Monday, December 31, 2007

New Year's Resolutions and Other Lost Causes

It’s everyone’s favorite time of year – that day when we look back on the past twelve months of our lives, take a deep breath, and say, “Can I get a do-over?” Then we look ahead, consider the vast array of possibilities, and say, “Geez, now what?”

So, in the spirit of the day, I’m going to sit down and dream up some thoughtful, carefully reasoned resolutions to better myself in the coming year. Either that, or I’m going to just make stuff up. You decide.

Kelley’s New Year’s Resolutions for 2008:

1. Mop the kitchen floor. (There, now I don’t have to do it today. I can safely put it off ‘til tomorrow, so that I can fulfill my first resolution.)
2. Stop referring to a family-sized bag of potato chips as “dinner.”
3. Spend less time lusting after Brad Pitt (because Johnny Depp is feeling slighted). (Um, and so is my husband.)
4. Finally figure out how to make pumpkin pie without milk or eggs.
5. Learn to say the word “No” without flinching.
6. Finish writing my food allergy cookbook and find a publisher for it.
7. Box up the books I’ve read, and read the books I haven’t.
8. Clean out my email inbox (3871 emails, and counting).
9. Locate the top of my desk. I’m pretty sure it’s there under all those “I need to look at this someday” papers.
10. Look at those “I need to look at this someday” papers. Oh, never mind.
11. Go sailing in the Caribbean.
12. Win $20 million in a lottery.
13. Exercise more.
14. Exercise at all.
15. Say the word “Exercise” without flinching.
16. Break resolutions #13 – 15 by January 2.
17. Find ways to reach more newly diagnosed food allergy sufferers to offer a helping hand.
18. Get all those photos from 2006 put into albums.
19. Laugh hysterically at the idea of putting all those photos from 2007 in albums. As if.
20. Refuse to take any photos at all in 2008. Hide husband’s camera.
21. Become addicted to caffeine.
22. Blame more of my personal problems on elected officials.
23. Pine away until Lost finally returns to TV in February. Spare some lusting time for Sawyer and Sayid.
24. Watch something in a movie theater that isn’t animated.
25. Be a good board member of the Utah Food Allergy Network.
26. Keep writing my blog. Try to make it funny at least once this year.
27. Learn to enjoy fake farting noises made by 9-year-old boys, because getting the 9-year-old boys to stop making fake farting noises isn’t working.
28. In between managing Homegrown Hospitality magazine, writing my blog, running the Davis County chapter of UFAN, writing articles for magazines, and writing my cookbook, find time to write something purely for fun.
29. Take down the Christmas decorations before the daffodils bloom.
30. Laugh at adversity. (Adversity really hates that.)

There you go: my 2008 plan for self-improvement. It promises to be a challenging, yet difficult year, sprinkled liberally with problems. But I won’t let that stop me from laughing, loving, and burning dinner at least once a day. After all, without goals, you’ll never know when you’ve failed and can safely give up.

So cheers to you, and happy 2008!

Monday, December 24, 2007

'Tis the Season To Be Baking

Pumpkin bread, chocolate zucchini bread, cookies, pie, coffee cake… I’ve been in the kitchen a lot the last few days, and I’m not done yet.

If I had more time, I’d bake more stuff, too. I actually like baking. I’m not wild about cooking in general – that “What’s for dinner?” question drives me up a tree, and I’m usually the one asking it. But I enjoy baking, as long as it’s an easy recipe. Anything that requires more than 6 steps, calls for any ingredients that have to be purchased from an indigenous farmer selling them from the back of a yak, or that involves a double-boiler or spring-form pan gets knocked off my “try this someday” list in a hurry. I just don’t have that kind of patience.

But I do like coming up with new recipes for baking without eggs, milk, or nuts, especially at the holidays.

On Friday, I took several mini-loaves of pumpkin bread to school to give to my son’s teacher, the principal, the school secretaries, the “lunch lady,” and the school maintenance man. To each loaf, I attached a recipe card that showed the bread was without eggs, milk, or nuts. I wasn’t “making a point.” I was thanking them.

All of those people make the school safe for my son and the other kids with allergies – and I make it a priority to remember the maintenance man and the lunch lady, who I think most parents forget in the flurry of teacher-gifts. These folks go out of their way to keep an allergy table safe at the school. They enforce the “no snacks in the classroom” policy. They pin up photos of the allergic kids in the lunch kitchen so everyone remembers to be careful. They contact us when a food issue is coming up at school to make sure our kids will be okay.

I am SO grateful for these people.

So I baked pumpkin bread and took it to all the adults at the school that have a hand in keeping my son safe. And I made it without the most common allergens that kids in our school suffer from. Everyone seemed thrilled to receive the bread, and my son got a hug and a big thank you from each of them.

Now I’m baking just for my own family. We’ll make cookies today, because Santa will be expecting them tonight, you know, and we aren’t sure if he’s allergic to milk, eggs, or nuts, so we’ll make them safe just to be sure. And tomorrow morning, my coffee cake will be on the breakfast table (barring any disasters, like dropped bowls of dough, mis-read recipes, broken stoves, or forgotten timers and burnt results – all of which have historical precedents).

So keep your fingers crossed for me that my cookies don’t burn, my coffee cake doesn’t flop, and my pies don’t bubble over, and I’ll keep mine crossed for you that all of your holiday endeavors turn out beautifully, too.

And don’t forget to watch Santa’s progress around the world today and tonight on the Norad radar tracking system:!

Happy Holidays!

Monday, December 17, 2007

Living by the Numb3rs

I love the show Numb3rs. In it, an FBI agent solves cases with the help of his brother Charlie, a mathematics-whiz professor. (I love shows that make science look cool.) Several times each episode, Charlie explains to the other clever but clearly lost FBI agents (and us clever but clearly lost viewers) how some obscure but brilliant mathematical theory and formula can be used to pinpoint the suspect.

During these explanations, the scene morphs from a picture of, say, a tree to a computer-generated grid full of lines and vectors, degrees and measures, formulas, and arrows darting all over. It’s all very fast and dizzying as his explanation sketches itself across the screen, but in the end (even though none of the other FBI agents or us viewers actually understood a word of his explanation), you know that the case will be solved because all those lines and arrows looked pretty darned convincing.

Last night my husband, son, and I went to see a movie and then we went to dinner at a nearby restaurant. As we sat down at the table, my eyes darted around the table, over the menu, across the restaurant towards the kitchen, and back again. I realized that if you could draw my thought process, my brain would look a lot like one of Charlie’s explanations.

I’ve been dealing with my son’s allergies for so long now, that I don’t even realize all the calculations I do every day. But as I’m sitting down, I’m scanning the table for crumbs, baskets of bread, dishes of nuts, and other hazards. I’m looking at the menu to see how many of the items on it might contain nuts, to determine how high the risk of nut cross-contamination might be. I’m getting a feel for the overall restaurant – how easy the servers will be to work with, how clean the place looks, how crowded it is (calculating a risk of confusion in the kitchen), whether they have a kids menu, and what types of foods my son is going to be exposed to.

I’m assessing probabilities, calculating risks, formulating contingency plans, and estimating our best paths for success.

And all of that happens in the first few seconds.

From there, it’s a slower set of constant negotiations – “No, dear, you can’t have the bread because we don’t know where it was baked.” “Excuse me, do you put pine nuts on your pizzas here?” “Can you make my pasta without walnuts?” “Dessert looks like a bad idea. We’ll have some cookies when we get home.”

All of those constant calculations and recalculations, which seemed so overwhelming when I was first learning about my son’s allergies, have become second nature by now. And while I don’t walk into a restaurant completely relaxed anymore, it’s become so familiar that I don’t panic, and I’m really not even aware that I’m doing all those calculations. I’m pretty sure that if someone tried to sketch out my thought process on a blackboard, it would put some of those FBI scenarios to shame.

Math Whiz Charlie would be awfully proud of me.

Hey, that gives me an idea! Quick, someone call the producers of Numb3rs! I’ve got a great concept for a script!

Monday, December 10, 2007

Soups That Warm the Heart

Friday night we got together with some friends for an annual soup pot-luck holiday party. For the five families involved, getting together for a holiday party has been a tradition for many years. The soup part of the tradition is a more recent development, but it’s turned into a great idea.

There’s nothing like a cold, snowy night (which Friday was) to make the thought of five steaming crock-pots full of hot, delicious soups and stews all the more enticing.

In this group of friends we have to accommodate two kids with allergies (nuts, peanuts, milk, egg, seafood), one family that prefers vegetarianism (although they do make exceptions), at least a couple of husbands who thrive on red meat, and one diabetic (me). Sounds complicated. But as the years go on, it becomes easier and easier to roll them all into your recipe criteria.

