Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Holiday (or Party) Allergy Guide for the Non-Allergy Crowd

When my husband and I used to lead the youth group at our church, I was always the one to be on top of who had food allergies and to say no to peanuts that may enter the room. At the time I had no idea how serious a reaction to peanuts could be, I had no idea that tree nuts could cause the same reaction, I had no idea how serious cross-contamination could be, and I only had a vague idea of how to use an epi-pen. All I knew was what I had heard peripherally; that peanut and nut allergies were serious business and could send someone to the hospital.

Then our firstborn child Will got diagnosed with peanut and walnut allergies when he was 16 months old. It's funny how what I did as a mindless precaution with children that weren't my own suddenly had to become serious, front of the mind business. 

Our garbage bag filled up with our beloved peanut butter stuff, anything that contained peanuts, anything with a walnut in it (like the bag of walnuts in my fridge), and anything that couldn't tell me exactly what tree nuts may or may not be included in their ingredients. We retrained ourselves grocery shopping to read every label, every time (yes, even things we've bought before - a salsa we've bought for ages recently started to indicate that there may be traces of tree nuts in it). Samples at grocery stores? Gotta read the labels first. Been around peanuts out with friends or at work before coming home? Strip down in the basement, start the washing machine, and put on clean clothes before saying hi to Will. 

Why such extreme measures? Don't we carry an epi-pen or Benedryl? 

Here's what the non-allergy crowd doesn't realize and the reason that I'm writing this post. 

Exposure to the allergens that cause an anaphylactic reaction isn't just a hit with an epi-pen. It's a 911 call and an ambulance ride... and usually another hit with an epi-pen, and risk of the reaction coming back in the few days following the initial reaction. Which can mean starting the epi-pen/ambulance cycle over again. 

Well... this just became "the year the ambulance came"...

I've now been on both sides of the coin and I have to tell you - it's so much easier on the non-allergy side. I've had to send emails out to Will's playdates asking them not to bring peanut butter on picnics because toddlers - no matter how many times you tell them - just can't not touch each other's food. There's a new Chik-Fil-A with a play place opening up near our house, and I'll have to turn down times with Will to hang out with his friends because they cook all their food in peanut oil (and while I can bring food for him to eat, that grease will be all over the twisty slides). 

The worst was when I recently had to tell my grandmother that I couldn't accept her gift of animal crackers for him because they were made in a facility with nuts. My grandmother. Animal crackers. 


I'm now that parent. The one that I am sure other people roll their eyes at in stores when I block the aisle reading labels. The one that feels rude and awkward turning down gifts or dictating what lunches people can't bring on outings. 

So it is with this post that I ask the other 85% of the population (our allergist said that 15% of the population suffers from food allergies) to be compassionate, patient, and maybe even help out the allergy parents and allergy kids (and even allergy adults) this year at your holiday parties. There are a few simple yet super helpful things that we can all do that will help those of us in the 15% category to feel less awkward and like there is a community of friends and family helping us to protect our kid. After all, the holidays are a time to spread love and joy and parties should be a time to relax and celebrate. 

Family parties shouldn't be scary places. For anyone.

So... what can YOU do to help?

1. Be aware of what's in what you bring to a party. This is as simple as reading the labels of whatever you put in the dish and making either a physical or mental note of what does/may or may not have an allergen* in it. I mentioned that we had to switch salsas recently, so don't just assume that there'd be no way something would have any nuts in it. Things I've been shocked or annoyed at for potential nut contamination have been the aforementioned salsa, steel cut oatmeal (it's what Will prefers and there's only 1 brand I've been able to find that is totally safe), some flours. You could even cut the labels off the products you use and bring them with your dish so people can make their own determinations. Which brings me to number 2...

2. Label your dish OR if you're the host provide labels for people to write on. This way there's no question, no random asking "what's in this", no needing to hunt for who brought the thing and asking what's in it. It also makes it easy for you to tell your child they can have this this and this, but not that that and that in one fell swoop. At our church cookout this year a few people did that at the dessert table and it meant that I could find something for Will without belaboring my decision. It was amazing. 2A: Do not cross-contaminate serving utensils from one plate to another - you never know what someone else put in their dish!!! In fact - please bring a separate serving utensil for your dish OR if you're the host, provide additional serving utensils for people to use. 

Something like this would be simple & perfect for your guests!

3. Don't share your food with someone else's kid. Period. Don't offer something off of your plate even if you know it's safe - something else on your plate might have cross-contaminated it without you realizing it. If a kid asks you for a bit or says they want some, redirect them to their Mommy and Daddy to ask them if it's OK. There was one day I went to the beach with some people and Will started to cough in the back seat; all I could do was wonder if he had eaten something I didn't know and whether or not it may have had nuts in it. When I pulled over he was fine and had just choked on his own drool falling asleep... but what if that wasn't the case? 

4. Throw your plate out when you're done. I know, this seems simple and I'm sure you're saying "Of course! Who doesn't!". Turns out the answer is most people don't immediately throw away their plates at a party because they're deep in conversation or they're people watching or playing with their phone or whatever. Think about it. We've all taken a turn being the person that collects a handful of garbage and makes a trip to the trash can asking "Are you done with this?" to everyone in the process. Here's the problem from the perspective of the parent of a toddler with allergies... the word "toddler". Toddlers - no matter how many times you tell them - don't understand "don't eat off of someone else's plate". They see "stray cookie" and they pick it up and it makes its way to their mouths. Will had hidden a brownie in his Batmobile that he pulled out four weeks later and started to eat. They don't care. Throwing your plate out helps the already-stressed parents of the toddler in ways I can't even begin to describe. 


I want to say that I fully recognize how easy it can be to say "just watch your kid" or "there go the allergy kids making everything a pain again". But take a minute and remember how "easy" it is to watch a toddler's every single move (don't you need to go to the bathroom or eat your own dinner?). Or think of a time that you felt really awkward at a dinner party when someone made something that you didn't like or couldn't eat for some reason. 

Now imagine that happening every time you go to a dinner party. Every. Single. Time. Only instead of a bad taste in your mouth if you eat it, you end up in the back of an ambulance with a loved one beside you praying you're going to live through it. 

All that the parents of an allergy kid want is for their kid to have as normal a life as possible. 

All that I'm asking the other 85% to do is to be a part of the village that it takes to raise a child and help out with that. 

Enjoy the upcoming season of celebrations and thanks for taking the time to read this and hopefully incorporating these simple steps into your holiday plans. 

*The eight common allergens are peanuts, tree nuts, dairy, soy, shellfish, wheat, eggs and fish.

For more information about food allergies, visit http://www.FARE.org.

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