non-allergic kids. How does a peanut-free, milk-free or egg-free table affect the non-allergic in any meaningful way? If anything, it's more difficult for the allergic child, though it may be medically necessary depending on their age and level of sensitivity.

Facts combat ignorance, so have them ready. You may want to refer people to the FAAN web site or to food allergy books. DVDS, available through FAAN, can also be very helpful. Every bit of education helps.

I'm curious: Have you had "Monk moments" in your own life where blatant misinformation about food allergies in the media or otherwise had you shaking your head? I'm guessing yes.

The best thing we can do is to educate and advocate. Don't be rattled by people who don't "get it" but work hard to educate them, showing them the compassion you wish they showed to you. The old adage "you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar" really applies here.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Back to School with Oliver's Labels and Vermont Nut Free Chocolate!

I want to let you know about two great resources that are currently running sales promotions to help you and your allergic child prepare for the Back to School Season: Oliver's Labels and Vermont Nut Free Chocolate.

I just discovered Oliver's Labels after being contacted by them recently and I really like this product. If you've got kids in preschool, daycare or elementary school, you'll want to pick up these personalized labels that not only have your child's name but that also raise awareness about your child's nut allergy.

Labels are completely waterproof and carry a full-color "No Nuts" symbol along with your child's name or initials. Oliver's Labels also has stickers for egg, gluten and dairy allergies as well as others. You can use them to label clothing, book bags, toys, lunch bags, musical instruments--anything that your child takes to school. I really like the samples I received--they are eye-catching and quickly identify my daughter's belongings while raising food allergy awareness at the same time. Plus, when you order your labels, you get use of a free online service called FoundIt (TM) that helps you get your lost items back without having to share personal info with strangers.

I wish I'd had these sooner--especially when my child was in preschool and kindergarten. It's just one more layer of awareness as your child goes throughout their day. Click on the company's web site for more designs and colors.

If you order now, you can also receive 10% off of your initial order as a reader of this blog. Just use the coupon code OliversFriends at checkout.

Also, many of you already know how much I love Vermont Nut-Free Chocolate! They make delicious candy that is prepared in a peanut and tree-nut free facility, though they do use other allergens such as dairy and eggs. If your only concern is nut-free, however, you should know that they are running a special back to school promotion right now. Just use coupon code Back2School at checkout time to receive 10% off of your purchase through August 31st.

Vermont Nut-Free is a special treat because they make holiday and event-themed candy--a difficult thing to find if you need nut-free. The treats are great to have on hand in a "safe treats" bag that your child brings to the classroom. Check them out if you can!

I'll have more back-to-school resources in the days ahead, but I'm happy to pass along these discounted offers to all of you. If you need more info on either company, go to their respective web sites: and

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Back to Preschool and Daycare Food Allergy Tips

Lately I've gotten a lot of feedback and e-mail from parents with children who are preschool age or younger. I've talked a lot about elementary school tips and will have more of those in coming days, but I want to welcome these new readers to my blog by sharing some preschool and daycare tips that worked for me and my daughter.

When my daughter entered preschool after her first allergic reaction, she was the only student the school had with nut allergies at that time. Still, we did very well and had wonderful teachers, although there were a few bumps in the road (luckily, minor ones.)

By the time her sister followed her (two years later) students at the preschool had a multitude of different food allergies and dealing with allergies had become the norm.
Even at a nut-free school, understanding of food allergies varies. Some preschools and daycare centers have mandatory meetings about how to use epinephrine auto-injectors and how to avoid allergic reactions. Be sure to ask for a face-to-face meeting with key people such as the preschool director and top staff, including any staff member who will be caring for your child

 One thing that makes preschool and daycare difficult is that you rely almost entirely on the teachers and staff to keep your child safe. Depending on your child's age, they will not be able to communicate as effectively about their allergies.

Now, the bright spot. Things are getting better. Peanut-free and nut-free policies have become more of a standard at many preschools and daycare centers and I would strongly recommend that you try to get your child into a nut-free preschool. Food allergy training is widespread and many schools are more aware than ever before. That doesn't mean you can let your guard down, it just means that you may not have the be the "pioneers" at your school, which, take it from me, is very reassuring.

If your school currently is not nut-free and you can't or don't want to leave, log on to the FARE (formerly FAAN) website to get stats and information to share with your school. If they have the facts, they will be more able to understand why you want the nut-free policy and why it benefits them, the school, in the long run. Preschool is too young to expect children to manage their own life-threatening medical condition; it's easier to prevent a reaction than to treat one.