At Friday’s party, I think we may have had the best soups to date! There was a delicious taco soup, a bean chili, a peasant-style minestrone chock full of veggies, and a steak-and-potato soup. I made a Rustic White Bean Soup made of navy beans, turkey sausage, broth, and spinach (from Diabetic Dinners in a Dash by Art Ginsberg – you mash half the navy beans, which gives the soup a creamier texture without the cream). Everything was wonderful, and everyone tried at least a small serving of each soup (some more than once). We added some dinner rolls that were milk- and egg-free, a punch for the kids made of equal parts of Cran-apple juice and ginger ale, Lorie's fabulous milk- and egg-free chocolate cupcakes, and voila! We even got the kids to stop racing around the house long enough to eat. It was that good.

Accommodating allergies (and other dietary restrictions) is extremely challenging in the beginning. We all know that. But over time, you find friends and family members who are willing to explore new options because they care enough about you to make the effort. Between you, you begin to experiment and discover new recipes, good substitutions, and new ways to prepare old favorites that make them safe. Then one day you look around and realize you’ve got a safe environment for your child where before you saw only a minefield of potential disasters.

Our annual holiday get-together is a safe environment where our kids know they are welcome, they can play freely, and they can eat whatever is on the table. It just doesn’t get much better than that.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Travel Tips #2: Food During the Trip

Our trip to Cancun has already receded to the domain of dreams. It’s amazing how quickly reality takes back over, isn’t it?

As promised, this week I’ll describe some more tips on how I handle my son’s food allergies when we travel.

When I start packing, I plan ahead and pack at least some food for the time we’ll be at our destination. I try to stay at hotels or condos that have a kitchenette, so that we can make at least some of our own food. If we’re doing a car trip, we take a cooler and keep it stocked with sandwich fixings, salad fixings, etc. If we’re flying, I often tuck in a collapsible cooler that we can use in the hotel if we need to (also comes in handy for taking picnics and beer to the beach!). I’ve also been known to hit the local Walmart to pick up a cheap Styrofoam cooler for the hotel, too, that is easily thrown away when we leave.

I carry a ton of snacks and food in my carry-on. In fact, my carry-on is usually almost completely filled with food, with just a little corner reserved for spare underwear and swimsuits in case we get stranded without our suitcases (it’s happened). That way, even if we’ve gotten stranded at a strange airport overnight, with our suitcases in Timbuktu, we’ve got a change of undies, the ability to play in the hotel pool, and enough food to make a highly unimaginative meal (or two) that may not win points from Good Housekeeping magazine, but it will keep us from starving. And even if we get to our destination in good time, by having breakfast food in the carry-on, that gives me until the next day to find a grocery store. (I hate landing somewhere after an all-day odyssey, then discovering that the grocery stores are all closed.)

There’s usually more food in my checked suitcase, too, because I’m not just packing food in case our flight gets delayed – I’m also packing food so that I’ve got safe options in case our destination proves allergy-unfriendly.

What food do I pack? He’s only allergic to peanuts and tree nuts, so what I carry is probably different from what someone else would carry. But I carry crackers, a box or two of breakfast cereal, NutriGrain bars or Rice Krispie treats that I made, fruit leather, ramen noodles or Easy Mac ‘n’ Cheese, coffee and filters, cookies, a package of dry salami that doesn’t need refrigerating until after it’s opened, a jar of Sunbutter – things that don’t need refrigeration and that can easily be prepared in a hotel room with hot water from the coffee maker, microwaved, or eaten dry. I figure that can get us through breakfasts for a week, and at least a few “I’m hungry!” moments.

Once there, I look for a grocery store and buy bread, lunch meat, drinks, fresh fruit, etc. And if options are limited, I get creative. Sandwiches don’t always have to be made with bread. They can be rolled in a tortilla, or stacked on crackers. Those are easy to pack, too, if I’m worried about buying bread in a foreign place.

At that point, I’ve got breakfast and lunch taken care of for the whole week. I can pack lunches and picnics in the cooler, using Ziplocs and ice from the hotel ice machines to keep things cool when we’re out sightseeing. That just leaves dinners to worry about. If I think the restaurant might not have safe food for him, I’ll pack him another sandwich and take it into the restaurant just in case. Sure, he may get tired of sandwiches after a week, but he’d be a lot more upset if he didn’t get to go on the vacation at all.

In Cancun, we stayed at a time-share condo with friends who’d generously invited us along to share their week. So we had the luxury of a full kitchenette with necessities like pans, plates, bowls, and silverwear. To save time, hassle, and costs (between us, we had 3 kids in tow, none of whom had the patience to sit for long times in restaurants), we made several dinners at the condo, and we ate at the resort restaurants just a few times.

Grocery shopping was interesting, of course. Reading ingredient labels in foreign languages is a bold new adventure, but we figured them out and successfully stocked our cupboards. I did find a clerk at the grocery store who spoke English, and I had her check the labels on a couple of items for me, just to make sure. She was happy to do it.

So between last week’s blog entry and today, now you know all my secrets to traveling: 1) I keep HandiWipes in my purse. 2) I pack my own in-flight food. 3) I pack breakfast food and snacks. 4) I pack a collapsible cooler. 5) I grocery shop for lunch food and keep it in the fridge or cooler in the room, so we can take picnics with us when we go sightseeing.

I have one more bit of advice – I carry a card with me that says “I am allergic to nuts” in the language of the country we’re visiting. I ordered a nifty one from Check out that site if you are planning any foreign-language travel. By knowing the words for allergenic foods, I can feel a little more confident about reading labels and ordering for him in restaurants when we do go out.

And here’s a bonus from all that pre-planning: The space the food took up on the way to my destination becomes empty space I can fill up with souvenirs on the way back!

Monday, November 26, 2007

Travel Tips #1: Surviving the Flight

Ah, Mexico. Sunshine, margaritas, white sand, turquoise-colored ocean waves, rainbow-colored fish, Mayan ruins, dolphins, iguanas… Cancun was fabulous, and our trip was smooth, easy, and a lot of fun.

We travel a lot, and we’ve had some minor challenges with my son’s food allergies over the years, so I’ve learned a lot about how to plan ahead and stay safe so that the trip is a blast and not a bust. Since traveling with food allergies can be scary, especially if you’re new to the whole experience, I’ll spend this week and next explaining how I do it. It may or may not work for anyone else, but it’s how I cope.

This week I’ll talk about the first challenge, which is, of course, the airplane ride. To survive the flight without problems, I always carry two things: HandiWipes, and my own meals and snacks. With the HandiWipes, I can clean off the tray tables and arm rests before my son starts handling them. He doesn’t react to peanut dust in the air, fortunately, so we can be on planes that serve peanuts if I’m just careful about cleaning his area.

You can call ahead and request a no-peanut flight. I’ve had varying degrees of success doing this. It depends on the airline, the flight, the person you talk to, the flight attendants assigned to the flight, the alignment of the stars and moon, the political instability in Outer Splatvakia, and the mating rituals of sea porcupines. I’ve been chewed out by flight attendants because I didn’t call ahead, and I’ve been chewed out by flight attendants because I did. And most of the time, I just forget to call ahead or decide I don’t have hours to spend on hold. So I take my Handiwipes and my own snacks. Call it a cop-out.

As for in-flight meals, here’s what I do: I have a collapsible insulated lunch sack. In that, I tuck a couple of empty quart-sized Ziploc freezer bags (depending on how many flights are involved – 1 per flight). Then I put another Ziploc bag of ice in the lunch sack to keep the lunches cold until we get to the airport. Finally, I put in sandwiches that I’ve made, or lunch meat and crackers, cookies, etc. If we’re staying in the U.S., I can pack fruit. If we’re going to another country, you can’t take fruit across the border, so I’ll pack fruit leathers.

At the airport, before I go through the security line, I throw away the baggie with the ice in it (don’t want security getting concerned about a bag of ice), then go through the security gate. On the other side of the gate, I find a fast-food restaurant and ask them to put ice in one of the empty bags (sometimes the soda fountains are out in the public area, so I can fill my own bag with ice). Then I put that bag back into the lunch sack. Voila!

That’s how we make it through the flight. I still have to fend off flight attendants trying to give me peanuts (I am shocked at how many airlines still serve them). But at least I feel like I’ve got my little part of the plane under control.

Next week, I’ll explain how I handle food while we’re on vacation.

Meanwhile, now that we’re back in Utah, I’m trying to remember to put on socks instead of flip-flops in the morning. I’m never quite ready for a vacation to be over!

