Monday, August 29, 2011

Nut-Free Granola Bars: The Perfect Allergy-Friendly Back-to-School Snack

Since school snacks are now a hot topic for parents around the country, I thought I would re-post this granola bar recipe which has been a reader favorite. Some of the most difficult nut-free products to find are nut-free granola bars, which is too bad because they make great, relatively healthy snacks for kids and adults.

My recipe is fast, easy and both kid and adult-friendly. It's also easy to alter to your tastes and food allergy needs. You can omit the SunButter or use soy butter if you need to and replace the chocolate chips (or combine them with) Ocean Spray Craisins or raisins. If you need to avoid eggs, add a little more honey as a binder and/or even a small amount of unsweetened applesauce (see the recipe below). Experiment with your kids until you find the combinations you like best.

A word about chocolate chips: If you want nut-free chocolate chips only, then check out Vermont Nut Free Chocolate for delicious varieties. If you would like egg-free, dairy-free and nut-free chips, Divvies and Enjoy Life Foods sell them. I also use Hershey brand semi-sweet chocolate chips because we only need to avoid nuts, not dairy. After many communications with Hershey and many years of using certain of their products, I feel confident about them.

Make a batch of these for after school snacks, during school snacks and lunchtime treats.

The Nut-Free Mom's Nut-Free Oatmeal Granola Bars
2 cups old-fashioned oats, uncooked
1 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 cup packed brown sugar (light or dark)
3/4 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips (or dried fruit, or both)
1/2 cup toasted wheat germ; I use Kretchum brand (or in a pinch, use same amount of whole wheat flour but the wheat germ really gives it that "granola" taste)
3/4 teaspoon fine sea salt (Morton's makes this)
1/2 cup canola oil
1/2 cup honey
1/3 cup SunButter brand sunflower seed spread (or soybutter), optional
1 large egg (if going egg-free, use 1/4 cup unsweetened applesauce instead)
2 tsp vanilla extract (Nielsen-Massey or McCormick's are my faves)

- Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray a 9 x 13 inch pan with Pam.

- In a large bowl with a wooden spoon, mix oats, flour, brown sugar, chocolate chips, wheat germ or wheat flour and salt until blended. Stir in oil, honey, SunButter, egg or applesauce and vanilla until thoroughly combined. Pat mixture into pan with a wet hand (so you won't stick too much).

- Bake until golden around the edges, 18-20 minutes for chewier bars, 25-30 minutes for crispier bars. Cool completely in pan on wire rack.

- When cool, cut lengthwise into bars of your preferred size. I did four strips, each into four pieces for a total of 16 bars.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Food Allergies in School: The First Week

School's in session for many of us and it's no secret that food allergies at school can be a major cause of stress for parents, teachers, administrators and the kids themselves. I wish I had a one-size fits all option for everyone, but the fact is, many factors will determine how your school handles food allergies. Sometimes it's the people, sometimes the policies and sometimes it's a little bit of both.

We have just completed our first week of school and I have to confess--after the first partial school day, my oldest (with food allergies) has been home all week with some kind of virus that is luckily improving. So there you go! Never even thought about that happening with all the other allergy-related stuff on my mind. However, the feedback I've gotten so far from teachers and other food allergy parents has been really encouraging.

I spent a lot of time before the "big day" communicating with teachers, staff and other parents about how we would handle food allergies at school. I also had doctor's appointments and prescriptions, forms to fill out and discuss. In previous years, I have been extremely fortunate to work with wonderful teachers who wanted to help our daughter have a great school year. Without fail, they helped institute several safety measures.

However, throughout the entire school, rules about food allergies were often inconsistent and that was frustrating.

That was last year. This year, it's a whole new story because of the new district-wide food allergy policies now in place. Last year, after an Illinois law was passed that gave tax breaks to schools who follow the Illinois state food allergy management guidelines, our district came up with an extensive protocol for dealing with food allergies in a consistent way. 504 Plans and IHPs (Individual Health Plans) are still available for those who need them, but overall there is now a detailed document to refer that illustrates how our district mandates the handling of food allergies.

For example, the school lunchroom must have an allergy-free table and cleaning protocols. Lunchroom supervisors are advised of the allergic kids and their right to sit at this table (if they desire) along with one or two friends. This sounds easy, but if these measures are not spelled out and implemented, it can create chaos for the allergic kids in the lunchroom (as well as the staff.)

In addition, classroom procedures regarding handwashing and eating are being implemented that will help protect allergic kids (and probably eliminate a few colds or flu in the process.)

