“My child has a food allergy.” A phrase no parent wants to say. My son is almost 3 but I already dread the day when we have to walk into a school or send him to a party unaccompanied and request that our child has to bring his own meal and under no circumstances can he have any special treats without us knowing what’s in them. Many parents are unaware of just how difficult this can be. How we have to teach him that he has to say “no” to anything anyone offers him. How we can NEVER leave the house without the EpiPen. How grocery shopping takes twice as long and every restaurant we go to, we have to not only ask about ingredients but also how everything is prepared. I’ll be frank…it just plain sucks. It sucks BIG TIME. But this is for my child. This is what I do to keep my child healthy. This is to protect my child’s life. So while I have to have these conversations with others and double my shopping time and deal with the restaurant hassle, I do it, and I do it happily.
Somewhere along the way it did become easier. I have learned the tricks of the trade, and the stores to shop at that never disappoint me, and how to make homemade frosting that doesn’t contain all of the things frosting is usually made out of. I’m sharing our story in hopes that someone else may see that the seemingly impossible reality of food allergies isn’t and that you’re not alone on this journey.
My stepson was diagnosed with food allergies at 15 months old. He tolerated breast milk no problems. When he switched to table food, however, he would start to break out around his face without reason…or so we thought at first. Over the next few months, symptoms grew into things such as an extended abdomen, breakouts on his belly and back in addition to his face, and massive amounts of diarrhea. While we had him for a week when he was 15 months old, it was my husband’s mother that suggested it could be food related. For the next 8 days, he had all the most common food allergies cut from his diet (dairy, soy, shellfish, eggs, nuts, chocolate, wheat). Within a couple of days, his symptoms had cleared up. As these things were reintroduced one by one, the symptoms would return. Dead giveaway that it was, in fact, food-related. At 15 months old he was tested and sure enough, he had food allergies. He was allergic to eggs, dairy, chocolate, corn, strawberries, tomatoes, tree nuts, peanuts, and sesame seeds. We were in complete shock but also more determined than ever to make sure he stayed healthy.
That evening after finding out, I pulled out every ingredient from the pantry and refrigerator to read labels. I cried when I saw all that we had to throw away and that he could no longer have. In the course of one day, our food lives had changed. What were once normal staples in our lives of two full-time working parents were now simply dangerous to the health of a little person who meant the world to us. So what did we do? We made changes. Lots of them.
Fortunately, I grew up in a “cooking from scratch” household. I have a background in turning nothing ingredients into delicious meals. My husband and I decided together that we weren’t just going to find things our little guy could have, but that we would change our habits too. We wanted to enjoy meals together as a family without anyone feeling like they were missing out. It meant we had to let go of a few things that were our favorite go-to’s. Popping a pizza in the oven, homemade mac-and-cheese, and putting ketchup or barbecue sauce in meatloaf–those were all things of the past, among many many others
I wasn’t worried about that so much though. After all, I was used to cooking. I knew I could figure out new ways to make things and we’d just go with it. What I did worry about was how on Earth I was going to shop for someone who was allergic to almost everything that is found in EVERYTHING. Did you know there are over 200 other names for a corn by-product?! Yup. Corn, a simple ingredient by name is one of the most used ingredients in foods and has 200 other names under its belt in the ingredients section. The number one food my son is allergic to does not have to be FDA regulated or labeled as being an allergen on food labels, even though it is quickly rising as a common food allergen. That is a topic for another day, but my point is, while I was more than up for this difficult challenge, it meant I had my research cut out for me.
I Googled things like “other ingredient names for corn in food.” I did the same for dairy, eggs, nuts, etc. This is where I finally felt like I wasn’t alone. Someone before me–whether doctor, nutritionist or parent, had been on this journey to get to the bottom of what is in our food! I saved screenshots to my phone of every list I came across. If it gave me ingredients to watch for, I kept it.
I also researched the daylights out of substitutions. For example, did you know that 1/4 cup of banana can be substituted for 1 egg? (This saved our lives from being void of pancakes on Saturday mornings!) Or how most food items like brown sugar or vanilla extract are colored with caramel, a corn product? (An easy replacement is pure maple syrup.) Or that a brand called ‘Daiya’ makes dairy free cheeses; cream, shredded, and sliced? It smells terrible, but it gives my guy “cheese,” and he loves it (you can find it at most Marsh stores and Georgetown Market). I even buy quinoa pasta from Trader Joe’s and I can make my guy mac and cheese! If I need butter for a recipe, I get Earth Balance instead because it contains no dairy and it’s organic. I find it at Target, along with Applegate brand meats, which have no corn byproducts, as well as Target’s Simply Balanced brand of snacks that includes cookies, fruit strips, and juices. Aldi also has a ‘Simply Nature’ organic brand that makes apple squeezes, juices, and other fruit products without containing ascorbic acid (yet another corn by-product). If an occasion calls for cupcakes with icing, I make my own icing by putting 4 cups sugar into a food processor while adding 1/4 cup flour and blending it until it becomes powder. Then I use Earth Balance butter, a tsp of maple syrup, and a ripe banana. Mix it all together and Voila’ you have icing!
The other problem we ran into was skin products. While this allergen discovery was made through food, we still found our little guy was breaking out when we applied sunscreen, gave him allergy medicine, or after he brushed his teeth. What the heck? We thought we had this! More research led to us finding that we had to read more than just food labels. So we did, and we discovered Sorbitol–the ingredient they use to keep Children’s medicines, and everything else from turning to a jelly goop while it sits for months on end. Guess what it’s made from? Corn! Georgetown Market saved us here, as they have several products, such as sunscreen, that do not contain sorbitol.
Our journey with food allergies is only beginning, but it gets easier every day. It really does boil down to doing your research–finding what brands you can buy and what stores you can find them at; learning to cook from scratch and eating mostly fresh foods like meats, fruits, veggies. Sometimes I have to shop at 5 different stores, but if in the end it saves my child’s life while giving him some normalcy at the same time, why wouldn’t I? And thanks to research, I can confidently walk into his classrooms and go to parties at friends’ houses and explain why he can’t have things. This is his life we are talking about, so in the end, nothing else really matters.