Monday, November 19, 2007

Twenty Things I’m Grateful For

I’m going to be celebrating Thanksgiving in Cancun this year with my son and husband and some good friends – and boy, am I thankful for THAT! Wherever Thanksgiving finds you this year, I hope you’re able to spend some time doing something you love with people you love.

In honor of Thanksgiving, here are twenty things I’m grateful for, in no particular order. (Except for the first two.)

1. My son. I never dreamed love could be this big.
2. My husband. I never dreamed love could be this solid.
3. Email – so I can stay in constant touch with dear friends, colleagues, editors, bosses, family, and writing sources around the world with the click of a few keys.
4. Margaritas – made with real lime juice, very good tequila, triple sec, and a dash of Grand Marnier, over ice.
5. Caribbean islands, trade winds, white sand, and unravaged coral reefs.
6. Family members who love me and never hesitate to show it.
7. A career doing something I truly love (writing).
8. Lays potato chips – regular, unadulterated, salty.
9. Red rock canyons, hidden rock art, and the sound of wind hushing through sagebrush.
10. Modern medicine.
11. The internet – I can’t imagine being a freelance writer without access to a world of information at my fingers, even if it’s 3:00 in the morning. Librarians HATE it when you show up at 3:00 in the morning in your jammies demanding obscure facts. The internet doesn’t mind at all.
12. Friends – wonderful, dear friends; the kind who really will help you move (twice), who offer to take your kid when you’re running crazy, and who go out of their way to find or create allergen-free recipes because they want your kid to be safe at their house and parties.
13. The Bill of Rights -- such a simple document, with such unbelievable ramifications (which most Americans have long since taken for granted).
14. Eric Johnson, Steve Morse, Eric Clapton, and other guitar gods.
15. Blue sky and sunshine sparkling on a lightly dusted ski run, with the world rolling out in hills and valleys below me, the solar rays warming me, and lyrics from an old Kansas song running through my head.
16. My passport.
17. A southern Utah sky at night, with the stars so vivid and silent I can feel the earth spin in heartbreaking beauty.
18. The storytelling tradition that links all people through the centuries and across continents.
19. Chancing upon a poetic turn of phrase in the ordinary pursuits of everyday life.
20. Companies that make allergen-free foods, because they protect the joy of my life every single day.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Chopsticks and Other Birthday Surprises

My son has become enamored of all things Japanese. He’s a huge Pokémon fan, and he’ll watch as much Japanese animation as I’ll let him (which isn’t much). About six months ago, he announced that he wanted to go to Japan. Our family travels a lot – we skip the expensive toys and save up for trips instead – so announcing that you want to go to some far away country is a perfectly natural thing to do around our dinner table.

When he made this announcement, I asked him why he wanted to go there. “Oh, you know,” he said, trying to pretend it wasn’t all about making a pilgrimage to Pokémon hallowed ground, “See the sights, see the people, try the food.”

Try the food? My son, the picky eater? The kid who wouldn’t eat wet food until he was 7? Who won’t eat a cooked vegetable if his life depended on it? Who refuses to eat food that is mixed with any other food? The kid who needs a new fork when he switches from his chicken to his pears?

The kid who’s allergic to nuts?

Oh dear. Japanese food uses a lot of nuts, I explained. And I think they cook with cold-pressed peanut oil that leaves the proteins alive and well and ready to attack unsuspecting allergic boys. Japan may be off the travel itinerary for a few years, I explained.

Undeterred, he kept up his requests for all things Japanese, including the food.

Then I found Tepanyaki – a Japanese restaurant in our town where the chef does the fancy cooking tricks at your table-side grill. Right there on the menu, it said they didn’t use nuts in their food. I asked the waitress, and she assured me they were a nut-free restaurant. I couldn’t wait to surprise my son!

Friday night, we celebrated his 9th birthday. After a party with 15 friends at the skating rink (whew!), we went to the restaurant for a family birthday dinner with just us and his grandparents. He was buzzing with excitement. His eyes were as wide as saucers as the chef entertained him with flying egg tricks, fancy knife-banging, and an onion volcano.

Then came the real shocker. My son the finicky eater tried EVERYTHING. He tried several sips of the soup and gave me the thumbs-up sign. (He hates soup.) He mastered the chopsticks in about 90 seconds, and used them to eat the stir-fried veggies. (He hates cooked veggies.) He dug into the stir-fry noodles. (He hates noodles with anything but margarine on them.) He ordered shrimp, gobbled it all down, then asked to try the salmon and scallops, both of which he loved, then asked for more. (He’s decided he loves seafood.)

My husband, my parents, and I all just stared at him in confused delight. “Who are you and what have you done with my son?” asked my husband.

The whole time, the birthday boy was grinning like a monkey and bouncing in his seat, eagerly looking for the next course and the chef’s next cutlery trick. When they brought out ice cream with a birthday candle in it, he blew out the candle, then proceeded to eat the ice cream with chopsticks. I kid you not.

Tepanyaki has just vaulted to the top of my son’s favorite restaurant list. If he can’t go to Japan, this will be the next best thing. Seeing him so happy at a restaurant where he had the freedom to try anything on the menu made me feel like I got the real birthday gift this year.

You know what this means, don’t you? It means that I’m buying a big box of chopsticks, and from now on, whenever I cook anything new, I’m going to tell him it’s Japanese.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Guest Blogger: My Earliest Allergy Memory

Today, I have a special guest blogger… my son. I wanted him to write about Halloween, but he decided to write about his earliest allergy memory. (Naturally. My will is the law in this household, you know.) The events he describes might be slightly enhanced, but he was only 2 at the time, and he does have quite the flair for the dramatic…

"Hello! I’m Kelley’s son. I have food allergies that complicate my life in many ways. Especially because they can kill me! However, I have a secret weapon…Benadryl and EPIPENS! They are the things that save lives like mine all over the World. Without them I wouldn’t have lived to tell this story. In fact I wouldn’t even be here right now. Because there was an accident when I was two. We were at Arctic Circle when a person that worked there offered me ice cream. (We didn’t know about my food allergy to peanuts.) We accepted it. Then it happened… I had an allergic reaction! Luckily Mrs. Kim came along with Benadryl and said: “TAKE THIS BEFORE YOUR CHILD CHOKES AND KILLS HIMSELF!!!!!” After that fiasco she said: “Don’t you know about FOOD ALLERGIES!?!?!” My mom, dumbfounded said: “No what the heck are you talking about?” After Mrs. Kim had finally satisfied herself with her lecture about allergies, and I had said ‘thank you for saving my life’ about 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 times, her boy and I have been Best Friends ever since. Now I carry these medicines everywhere I go. Everywhere I go I read labels and ask about food."

Hi, it’s me again (Kelley). For the record, we DID know about his food allergy, but just barely. So I was a little panicked when he had that reaction. Fortunately, Kim was with us and offered us her medicines. I gave him Benadryl, and we made it to the doctor’s office in time and didn’t have to use the Epipens.

Since that episode, we’ve learned a lot. My son, who will turn 9 this week, has learned how important it is for him to be aware of his own allergies. He does very well managing himself at school and with friends – he asks about ingredients, he reads labels, and he doesn’t hesitate to inform people of his allergies. We’ve come a long way, baby!

Monday, October 29, 2007

Trick-or-Treat Survival Tips

I brought my box of Halloween decorations up from the basement last night. It’s sitting in the dining room now. I haven’t actually taken anything out of the box, but I think if I leave it where we have to walk around it every once in a while, that’s festive enough.

My son, on the other hand, is so excited for Halloween he can hardly sit still. He’s been counting down the days since August, poring over Halloween costume catalogs with his friends and calculating which streets he’ll hit to get the most candy.

He doesn’t care that he won’t be able to eat half of what he gets. The candy is nice, but it’s really the least important part of the whole night – the adventure is what’s important! Dressing up, seeing everyone else in costumes, wandering around after dark with flashlights and glowsticks, knocking on door after decorated door yelling “trick-or-treat,” and marveling at a normally quiet neighborhood crawling with ghouls and beasties – oh, it’s a night kids dream about!

As usual, we parents of food-allergic kids often blow the candy thing way out of proportion. So today I’m going to talk about some trick-or-treat survival tips.

Halloween isn’t nearly as much about the candy as it is about “getting” the candy. So as a parent, I don’t feel guilty, sad, distressed, worried, or angry that my kid is going to get a bucket-full of candy he can’t eat. I don’t want him eating a bucket-full of candy, anyway! The first year we dealt with allergies, I decided not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, or in this case, I decided not to throw the whole experience of trick-or-treating out with a few handfuls of candy.