Even with good district policies on food allergies, parents still need to speak up about concerns and if possible, offer a solution that works. It's always good to become a resource to the teachers and the school, whether it's helping out with parties or suggesting simple and workable ways to maintain a safe classroom. Recognize that teachers have a lot to deal with and offer to help them in any way you can. If they do implement food allergy safety policies, always say thank you.

Not every school throughout the country has implemented state guidelines on the issue of food allergies, so please write to your state reps if you want this in place in your state. That's how we got it in Illinois. Support groups like MOCHA as well as FAAN helped with letter-writing/calling. Bloggers (including me) urged readers to write to their reps and explain the positive difference that food allergy guidelines would make at school.

It takes time and effort. It might even give you a few gray hairs along the way. But just knowing that there is a well thought-out policy being followed is really reassuring.

No risk can ever be eliminated entirely and no parent expects that. Simple precautions have been proven to work and I'm very grateful that our school and teachers have become our partners with this.

Here's to a happy school year to everyone!

For more info on helping your school to become safer, please see this recent back-to-school post.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Food Allergies and Easing Back-to-School Anxiety

I recently posted this amazing article, "Easing Back-to-School Anxiety" from FAAN on my Facebook page, but since so many of deal with this problem, I wanted to repost it again to make sure that everyone sees it.

Even though my daughter is entering 6th grade, each year brings new variables. The FAAN article, written by Kristen Kauke -- she was a speaker at the most recent FAAN conference I attended and she was so warm, wise and engaging--really hits home with her points about trying not to anticipate catastrophe and trying to live in the moment. (This is, of course, after you've filled out your zillion forms, spoken to teachers and staff and in other ways done your best to ensure an environment for your child that is as safe as possible.)

It's not always easy to feel relaxed about school, especially for younger kids who need to rely on adults for help and support with regard to their allergies. I also get diseheartened when I hear stories like the one someone shared on my Facebook page the other day about a "surprise" peanut butter treat (brought in by another parent) and served by the teacher on the first day of school. This was after a food allergy meeting with this teacher, apparently, so I'm fully aware that sometimes we do need to be persistent and discuss things more than once.

On a brighter note, I've also seen my own child take charge of her allergies which is very rewarding. So those of you with very young kids, take heart. When you feel your child has reached a certain level of maturity and understanding, it does help ease your mind and it is also a healthy thing for them.

I'm in the middle of my own back-to-school meetings and negotiations, so I truly get how demanding this time of year is. Once you've put your plans into place, I want to encourage you all to try to forget the allergies for a minute and look at your child as the beautiful person they are, give them a hug and celebrate the fact that they are about to enter a new school year that will benefit them with growth, learning and friendships.

For additional back-to-school allergy help, here is a link to one of my recent posts featuring collected links and back-to-school resources.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

New Food Allergy Law in Illinois Affects Schools and Epinephrine

I was happy to see this new law that allows schools to stock epinephrine autoinjectors and administer them to students having an allergic reaction. The law will protect students who don't have their own, such as students who are undiagnosed and students who for whatever reason, don't have an auto-injector at their disposal.

Despite this law, though, I'm still troubled because an epinephrine autoinjector isn't a guarantee of reversing a reaction once it starts. For a severely allergic person, an allergic reaction is like a runaway train. No one knows how fast it will move or how far it will go. What I'd like to see is more proactivity with regard to preventing allergic reactions in schools.

That means less food in the classroom, less food-focused events and less push back from parents who demand that cupcakes in the classroom are a more important than anything.

Every student has a right to an education, to their health and to a safe school environment. Yes, epinephrine in schools is a huge help and this law will save lives. Many adults now develop allergies later in life, so even teachers or other school staff may personally benefit from access to epinephrine. But life-saving medication only one piece of the puzzle. Let's stop the allergic reactions from happening in the first place.

It's relatively easy to do. But lately I'm hearing about so much push back, push back, push back. I'm sorry you feel your child will "suffer" without frequent cupcake consumption in the classroom or restaurant food for parties. But these items are not part of the curriculum and frankly, it's gone way too far. I have little memory of constant food being pushed my way when I was in school. When did we decide that kids need to eat every 15 minutes or they will "suffer"?

With back-to-school time headed our way (and many across the country already in school) I've heard so many stories of schools pushing back with regard to making classrooms safer. And I'm talking reasonable requests like limiting the number and type of snacks in the classroom and making parties less about food and more about activities. I'm talking schools refusing to supply an allergic student with a safer lunch table that will allow them to have a meal without threat of allergic reaction. No peanut bans, no food bans, just safe areas to eat and learn. That's what will prevent a reaction. And yet, schools don't want to do it. Why?

