Monday, January 30, 2012

Food Allergy-Safe Cookie Giveaway! Sweet Alexis Nut-Free, Egg-Free, Dairy-Free Valentine's Day Cookies!

Looking for nut allergy-friendly cookies for Valentine's Day? Tired of baking? Well, the wonderful Michelle of Sweet Alexis Bakery offered to do another free cookie giveaway for Nut-Free Mom blog readers! See the delightful heart-shaped cookies pictured at left? They can be yours if you are the lucky winner.

What will you win? A dozen heart-shaped and frosted cookies, individually wrapped, boxed and topped with a bow! A $36 value (including shipping). Best of all, the cookies are tree nut-free, peanut-free, dairy-free and egg-free.

All you have to do to enter this random drawing is to comment below. Please give us your first name and last initial. When a winner is chosen, you can send me your e-mail privately to discuss shipping.Since this is a Valentine's Day contest, feel free to share a story close to your heart, that explains how you went the extra mile and showed the love to someone in your life with food allergies. (Winners won't be chosen based on the stories--it's just nice to hear them!)

The winner will be announced Wednesday, February 1st right here--and on my NFM Facebook page.If you don't win, I hope you will still check out Sweet Alexis for some amazingly delicious allergy-friendly baked goods. We love their zucchini bread and banana bread, especially, and their cookies are delish! Good luck everybody! And thanks to Sweet Alexis for sponsoring the giveaway!

Friday, January 27, 2012

Food Allergy News: Home Free Organic Treats! Peanut-Free, Treen Nut-Free and More!

The unexpected benefit of having to find peanut-free and tree nut-free cookies and treats for our kids with peanut and tree nut allergies, is that sometimes the alternatives are healthier. And healthier is good--but what about taste? They have to want to eat it, right?

Recently, my kids were given the opportunity to sample some cookies from Home Free Organic Treats. Created by the mother a child with food allergies, these cookies are a wonderful nut-free option that you can feel good about for two reasons. First of all, they are made in a free-from facility--that is, free of nut, peanuts, dairy and eggs. Some of the products are even certified gluten-free, if you have that concern. Everything is made with natural, organic ingredients that are free of the Top 8 food allergens (however, they are processed on lines with soy lecithin. Please see the web site for info on allergen management/cleaning practices.)

Second, these cookies are healthy as well as tasty. They are non-GMO certified, made with whole grains, heart healthy, low sodium--wow. For all that, they taste great! I love the flavor and texture, especially the mini gluten-free chocolate chip cookies. I prefer crispy, crunchy cookies and these deliver. I had to put these cookies in another room before I ate them all.

We sampled the regular sized chocolate chip cookies, the mini chocolate chip GF cookies, gluten-free mini vanilla cookies and mini chocolate chocolate chip cookies. All of these cookies were nut-free, egg-free and dairy-free, too.

My youngest loved the mini cookies the best but my oldest, with allergies loved them all, leaning towards the chocolate chocolate chip and regular sized plain chocolate chip cookies. She told me that "these cookies put a smile on my face." OK--I'll take a smile any way I can get it these days. (Those of you without tweens, you'll find out what I mean someday.)

But seriously, these are a great, nut-free treat. I love to support companies with dedicated nut-free facilities because let's face it--there is way too much label confusion these days. When you KNOW it's safe and nut-free, it just makes life easier.

You can order these online or find them in some stores. Check out the store locator for more details.

Thanks, Home Free for the samples and for making a great option for food-allergic kids.

FTC Note: I received free cookie samples but no other compensation for this post.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

To Celebrate Peanut-Free Day: Nut-Free Granola Bar Recipe

Apparently it's National Peanut Butter Day, so for those of us unable to partake, I thought I we could celebrate National Peanut-Free Day. And what better way than with a peanut-free, tree nut-free recipe (and reader favorite): Nut-Free Granola Bars.

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 (Enjoy Life is soy-free, too). 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.


Thursday, January 19, 2012

Food Allergy News: New Allergy-Friendly Valentine's Day Candy from Surf Sweets

With Valentine's Day just around the corner, I am thrilled to be able to tell you about an all-new, allergy-friendly and organic treat--Surf Sweets Fruity Hearts! These sweet little heart-shaped gummy candies are certified organic watermelon and cherry heart-shaped gummies. I think they're perfect to share with your kids, their classmates and friends. Plus, they are a cute and festive decoration for a home-baked cupcake.

