Sunday, December 4, 2011

Sweet holiday demands yield full bellies

Joseph is happy to have a full cookie jar!
"Empty." That is what the sign on our snowman cookie jar has read since we took it out with all of the other Christmas decorations during Thanksgiving weekend. Each day, the lonely snowman has stared at me from its perch on the kitchen bar, silently urging me to add some sweet treats. My kids, however, have not been so silent.

It's not like they are lacking for sugar. After all, we just enjoyed a Thanksgiving feast free of peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, milk, egg, soy, sesame and mustard — all of the allergens to which my son is allergic. Joseph, 8, and Pamela, 3, helped me make turkey-shaped sugar cookies, pumpkin pie and a turkey-shaped red velvet cake (I used my favorite recipe for Red Velvet Cake with Velvet Frosting from Cybele Pascal) for the meal. Though it was yummy, the cake provided some entertainment when its head fell off seemingly in slow motion as I set the cake on the table. Just a couple of days ago, we were enjoying the last of the Thanksgiving bounty with the turkey noodle soup I made using the carcass I had frozen from the Thanksgiving bird and we made yummy pumpkin, chocolate-chunk muffins to go with it. (I add Enjoy Life Mega Chunks to the pumpkin-apple muffin recipe in the "The Food Allergy News Holiday Cookbook").

But Christmas treats provide a different kind of pleasure. My kids have been poring over the big stack of cookbooks and Christmas baking magazines that we consult each year, and analyzing last year's Christmas Eve menu to decide what to bake this year. For example, Cybele Pascal's recipe for chocolate thumbprint cookies that were featured in Living Without magazine in December 2009, were a big hit and certainly will make a return for this year's Christmas Eve dessert-fest. Joseph and Pamela reminisce about favorite treats from years past, and then they start asking which dessert we would bake first, and of course, "Can we bake now?"

Pamela agrees the orange cookies are delicious.
Much to everyone's relief, I could finally give in to my children's sugarcoated demands. Yesterday, we decided to bake a cookie we hadn't tried yet. We all agreed that the "Orange These Delicious? Cookies" from Enjoy Life's "Cookies for Everyone!" cookbook were delicious. We freeze half of each batch we make to serve on Christmas Eve or to take out as needed for holiday events. We get to turn the snowman's sign to "Full" and enjoy the rest of the cookies until it's time to taste the next batch. Next, we will be making sugar cookies in lots of Christmas shapes.

The tasty Christmas treats are just one part of our holiday cheer. I have always loved this magical season and enjoy it even more as my husband and I experience it with our children. Both children love looking at all of the special ornaments that grace our Christmas tree, delight in the stories they pull each day from our huge basket of Christmas books, excitedly dance to yuletide tunes, enjoy watching the holiday specials, and look forward to their advent prize each day as they countdown to the big day. I think all of those experiences make the Christmas goodies taste even better, plus it is a joy to create smiles by making those Christmas confections.

Now, back to baking. I don't want to see that "Empty" sign on my snowman again!

Friday, October 21, 2011

To get a flu shot, or not

Well, we tried. I took Joseph to his allergist yesterday morning to get a scratch test for the flu vaccine and possibly the flu shot for the first time in his 8 years of life. My chest has been tight with worry and I've been quicker to snap at family members since I made the appointment a week ago. I was concerned about the possibility of Joseph having a life-threatening reaction if he received the vaccine, yet also worried about yet another stressful flu season for my asthmatic son if he couldn't receive the vaccine's protection.

When talk of the flu begins each season, I can feel the anxiety building. I had never considered getting a flu vaccine for Joseph because he is allergic to egg, along with peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, milk and soy. Of course, as an asthmatic he unfortunately also is in the high-risk group for complications from the flu. My husband, 3-year-old daughter and I each receive the flu vaccine to try to provide some protection for him each year. But for the past few years, both children have had rough winters with the flu and other respiratory viruses.

This year's venture into the land of flu shots was based on the latest recommendation from The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) that many people with egg allergy could safely receive the seasonal vaccine. I read the recommendation and many people's stories about successfully getting the flu shot even with an egg allergy. But, with all we do to ensure Joseph avoids all of the allergens that threaten his life, it freaked me out to think about letting something that contains egg be injected into his body. So, after his allergist suggested we try it out with certain precautions, I turned to my local support group NC FACES (Food Allergic Children Excelling Safely) for a bit more advice. As always, they delivered. It was because of their tips and support that I was able to walk into that office yesterday, knowing that it could be a rough visit either way.

The plan was that if Joseph didn't react to the scratch test, he would get 10 percent of the vaccine and then the other 90 percent if he didn't react from the first part of the dose, as recommended by the CDC. Because he hadn't had his food allergies tested in more than a year, the nurse did a scratch test for several foods and the flu vaccine. As Joseph lay on his stomach, playing his Nintendo DSi, I watched the hives develop. This is nothing new for us. I'm used to watching big hives grow on Joseph's back during allergy testing. He's used to it, too, and never complains about how bad his back itches during the 15 minutes the allergens are creating an itchy design on his back. But this time, I was looking for a specific result to see if he could receive the vaccine.

