Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The taste of nostalgia

“This tastes like nostalgia.” A recent dinner featuring grilled chicken carried my son back to his younger days when his favorite meal was grilled chicken with applesauce. He ate that meal a lot, as in most of his meals for lunch and dinner were grilled chicken with applesauce plus a steamed vegetable like broccoli and perhaps a sweet potato with some brown sugar on it. Some other meals such as those featuring rice pasta, bacon or grilled steak, also made the cut for Joseph’s meals, but grilled chicken was the clear favorite. His multiple food allergies certainly limited his meal choices, but not that much.

I have spent a lot of time searching for and researching foods that would be safe for my son, who is allergic to peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, milk, egg, soy, sesame, mustard, strawberry and watermelon. Every new product means I have a chance to expand his diet just a little bit more. I’m happy that there are so many more options now than when I started this journey almost 12 years
ago, and some brands have been with me all along. For example, I still use the Whole Foods 365 Organic applesauce I started using when Joseph was a toddler because it has one ingredient — organic apples. Nothing is added, thus lowering the risk that it could contain an allergen.
My determination to make Joseph’s birthdays special has always been a big part of my efforts in the kitchen. His birthday is the only time that the dessert everyone is eating is safe for him and he does not have to feel the sting of exclusion. As he turns 12 this week, it is a time for me to be nostalgic, too. I looked back at the treats I made each year for his birthdays and also for my daughter Pamela’s birthdays because I serve only treats that are safe for Joseph at her parties, as well.

I give props to my family and friends for bravely tasting each year’s creations. Some were successes, while others — especially in the early years — were fails. For Joseph’s first birthday, I made delightfully dry cupcakes whose only saving grace were the Bob the Builder cupcake wrappers. I also tried to make his 1st birthday cake look like a book to go with the story time theme we had. It made him cry. After that, I realized that cupcake toppers were an easy, allergy-friendly way to coordinate the dessert with the theme, whether I used soccer balls, little Hot Wheels cars, beachy toppers or tennis rackets. I also often make cookies decorated with melted chocolate or a sugar glaze to accompany the main dessert. Chocolate candy made using melted Enjoy Life chocolate in various shapes, such as Wii remotes or ballet slippers, is always a hit, too. I like to provide options because it is fun to try out different flavors and designs, but also because I figure if one dessert fails at least there is another sweet option.

I started to exercise my decorating muscle by the time Joseph turned 5 and we had a mini golf party. The cakes were tastier by then, thankfully, as I learned how to better bake without gluten, dairy and egg. By the time Pamela turned 4 and had a princess party, I had so much fun making a doll shape cake. Joseph says his favorite was the snitch cake I made for his Harry Potter party when he turned 8. Last year for a video-game party I made Wii remote cakes that were a big hit. Joseph is eschewing the idea of a theme this year, so flavor might outshine design. He wants a Boston cream pie for his actual birthday and a red velvet cake for his party. Both yummy family favorites are Cybele Pascal recipes. I just hope they give him big birthday smiles.

I get a double dose of nostalgia this week, as Mother’s Day always conjures memories of my mom, who died 19 years ago. She loved to bake, so it is natural that certain desserts like brownies, blondies, cherry pie and chocolate chip cookies always remind me of her. The pancakes I am making for Joseph’s birthday breakfast are an allergy-friendly version of her recipe. I make those pancakes every week and think of her every single time I’m measuring out my ingredients, wishing she were here to enjoy them, too.

Chicken also plays a role in my nostalgia. The other day I was trying to figure out what chicken dish to cook for dinner when I looked at the homemade croutons I had just made to freeze for the tomato panzanella salad I’ll be making for Joseph’s party. Those croutons reminded me of the creamy baked chicken my mom used to make using a stuffing mix for the crusty top. Then I remembered my late Aunt Marguerite’s creamy chicken divan that I always loved and thought that leftover steamed broccoli in the fridge would work for that. Thanks to Cybele Pascal’s dairy-free Alfredo sauce recipe, and Daiya mozzarella and cheddar style shreds, I was able to combine two dishes that brought back fond memories to create a new chicken dinner option that my kids loved. Now I have to make a new batch of croutons, but making my kids happy with another take on chicken was totally worth it.
Joseph still enjoys grilled chicken, but he has come a long way from his days of that being his primary meal choice. For his birthday dinner I will be making his favorite meatball Stromboli, and for his party he has chosen another favorite, chicken piccata. As new dishes make their way into our meals, I can’t help but wonder if one day my kids will say they too taste like nostalgia.   