As you know, it's a difficult prospect to decipher food labels on Valentine's Day candy in order to find nut-free but delicious items kids will enjoy eating and receiving (and don't forget about adults--I love these things!). I like to support companies like Surf Sweets because they take all the guesswork out of it for me. I need nut-free and no question, these are nut-free, made in a free-from facility. Kind of makes things simpler, doesn't it?

Surf Sweets Fruity Hearts are made right here in the Chicago area with real organic fruit juice, fortified with antioxidant Vitamin C, and they’re allergy friendly, gluten free and vegan. Fruity Hearts are also free of corn syrup, synthetic dyes, and artificial flavors.

All Surf Sweets candies are gluten free; dairy and casein free; allergy friendly, meaning that they contain none of the most common food allergens (wheat, dairy, peanuts, tree nuts, egg, soy, fish, shellfish); and Feingold approved. Surf Sweets candies are produced and packaged in a dedicated nut-free facility.

Most Surf Sweets candies are currently available in mainstream grocery and natural foods stores, online, and at specialty retailers throughout the U.S. and Canada. For more information on store locations, visit the Surf Sweets website where you can also order online.

I'll have more info on my favorite nut-free chocolates for V-Day in an upcoming post!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Our Food Allergy Journey So Far/Preventing Peanut Allergy Reactions

This is going to be a long post, so bear with me. A lot has been happening. 2012 began with difficulties to those of us raising children with life-threatening food allergies, especially peanut allergies. The biggest tragedy related to food allergies was when a 7-year-old girl lost her life due to a peanut allergy incident at school--every parent's worst nightmare.

Another thing that has worried parents in the last couple of weeks is introduction of Peanut Butter Cheerios to the marketplace. Yes, there have been many new peanut butter/tree nut products introduced in recent years. But Cheerios is marketed and used as a baby/toddler food, so obviously parents of allergic kids are concerned about mix ups, cross-contact and increased exposure to allergens among a young and vulnerable group of children. Basically, even though I'm sure it was not intended, this new product makes keeping our young kids safe even more difficult.

I started out the year feeling very hopeful and while the things I mentioned above are hard to accept, I want to tell you to feel hopeful, too. You have it in your power to educate your children against accidental ingestion. Educating them does work! For me, the proof is in my own child. She has always advocated for her safety--even questioning me about products I bring home from the grocery store. I love this about her and encourage it. When it comes to food allergies, you must help your kids to self-manage and self-advocate. The earlier you start, the better.

Let me share a recent story. One of the gifts my daughter received over winter break was a cupcake cookbook. Of course, some of the recipes had peanut butter, but that was not a big deal. "We'll just use SunButter for those" my daughter shrugged, and moved on when she spotted those recipes.

Only another parent who has spent many, many years baking dozens of cupcakes and other baked goods for every kid in the class can appreciate what I'm about to say next. My daughter is now baking for herself, from scratch. I nearly fainted when she baked the lemon cupcakes (pictured above) and presented them to the family for New Year's. (They were delicious! No joke.) I was overjoyed. Not only was I going to get a little break from the baking, but my daughter is learning to take care of herself. Learning to make homemade baked treats is a necessary skill for someone with life-threatening nut allergies. It warmed my heart to see my daughter taking on a skill she will need and enjoying the feeling of accomplishment it gave her. Plus, I thought to myself "She's seen me in the kitchen all these years baking for her, her sister and her school parties. She wants to do it for herself now. She understands."

Food allergies don't seem like a big deal to most people who aren't familiar with them. Each parent has different parenting styles and philosophies, but food allergies don't leave wiggle room in one important area, and that's life or death. You can't argue with a life-threatening allergic reaction once it begins. So prevention is always the best way, with preparedness for emergencies coming in at a close second.

I've been writing this blog for several years--this January marks the fourth year of my blog--and we've been living with food allergies for 8 years. The journey has been difficult at times and recent incidents like a tragic death remind me of how important it is to be proactive in our own lives. There is no replacement for this! Yes, epinephrine autoinjectors will help save lives and informed teachers and staff members are a must-have. But I've found that the single most important thing you can do is to help your kids learn how to prevent allergic reactions by following a few simple rules.

Now don't get me wrong--age plays a factor. The younger the child, the more they rely on others to help them. However, you can start at an early age with the process of self-management. Teach kids to say no to foods that they aren't sure about. Bottom line, period. Never seen it before? Don't eat it. Your friend tells you it's safe (this is one they will hear time and again -- "But it's safe.") Nope, unless you know this for a fact, don't eat it.

In the younger grades, my daughter used to bring foods home in her backpack for me to check. This was our rule and it worked very well for us. You may say that kids can't control themselves, but as they get older, this is something to practice with them. Even young kids can learn that certain food rules can't be broken and that foods offered at school are NEVER safe unless they've been checked by you or your trusted caregiver.

