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Roses are Red, Violets are Blue, Sugar is Sweet, and Food Allergies Can Be Sweet Too

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Ah, Valentine’s Day. For some, this day provides a great excuse to press pause on the stressors of life and take time to celebrate the ones you love. For those with food allergies and intolerances, however, this day can bring about a lot of anxiety. 

If you’re a food allergy parent like me, here’s what probably goes through your head: Will my child be given a valentine that contains their allergen? What will be served at school? Will they feel comfortable speaking up to ensure the treat is safe? Why does this holiday have to center around food?!

If you are celebrating Valentine’s Day as a food-allergic adult, it can be just as stressful. Valentine’s Day often comes in the form of chocolates, or a splurge on a nice dinner and dessert (in our house that means sushi)!

We get it guys. This holiday can be hard. That’s why we’ve teamed up with our friend chef Ming Tsai to bring you a homemade sweet treat this Valentine’s Day. 

Easy? Check. Healthy? Check. Top eight allergen free AND gluten free AND sesame free? Check check check. 

Here’s Chef Tsai’s recipe for Strawberry Coconut Sorbet (note: this recipe contains coconut). 

Strawberry Coconut Sorbet (serves 2)

- 1/2 cup frozen strawberries

- 1/2 cup coconut milk

- 1/4 teaspoon lemon zest

- 2 tablespoons unsweetened coconut flakes

Add strawberries, coconut milk, and zest to a blender and blend until just smooth. Serve immediately and garnish with coconut flakes or cacao nibs (or whatever your heart desires 😍).  

Enjoy friends!

XOXO, 

Meg and the Allergy Amulet Team 

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Breaking Bread

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This past Christmas Eve, I listened to the soft sounds of Ave Maria and Silent Night waft through candlelit pews. My father has sung in a church choir ever since I was a child, like his father before him, so from a young age I was instilled with an appreciation for robed singers harmonizing centuries-old Latin hymns. I’m also a sucker for Christmas carols. 😉

As the communion bread was passed around among the pews, I thought about people who could not eat the bread—not because they weren’t baptized, but because they were allergic or intolerant.

Growing up, our family belonged to a small stone Episcopalian church on a grassy hill that could have been pulled out of the Scottish Highlands or a child’s storybook. At one point, we had a female priest, which was something of a rarity back then. Sermons routinely invoked global current affairs and the common values shared across religions, and everyone, regardless of creed, was welcome. We were a progressive church. The communion bread was also baked in the church kitchen and tasted heavenly. I’d walk up to the altar, cup my hands, and receive a hunk of doughy bread, which I’d dip into a chalice of wine. I can’t remember ever worrying about my food allergies during Sunday communion growing up. Plain bread as a kid was always considered safe. That has since changed. 

Today, 1 in 13 kids has a food allergy, and millions more have a gluten intolerance. We live in a different world from a couple decades back. The communion bread I ate growing up definitely contained wheat, although I never knew anyone that had a problem with gluten back then. These days, however, it seems as though at least one person at every dinner party is gluten-free. To accommodate, many churches now offer gluten-free bread with communion.

The rise of gluten-free products has been a double-edged sword for the nut-allergic like me: on the one hand, it has helped increase awareness and accommodations for those with food allergies and intolerances; on the other hand, nut substitutes (like almond flour) for wheat have become increasingly common. 

Years ago, I admittedly thought the spike in gluten-free products was more fad than the result of a growing severe medical condition. That all changed when I spoke to a woman at a food allergy conference years back who relayed the harrowing experience of her young son and how their family discovered his gluten intolerance. On Sundays, her son would develop debilitating migraines that would keep him bed ridden for days. As she described her experience, and his symptoms, I was horrified. Her family connected the dots back to the communion bread. “Gluten did that to your son!?” I thought. Unfortunately, their church wasn’t able to accommodate his gluten intolerance, and her family was forced to join another parish. 

At the Scottish storybook church, if you declined the bread or wine, you could fold your arms across your chest and receive a blessing from the priest. At the church I attended this Christmas Eve, communion bread was passed between parishioners in pews on trays, and wine (which turned out to be grape juice), was served in small plastic cups. Surprisingly, an individual blessing did not appear to be an alternative option. You’d think a simple blessing like this would be an option at all churches, allowing everyone to partake in communion and ensuring that the food allergic and intolerant aren’t left out.