It's time for schools to stop letting peanut butter, milk or any food become more important that education or kids' health. Teachers have enough to worry about and school nurses have never been in such short supply. Let's make it easier on everyone by limiting food in the classroom and focusing on learning. School should be about learning and not eating outside of meal times. Let's try prevention first, treatment with epinephrine, second.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Food Allergy-Friendly Cookies: New! Enjoy Life Foods Crunchy Cookies!

There are three kinds of cookie lovers: those who love soft chewy cookies, those who love crunchy, crisp cookies and those who love ANY cookie. I'd have to place myself in the crunchy crisp cookie category so I was very happy when Enjoy Life offered to let me try their newest product: Crunchy Cookies!

As you see from the photos, there are four kinds available: Double Chocolate, Chocolate Chip, Vanilla Honey Graham and Sugar Crisp.

With so few nut-free Chicago bakeries, these cookies are definitely a welcome addition to my house.

I loved these cookies before I even took a bite. For one thing, they are a bigger cookie so they look more like what you would find in a bakery (always good for our kids and ourselves). They also have a wonderful flavor and I really like the texture. It's crunchy and crisp and the cookies taste buttery (though they are do they do that???) and delicious.

Our family favorite was the Chocolate Chip but all the flavors were a hit. I especially like the Vanilla Honey Graham--in fact, I can see this one as a gluten-free and nut-free option for making a pie crust that calls for graham crackers. The double chocolate had "intense chocolately flavor" according to my husband and my daughters both gave me a "thumbs up" and said "Yum." That kind of says it all.

I also love these because I am asked so often for "safe" cookies and I like to endorse those made in a nut-free facility. These would be great to bring to a school party with multiple allergies because they are free of dairy, soy, egg, peanut, tree nut and gluten. I remember last year a Girl Scout leader asked my advice on Chocolate Chip cookies for a troop meeting so these go on the list this year, definitely!

Go to Enjoy Life Foods' store locater to find out where you can buy their latest, tasty addition to their cookie roster! You can also order these online if you visit the Enjoy Life web site.

Thanks to Enjoy Life for letting me try these!

Note: I received cookie samples but no financial compensation for this review.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Dining Out with Food Allergies: Communication is Key!

We just returned from a short summer vacay and I wanted to share a restaurant story.

I know that dining out is one of the most stressful things for people with severe food allergies because you just never know what's in the food.

We visited a wonderful lakefront restaurant on our trip, one we had been to many times before. It was a very hot day and my daughter wanted a Greek salad. (She's big into salads lately).

We communicated our daughter's allergy when we made our order and asked the waitress to check on the item. It was listed as having "Greek dressing" which in our home never contains any peanut oil or pine nuts, but we still wanted to know.

Our waitress returned and said she had spoken with the chef, which we had asked her to do. She said they didn't make the dressing, it was brought in and one of the chefs thought it might contain peanut oil or some kind of tree nut; they weren't 100%certain. They recommended we use oil and vinegar, that they would bring to our table and my daughter could put this on her salad herself.

My first thought was to be extremely thankful for this waitress. My second thought was--who would think that peanut oil is in Greek dressing?? Once again, this incident confirmed my belief that you always have to check with the chef and never assume that something is "safe" for your allergy.

I'm happy to say that the dinner was delish and we enjoyed a nice, stress-free meal after that. We thanked the waitress profusely and tipped her well--it's nice to give a good tip when they help you out. Kind of like food allergy PR as well as a thank you to the waitperson.

As you visit restaurants, never be afraid to speak up and as your child gets older, have them speak up as well. You have no way of knowing how the food is prepared unless you ask.

Here's another recent post I wrote about dining out.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Back to School with Food Allergies: Helpful Links and Resources!

Back to school time is right around the corner for many of us, so I've compiled a list of links to help get you on track for a great year.

I've included links for preschool, elementary school, parties, play dates, etc. Some of the articles first appeared on this blog, some I wrote for other publications and the last one quoted me as a source. :)

I hope you find these to be helpful!

Preschool and day care tips Nut-Free Mom blog post

Elementary school checklist Nut-Free Mom blog post

Back to school with food allergies article for Chicago Parent magazine (by Jenny Kales)

Play dates and birthday parties with food allergies Chicago Parent magazine by Jenny Kales

Back to School with Food Allergies Real Simple magazine

FAAN Back to School Tips