Parents are often asked to give a presentation to the preschool about their child's allergies and to outline emergency plans. This is your chance to educate and advocate for your child, so embrace it! In my experience, you want to give enough information without overwhelming people. If you present your info in easy-to-read format using bullet points and lists, they'll be more likely to read and absorb the information. Beyond a Peanut flashcards are perfect to share with your preschool -- this amazing resource helps teachers and kids understand nut allergies in an easy-to-use format. I also like the Linda Coss food allergy books. My new e-book is another good resource, very concise and easy to follow. Please feel free to share it with your preschool too...they might want to download it. Several preschools follow my blog already, so see if they are interested!

When I presented my preschool/daycare info, I provided a brightly colored (easy-to-spot) binder with my daughter's name, my name and contact info and her photo. It included a brief description of symptoms to look for (provided by my allergist), a Food Allergy Emergency Action Plan (signed by my doctor) and also doctor's contact info. I included a diagram instructing them on how to use an epinephrine autoinjector (available online at FARE as part of their Food Allergy Action Plan docs). I also included a list of "safe foods" or foods that I would allow her to eat. This is a short list--and much easier to follow than an "unsafe foods" list. Update the lists as necessary--important, since labels change!

If your child eats snacks or meals at preschool/daycare, consider sending your own lunch or meals to school. You should definitely have a chat with the school cook, but sometimes it's hard to know what has cross-contact and what doesn't. Even the school may not know; the suppliers may not have that information readily accessible.

Because of this, I always sent my daughter to preschool and daycare with the following: alternative snacks (just in case, remember my school was nut-free), a homemade lunch and "safe" treats for when kids brought in birthday food.

Birthday treats are another problem. These are almost never nut-free (or dairy-free, egg-free, whatever your allergy is--you know what I mean.) My daughter ate her "safe" treats alongside the other kids, but a much better option--especially because so many kids have multiple food allergies these days, not just peanut--is a non-edible treat. I also like to suggest crafts to teachers instead of birthday food. Your motto should be: Exclude the food--not the child. For ideas on how to do this, check out this article I wrote for Chicago Parent in which I suggested alternatives to food during school celebrations.

Currently my kids get a free paperback book of their choice for their birthday. This is paid for by the PTO. Daycare and preschool work a bit differently, but see if anyone would contribute $1 to a class b-day book fund. Daycare/preschool teachers can get great deals from the Scholastic Book Club so the cost should be relatively low.  Or how about stickers or colored pencils? Cupcakes may be traditional, but they don't have to be the only option.

Occasionally, preschool craft projects or activities can involve food. At the beginning of each month, ask about these projects and see if non-food items or "safe" foods can be substituted.

Understand that educating preschool staff will not be a one-shot deal. It's a good idea to check in, keep in touch and make sure everyone is on the same page. A friendly check-in can save a world of trouble. Since the understanding of food allergies varies from person to person and school to school, you may have to keep bringing your point home all year. If you remain upbeat, positive and compliment the staff on the efforts they make, you'll see that soon it will become second nature for your child's teachers. If it doesn't, speak up to the teachers directly before you go to the school director. Usually they want to help and just may need reminders. If your preschool director needs to be contacted, don't hesitate. We need to work together.

Many preschools are conducted in multipurpose buildings, including places of worship. Here is a link to a preschool held in a temple and the excellent nut-free policy they provide. Note that they say they can't control the entire building, but they give detailed steps on how they keep the classroom safe for nut-allergic children. For anyone seeking a "nut-free policy" model, check this out.

Preschool should be a wonderful, happy time for your child and even with nut allergies it can be just that. Work with your child to help them understand allergies, work with the school and then watch your child blossom!

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Julie, Julia and Food Allergies

Yesterday I got to see the film Julie & Julia, you know the one where Meryl Streep plays Julia Child and Amy Adams portrays the blogger who cooked her way through "Mastering the Art of French Cooking."

The film draws both on blogger/writer Julie Powell's memoir "Julie & Julia" as well as Julia Child's memoir "My Life in France." (Both books are fascinating--I think.)

What does this have to do with food allergies? Well, on the surface, nothing. But the movie shows how much an attitude towards food can influence our lives.

While I watched the film I couldn't help but think that it glorified cooking as a means of expressing love and enjoying life. These are not new concepts but for those of us dealing with food allergies,  this is an important message.

Being aware of cross-contact or checking labels constantly, not to mention ever-present restaurant dangers can really take the fun out of eating. But we really shouldn't let that happen. As parents or caregivers of allergic kids (or as allergic adults ourselves) we are forced to become familiar with ingredients and we are also called upon to be home cooks and bakers.