Religion, like food, should bring people together. Breaking bread has long been a symbol of community and peace. That community piece is lost, however, if everyone isn’t afforded a seat at the table. 

- Abi & the Allergy Amulet Team

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Dear Mother, Dear Daughter

In the spirit of Mother’s Day, two of our food allergy mavens at Allergy Amulet wrote letters to their mom and daughter, respectively, about their food allergy journeys together. Abi Barnes, Allergy Amulet’s CEO and Co-Founder, has lived with food allergies her entire life. Meg Nohe, Allergy Amulet’s Director of Strategic Development, has a daughter with food allergies. We hope you enjoy.

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Dear Mom,

I sometimes look back at my childhood and think, This is why I have a dog. By Darwin’s logic, I should never have made it.

You raised the textbook definition of “bubble girl”: severe asthma, eczema, and the only kid I remember growing up with food allergies. And you did it all before food allergy labeling laws existed, at a time when most folks had never encountered a food-allergic child, and when food allergy organizations and advocacy groups were nonexistent. Pizza joints didn’t know what to make of a child who was allergic to tomato sauce. I like to think you’re the reason “white pizza” is now a thing. Dad and Grandma were particularly dumbfounded: How is the daughter of a long line of Mainers allergic to lobster?

I remember sitting in Nurse Losey’s office in elementary school during recess, hooked up to my nebulizer, watching classmates walk into the infirmary with bruises and scrapes on their knees seeking antiseptic and a bandage. They would glance over at me in wonder, as I breathed in clouds of white smoke from a long tube connected to a noisy white box. Nurse Losey, with her kind eyes and motherly demeanor, would smile at me and carefully close the infirmary curtains around me, shielding me from stares.

Needless to say, there were days when I felt different.

But you worked hard to create a cocoon of normalcy around me. On friends' birthdays and school events, you’d arrive with white pizza and plain vanilla cupcakes so that I didn’t feel left out. You’d adeptly deflect attention away from my special accommodations. Most kids probably didn’t even know that I was always a heartbeat away from the hospital. I also don’t remember ever being teased or taunted as a kid for my food allergies or asthma, although I’m sure it happened from time to time. You also encouraged me to talk openly about my food allergies and asthma—it was nothing to be embarrassed about, you’d say.

You were my life raft as a child. You and your fanny pack full of antihistamines, epinephrine, and inhalers. I can only imagine the stress and fear that accompanied my fragile condition. The terror that must have filled your bones when I would say those four words: “My mouth feels itchy.”

You’re a rare breed, Mom. Always have been. Anyone who knows you would say the same. You’re uncannily selfless and kind; a wellspring of creativity and optimism. And you’re fiercely genuine—a quality I constantly strive to emulate. To say that I am fortunate to have you as a mother would be an understatement. I wouldn’t have made it this far without you.   

Once a life raft, now an anchor. Thank you for first keeping me afloat, and now ever grounded. With love. Happy Mother’s Day.

Abi

P.S. Dad, I know you helped out too, but it’s not your day… ;)

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My sweet E,

I’ve often been told that a mother should always trust her instincts—that motherly intuition goes beyond scientific explanation.

A few months after you were born, I remember having this gut feeling that something was not quite right when it came to food—you had countless stomach issues, unexplained discomfort, and trouble with weight gain. We tried removing dairy and soy from your diet, administering medication for your reflux, and nothing worked. At one year old, we found out that you were allergic to peanuts and tree nuts.

And it all made sense.

I went through a flood of different emotions after your diagnosis: first fear for your safety and social adjustment as you grew older, and then anxiety over what I didn’t yet understand about managing food allergies. There was also guilt. Guilt that I spent a year not knowing about your allergies. Was it something I caused when you were in utero? Could we have prevented this? Did I fail you by not identifying the symptoms?