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Allergy-friendly wishes

My friend Sally, a registered dietician who shares her thoughts and experiences at Real Mom Nutrition, asked me to share my thoughts about what I wish others could understand about living with food allergies. Check out my post on her blog, "What This Food Allergy Mom Would Like You To Know". Be sure to take a look around Real Mom Nutrition while you're there. Sally shares real-life experiences and offers honest, helpful advice and recipes that are easily adaptable for families navigating food allergies. Lots of families with food allergies can especially benefit from her section on Snactivism.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Reining in my fears

The rain pelting my windshield, water splashing with each set of tires trudging through the puddles and wet leaves blowing across the roadways reflected the turmoil I was feeling. I was freaking out about the task ahead as I drove to my sister-in-law’s house with a bag of peanut butter cups in my car. Eleven years after my son’s diagnosis with a life-threatening allergy to peanut, it was time for me to face a food that could take my child’s life.

I was finally ready to feed peanut to my 6-year-old daughter for the first time in an effort to prevent the potential for her to develop a peanut allergy. Pamela, who has no food allergies, safely eats all kinds of foods when we eat out that contain wheat, milk, egg, soy, sesame, mustard, strawberries and watermelon, the other foods to which Joseph is allergic. That’s not to say Joseph’s allergies to these foods are any less serious than his allergy to peanuts and tree nuts. He has been hospitalized from anaphylactic reactions to milk. But I feel like it is easier to remove milk and the other allergens from Pamela after she eats rather than sticky peanut butter or nut dust. Joseph has broken out in hives just from being near someone eating peanuts and had an asthma attack from walking near an eatery where peanut was being cooked in a food court.

Pamela was tested for food allergies as an infant due to her higher risk of developing food allergies as the sibling of someone with food allergies. Everything came back negative. But I was concerned, especially in light of current thinking about when to introduce highly allergenic foods, that her avoidance of peanuts would sensitize her to the allergen, possibly setting her up for an allergy. Despite my trepidation, I knew I needed to give Pamela nuts. I was worried that my 11-year avoidance could also sensitize me to peanuts.

I certainly don’t want my daughter to find out that she is allergic to peanut by accidentally eating it and having an anaphylactic reaction. So after a recent negative allergy test, our allergist advised us that Pamela should consume peanut in some form a couple of times a month.

We decided to keep the peanut butter cups, along with a washcloth and toothbrushes, at my sister-in-law’s house so that we could clean off any peanut residue before returning home, keeping my house a safe zone for Joseph.  

I looked at the tiny peanut butter cup with disdain as I cut it in half for Pamela’s first taste. I put the other half in my mouth while I kept my eyes on my daughter, ensuring that she was OK. After lunch, we ate another peanut butter cup. Physically, we were both fine. Pamela said she liked the candy but that she felt so weird eating something that she has always known she is not even allowed to touch.

The turmoil in me subsided a bit. I was relieved that, as expected, my daughter did not have an allergic reaction, and I knew that we took the necessary steps to ensure we did not put my son in danger. We chose great company for our peanut consumption, too. I really appreciated having family there to calm my nerves while distracting Pamela and me.

When we got home, Pamela was full of glee as she jumped up and down in huge puddles, using her pink rain boots to splash as far and high as possible. Her carefree spirit lifted the cloud I was letting hover as we faced another allergy-driven challenge. 