So if you’re struggling with what to do, stop struggling. Let your kid go trick-or-treating (or trunk-or-treating, if that’s your preference). It’s okay. Just lay down some rules before-hand, so there are no surprises. Then let them enjoy the adventure of trick-or-treating, because that’s really what it’s all about. Here are some survival tips that work for us:

Tip #1: No one eats anything until everyone gets home and the parent reads the label on every piece of candy. That way, no one is eating unidentified foods and having a reaction while you’re out in the dark a block away from home. Make sure the kids agree, understand, and agree again. Get them to narc on each other if necessary. No one sneaks anything.

Tip #2: If you child is super-sensitive to an ingredient, you might have them wear gloves with their costume, so that any allergenic candy that touches their hand on the way into the bag doesn’t cause a skin reaction. Toss the glove in the wash or in the trash when you get home.

Tipe #3: Unlabeled candy is assumed to be unsafe. Period. The only exceptions are brand-name candies that you are already familiar with and know are safe. (For example, I know Dum-Dum lollipops, Starbursts, and Skittles are okay for my son, so I’ll let him keep those.) If there is a type of candy that he’s particularly interested in, I might promise to look for it at the store the next day, and read the ingredients there. But it goes into a separate container until we’ve seen it at the store and verified its safety.

Tip #4: Talk about what to do with any candy that isn’t safe BEFORE you go trick-or-treating. My son's an only child, and he has a good friend who is, too. They go trick-or-treating together, and at the end of the night, they pool all their candy together, then divide it up. She gets all the candy he can’t have (except for the Three Musketeers bars – those are mine!), and she gives him the “safe” candy. It works out about evenly. Sometimes she ends up with a little more, but my son doesn’t mind. He’s actually grateful that she’s taking the “bad” stuff. Plus it’s a lot more fun to go trick-or-treating with a best pal than by themselves, so they’re willing to do whatever it takes to get a night together.

If your kids don’t have friends willing to trade candy, other options for getting rid of “unsafe” candy include:

1) Trade unsafe candy for safe candy that you have bought ahead of time.

2) “Buy” the unsafe candy from your child – but establish a price ahead of time, such as a nickel a piece, a dollar a pound, or the whole kit and caboodle for a new DVD, a small toy, a trip to the movies, a night out with Dad, a visit to the dollar store, or other such treat.

3) Look for a dentist or other business in your area that buys candy from kids on the day after Halloween. There’s at least one dentist in Layton that does. The kids get money, and the dentist donates the candy to a children’s hospital, I think.

4) Let the child “donate” the unsafe candy to Mom or Dad, so they can take it to work and share it with their coworkers.

5) Let the child donate the unsafe candy to a local women’s shelter, food bank, homeless shelter, or family of an Iraqi soldier – the soldiers always seem to appreciate candy that they can share with friends or give to Iraqi children.

That’s it for my survival tips. I hope they help. Now, can someone help me get my decorations out of the box before Wednesday?

Monday, October 22, 2007

Phantom Gifts are Spooky

Ugh. I’ve been visited by The Phantom.

The Phantom is an annoying neighborhood ritual where neighbors leave anonymous treats on your doorstep, along with a cutesy Halloween poem and a drawing of a ghost. You hang the ghost on your door so everyone will know you’ve already been visited. Then you’re supposed to make new treats and deliver them anonymously to two other neighbors, with copies of the same poem and ghost. Then they give them to two neighbors, and pretty soon, the whole neighborhood is glowing with gratitude, a warm sense of community, and a ruined diet.

I hate this ritual. Call me Scrooge. (I know, wrong holiday.)

It’s not that I don’t like my neighbors. I DO like my neighbors. I have some really nice neighbors, in fact.

It’s not that I don’t like giving neighbor gifts, either. At Christmas time, I like taking small gifts to my immediate neighbors, because we don’t get to see each other very often during the short, cold winter days, and it’s a good excuse to say hi.

So why am I grumpy?

1) It’s anonymous, so I don’t know if I can trust it. I don’t think eating food you find lying around on the ground is a good idea in the best of circumstances. What if this same plate of brownies has been regifted through four busy neighbors already? It could be a week old before I even see it! Or what if there’s someone in the neighborhood who hates me and thinks I’d enjoy brownies laced with pot, Ex-Lax, or rat poison? I don’t think I’ve offended anyone, but you never know. Maybe someone hates blue Hondas, and they’ve never forgiven me for driving one. Hey, these are human beings we’re dealing with. People are weird. It happens.

2) It has an obligation taped right to it. I prefer doing something nice because I want to, not because I’ve been told to. Heaven knows I have enough obligations piled up right now, without some blue-Honda-hater telling me I have to stay up past midnight baking cupcakes to deliver them to two other unsuspecting harried moms.

3) It contradicts the #1 Halloween trick-or-treating rule we enforce on our kids. Honestly, this is the one that amazes me. Ever since the 1960s, when rumors of LSD-tainted candy and apples containing razor blades ran rampant, children have been told to never, ever, EVER eat a Halloween treat that wasn’t individually packaged from the store. But when unidentified home-made treats show up on your doorstep, you’re just supposed to take it inside your home and blithely feed it to your children? Are you KIDDING me?

4) And last but not least, the anonymous goodies left on your porch never come with an ingredients label. I feel bad that whoever went to the trouble of staying up past midnight, satisfying the obligation ghoul, has now wasted her time and money by leaving these treats for a food-allergic family that can’t eat them because we can’t tell if they contain peanut butter or almond extract. If the anonymous part of this trick was removed from the treat, and people just added a little tag saying “From the Smiths,” then I could call up Mr. or Ms. Smith and ask about the ingredients. Or at the very least, I could thank them for the gift. And get to know a neighbor.

I know this ritual was intended to be a community-building exercise. And I know most people probably think I’m over-reacting. But all that the Phantom gifts give me are misgivings and guilt – not really the feelings the originator intended, I’m sure.

So I taped the paper ghost to my door so no one else will bring me anything, and I let my little branch of the Phantom network die. I figure other neighbors are continuing to spread Phantom joy and anonymous “I dare you eat this without knowing its origin” gifts to the other neighbors, so no one will feel left out if I don’t participate.

But don’t worry. I’ll make up for it on Halloween. I’ll give all the kids that come to my door twice as much candy as the neighbors. And it’s all nut-free, milk-free, and egg-free, too. They’ll know who it’s from, and they’ll know it’s safe, and they’ll see me smile when I give it to them. And they won’t have to give it to two other neighbors or tape a sign to their door afterwards, either.

I like my Halloween heavy on the treats, and light on the tricks. And I think community-building exercises should let you get to know your neighbors, not hide from them.

Scrooge may be my middle name, but I still can’t wait for Halloween!

Monday, October 15, 2007

Monday, Monday

Monday morning. The weekend’s over. That means we’re back into the daily melee of packing the school lunch, finding the matching socks, flattening the wild bed-head hair so he doesn’t frighten the teachers, reloading the backpack, listening for the carpool honk.

It’s also milk delivery day. I order milk, eggs, and bread from a local dairy because they’re hormone-free (the milk and eggs, that is, not the dairy employees). It’s more expensive, but it makes me feel like I’m doing something healthy for my family. Gotta counter-act the PopTarts and drive-thru burgers somehow!

Over the last couple of years, this dairy has been turning into a grocery store on wheels. They keep adding food to their available stock. First, it was fruit juices and yogurts. Then they added fresh produce. Over the last year, they’ve been adding hormone-free meats (tempting, but way out of my weekly grocery budget because it’s so much more expensive than grocery store choices), as well as Italian and Mexican food, such as pasta sauces and tamales. Last week, I noticed they added coffee beans. (What ARE they feeding those cows, anyway?)

This morning, I got an email survey from them, asking about more food choices and how likely I’d be to purchase them from the dairy. The interesting thing was that the very first question was something like “What dietary choices do you make when buying food for your family?” The options I could check included “Allergy: Nuts,” “Allergy: Milk,” and “Allergy: Wheat,” along with things like “Low Fat” and “Diabetic.”

Food allergy awareness! Yippee!

Five years ago, I felt like Kim and I were the only people in Utah who knew about food allergies. Now I find allergy warnings and information on restaurant menus, door signs at fast food joints, food packaging, and now even consumer surveys!

This makes me happy because… well, you know. I’m selfish. I want everyone to know about allergies so that it will make my son’s life (and mine) easier.

But all this food allergy awareness also makes me sad because… it means a lot more kids have food allergies. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone. But it’s a fact of life nowadays, so there you go.

At our support group meeting last Wednesday, a new mom came. (New to allergies, I mean, not new to being a mom! I’ve really got to learn to be more specific.) She’d recently discovered her child was allergic to nuts, and she was having a hard time dealing with it because she felt so overwhelmed and alone. She seemed quite glad to find us, and we welcomed her into the “club” with open arms and hopefully enough encouragement and information to help get her through this tough adjustment period.