Another rule we've followed to the T: Don't ask the teacher to be the main gatekeeper of foods at school (even though some teachers are truly remarkable at food allergy management). This is something you should control. It seems that the "surprise" treats and such have the most potential for problems and allergic reactions. Be proactive and provide your child with safe alternatives that stay in the classroom and advocate for minimizing food and treats in the classroom as much as possible.

As kids get a bit older, such as kindergarten, the real training begins. This is where they will learn to be their own advocates, so teach them to say no if a classmate offers them any food. By the same token, no home baked treats brought in by parents unless you bake them. I can't tell you how many times I've seen nice, sweet moms of non-allergic kids bring in home baked treats and tell the class that they are "nut-free" or "dairy-free" or whatever. But if they aren't managing food allergies in their own homes (and sometimes, even if they are), the cross-contact risk is there.

You don't want kids to be frightened of eating, but you do want them to be cautious. Food is not always their friend. Facing that sometimes unpleasant fact head on will help to minimize accidental ingestion.

Another thing that helps is to show kids what isn't safe and what unsafe foods look like. In an effort to keep homes nut-free (something I do advocate if you have life-threatening nut allergies at home), some kids have never seen a peanut or tree nut! Show them what unsafe foods look like so they can avoid them. I love Beyond a Peanut for this reason. This is a great flashcard system that teaches kids and adults all about nut allergies in an easy-to-use format. Educating kids is key and this is a great way to do it.

Accidents can happen and mistakes can occur, so in tandem with reaction prevention, teaching emergency procedures is key. A couple of years ago, my daughter had a reaction at school, after lunch. She felt sick and she said she had the "feeling of doom" that is common in people experiencing allergic reactions. It turned out that her face had hives and her eyebrow was swelling.

Because she knew that the greatest potential for allergic reactions was around lunch time, my daughter high-tailed it to the nurse's office. The nurse took one look at her and said "Are you having an allergic reaction?" My daughter said yes, she thought she was. They treated her with Benadryl (per our emergency plan) and called me into the office. Please note: We have more than one epinephrine autoinjector stocked at school for allergic reactions and had other symptoms appeared, we would have used it. Please ask your doctors about when/how to use epinephrine for emergencies.

Luckily the reaction turned out to be mild and it did not progress. We got off easy that day, but part of the reason why had to do with preparedness.

My then 9-year-old daughter knew what to do in the emergency. She asked to leave the lunchroom and went straight to the nurse. (Looking back, an adult should have accompanied her, so go over this with your own school). The nurse knew my daughter because of the many conversations and before-school meetings I had with her when my daughter entered the school. So when she spotted her in the office with facial hives, she knew she might be looking at a severe allergic reaction in progress. While the nurse was prepared, had my daughter hesitated or been too upset to ask for the nurse, things could have gotten worse, quickly. It's worth it to role play these situations because unfortunately accidents do happen.

Looking back over the years since my daughter's food allergy diagnosis at age 4, we've come a long way. I trust my daughter so much more now that she has learned to self-advocate and self-manage. She will still need help, guidance and support, but she's getting there. She's taken in the lessons we've tried to teach her.

I want all of you dealing with allergies in your young kids to know that you can do it, too. A commitment to educating kids about their allergies and being proactive at school is something everyone can do.

I want 2012 to be safe, healthy and happy for you all. Belatedly, Happy New Year, everyone!
Nutphree's Cupcakes

Monday, January 9, 2012

Be Nice on the Internet Week from Real Simple Magazine

With a new year just underway, I was happy to be contacted by Real Simple magazine regarding their new campaign: "Be Nice on the Internet Week." It's my wish that every week could be "Be Nice on the Internet Week" so thanks to Real Simple for getting us started.

I'm a longtime subscriber to Real Simple (and was interviewed for their online edition last year), so I'm extremely happy that the editors have chosen to address the reasons why civilization seems to break down the minute the words "leave your comments below" appear on the screen. Here is a link to Real Simple's terrific article. You can also follow the discussion on Real Simple's Facebook page and Twitter feed. Hashtag is #BeNiceWeek.

Unfortunately, I have experienced rudeness and sometimes crudeness (profane language, threats, you name it) on this blog and in comments sections following online news stories in which I've been quoted or profiled. Each time I've had a piece in media outlet with a large audience (TODAY Show Moms, Chicago Tribune) part of me has thought: "Here come the harsh comments."

That's not even counting the many parenting message boards where discussion of food allergies deteriorates into name-calling and worse.