Friday, September 12, 2014

Dishing up comfort during relocation

Comfort food has been the star of my home menus lately. It’s no coincidence that dishes including chicken noodle soup with turkey meatballs, roast chicken with mashed potatoes, turkey meatloaf, beef stew and apple cobbler have graced our table during the month following our recent move out of state. Don’t worry, vegetables such as corn on the cob, roast cauliflower and tomato panzanella salad, made it into my family’s bellies, too. But let’s face it, the vegetables are not the part of the meals that offers the most emotional support.

After more than 18 years in North Carolina, we returned to New York for my husband’s job. The move capped a crazy year during which my husband lived with his sister in New York, while I was still in North Carolina with our children. So reuniting on a full-time basis was the best and happiest part of the move. We also are excited to be closer to our family members and friends in the area, along with being able to share with our children many of the wonderful parts of New York, a state in which we both grew up and met. But a move is always a big transition. Of course we are missing our family and friends in North Carolina, and we are missing the familiarity of an area we loved. While the kids are adapting to their new surroundings, it’s not easy to be the new kid, whether entering a new dance class or taking a swing on a new tennis court with all new kids.

So allergy friendly comfort food has been in order. But there was a method to one particular week’s lineup. I wanted to make a family favorite, chicken piccata, but I had no chicken broth. So I started the week making a roast chicken, then I used the chicken carcass to make broth, which also turned into the chicken noodle soup for that night. After a few days I was able to use the broth to make chicken piccata, much to my family’s delight.

Because of Joseph’s multiple food allergies to peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, milk, egg, soy, sesame, mustard, strawberries and watermelon, I make homemade broth and freeze it in proportions ready to use for cooking. Frozen broth did not make the move with us, as our cooler was filled with all of the foods Joseph would need to eat during the week we stayed in a hotel while we waited for the moving truck to deliver our belongings. I brought a few pans so I could cook a some things at our house before all of my kitchen items arrived and packed lots of meals that I had cooked and frozen before we left, such as pizza, baked ziti and turkey meatballs.

I prepared for the travel part of the move, much like I prepare for our annual weeklong trip to the beach, which I wrote about in Living Without’s Gluten Free & More magazine in the 2013 article, “Road Trip”. The difference was that this time, I also had to make preparations ahead so that I could start to make our new home a safe zone for Joseph and to find an allergist so he could have an appointment and receive his immunotherapy shots (for environmental allergies) on schedule. I felt like I was transporting a top-secret product as I packed up his serum in a cooler for the long drive North to bring it to the new allergist. Thankfully, the local food allergy support group offered recommendations for an allergist, leading us to allergist we already love.

As we navigate our new surroundings and the weather starts to get cooler, I will continue to feature comfort foods on our menu. We are planning to visit an apple orchard this week, so I’m sure pork chops with apples will go a little way toward comforting my family in our new home.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Allergy friendly birthday celebration in focus

My childhood was filled with fun birthday parties featuring my mom’s homemade touches. When my son was born 11 years ago, I envisioned the same type of special celebrations for him. I was sure I’d be whipping up a batch of pancakes to start his day, cook his favorite meal for dinner, then throw a party complete with friends, family, cake, and fun and games just like my mom did for me.

But when Joseph was diagnosed with multiple food allergies 9 months after coming into this world, my vision for his future celebrations blurred. Perhaps some of that blurry vision was from the tears that accompany the feelings of fear knowing that a tiny speck of food formerly a part of everyday life could take his life, and the sense of being overwhelmed after his initial diagnosis by the huge task of figuring out how to keep him safe while navigating life with food allergies. Tears aside, I had no idea how I was going to pull off these birthday celebrations I had envisioned because all of the food featured in the birthdays I had experienced before contained something to which Joseph is allergic.

Joseph’s allergies to peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, milk, egg, soy, sesame and mustard, along with having asthma, have made me even more determined to make his birthdays special. The celebration should be a time when the challenges he faces while navigating a life with food allergies and asthma can melt away.

Dry would be the best way I could describe Joseph’s first birthday cake. Perhaps it wasn’t just feeling overwhelmed from all of the guests singing “Happy Birthday” that made him cry so much when I brought that cake out. Despite that lack of success in the baking department the first year, we started a tradition for our children’s birthdays that makes sure to celebrate the birthday boy or girl, making him or her feel special from the theme they pick out, the activities, family and friends in attendance, and food free of all the allergens to which Joseph is allergic. The birthday parties we host are the only ones that Joseph does not feel different being the kid who has to bring his own slice of pizza and piece of cake.

