Sunday, July 31, 2011

Do Food Allergies Result in Healthier Eating?

Food allergies force us into the kitchen out of necessity. But sometimes that necessity can turn out to have unexpected health benefits.

Recently on my Nut-Free Mom Facebook page, a reader shared that even though food allergies can be a drag, she had a recent revelation while at the zoo.

Jane K said "I watched my kids chow down on their turkey and avocado sandwiches, on homemade whole wheat bread, with a side dish of apple and strawberries. And homemade pumpkin choco chip cookies for dessert. I looked around, everyone else either had fast food or PBnJ on white bread, with chips... Etc. I realized that my kids are growing up healthier than they would without the allergies. I really have to think about what to feed them, but that means I THINK about what they eat... They aren't going to be these adults that have to force themselves to eat veggies and fruits. The allergies are forcing us to be a very healthy family, and I like it! (Not the allergies, but the fact that my kids are learning to eat so well.)"

I've often thought the same thing. Kind of like, well we have these allergies to deal with but I know my kids are learning to eat healthy foods and that will benefit them over the long term.

Families are so busy today. KIDS are so busy today, their lives filled with so many activities. That's why, besides the health benefits of home cooking, getting into the kitchen together is a great way to spend quality time with your kids. This is not a new idea at all, but one that is easy to forget in the hustle and bustle of every day life.

Some of my best childhood memories take place around the table--in fact the only birthday cakes I remember are the ones that were home-baked for me by my grandmother. Were they fancy? No. (Though they were delicious). When people cook for us we feel loved.

Here is what reader Tina had to say on my FB page: "I have my moments where I am upset about my lil ones food allergies BUT I always come back around to the silver lining :) It forces me to feed my kids healthier foods. It forces me to cook instead of us jumping in the car to get some fast food on a busy night. FA's have certainly forced me out of my comfort zone in the kitchen (which before kids was to open a box and put it in the microwave) but it is a GOOD thing!"

In the spirit of kitchen bonding, I've included the following recipes that are two of our favorite easy-to-make and relatively healthful treats:

Banana Bread

Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Craisin Cookies

You can search my blog for dinner ideas, too. I also highly recommend Linda Coss's book "What Else to Eat?" because it has a treasure trove of yummy and healthy allergy-friendly dinner recipes.

What about you? Do you find your family has adapted healthier eating habits because of food allergies?

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Nut-Free Home Baker: Nut-Free Food Coloring, Sprinkles, and More!

Dealing with nut allergies means avoiding bakeries. So now that you have to home bake, what ingredients are safe to use?

Labels don't always reveal all of the information we need. With current labeling laws, they only have to list actual ingredients, not whether or not an item was processed on the same lines as potential allergens. So sometimes we need to do a little more digging to find out.

Through my own research as well as tips from readers of this blog, I've found that nut-free cake and cookie decorating items like sprinkles, colored sugars and food color are some of the most difficult to find.

If you plan to bake much (and you probably will if you have a child with a nut allergy) then ordering safe nut-free items makes sense. Is it as convenient as a trip to the grocery store? Not always, but if you stock up you will have what you need when you need it. Plus, there are more "safe" items available at your local supermarket than ever before.

The list below offers some suggestions on decorating items that are nut-free. A few you can find at the supermarket, but it's worth ordering some of these online items for a huge variety as well as quality and non-artificial colors, etc. Of course, if you have any questions about products mentioned here or other products I haven't mentioned, please contact the company's customer service department for the most accurate and up-to-date information.

Sprinkles/Cookie and Cake Decor

Cake Mate/Betty Crocker--Signature Brands These are readily available at the supermarket and many of these are safe for nut allergies. Here is a post I wrote about Cake Mate. Both Cake Mate and Betty Crocker are made by Signature Brands. In my e-mails and phone calls with this company, they tell me they will list cross-contact info on the package. Please contact Signature Brands directly for specific info.

Wilton. Wilton products are all very well-marked for allergens as well as May Contains type of allergy advisories, but you must read every label. In general their chocolate products are not safe for nut allergies, but many of their sugar decorations are fine to use. It depends on the product, as they may process different items in different facilities.

Food Coloring

Americolor. Food coloring that's entirely nut-free. Karen McNeil, one of my blog readers, clued me into this one. Thanks, Karen! The colors are deep and rich and unlike a lot of the Wilton gel colors, they are safe for nut allergies. A great find! (Note: Wilton has detailed allergy labels. If you are interested in a specific product, check the label for more info.)

McCormick Brand I've used this brand many times for food coloring--they are very helpful when you e-mail or call. Unfortunately they do not list allergen info on their web site. I wrote about their vanilla extract and I also use their food coloring.

Decorative Candies
Divvies. They have amazing candy that you can use for cake decor. In fact, my daughters just used their "star" candies on a beach cake to make "starfish." This company is so awesome, and they have baked treats in addition to candy that is egg-free, dairy-free and nut-free.

Vermont Nut Free Chocolate One of my all-time faves for nut-free sweets, Vermont Nut Free has jelly beans and other nut-free candies you can use on your cakes and cookies. They also have delicious gourmet cocoa powder for baking as well as baking chocolate.