As hard as it is for anyone to learn they’ve got to deal with allergies, I am so glad that for this mom, life will be just a little easier than it would have been 5 years ago, because awareness is rising. And it’s because of a million other ordinary moms and dads just like us, all across the country, who are quietly having to explain to teachers, relatives, neighbors, restaurant managers, and babysitters that food allergies have to be understood and accommodated.

Amazing what we everyday folk can do, isn’t it? After all that, surviving a Monday morning is a piece of (allergen-free) cake.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Phthalates, Matthew McConaughey, and Fish?

I was reading an interesting book this week – Boys Adrift, by Leonard Sax. It describes what he considers the 5 factors that are contributing to the decline of the productive male in American society. Basically, he sees an epidemic of “slacker dudes” everywhere he looks – young men who have no ambition and no drive to do anything but play video games, live like parasites off their parents and/or girlfriends/wives, and indulge in online porn. He likens them to the Matthew McConaughey character in the movie Failure to Launch.

I read it with a degree of skepticism. I don’t know too many males living this life he describes. Most of the men I know are gainfully employed. Those that aren’t have chosen to be at-home dads, and they’re working hard at that role. They’re definitely not the slackers Dr. Sax is describing. But then again, most of the men I know are already well into their 30s or above. And none of them look like Matthew McConaughey. Maybe my sample is skewed.

However, as I talked to some friends this week, a couple of their younger brother-in-laws cropped up in the conversation, and they sounded suspiciously like the slacker dudes in the book. Hmmm.

While I don’t necessarily agree with everything the doctor was describing in his book, it made me think about some things I hadn’t really considered before. One of the 5 factors he describes is the unfortunate celebration of violence and law-breaking in video games – I agreed 100% with that one. But one factor I hadn’t ever heard of before was “endocrine disruptors.” Basically, he cites a bunch of studies that show that phthalates –chemicals in polycarbonate plastic used in things like bottles, plastic wrap, and baggies – are being blamed for mimicking estrogen, causing a drastic drop in men’s testosterone levels (among other things), and killing the ambition and drive that testosterone controls in men. I’m oversimplifying, of course, but you get the idea. He even cites studies that show one out of every three college-age men have sexual dysfunction now. One in three? Wow. That certainly wasn’t the case when I was in college!

Oddly enough, the estrogen-mimicking chemical seems to have the opposite affect in women – women seem to have more energy and drive to accomplish things than before, and their bodies are maturing at an earlier age.

He also reports that in some areas where phthalates are prominent in the water supply, such as the Potomac River, male fish are growing eggs instead of sperm and male animals are becoming feminized. As my son says, “Ewwey!”

So what has this got to do with food allergies? Maybe nothing. But this alarming decrease in men’s testosterone levels has been happening over the last couple of decades.

That got my attention. Food allergies have drastically increased over the last couple of decades, too.

And, coincidentally, the rate of autism has been increasing over those same couple of decades.

Nothing says these three things are related. But it kind of makes me wonder. Thirty or forty years ago, we didn’t use plastic in nearly as much food packaging. We didn’t have as many synthetic chemicals in foods. We didn’t lug pre-bottled water everywhere we went – we drank it out of glasses or metal thermoses. (On the other hand, we did use a lot more really nasty stuff like DDT and asbestos. So perhaps we’ve just traded poisons.)

Phthalates have made our lives more convenient. But maybe it’s changed our bodies in ways we’re just beginning to suspect.

During the Roman Empire, the Romans made amazing strides in civilization. Their forms of government, their art, their philosophy, and their architecture grew by leaps and bounds beyond anything that had come before. One of their incredible inventions that made city life so much more progressive, hygienic, and convenient was indoor plumbing. They ran water pipes throughout their cities, bringing fresh water to the populace and draining “used” water away. It was a phenomenal accomplishment.

The only problem was that the pipes they laid so precisely were made of lead.

Madness was an unexpected, and to the Romans inexplicable, side effect of convenience.

I can’t help but wonder if, in the name of convenience, we are now changing our environment in ways we don’t yet understand, introducing problems we don’t know how to fix, or affecting our society in ways we can’t recover from.

Great. Like I needed something new to worry about. Of course, I’m just grasping at straws and probably making mountains out of coincidence molehills. We’ve got years of studies ahead of us before we really find out what’s happening to cause all these food allergies. I would welcome some solid science right about now.

Oh well. I gotta run. I’m going shopping for a steel thermos.

Monday, October 1, 2007

I'll Keep My Own Bag of Troubles, Thanks

My very good friend Shari once told me about an old Jewish proverb – something about how if we could all put our troubles in a bag and set it on a table, and then pick up someone else’s bag, we’d choose our own again.

Funny how often I think about that.

When my son was 4, we’d already known about his peanut/nut allergy for a couple of years. I was having him retested to see if – against the odds – he’d outgrown it. With kindergarten looming (okay, so it was still a year and a half away – I like to get a head-start on my worrying), I was feeling sorry for myself, wondering why my son had to be cursed with a food allergy that would make normal school lunches anything but normal. How would I keep other kids from rubbing their PB&Js in his hair? What would I do if the teacher insisted all the students make ladybugs out of walnut shells? What if my son got tired of salami sandwiches? O, woe is me!!!

A little over the top, I admit.

To get his blood drawn for the allergy test, we went to a nearby hospital. It happens to be a renowned children’s hospital, with the expertise and facilities that draw young patients from across the western U.S.

As we walked down the hall looking for the out-patient lab, we began passing some of those patients and their parents. There were children in wheelchairs, their bodies crumpled and contorted. There were children on gurneys, hooked up to machines that made sure their hearts kept beating or their lungs kept filling with air. There were children with bright smiles and missing limbs, and others with body parts intact, but a glazed-over look to their eyes that belied other damage.

Meanwhile, my 4-year-old whirlwind was running down the hall, shouting excitedly about the primary-colored mechanical water sculpture in the next lobby. As I tried to keep him from clambering into the fountain or hopping across the benches, I felt like I should be apologizing to all the other parents. This was a place for terribly sick children, I thought to myself. My child wasn’t sick – he just had food allergies!

And just like that, my perspective reset itself. All my self-pity was transformed into a sense of shame, and my own bushel-bag of burdens began to look snack-sized.

What had I been whining about? My kid could run, laugh, climb, and get into a thousand varieties of trouble – all before breakfast! So what if I have to be extra careful about the breakfast he comes into contact with? So what if I have to carry an EpiPen? I and my son have the very good fortune to be living in an age when we have EpiPens, knowledgeable doctors, and an amazing variety of safe foods to choose from.

A few minutes later, my son was asking the nurse a dozen questions about drawing blood, and he watched, fascinated, as she drew his. His sharp little mind was so busy figuring out how the needle and tube worked that he forgot to cry. All the way out the door, he chattered about how the next time I needed blood drawn, he could do it for me.

As we stepped out into the sunshine, I tucked my bag of troubles into my pocket. It felt familiar and – while not quite comfortable – a lot lighter.

Now, whenever someone new says, “Oh, dealing with his allergies must be terrible!” I try to imagine what might be lurking inside their bag of troubles. Then I shake my head, smile, and say, “As challenges go, I’ll keep this one, thanks.”

Monday, September 24, 2007

Spawntawnumous and Proud of It!

I’m spawntawnumous!

Now, before someone runs for the antibiotics, that’s a good thing. Honest.

Friday afternoon, I was keeping Kim’s kids while she and her husband took care of some appointments. It was supposed to be just for the afternoon. One of her kids asked me if they were staying for dinner, and I told her no, her mom and dad would be back before then. I handed her some Oreos for a snack.

The appointments ran long, and Kim called and asked if I could keep them a bit longer. No problem. My son and these kids consider each other siblings. They could happily move in with each other and not blink an eye. In fact, they frequently request that.

My boy is allergic to peanuts and tree nuts, but that’s all. He lives on all the normal kid food – macaroni and cheese, fish sticks, hot dogs, pasta, cheese, pizza. You know. The stuff we don’t like to think about too much as we feed it to our kids.

His best friend, the oldest of the kids we were watching, has more food allergies – nuts, peanuts, milk, eggs, fish, fresh tomatoes, etc. So I have to pay more attention to what I can feed him and how I fix it. Usually, I know ahead of time when I’m going to have him for dinner, so I can plan to have safe food on hand. But since I hadn’t been planning on this evening (and hadn’t been to the grocery store in a while), I crossed my fingers and rummaged through the freezer.