As we celebrate Food Allergy Awareness Week on the heels of Joseph’s 11th birthday, I am happy to say that we’ve come a long way since his first birthday. Last week, Joseph had a blast during our family outing to a fun park for mini golf, go-kart racing and arcade games. His birthday fun continued when he and his dad went to see “The Amazing Spider Man 2”. We celebrated with a video game party at our home complete with friends, family, a video game challenge and other activities. The food, all homemade and free of the allergens to which Joseph is allergic, included fruit kebabs, chocolate Wii remote candy bars, two Wii remote cakes and ice cream. On his actual birthday, I whipped up pancakes and bacon for his birthday breakfast, and we enjoyed a birthday dinner full of Joseph’s favorites: chicken piccata, roasted potatoes, corn on the cob and a homemade chocolate chip cookie cake.

While we were digging into our dessert I thought about the vision I had for Joseph’s birthday celebrations all those years ago. Even though the allergy friendly ingredients of all of the food I made to celebrate his 11th birthday were different than what I had in my original vision 11 years ago, the picture of my son feeling special and having a blast celebrating his birthday was completely in focus.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Kyle Dine's allergy tunes resonate

Favorite singer: Kyle Dine. My 5-year-old daughter, Pamela, didn't hesitate with her answer as she was filling in a fun questionnaire. We have been enjoying the infectious tunes by the Canadian singer and songwriter Pamela's entire life. Both of his albums, "You Must be Nuts!" (2007) and "Food Allergies Rock!" (2010), hit plenty of fun notes while teaching about food allergies. Whether he is crooning about cool medical identification bracelets or listing all of the foods that might contain eggs, (with the help of squawking chickens, of course) Pamela is singing along with a big smile.

Both Pamela and my 10-year-old son, Joseph, were excited to see him perform recently when he brought his "Let's Go Nuts!" tour to Apex, North Carolina, thanks to our local support group NC FACES (Food Allergic Children Excelling Safely) and FAACT (Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Connection Team). My kids remembered having a blast three years ago when they saw him perform, and they certainly were not disappointed with his upbeat concert this time.

Pamela had fun dancing right up front and she was proud to hold a Stop sign during Kyle's performance of "Stop! Please Don't Feed Me!" Both kids loved it when puppets Epi-Man and Epi-Man Jr. took the stage to perform their own, funny version of "The Fox (What Does the Fox Say?)"! Joseph was content to clap and stomp his feet to the music from his seat behind the younger, dancing kids. When Kyle asked kids to raise their hands as he called out each of the top 8 allergies and more, it was empowering for Joseph and the other kids with food allergies to see those other hands go up at the same time. With allergies to peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, milk, egg, soy, sesame and mustard, Joseph's hand was in the air a lot. His face brightened when Kyle's hand went up for many of the same allergies. Kyle is allergic to peanuts, nuts, eggs, seafood and mustard. In addition to the empathy the concert offered, it also reminded Joseph that someone like Kyle, who Joseph considers a cool guy, could travel all over the world and succeed at something he loves to do. Joseph walked out of that room a little taller after Kyle took the time to talk to him about his tennis playing, too.

Pamela does not have food allergies. But she is part of another important group of kids — siblings of children with food allergies. She wants to protect Joseph when he's exposed to an allergen, she understands why she can't eat certain foods near him, she is conscientious about following the rules we have put in place to keep Joseph safe, she gets sad when he is feeling anxious or down about his allergies, and she gets scared for her brother when his asthma acts up. Joseph lives with the knowledge that one bite of food has the potential to end his life. It's important to remember that his sister lives with that knowledge about her brother, too. Not only do her feelings need to be acknowledged, but also it is essential that she be an expert on food allergies just like him. Kyle Dine is helping her be just that. The education he provides through his music and during his performances is invaluable both for kids with food allergies and those close to them. His upbeat music enhances the knowledge Pamela has gained at home with positive lyrics and fun tunes.   

