Food allergies were barely on my radar as a child growing up in Philadelphia. I knew certain families with a shellfish allergy, but shrimp and lobster were foods reserved for big celebrations, not everyday fare. As a newlywed, I distinctly remember the first time a friend spread the word that her young daughter had been diagnosed with a peanut allergy. She cried the whole way home from the doctor’s office and my heart went out to her. A peanut allergy would mean no peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Even though my husband and I were never into peanut butter, I understood it was a childhood staple. I ached for the adjustments my friend would have to make and then moved on.
My first pregnancy was full of protein and iron cravings. I did have a few peanut products along the way: we added walnuts to oatmeal, snacked on almonds, and ate peanuts in our trail mix. But we joked that our firstborn would arrive eating a hamburger or calamari.
The First Time
Fast forward to our daughter attending a birthday party. An oversized Dora character showered the kids with candy (they didn’t understand pinatas yet) and she bit into a Hershey’s kiss, foil and all. When she promptly spit it out, we assumed she didn’t like chocolate – or foil;) We continued the celebration as she seemed to have no ill effects, and none of us can recall if she ate any other dessert that day. She wasn’t a year old yet, and as first time parents, we were focused on healthy eating.
The next jump was when she was 2-1/2 years old; my husband took her to a party as I was in the late stages of pregnancy number two. It was a Valentine’s Day celebration, full of chocolates, candy and treats. They had a lot of fun together until she complained of a bellyache and he brought her home. What happened next is seared into my memory. She began vomiting in our kitchen and by the time she stopped and we had her wheezing under control, it was 3 hours later. Our pediatrician told us it was probably a food allergy. We had her tested that week.
Her blood tests and those escalating reactions met the “gold standards” of anaphylaxis according to our pediatric allergist. He held our hands and served the admirable role of helping us educate ourselves as we came to terms with our daughter’s allergy. I went through a terrifying time as a mother, worrying about every morsel that my daughter could consume.
The diagnosis for a life-threatening food allergy can be very tough on a family and especially on the one that does the shopping and cooking. Simple take-out feels like a huge obstacle, and the lack of understanding about coprocessing can make you feel like the world is out to attack your child. Celebrations should be a joyous occasion, full of desserts, happy kids, and staying up past bedtime. In reality, I was constantly reading labels, calling brands to understand coprocessing, watching for shared serving spoons and monitoring a preschooler to keep her safe from a chocolate chip cookie. There had to be a better way for our family to find the joy in these celebrations again.
When she was first diagnosed, we read books, blogs, labels, websites and information from FARE. We learned to substitute ingredients and make plans far in advance for treacherous things like birthday parties, camping trips and cookouts. We didn’t want her to be left out, so I took the lead on offering to provide the food or suggest alternatives. As long as she had a sweet option, she rarely complained. She even looked forward to bringing special treats to her friends as an extra “birthday gift”. Our daughter even carried a box of Kraft Mac and Cheese and Enjoy Life cookies in her backpack, with her EpiPen or Auvi-Q to playdates. The EpiPen is well known and gets its name from the lifesaving epinephrine in the injection. The Auvi-Q is a newer version by a competitor that actually “talks” to the administrator (like modern AEDs). We are fans of it in situations when the allergic person must rely on a teacher, friend or adult unfamiliar with food allergies to administer it. Her friends became advocates, often asking “Is this safe for her?” Without prejudice, the children in our community had never questioned her allergies. So with some surprise, I found myself having to explain to and educate their parents.
The female offspring is now 11, and able to communicate well with wait staff, parents, and teachers about her allergies. She has been self-carrying her epinephrine since she was 7, and furthermore, she knows how to read labels. On a family outing, we discovered the FARE Walk and joined the national community working to bring awareness to food allergies. She has raised money for research, and we have all advocated for safe food options at school, TaeKwonDo parties, birthday celebrations, scout camping, and neighborhood Trick or Treating.
In the middle of this, I realized that what we were doing was problem solving on a larger scale. We were trying to protect our daughter while educating the community in a way that was non-combative. I found myself encouraging folks to allow us to bake for their non-allergenic children, or to provide a supplemental treat at any type of celebration.
Most folks were relieved to have me take the pressure of dessert off of them, and met us halfway with the party food. Some questioned our choices and decisions regarding brands and bakeries, and others tried to sympathize by sharing their “allergies”. My father and I had realized years ago that we both felt better if we stayed away from artificial sweeteners and creamers. Where we might have once called it an “allergy”, we realized it was an intolerance that made us uncomfortable. I started to realize this in no way compared to my daughter’s anaphylaxis and began to be suspicious of preferences hidden behind “allergies” without tests, a doctor’s involvement, or a “history of a severe allergic reaction of rapid onset affecting many body systems” (National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine).
Navigating the Rise in Food Allergies
There are a lot of misconceptions about intolerances, sensitivities, oral allergies and true anaphylaxis. We found our family in the thick of it. Of course, some encounters were harder than others. A well-meaning friend would tell our daughter to try a restaurant only to discover that the chain had jumped on the gluten-friendly trend.
My volunteering at school was at an all time high. I struggled to cover every type of celebration: parties, snacks, and food crafts. Elementary school is rife with food-centered celebrations, and the connection is emotional for many people. Travel is tough as families have to plot road trips around safe restaurants discussed in forums or on the wonderful app, Allergy Eats.
In the years between 2010 and 2017, the American College of Asthma, Allergy and Immunology reported a 21% increase in peanut allergies among U.S. children, bringing the total to 2.5% of all U.S. schoolchildren. That is over ONE MILLION children in classrooms today!
Sign me up for Cake Decorating Classes!
With time and experience, I found some “hacks” that worked well for us. I learned how to decorate cupcakes, cakes, and cake pops. My pantry included some ready-made safe cookies for quick ice cream sandwiches. My freezer was stocked with safe ice cream and frozen cupcakes for spur-of-the-moment celebrations. Investigations on the internet led to the discovery of nut-free and nut-friendly components, like Americolor gel dyes, Chefmaster meringue powder, and Arrowhead Mills. I also learned about piping tips and reverse icing methods (check out this blog) and became a pro at forming small decorations attached to toothpicks to bring the most difficult Superhero or character logos to any party. Here are a few of my creations along the way:
Why are you sharing these if you can’t legally sell them?
When I showed up at the first party with a fun dessert in 2010 and my allergic preschooler in tow, the requests began. “Would you make these for my party?” or “You should start a business!” were common refrains. I formalized Solutions By Tatiana in December 2016, and I initially hoped to make actual desserts available to my clients. I knew I had years of experience with these types of “solutions” and could make them possible for my clients. In this case, I quickly discovered that it was not feasible in my “home” office due to the regulations in Pennsylvania. In addition, I am especially familiar with peanut and tree nut allergies, and have cooked for folks with soy or coconut allergies. I cannot proclaim to have a house free of the other top allergens like dairy, gluten, egg or shellfish.
Although I can’t bake up a dozen cupcakes for you, I am more than willing to help you come up with your own solutions. If you know the food items that will work for your particular allergies, I would love to help you customize it! Please contact me for advice, or perhaps to collaborate on a non-edible decoration or presentation method for the food in question. I may not have all the answers on this one, but I do consider this an area for my family that we have…