Surf Sweets. These gummy candies (and jellybeans) make great baking d├ęcor and they are  gluten-free as well as free of nuts and the other "top 8" allergens. All-natural, GMO-free and organic.

Gimbals. Lots of great choices here including licorice scottie dogs, jellybeans and more, free of the top 8 allergens. All natural.

And remember: Please see the many great baking or prepared nut-free treats resources, located to the right of this page, if you want to purchase premade, nut-free treats!

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Nut-Free Bakery in Chicago Area: Q & A with NutPhree's Cupcakes!

One of the number one questions I get is: Where do you find a nut-free bakery in Chicago? The answer is that it hasn't been easy and mostly non-existent when it comes to cakes or cupcakes. My biggest pet peeve has been places that are "only" peanut-free, but still loaded with tree nuts (making it unsafe for many with nut allergies) or places that use peanuts and tree nuts but still market themselves to food-allergic consumers.

Because nut allergies are so serious, dedicated nut-free bakeries are the only thing I feel that I can trust. Most of the time, the only nut-free bakery out there is my own kitchen.

So I was very happy to hear from Brian Walker, owner of Nutphree's Cupcakes. They are the only dedicated nut-free cupcake bakery that I know of in the Chicago area, so welcome Nutphree's!

I recently asked Brian to share with us a little bit about his new company. You'll be happy to know that while this is a currently home-based business, they are soon opening a storefront bakery.

Thanks, Brian for sharing some info with us. Something tells me that you will have some loyal customers, very soon!

Here is the Q&A with Brian Walker, creator of Nutphree's Cupcakes:

Me: What is your personal experience with food allergies?
Brian: Our oldest son, who is 4-1/2, has a severe peanut and tree nut allergy. When he was first diagnosed with the allergy, we couldn't believe how difficult it was to find baked goods that were safe for him to eat. We found ourselves always having to bake a separate cake or cupcakes anytime we went to birthday party because we weren't sure if the ingredients in the cakes being provided were going to be safe for him to eat. That's when we decided it was time for Nutphree's.

Me: Tell me a little bit about Nutphree's and how you are helping to serve a customer niche.
Brian: We created this business out of need we felt wasn’t currently being fulfilled. We did extensive research to find ingredients from manufacturers that guaranteed safe, nut-free products. We take tremendous joy in providing delicious and safe products which allow those with peanut and tree nut allergies to enjoy the same baked goods as everyone else, especially our young customers.

Me: What is your favorite Nutphree's cupcake? Your son's favorite?
Brian: I’d have to say my favorite cupcake is the Red Velvet with Cream Cheese frosting. Not only does it taste great, it looks great, too. As for my son, he’s all about the vanilla with vanilla frosting.

Me: How do we order and where do you ship to? Do you have a storefront bakery? If so, where?
Brian: Currently, orders can be placed either through our website ( or by calling us up at (847) 754-4320. Until we determine a reasonably inexpensive shipping method that guarantees product freshness and product appearance, we are currently only offering local pickup in Des Plaines, IL or delivery to the nearby surrounding suburbs. We are also in the process of finding a storefront for our bakery. It will most likely be in downtown Arlington Heights, IL or Mount Prospect, IL.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Food Allergy-Friendly "Sunella"--Our Nut-Free "Nutella" Substitute

I don't know if it's all of those Nutella commercials that we've been seeing lately (you know, Nutella for breakfast, etc.) but a lot of you have been contacting me about my recipe for as we call it, "Sunella" a nut-free hazelnut chocolate spread that we make at home using SunButter brand sunflower seed butter.

I posted this recipe awhile ago and when was looking for allergy-friendly recipes on their Facebook page, I entered this and won a cookbook! So I hope you'll try it. What follows is my original post:

I used to be a big fan of Nutella, that chocolate-hazelnut spread that is a European sensation but is now widely available in the U.S. I don't have peanut butter or tree nut products in my house anymore, but I definitely have missed Nutella. I bet some of you do, too.

Last week, I remembered that I had (from years ago) a peanut butter-chocolate recipe that was meant to be used as filling for dessert calzones (this recipe was suggested if you didn't have access to Nutella). I used to make these dessert calzones using only Nutella, but that was back in the days before nut allergies came into my life.

I dug up this book and decided to use SunButter in this recipe, along with a few other of my changes. I know that some of you with nut allergies also are allergic to seeds, so if you can have soy butter, you can replace the SunButter with that. In fact, I've seen a soy butter-chocolate spread at the supermarket, but making your own tastes a lot better if you have the time. Personally my family and I prefer the taste of SunButter over soy butter, but of course, use what you like best.

So here goes: the SunButter(R)-chocolate spread recipe followed by the one for dessert calzones. Enjoy!

SunButter(R) -Chocolate Spread

2/3 cup sugar
1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder (I use Hershey's)
2/3 cup milk (any kind--substitute non-dairy if you need to)
1 tsp vanilla extract (I use McCormick or Nielsen-Massey)
1/2 cup SunButter brand sunflower seed spread

In a medium saucepan, stir the sugar and cocoa powder until blended. Gradually stir in the milk. Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring constantly, then lower heat and simmer for 2 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool for at least 5 minutes. Add the vanilla and Sunbutter, stirring until smooth. Let cool thoroughly before using.

