Friday, October 30, 2009

Trick-or-Treating with Nut Allergies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have a Happy and Safe Halloween!!!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 26, 2009

Chicago Tribune Food Allergen Investigation: Promising Update

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Nut-Free Halloween Cookie Recipe - A Family Favorite!

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

Monday, October 19, 2009

Nut-Free Halloween Treat--Pumpkin-Seed Brittle

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

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

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

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

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


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

1/2 cup packed light brown sugar

1/4 cup honey

1 cup hulled pumpkin seeds, toasted

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

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

Friday, October 16, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Potential Nut Allergy Nightmare at the Museum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 12, 2009

Allergy-Free Food from Welcoming Kitchen

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

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

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

Friday, October 9, 2009

Allergy-Free Travel Tips for Columbus Day Weekend

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Good Witch and Other Allergy-Free Halloween Fun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 5, 2009

Nut Allergy Awareness, One Neighborhood at a Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 2, 2009

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

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

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

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



Mike & Ike Jelly Beans

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


Tootsie Pops

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

Life Savers



Sweet Tarts

Dum Dum Suckers

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

Ring Pops

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

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

Some of my favorites are:

Spider rings (classic!)

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

Halloween pencils

Pumpkin-shaped Ring Pops

Small, Halloween-themed toys

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

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

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