This can feel like a burden or like too much work, but as the film Julie & Julia shows, you can view this another, more positive, way. When you feed your body well and embrace food as a means of showing love, you embrace life. Just think of the cakes you've baked for your kids or the allergy-free but delicious meals you've created for your families or yourselves. Even if you aren't the best cook or baker in the world, creating food for your family shows them you care.

Having food allergies doesn't mean you don't love food. In fact, having severe food allergies makes you more conscious of food than you may have been otherwise. And in our fast-moving culture, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Making our own food forces us to slow down and savor.

Watch Julie & Julia and you'll realize that this is a gift. Each meal you prepare can be a present you give to your family or to yourself.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Food Allergy Parents...Don't Forget to Breathe

If your kids are headed back to school soon, you are feeling stressed right about now. Besides the added pressures of new shoes, book fees and extracurricular sign-ups, food allergy parents have tons of forms to fill out, teachers and staff to speak with, worries to combat.

With all of the food offered at school, whether for a class party or even for a science experiment, it's easy to get caught up in worries about what might happen. I feel anxious each year, though as my daughter gets older the anxiety lessens somewhat. Still, depending on where we live and what policies our schools have, back-to-school can feel like yet another battlefield for us to conquer.

I've felt the frenzy and all of the fears, especially right before my severely allergic daughter started kindergarten. That year I had to beat down the door of the principal's office to be heard about their FA policies--of which they really had none.

I was able to help craft a food allergy protocol that really worked for us and the other food-allergic families. The year had a few hitches (100th day of school "snack mix" comes to mind) but overall it went great.

It will for you too. If you've done all of your own homework with med forms, medications and talking to staff, you've done your best. As the nurse told my husband and I as we left the hospital with our newborn daughter all those years ago "Don't forget to breathe."

It's always good to be cautious and on top of things, reminding the teachers and staff about your child's allergy needs. But don't forget to breathe. While we have every reason to have stress about our kids' allergies, calm but firm parents get taken more seriously. Trust me on this one.

I hope everyone is enjoying their last few weeks of summer and that all your back-to-school preparations go smoothly.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Make Your Allergy-Free School Lunches Fresh, "Green" and Litter Free!

School is just around the corner and for many of us that means packing our allergic child's lunch every day. I've found some great, environmentally-friendly products to help us do this the "green" way. Plus, these products give a little extra cheer to your child's lunch--especially nice if your child is eating lunch at school for the first time this year of if they feel conspicuous about not eating the cafeteria offerings.

If you're looking for reusable lunch containers and napkins, check out Litter Free Lunch, a company started by two moms--one of which is a "nut-free mom" that I met at the FAAN Conference last spring. Her company offers "green" lunch napkins that you can include in your child's lunch and just throw in the wash after using. Plus, they now offer stainless steel lunch containers and thermoses. Check out the site for styles--right now you can save 15% if you buy two or more sets.

What a great way to save $$ on paper napkins--not to mention helping the earth by reducing the amount of garbage you produce. We recently received our pack of Litter Free Lunch napkins and my daughter is thrilled with them. They're a nice touch to any lunch! And you know that moms invented these when you look at the back--each napkin has a label for your child's name. Cool!

As far as chic and green lunch accessories go, check out Litter Free Lunch's stainless steel lunch containers and thermoses. My kids really enjoy getting a hot lunch in winter and the Litter Free Lunch thermoses are a great option for soup or hot drinks. The stainless steel lunch containers are perfect for lunch foods and have handy compartments to accommodate condiments, etc. I really like these and I think my kids will too. Besides saving money on plastic sandwich and snack bags, you won't add to the landfill. It's a win-win.

I like to support the efforts of other moms who want to provide products or services that benefit kids with food allergies, so let me suggest a company to try if you're looking for something to fill your Litter Free Lunch food containers: FAB Snacks. Founded by the author of Food Allergy Buzz, FAB Snacks has nut-free, dairy-free, egg-free, gluten-free and many other allergy-free snack foods that are safe for kid with allergies.

I don't know about you all, but with the mad crowds packing the stores and malls right before the start of the school year, I like to sit back and shop the "point and click" way. Any other allergy-friendly back to school products that you love? Let me know.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Time for the Food Allergy Action Plan!

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 had a false alarm in 2nd grade and the school health aide followed it to the letter. In the end there was no need for medication--but they wouldn't have known this without the emergency action plan.

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 recognize your child as the one with the allergy.

- 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.