At the time, no one in our family had food allergies. After blaming myself for a few months, I accepted the fact that I didn’t know what I didn’t know, and decided to put my energy and efforts into ­­­­­­­­­being your advocate and cheerleader. At nights when you went to bed I researched food allergies and watched educational seminars. I trained our “tribe” to ensure you would always be safe when I wasn’t around. I quit my job in medical device branding to throw all my time and efforts into figuring out my “place” in the world of food allergy advocacy and education. Was part of this guilt-driven? A little. But mostly, I realized that there are SO MANY children like you deeply affected by food allergies, and I wanted to do anything I could to help your voices be heard.

Fast forward to 2017—we’ve been a food allergy family for a few years and you’re THRIVING! You still have nut allergies, but you’ve outgrown a couple of them, and we’ve completed oral immunotherapy for several others. You’ve learned to advocate some for yourself, and talk openly about your allergies without fear or embarrassment. And I’m SO PROUD!

I’m also thankful that we’re walking this journey together in 2017 versus decades previous. FDA food allergen labeling has come so far; and thanks to living in the digital era, we’ve been able to join a support network that we might not have had otherwise. Then there’s technology (like the Allergy Amulet), immunotherapies to help manage food allergies, and lots of food allergy innovation going on today. And I’m grateful.

Who knows, ten years from now maybe you’ll be desensitized to all of your food allergies, or maybe you’ll have outgrown them! It’s hard to even imagine that this phase of life may become a distant memory.

While this path is not one I would have chosen for you, I’m so blessed to walk it alongside you. And that’s where I’ll be. Love you always.

Mom

 

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Tips For An Allergy-Friendly Holiday Season

It’s that time of year again: turkey basting, stretch pants, eggnog, and ugly Christmas sweater parties. If you’re hosting a big holiday meal this year, you’re likely accommodating at least one guest with a food allergy or intolerance. If you have a food allergy or intolerance yourself, you’ve probably perfected a gracious way to decline treats you’re unsure about.  

Whether you’re the holiday host or the one with a food allergy or intolerance, here are a few tips for a safe and allergy-friendly holiday season.

Make some Yuletide noise.

Don’t be shy about your dietary restrictions. Send an email to the host letting them know you have a food allergy and ask if any of the dishes will contain ingredients to which you’re allergic. If they’re making any dishes with those ingredients, politely request that the host use different serving spoons and cutting boards to prevent cross contact. Obviously, your approach may vary depending on the severity of your food allergies, and how long you've been managing them.  

If you’re the host, send an email to your guests well in advance asking if anyone has a dietary restriction or food allergy. As a general rule, it’s a good idea to avoid peanuts or peanut butter in your dishes—peanuts are the number one trigger of food-related anaphylaxis. 

Offer to prepare part of the meal or cook with the host.

If it’s a potluck-style meal, offer to bring a dish or two—this way, you know there will be at least one dish that’s safe at the table. Plus, the host is happy because that’s one less dish they need to prepare! You can also offer to cook with the host. This way you’re helping the host with the meal and monitoring the kitchen to make sure food prep is safe for you or your loved ones. 

If you’re hosting, and food allergies are unchartered territory, do a bit of homework: 15 minutes on the web learning about food allergies is a worthwhile investment in keeping your friends and family safe. And as a host, knowing the ingredients in all of the dishes served is a great way to avoid unwittingly putting your guests in harms way.  

Keep safe snacks around.

If you’re an adult with a food allergy, you probably carry your own snacks around with you at all times. But if you’re a child, and you’re hungry, all bets are off. Those unlabeled red sparkly bonbons next to the Christmas tree can be pretty enticing! Rather than attempt to monitor all the cookie plates, remind your child to not touch any food without first asking for your permission, and keep safe snacks in your purse so that if your child gets hungry, sparkly treats are less tempting. Note: I was the child that ate the unidentifiable red sparkly holiday bonbon, much to my parent’s displeasure. Fortunately, the cookie was safe. 

If you’re the host, try to find out if any children will be there with a food allergy and read all ingredient labels to make sure you’re not serving any foods that could unintentionally cause an allergic reaction. It’s a great practice to ask how the family approaches label reading—do they eat packaged foods that carry “may contain” or “processed in a shared facility with...” warnings about their allergen, or do they avoid them entirely?  