It's always surprising to me that a mother talking about the best ways to take care of a child with a life-threatening medical condition can raise so much ire. I started my blog to help other parents in my situation and to address the issues that concern those of us in this boat. So why the rudeness from people not part of this experience?

Negative online experiences have shown me that food allergies are a greatly misunderstood topic and more education is needed about them. Usually, hostility towards parents and other bloggers in my situation is a sign that someone doesn't truly understand the issue. Instead of getting upset and saying to heck with my blog or online media outlets, rude comments and offensive remarks have made me think about how to get my message across in a more effective way. These comments have also made me think twice about any impulse to make negative comments of my own.

Negative feedback makes me even more grateful for those of my readers who take the time to say something positive. So let me take this opportunity to say something positive back. THANK YOU to all of you have offered your own experiences, provided a resource link, asked a question, given an answer or simply shared your ups and downs so that someone else knows they are not alone.

That's what online communication should be about.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Food Allergy Deaths Are Tragic and often Preventable

I had planned to begin the new year with an uplifting New Year's post about how far my family and daughter have come in dealing with food allergies. I wanted to share some positive stories and tips that we've learned over the years.

And then I read the latest news story about a food allergy death in Virginia. A 7-year-old girl became ill and died from an apparent peanut allergy reaction on her first day back at school. My heart goes out to the family and I am very sorry for their loss.

This tragic story called to mind other recent food allergy deaths, one of which involved a 6-year-old girl at a school in Quebec. I was reminded of a 7th grader in Chicago who died in December 2010 from a peanut allergy reaction. Of course there have been others but these two stick out in my mind because they happened at school and in both cases epinephrine autoinjectors were not available to the students. With food allergy deaths, the lack of epinephrine autoinjectors or their usage is a common theme. It's worth checking on your prescriptions right now and making sure that they are accessible to your child at school and anywhere else for that matter, at all times.

Accidents can happen and no one can prepare for every circumstance, but so much can be done to minimize the risk of these deadly reactions ever occuring in the first place. As much as we are shocked and horrified by these deaths, I hope we will all take the time to review our own food allergy policies and procedures at school (and everywhere else) and make sure that everyone involved is ready, willing and able to carry out emergency plans if needed.

Another hope is that we will be unafraid to teach our kids how to handle food allergy situations. Even very young kids can be taught what to do. Just like fire drills, you can have food allergy drills where you talk about how to avoid food and what to do if your child feels sick at school. This process doesn't have to be scary or terrifying, but it can be empowering. Our ultimate goal is that kids will self-advocate and self-administer medications as they get old enough.

That's just one piece of the puzzle. I urge everyone, especially those of us with young kids, to check in with the school and make sure everything is up to date with regards to medications and emergency procedures. Issue reminders and provide additional information or medications if necessary. I like to check in with the nurse after winter break just to make sure all of my medications are up to date, for example.

For those of us with older kids, ask them to practice using an epinephrine autoinjector and go over basic food allergy rules about safe foods, remembering to carry their medications, whatever you feel they need a review in.

Another thing you can do is support the epinephrine bill for schools. This link will take you to a page where you can find a sample letter of support for this bill and it will help you to find names and addresses of your local senators. It doesn't take long to customize one of these letters and if this bill becomes law, it can save lives of precious children.

It's natural to wonder what went wrong in tragic food allergy deaths so that you can better prepare yourself and your kids for mistakes or allergic reactions. But there is a flipside to this that is also tragic (to me, anyway) -- and that's the notion of living in fear.

Some of us might be tempted to think that school or other activities are simply not safe and that we must either be constantly terrified and/or take our child out of educational settings or activities that are enriching to them. We might become unduly negative towards the idea of our child becoming independent or trying new activities.

While food allergy deaths are horrible, it's good to remember that education can save lives and readily available, quickly administered epinephrine can prevent deaths. Learning to avoid allergic reactions is also key -- such as avoiding unsafe or high-risk foods and learning to manage different environments. I hope we can focus on being prepared and not just being scared.

An article in USA Today reflected some of these views with quotes from prominent allergy doctors. I was happy to see this article because it reiterates how important and effective it is to be prepared and to expect mistakes. If you expect them, you can be ready to deal with them.

I've had many questions about dealing with food allergies at school, so here are some links that you might find helpful.

FAAN Resources for School Professionals

Back to school tips from my blog with many helpful links to articles and resources

FAAN Blog--Our Family's School Success Story

Thanks to everyone who has shown support for the families who lose their children to food allergies. Our thoughts are with them today.