Monday, December 16, 2013

Sweet snowballs and snowy travel

My daughter and I enjoyed making (and eating) the delightfully, tasty chocolate snowball cookies featured in the latest issue of Living Without magazine as a new addition to our variety of holiday treats. Pamela loved rolling the chocolate balls of dough in powdered sugar to give them all a nice dusting of "snow." While she gave the cookies a sugary coating, I was reminded of the way real snow altered our travel plans during our recent trip to New York. The wintery weather put my preparation skills to the test while traveling with my son, who is allergic to peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, milk, egg, soy, sesame and mustard, along with having asthma.

My husband and I, both from New York, were excited to give our children a taste of Christmas in New York City. They had a blast taking the train to the city, riding in taxis, walking through the crowded streets in awe of the tall buildings and lavish window displays on Fifth Avenue, visiting the huge tree at Rockefeller Center, watching the skaters glide across the ice, and doing some shopping, taking a turn making music on the famous piano at FAO Schwarz. The Radio City Christmas Spectacular was a highlight for all of us. Both of my children were enchanted by the show that showcases the famous Rockettes dancing in perfect time, along with Santa and even a 3-D feature. I was thrilled to share an experience with my kids that had given me precious memories during my childhood.

I was especially glad that Joseph was able to navigate Manhattan without letting his food allergies dim the magic. Of course, a lot of planning and precautionary measures went into making that happen. I employed the preparation that is highlighted in the story I wrote for Living Without magazine about road trips with food allergies. For example, before we hit the road for our drive to New York, I cooked and froze more than enough meals for Joseph for the length of our trip. Safe snacks, homemade muffins, bread and crumb cake that I had sliced and placed in individual containers, along with plastic cutlery, paper place mats, our safe hand soap, and plenty of wipes were packed. I ensured that all of my son's prescriptions were full and made sure his nebulizer with battery and car charger made it into the bag.

Each day we took the train to the city, we packed my husband's laptop backpack with Joseph's lunchbox and nebulizer. He wears two Auvi-Q epinephrine auto-injectors and I carry two EpiPens, along with his inhaler, at all times. It was important that he felt confident that we had everything he needed so that he could just enjoy his first trip to Manhattan. And he did. Both of my kids were so excited with all of the new things they were experiencing and they loved the time they got to spend with family when we weren't in the city. We had some fun bowling outings with their cousin, aunt, uncle and grandpa. That quality time with family was just as special as the bright lights and big buildings of the city.

But the winter weather threw a slippery wrench into our travel plans when we saw the forecast for snow and ice blocking our path back to North Carolina. The smart choice was to stay a day or two longer so we were not driving while the snow and ice was making the highways treacherous. But did I have enough food and medicine to keep Joseph fed and safe for an extended stay? This was the first trip where the fact that I always pack full prescriptions came in handy, so he had plenty of his maintenance and emergency medication. The food was another story. Thankfully, I had packed extra meals so he had enough for two more days with full meals and he still had plenty of snacks. I figured if necessary, he could have chips and applesauce for lunch on the drive home and he'd be fine.

So we decided staying two more days was the best option, until another storm was forecast, again right in our path, again starting early in the morning preventing us from beating it. When we added yet another day to our stay to wait out the second wintery blast, I visited the local natural food store where I found the brand of gluten-free pasta Joseph eats. It was easy to boil water in the microwave in our hotel room to make pasta that he could eat mixed with his applesauce, giving me two more meals for Joseph. I don't think he would have complained with chips, applesauce and a few cookies for lunch, but I felt better that I could extend his meals until we got home.

My kids were full of glee while they stomped around, gathering and throwing handfuls of the little bit of snow that fell where we were staying north of Manhattan. The extra time we stayed gave my kids a fun, snowy experience to add to their memories of the trip. I'm glad they enjoyed the snow, but for now, I'm happy to enjoy snowballs of the chocolate, sugarcoated variety.