Success! I found a bag of milk-free and egg-free chicken nuggets, with enough for four hungry creatures who’d been racing around the yard all day. I rummaged through the fridge. Aha! A bag of carrots, and a can of crescent rolls – the milk-free kind. I rummaged in the pantry. Yippee! A can of mandarin oranges! I rummaged in the freezer again. Yes! Frozen fruit popsicles! Okay, so maybe I don’t get points for health and nutrition, but at least it technically qualifies as food from all the major food groups.

I called Kim and her husband to tell them I was fixing dinner for the kids, and that they should go out to dinner and enjoy a little peace and quiet.

Then I threw the chicken and crescent rolls in the oven. The smallest child, who had asked me about dinner earlier, came inside just as I was closing the oven door. She looked up at me with hope in her five-year-old eyes. “Are we having dinner here?” she asked again.

“Yes, sweetie. You sure are.”

Delight lit up her face. Then she squealed, “You’re being spawntawnumous, aren’t you?!”

Spawntawnu-what? I thought. Spawntawn… Spawn…


Over the years, as Kim and I have found safe foods that her son can eat, I’ve slowly changed my own shopping habits. Whenever there’s a milk-free and egg-free version of a food, I now try to buy it. My family doesn’t need it to be milk- and egg-free. But since I never know when I might have these kids in my house, I’ve learned that it’s easier to have the safe foods than wish I did. (I’m a slow learner, but I eventually get it.) It also eliminates accidents and mistakes.

So now I only buy milk-free margarine. (It bakes better than the milk version, anyway.) I only buy milk- and egg-free white bread. I keep the pantry and freezer stocked with milk- and egg-free fruit snacks, popsicles, cookies, salsa, chips, tortillas, hot dogs, smoked sausages, barbeque sauce, crescent rolls, toaster pastries, and crackers.

So all that extra ingredients-label reading over the years has finally paid off. By modifying my shopping habits and stocking my kitchen with “safe” snacks and foods, I have officially become…


And boy, if you could have seen the look on that little princess’s face, you’d know how proud that makes me.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Support Groups, Kim, & Other Godsends

We had our planning/kick-off meeting for the new Davis County chapter of the Utah Food Allergy Network last week. Yea! We’re off and running!

Boy, do I wish there had been a support group for food allergies when The Human Whirlwind was diagnosed with peanut and nut allergies 7 years ago. I was completely clueless. After a brief encounter with his first peanut butter sandwich raised hives on his face and made him go hoarse, I took my toddler to an allergist who said simply, “Yep, looks like he’s allergic to peanuts. He might outgrow it, but stay away from peanut butter in the meantime.”

That was it. That was the sum total of this doctor’s sage advice. I had no idea what I was in for. No idea how dangerous cross-contamination could be. No idea that a peanut allergy gives you a 35% chance that you’ll be allergic to tree nuts, too. No idea that skin contact could cause a reaction. No idea that I should be carrying an EpiPen, or even Benadryl. No idea my son could die.

What I did have was a brand-new acquaintance named Kim. She’d also just found out her kid was allergic – to far more foods than my son, in fact. And she, fortunately, had visited a better allergist, who took the time to tell her more information. Kim sat with me at play-dates over the next few weeks, and while we watched our kids take random stabs at learning concepts like “sharing” and “waiting turns” and “not eating electrical cords,” she told me what she’d learned about food allergies from the internet, books, and her doctor.

Slowly, it began to sink in, and I realized that I had to research this condition myself and not rely on one doctor’s off-the-cuff “I’m-too-busy-to-talk-to-a-silly-mom” pat answers. After an accidental exposure to peanut-flavored chocolate on an ice cream cone sent us flying to the ER (with Kim and her kids following behind me with her EipPen, just in case), I found a new doctor and new determination to learn everything I could to keep my boy safe.

Kim was my one-person support group, at a time when I desperately needed one. Between us, we’ve spent 7 years learning, sharing, exploring, baking, and teaching our way to a safer world for our kids.

I can’t even imagine how hard those years would have been if I’d been the only parent I knew with a food-allergic kid. As silly as it sounds, just having someone to get giddy with over the discovery of allergen-free chocolate chips is a godsend.

So that’s why Kim and I are starting up our group here in Layton – because I know there are a whole lot of parents out there who are dealing with this, too. Some have just learned that their kids are allergic, and they’re going through the angry, shocked, despairing, disbelieving, overwhelmed stage of this. Other parents have been dealing with it for a few years now, and they have lots of great ideas, advice, and suggestions that they’d love to share with the newer parents.

So I am excited about starting up this new Davis County group. We’re going to have speakers, discussions, recipe exchanges, holiday tips – we’ve already got meeting topics lined up clear ‘til spring. So if you know anyone in the Davis County, Utah, area who could use a hand in the food allergy fight, let them know we’re out here, on the second Wednesday of every month. See our website ( for details.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Finding My Inner Mama Bear

Today starts week 4 of third grade. According to my son the human whirlwind, life has devolved into pure misery. The shiny new school supplies are all scuffed, torn, or lost. The thrill at seeing friends again has paled. His teacher, while he likes her, apparently uses an evil-genius tractor beam to glue their eyeballs to their papers. (Hooray for her!)

On the plus side, he’s practicing his math skills by calculating how many more days are left until summer vacation.

I’m counting the days, too. I know it seems crazy, but I actually like having him around. I’m one of those few parents who really doesn’t look forward to the school year. Now that he’s eight, he’s capable of entertaining himself for whole minutes at a time. Seriously. And he’s a lot of fun.

But I’m getting used to the routine, so I’m adjusting. Getting all the “beginning of the year” tasks out of the way helps, too. For instance, at the end of the first day of school, my friend Kim and I sat down with his teachers and did “the talk” – where we explained about out sons’ food allergies, how serious they are, how to use an EpiPen, how to keep the classroom environment safe, and so on.

It’s always intimidating to talk to teachers. There’s that nagging little worry that they might not take the allergies seriously, or that they might be one of those rare people who thinks people with food allergies are just control-freak weirdos who are trying to get attention. (Well, I might be, but that’s a different story.) But more importantly, even though I’ve been an adult for … oh… a couple of years now (but who’s counting?), I still have this ingrained fear that the teacher might send me to the principal’s office! Fortunately, his teachers were interested, concerned, and very receptive. And the only punishment they exacted on us was to ask us to come into the class and explain food allergies to the kids.

So the next morning, Kim and I stood in front of 25 third-graders and tried to make food allergies sound serious enough to pay attention to, but not so scary that they wouldn’t talk to our kids anymore. The amazing thing about kids is that they actually care. (Handing out erasers helped.) They paid attention, and they offered to tell us about all their relatives and friends who also have allergies. There’s even a third boy in the class who’s nut-allergic, too. (Three in one class?!)

The next week, I DID get sent to the principal. Actually, I asked for it. Signed up for it, in fact. Every year, I ask the principal if I can come speak to the teachers in her staff meeting to tell them about food allergies and demonstrate the EpiPen. So there I was, with my wonderful friend Kim riding shotgun once more, telling the teachers that statistically, one kid in every class could have severe food allergies, what to watch for, and how to respond.

The fun part is always demonstrating the EpiPen. I scan the room and look for the one or two teachers whose eyes get really wide and panicked-looking. Then I talk directly to them, gently, and walk them through it. I know if I can get them to calm down and accept that it’s just a tool, just a little needle, and a simple thing to do when the alternative could be watching a child die in front of them, then the rest of the teachers will get it, too. It seems to work.

Of course, the trick is doing all these talks and demonstrations every year without passing out myself. But the thing about having a kid with allergies is… you get over yourself. The mama bear in you knows that you can’t be a shrinking violet anymore, and you’ve got to protect that child of yours no matter how squeamish you are about speaking up. You find strength you never knew you had.

Grrr. Hear me roar. Or, come to the staff meeting and watch me demonstrate an EpiPen. Your choice.

The best part is, it’s done. Whew! I don’t have to get sent to the principal’s office again.

Until next year.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Lunch Variety, Schmariety

Recently, I was looking at a web site that talked about “bento box” school lunches. The idea is interesting – basically, you use a lunch box with lots of little compartments for different types of food. Supposedly, having mini compartments for mini portions of fun finger foods makes lunch more interesting, so kids eat it. Some suggestions included sandwiches cut into cookie-cutter shapes, veggies with dips, and wraps cut into 1-inch lengths and stabbed through with fancy toothpicks.

It’s a good idea, but it would be wasted on my son (aside from the fact that arming him with fancy toothpicks out of my sight shows questionable judgment).