Do not roast chestnuts on an open fire.

Not to be the holiday fun police, but if you’re hosting a holiday party or meal and you are not 100% positive that tree nuts are safe for all attendees, you may want to sub out the chestnuts for marshmallows or another fun treat. Along these same lines, consider subbing the bowl of mixed nuts for another quick grab snack such as popcorn.

For reference, the following foods are not tree nuts: nutmeg, water chestnuts, and butternut squash.

Be careful of unwanted guests.

In our Thanksgiving blog post last year, we relayed the story of Harry & David’s gourmet food shop crashing Thanksgiving with a cranberry sauce that contained walnuts. The family member that added the sauce to the table had failed to read the label and identify tree nuts as an ingredient. This holiday season, make sure that all dishes and ingredients are accounted for on the table before you dig in—always read labels! 

Hopefully these tips will help make the holidays a little more merry and bright for those with a food allergy or food intolerance.

We hope you have a safe and happy holiday season.

-Abi & the Allergy Amulet Team

 

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Trick or Treat? Treat Please!

Let’s face it—when you have a child with food allergies, Halloween can be a scare. On the one hand, your neighbors are doling out candies that could unintentionally harm your child; on the other hand, you can’t simply tell your child that they’re barred from trick-or-treating. After all, we want our children to experience the same tradition of trick-or-treating that we enjoyed as kids!

As a Certified AllerCoach and mother of a daughter with food allergies, I’ve learned over the years that you have to get creative on this holiday. With a little planning and forethought, children with food allergies can have fun partaking in Halloween’s tomfoolery without the health risks.

Here are six ways to help make a food allergy Halloween a success:

1-    Trick-or-treat inside your home. This option works well with young children. Plant family members and friends behind different doors in your house, and when the child knocks on the door, someone pops out to hand them a treat that’s safe to eat. We did this last year and my kids loved it!

2-    Neighborhood trick-or-treat hacks. This option could be approached a few different ways! One approach is to research candies ahead of time that you know are safe for your child (e.g., sweet tarts or gummy bears). This way, your child is coached on which candies are safe to eat and which to turn down. They can also do a candy swap with friends at the end of the night and trade those candies they’re unable to eat for ones that are safe. This was the approach our CEO Abigail Barnes took as a child—she recalls that her brother and father benefited generously!

Another approach is choosing specific houses ahead of time that you know will have safe candies available. This requires a bit more work as you may have to call neighbors and friends to see what treats they plan to offer. Alternatively, you can plant safe treats at these houses.

One other strategy is to place a few safe snacks in your child’s trick-or-treat bag ahead of time so that if the kids start snacking while trick-or-treating, your child has some safe go-to snacks at the ready.

And follow the teal pumpkins! Thanks to the Teal Pumpkin Project, houses that display a teal pumpkin at their door are an indication that non-food treats will be available.

3-    Wear costumes with gloves. There are so many costume choices out there that include gloves, which is a great safety precaution to take—especially if your child has a very sensitive food allergy. Gloves provide a barrier between their hands and the candy, thereby minimizing  cross contact. So whether they want to be Spider Man, The Green Lantern, or Elsa, they’ll be covered.

4-    Get yourself a Switch Witch. My kids love our Switch Witch, who they’ve fondly named Esmerelda. The Switch Witch and The Magic of Switchcraft book encourages families to leave their candy out on Halloween night for the Switch Witch, who comes and replaces these candies with non-food treats for them to enjoy. This is a great option for kids with special dietary needs or for those families who simply want to promote healthy eating!

5-    Start a new tradition. Some of my favorite holiday memories as a child were the traditions my family created together. Instead of trick-or-treating, maybe go see a scary movie or start a Halloween scavenger hunt in your neighborhood and encourage neighbors and friends to get involved! You can also host a Halloween bash at your house, where you can control what food is served.

No matter how you celebrate Halloween, the most important thing is to manage your child’s expectations and set ground rules ahead of time. This will help ensure your child’s safety, while also letting them take full advantage of all that childhood has to offer.

We wish you all a spooky and safe Halloween!

-       Meg and the Allergy Amulet Team

 

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