Store this in the refrigerator. It will keep for about a week.

Dessert calzones with Sunbutter-chocolate filling

Use your favorite pizza dough recipe or buy pre-made dough (I sometimes use Pillsbury brand). Preheat the oven to 475 degrees F.

Divide the dough into 6 pieces and roll each piece into a 6-7 inch circle. Spoon two tablespoons filling into the center, then fold dough into a half-moon over the filling. Pinch the edges together and fold bottom half over top, crimping to seal well. Place on an ungreased cookie sheet, leaving 2 inches between each calzone. Bake until well browned-between 12 and 20 minutes, depending on your oven. Remove from oven and sprinkle with confectioner's sugar. Devour in minutes.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Food Allergies and School: Back-to-School Checklist

Back- to-school time is exciting but for the parent dealing with food allergies, elementary school or any new school can be scary to contemplate. After all, you'll be dropping your child off at school with the knowledge that they will be around food and situations that may pose risks. I've found that early communication and check-ins throughout the year help to minimize those risks and situations.

If you keep open communication with the school and stay on top of things like parties, you will be one step closer to ensuring a safe and enjoyable school year for you, your child, the teacher and everyone in the class.

Late summer is a good time to get started -- for those of you who begin school in mid-August, you'll obviously want to get in touch sometime in July. If your school office is currently closed, try setting up meetings via e-mail for later in the summer. The important thing is to make contact early so that you can iron out details before the first day of school.

Here are a few things to do well before school begins:

•Schedule any doctor's appointments and have your allergist complete important paperwork such as Food Allergy Action Plans, notes and other medical documents that you need for the school nurse (such as an Individual Health Plan (IHP) or a 504 Plan. Make sure to include recent photo of your child (such as a school portrait) that can be glued/taped onto their emergency plan. FARE has Food Allergy Emergency Action Plans on their web site. Click this link and scroll down: you'll find many school resources here.

•Schedule a meeting with the principal and district nurse to take place before school begins. Many schools offer these meetings for parents to discuss everything at one time. This meeting would also be a time to discuss things like peanut-free tables or restricting certain foods in the classroom. You will usually need a doctor's note to back this up attesting to the severity of your child's allergies, so be ready with any documentation about reactions or allergy tests.

• Review your current epinephrine auto injector prescriptions and renew them if necessary. Have at least TWO auto injectors for school--one for the health office and one for your child's classroom.

•Make sure your child has a Medical ID bracelet (or other medical ID jewelry)such as you'll find at MedicAlert ( or Allermates. If your child feels fashionable, her or she will be more excited about wearing this important item.

•Stock up on lunch gear for all those packed lunches you'll be making. I love all of the eco-friendly (and cost-saving) reusable lunch container choices out there right now. The "bento style" lunch containers look cool for kids plus they keep your costs down--no more buying disposable bags. Check Target, Whole Foods and online at places like Lunch Bots.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Got Food Allergies? Visiting Relatives? You Can Make It Work

Summer is the time that many of us get in the car, hit the road and visit the relatives. For many of us, these are folks we haven't seen in awhile and they may not be fully aware how much food allergies can affect our lives. Also, there can be more family baggage involved than simply what you've packed in the trunk of your car.

Some family members are ready and willing to help accommodate a severe food allergy. They understand that it's not a food preference, but a medical condition and they accept the dangers. Other family members are less receptive and/or less informed about it so it's going to be your job to be proactive so that you can have fun and also, a safe trip.

Family relationships can get strained over food allergies, but there are some things you can do to help.

- Call ahead. Don't just show up at your appointed time and expect everything to go smoothly. Especially if you're staying with relatives and even if you aren't, give a shout out and discuss the food allergy situation. You will want to give people a heads up about foods to avoid but also you want to reassure your family that you will help provide safe meals and won't leave it all up to them.

- Bring food. Pack enough non-perishable safe treats, either homemade or from places like Enjoy Life Foods or Divvies so that your allergic child is not left without good stuff during family meals or snack times. Stocking up will also save you and your family the stress of last-minute grocery runs or overheated discussions about "just one bite won't hurt" and "why can't he have the plain M&Ms?" etc.

- Be fun. Food is part of the social fabric that holds families together but it can also be divisive if you're dealing with food allergies, so don't let all the focus go to the food. Once you arrive, organize a family vs. family soccer game, go to a movie or beach or bring your favorite board game and engage everyone in a fun activity that doesn't revolve around food. Everyone will be having too much fun to comment on what your kid is or isn't eating.

- Plan activities that allow you to bring your own meals. If you're visiting a zoo or amusement park, for example, you will want to make sure you can bring a picnic lunch so that you don't have to rely on the food allergy-unsafe food options found at these places. Everyone loves a picnic, so help pack a good one and then you can focus on the activity instead of finding what so often turns out to be as easy as finding a needle in a haystack -- a "safe" lunch or dinner while out and about.