School lunch at my house consists of three options:

1. Pasta with non-dairy margarine in a thermos
2. Salami sandwich (dry)
3. Sunbutter sandwich (SunGold Foods’ Sunbutter is a peanut butter look-alike that’s made from sunflower seeds. I swear it tastes and feels like the real thing, and it’s completely nut-free. Their web site is, and I promise they don’t know me from Adam, so this isn’t a paid endorsement! But if you’re missing peanut butter in your house, even your non-allergic picky Aunt Freida will love this stuff.)

Of those three options, my son really only wants the noodles. The other two are the emergency “I forgot to buy more pasta” options.

Variety is just not important to some kids. We adults have a hard time accepting that, the same way we insist our child needs a sweater if we happen to be chilly ourselves.

Although my son is only allergic to peanuts and tree nuts, the main reason the selection is so limited is because his best friend is allergic to milk and eggs, in addition to peanuts and tree nuts. My son and his buddy sit together at the “allergy table” at school, and my boy refuses to eat anything at school that might make his friend sick. So that eliminates all cheese, which is his primary staple at home – he’s the only 8-year-old I know who stops at the cheese table at the grocery store and begs for mozzarella balls, brie, gouda, and bleu cheese – yes, he actually likes bleu cheese! It also eliminates most breads. But we have found one brand of milk-free and egg-free bread and a couple of brands of egg-free pasta, so we can do sandwiches and pasta.

He likes grilled meats, such as chicken, pork chops, and steak, but not if they’re cold and sliced on a sandwich. He also hates all sandwich meats except for salami. I used to pack a veggie or fruit in his lunch, but he refuses to waste time eating them, because he wants to get outside and enjoy his recess. So I stopped wasting perfectly good carrots and bananas. I figure the pasta will get him through the afternoon, at least until he gets home and I can feed him something healthier.

So all those great ideas for bento-box variety simply won’t fit into my son’s little mental compartments. The only variety he cares about is the shape of the pasta he picks each week.

Fortunately for me, he views lunch as fuel, not as an event. So while I worry that he’s sick of the same old thing, he isn’t yet. And until he complains, I guess I won’t waste time or energy trying to force more variety into his lunch box. And I sure won’t spend $30 on a cute little compartmentalized Japanese-inspired bento box lunch pail (although my son would think that was WAY cool).

That leaves me extra time to worry about introducing more variety on the dinner table, right?

Monday, August 27, 2007

K.D., Food Allergy Warrior Princess

Much to my son’s surprise, he survived his first week of third grade. What’s more, he didn’t get sent to the principal’s office! I was relieved.

The first day had an interesting element to it, however. My son’s best friend is also food-allergic (to milk, eggs, nuts, and seafood), and they are in the same classroom. This is fortunate, because the friend’s mom, Kim, is also one of my best friends, and this means we can share all the classroom food issues that come up.

The first issue came up surprisingly fast.

After lunch, all the kids started coming back into the classroom before the teacher returned. One girl brought in her little carton of milk from lunch. Now, the school policy is that no food leaves the cafeteria. This is partly for food allergies, but also (perhaps mostly) to keep the carpets clean.

There’s another girl in the class, K.D., who has been a best buddy of my son and the other allergic boy since they were all about 18 months old. She’s grown up understanding food allergies nearly as well as either of the boys, and the three of them have been through thick and thin together. She and my son have always acted like siblings – they are both strong-willed, opinionated, determined to be the leader, and unwilling to back down. In other words, brother and sister in all but blood, and they’ve weathered the fights to prove it (and the teacher has already told them they can’t sit together anymore). But despite that, each of the three of them will defend the other to the death, if need be, and woe be to the person who tries to lay a finger on any of the Three Musketeers.

Guess what happened when the unsuspecting student brought the milk into the classroom. As both boys were apparently looking worried and trying to figure out what to do, their female champion tackled the problem headlong. She began chewing out the hapless milk-girl, telling her she couldn’t have milk in the classroom, demanding that she remove it and go wash her hands, and telling her the damage she could cause the stunned boys. The other girl tried to argue, but she was up against a master.

By the time the teacher returned, it was all over, and none of the kids even thought to tell her about it.

After school, Kim noticed a tell-tale itchy spot near her son’s eye, and the boys reluctantly told us about the confrontation. Kim and I asked both boys what they did while their BFF defended them. They admitted they didn’t do anything. In fact, it was clear they were both intimidated. “Why didn’t you do something?” we both asked, aghast. What had happened to all our counseling about standing up for themselves and letting an adult know when there was a dangerous situation? My son has never been one to back down from a confrontation, and certainly he’s never been shy about informing people of his allergies.

“It was girl talk… a girl argument,” he said, as if that explained it all. “I was staying out of that.” His friend agreed. It was obvious that both boys thought Kim and I were nuts if we expected them to get in between two girls having an argument. Besides, they knew their friend had the situation in hand, and if they tried to jump in, they’d just get hit by nasty female crossfire.

I know adult men who haven’t figured out that lesson yet – proof that our boys are above average in the smarts department, if you ask me.

After Kim and I sputtered maternally for a few minutes about how they need to be responsible for themselves and they can’t rely on their friend to handle every situation, we backed off. After all, an amazing thing had happened that day. Kim and I realized that we aren’t our sons’ only protectors. There are other people in this world who care about them enough to protect them.

They’re called friends.

And even if they’re only 8 years old, they make a huge difference in our lives. And we can’t thank them enough.

Thank you, K.D. We love you.

Monday, August 20, 2007

In a Cooler World

“In a cooler world, I’d be allergic to school,” says my 8-year-old son.

Alas for him, he’s not allergic to school, and today is his first day of third grade. The first day is always a tad traumatic. First, there’s the annual “Dragging him bodily out of bed” ritual, because despite our good intentions we let bedtime slide the last few weeks, and now he’s used to sleeping in.

Second comes the lively “No you can’t watch cartoons, you’ve got to get dressed” debate – a perennial favorite.

Third, of course, is the “Oh, no, look at the clock, we’re going to be late!” dance, which no back-to-school morning is complete without.

Then, once we get to school, I’ve got a whole additional set of annual kick-off traditions, including reminding his new teachers about his food allergies, visiting the lunch lady to make sure she’s got the allergy table set up for all the allergy kids, and asking the principal for a time to demonstrate EpiPen usage to the new staff.

For some of you, those last three annual routines may be really challenging. I am lucky -- I love my son’s school because the administration and staff have been understanding about food allergies since day one. One of the reasons I worked to get my son into this school (it’s a charter school) is because the school has a policy of not allowing food (in other words, candy) to be used as rewards in the classroom. That wasn’t because of food allergies – it’s because we Americans have gotten into the bad habit of rewarding ourselves with food, and the school’s original principal wanted to start kids out with a healthier approach to food. So right way, my son’s already better off in this school.

Then, when I and another mom of a food allergic child approached the staff about accommodating food allergies, they were willing to listen. They set aside a table in the lunchroom for all kids with allergies. Half the table is dairy-free and nut-free; the other half is just nut-free. The kids with allergies are invited (but not forced) to sit there. Other kids can sit there, too, but only if they bring a “safe” lunch and have a note from someone the lunchroom staff trusts saying it’s safe. That way, best friends can join their food-allergic pals for lunch.

The lunchroom staff have a separate bucket and rag to clean the table with, and a sign declares the table off-limits to non-allergic lunch eaters.

The funny thing is, the allergic kids view the table as kind of a club. It’s fun to sit there; they feel special. When a new kid shows up, it’s cause for celebration. If someone tries to sit there with danger foods, the other kids speak right up and let the kid know they need to sit at another table. The allergic kids don’t seem to feel ostracized – quite the opposite. They feel bonded with each other.

So with all the challenges of starting a new year of school, it’s nice to have one small thing going my way. I’ve talked to other parents from other schools who fight constant battles over how to keep their children safe at lunch. I still have to worry about whether my son is swinging from monkey bars smeared with peanut butter from another kid’s hand at recess, but at least I know that for lunch he’ll be sitting at a safe table with kids he knows he can trust.

It may not be a cooler world as far as my son is concerned, but as for me – well, I’ll be adding one more item to my list of back-to-school rituals: making a special point of thanking the folks at my son’s school who go out of their way to keep him as safe as they can.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Food Allergy Skepticism

I’m practicing wearing contact lenses today. I gotta say… yuck. I don’t like ‘em. This is my fourth day wearing them, and they are irritating. Literally. My eyeballs feel sticky and gummy and cold. Yeah, cold. I don’t get why, but they do.

You’ll never guess what my first thought was.

OK, you did guess: “I wonder if I’m allergic to the solution?”

I wonder why we’re so quick to assign the word “allergy” to anything that makes our body feel funny.

I don’t know if I’m allergic to my contacts. I’m going back to the eye doctor in a couple of days to find out his best explanation. In the meantime, I’m still wearing them for a couple of hours each day so I can make sure it’s not just a “getting used to them” sort of problem. Maybe I’m just being whiney. (Hard to believe, but my husband might suggest it’s a possibility.) But it’s really, really tempting to assume I’m allergic right off the bat, with no data to support it.

Have you ever encountered someone who doesn’t believe you when you describe how serious a food allergy is?

Silly question. Of course you have. We all have.

I can’t figure out why some people don’t believe me. Do I look like the kind of person who would walk up to you and say, “Hey, let me tell you a big, fat lie”?

Maybe part of the problem is that too many people have used the word “allergy” in so many ways for so many reasons for so long, that the word no longer has any impact.

How many people have you heard say they were allergic to cigarette smoke, when really they just hate it and don’t want to be around it? (I admit it. I used that excuse in my teen years, thinking I was being clever and creative. Surely it would have been easier to just say, “I don’t like it,” but that’s teenage logic for you.)

And a huge percentage of folks have pet allergies or common hay fever, which is an allergic reaction to pollens. In most of these people, pollen allergies cause discomfort (or misery) in the form of watery eyes, sneezing, sinus pain, itchiness, etc. But for the majority of sufferers, pollen allergies aren’t usually a life-threatening disease and don’t usually cause anaphylactic reactions. (There are always exceptions, unfortunately.)

So when people hear “food allergy,” they tend to think, “So you sneeze a little. For Pete’s sake, take some Benedryl and get over yourself.” Because most of their experience with allergies up to this point has been either imagined annoyances or the real -- but mostly non-fatal -- hay fever or pet allergies.

And then there’s the confusion with food intolerances. Lactose intolerance is a well-known disease now, thanks in large part to all the commercials for drugs that treat it. But now non-sufferers often think a milk allergy is just lactose intolerance. They don’t understand why we’re so freaked out about whey in the ingredients list of a cracker. “Why can’t you just take a pill?” they ask, annoyed, clueless that a food intolerance is a completely different disease than a food allergy.

So they, and I, and probably you, have developed a healthy skepticism for the word “allergy.”

I don’t know what to do about it, though, short of coining a new word for life-threatening food allergies, or using the adjective “life-threatening” in front of the word “allergy” in all my conversations. (I don’t know about you, but I don’t like using that term on a frequent basis in front of my impressionable 8-year-old.)

I guess I’m resigned to having to explain patiently to the uninitiated, over and over. A little education goes a long way.

I’m also vowing to be careful how I use the word “allergy.” So when I go see the eye doctor, I’m not going to say the word. I’m going to describe the symptoms, and let him suggest possible cures. And if he says “allergy,” I’m going to ask how he knows. Maybe there’s a test to prove it.

How do you handle people who don’t believe how serious a food allergy is? Do you have any ways of explaining that seem to get through, without creating a new enemy? Let us know your tips!

Monday, August 6, 2007

One in Twenty Kids Have Food Allergies

By Kelley J. P. Lindberg

When I was in school (150 years ago), I didn’t know a single person who was allergic to food. Not one. Never even heard of it.

Now, organizations such as the National Institutes for Health and the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN) estimate that as many as one out of every twenty kids in the United States has a severe food allergy. That rate is double what it was just five years ago.

Holy Peanut Butter, Batman!

How did this happen? No one really knows.

There are plenty of theories, naturally. One says maybe kids are exposed to more potential food allergens earlier and more often than they used to be. (Well, maybe, but every kid in my generation cut their first tooth on a peanut butter sandwich.)

On the other hand, another theory says maybe kids aren’t exposed to ENOUGH allergens and bacteria at an early age to build up immunity. Perhaps we’re too anti-bacterial for our own good.

Maybe in earlier days, babies and toddlers with severe food allergies died more often without anyone ever knowing why, so they simply didn’t live long enough to get to school, let alone to reproduce and pass on their food-allergy genes. And now that medical science has improved, so have these kids’ survival (and reproductive) rates.

Maybe peanut allergies are increasing because we dry-roast peanuts in the United States, unlike in Asia where they boil them and have a lower allergy rate.

Maybe the proliferation of petroleum-based and synthetic chemicals in and around our bodies has been messing with our immune systems for the last generation or two, confusing our bodies into mis-identifying what is and isn’t a hazard.

Or maybe doctors just recognize food allergies more often now, and it’s getting reported more consistently.

Or maybe it’s a combination of all of those “maybes.”

Or maybe it’s something entirely different.

We just don’t know. And not nearly enough funding money exists to do the type of long-range and in-depth studies that would be required to find out. So we speculate and shake our heads and pack Epi-pens everywhere we go.

It’s easy to think it doesn’t really matter why – we should focus on finding a cure. But that brings up the old adage about treating the symptom and not the cause. If we can find out why food allergy rates are doubling every five years now, maybe we can stop the causes and reverse the trend. If we find out, for example, that synthetic food additives we eat every day have caused our immune systems to whack out, then we could spend more energy talking food manufacturers into eliminating those types of additives instead of just printing better warning labels.

I don’t have a solution. And I don’t have a few million dollars lying around to fund my own study. (Wouldn’t THAT be lovely?) But I do have a voice, and I like to talk. (Heck, I’m female. That goes without saying!) And I would like to support those who ARE trying to work on understanding the causes.

So if you know of any on-going scientific studies into the root causes of the rise in food allergies, let us know. And if you’re involved in one, thank you!

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Welcome! Why This Blog Exists...

“Listen to this,” I said to my husband. I was reading the nutrition information on a box of crackers. “`This product was made in a factory that also processes peanuts’,” I read to him. “Why on earth would they print an obscure fact like that?” It seemed so silly.

“Well,” said my husband calmly, without looking up from his newspaper, “I guess if you were really allergic to peanuts, you’d need to know that.”


“I think sometimes people are even allergic to the peanut dust on the machinery.”

“Hunh. Hadn’t thought of that. Whatever,” I said, and tore into the box.

Not my most sympathetic moment.

A year later, I was sitting in the pediatrician’s exam room, my 18-month-old son’s face red and puffy after eating a few bites of a peanut butter sandwich.

Now I think about that obscure warning label all the time. Every time I go grocery shopping. Every time we eat out. Every time we get invited to dinner. Every time I pack my son’s lunch.

That obscure fact is now an essential element in my life, because my son is allergic to peanuts and tree nuts.

Life has a funny way of teaching compassion.

Finding out my son has a life-threatening food allergy was scary. It was distressing. It was confusing. It was infuriating.

With time, research, and reflection, I also finally realized what it wasn’t.

It wasn’t the end of the world.

Life is full of turning points, large and small. Some turning points we recognize right off, like the day I switched majors in college, the day I said, “Yes, I will marry you,” and the day the doctor said, “Your pregnancy test is positive.” (Hoo-boy, that was a biggie.)

Other turning points are smaller and harder to recognize at the time – like the day I took a temporary job as a technical writer, or the day my mother talked me into joining a club of stay-at-home moms.

That day in the doctor’s office was a turning point, but not necessarily in all the bad ways I initially thought it was.

It changed how I think about food. It changed how I plan my family’s menu and diet. It means I have to interact a little more with my son’s school, friends, neighbors, and activities.

Is that a bad thing?

It’s a challenge, sure. But we all get handed challenges in one way or another. This one is one of ours. And honestly, as challenges go, it could be so much worse. At least this one is manageable.

That’s why we’ve created this web site and blog – to make it just a bit easier for us all to manage our families’ food allergies. Like so many of the turning points in this endless string of turning points we call life, this particular one is easier to accept with a little information, a few handy tools, and a community of friends who “get it.”

Thanks for stopping by. If you see some information you can use, take it. If you have some information to share, we’d love to hear it. You’re part of our community, and we’re mighty glad to have you.


P.S. Remember, I’m not a doctor. Never have been, never want to be, bless them all. Information on this site is for discussion and thought-provoking purposes only and should never be used in place of your doctor’s recommendations, and it cannot be construed as advice or diagnosis. By accessing this web site and blog or the information in it in any form – electronic or paper or any other type of real, alien, or imaginary media – you agree not to sue us, and to instead seek out professional medical advice.

P.P.S. No stalking, either.

Thursday, June 28, 2007


Welcome to the UFAN Blog! We are very excited to have Kelley Lindberg, who is a professional writer and mother of a child with food allergies, managing this site and also heading up the UFAN Layton Group.

She has written numerous short articles about food allergies that we can all relate to...she made me laugh and also touched me deeply with her thought provoking satire. Thank you Kelley and we look forward to some great reading!

Michelle Fogg