The flu vaccine spot wasn't a huge hive like the spot with egg and the other spots with Joseph's known allergens, but it also wasn't a completely negative reaction. Joseph's doctor decided that the flu vaccine would be too risky in light of the scratch test results.

Joseph smiled and jumped off of the exam table, ready to head to the lab for his blood work. He was happy not to get the flu shot. He wasn't worried about the needle since he receives regular immunotherapy shots for his environmental allergies, but he, too, had been a bit worried about how his body would react to the vaccine. I was partly relieved about not dealing with a potential reaction. But the tightness in my chest did not go away as quickly as I had expected after the appointment. After all, my asthmatic son is still facing a long flu season. 

But both of my kids are healthy right now and they are excited about the fun things going on in their lives. Joseph played a great tennis match tonight and both kids can't wait to put on their costumes tomorrow to attend a fun Halloween party hosted by NC FACES. My Harry Potter and fairy princess will get to parade through the park, make a craft and trick-or-treat for food-free prizes. I plan to enjoy an event that is safe for my food-allergic child, while that anxiety in my chest dissipates even more.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Event is more than a walk in the park

My family and I will soon be taking steps toward finding a cure for food allergies. On Nov. 5, we will be lacing up our walking shoes so that one day my 8-year-old son Joseph and an estimated 15 million Americans, including about 6 million other children like him, might be able to live a life free from the danger of dying from the ingestion of one speck of food. The morning we spend taking a pleasant fall walk with our team Nuttin' We Can't Overcome will contribute to research that could find a way to protect my son from an anaphylactic reaction. Currently, the only protection is avoidance of seemingly ubiquitous allergens and, should a reaction occur, a lifesaving epinephrine auto-injector.

The money raised during the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN) Walk for Food Allergy will be used to fund education, advocacy, research and awareness efforts. We are lucky to live in an area where some of the groundbreaking research is happening. Joseph and I recently had the privilege of attending a talk by Wesley Burks, MD, Kiser-Arena professor of pediatrics and chief of the Division of Pediatric Allergy and Immunology at Duke University Medical Center. Joseph was excited to attend a grownup presentation by a leading food allergy scientist.

Burks outlined the research scientists are exploring, such as oral immunotherapy, sublingual immunotherapy and the Chinese herbs FAHF-2. Joseph, who is allergic to peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, milk, egg and soy, conscientiously wrote down some of the scientific words with a note to "look up later." But while he didn't understand all of the scientific terms, he did understand that there are several intelligent scientists working hard to help make his world safer.

The statistic that stuck with Joseph the most after the presentation at Duke was the fact that there has been an 18 percent increase in the prevalence of children with food allergies from 1997 to 2007 (Branum, 2009 Pediatrics). He said, "Wow, that's a lot more people like me." Food-allergic kids like Joseph latch on to those kinds of statistics because they so often feel isolated and find comfort knowing that there are other people like them. It helps for Joseph to see proof that he is not the only kid who can't eat at a pizzeria, sample Halloween candy while trick-or-treating or taste a free cookie from the bakery. When we participate in the FAAN Walk for Food Allergy, Joseph gets to see that proof by the hundreds.

Joseph gets to be part of a fun event with other kids, who have food allergies, just like him. He gets to experience the camaraderie of a group of wonderful kids, who just happen to have food allergies. Those kids get to feel special while hundreds of people clap for them, knowing that everyone is there to support them. I'm thankful for the wonderful members of our local support group NC FACES (Food Allergic Children Excelling Safely), who make this event a success. Our family is excited to walk because we know we are contributing to something that could help our son and millions more, and we are thrilled to help give him the special kind of comfort and joy the walk gives him on that day.

After 31 of 43 walks throughout the United States, the FAAN Walk for Food Allergy is more than halfway to its fundraising goal of $3 million. I am proud to be a small part of this effort. Will you be participating in your city? What part of the walk is most special to you?

Thursday, September 1, 2011

New treat pops into our lives

Popcorn is yummy!
Oh, I love popcorn!
Pamela also likes it.
Cake is sweet like popcorn, but popcorn has salt on it.
Open the bag and see a yummy treat!
Rivers of popcorn would be fun to swim in.
Nothing is better than popcorn!

My 8-year-old son excitedly wrote this acrostic poem today after his first taste of popcorn. Joseph, who is allergic to peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, milk, egg and soy, could hardly wait to get home to try a handful of the Angie's Kettle Corn that we picked up at Whole Foods. His eyes popped with delight as he crunched the tasty snack and exclaimed that it was, "The best snack ever!" My husband and I agree that the all-natural popcorn is fabulous! Just a few natural ingredients blend together to find the perfect balance of salty and sweet.

After several years of trying unsuccessfully to find a safe brand of popcorn for Joseph, I was excited when I saw a tweet from Sloane Miller, author of "Allergic Girl: Adventures in Living Well with Food Allergies," touting Angie's Kettle Corn.  I was thrilled to see the information in regard to allergens on the company's website. The website clearly states the ingredients and manufacturing practices, and it sums it up in a phrase that allowed me to head to the popcorn aisle today:

"All three varieties of Angie’s are allergen free, certified gluten free and certified Kosher. Furthermore, our facility is 100% free of all peanuts and tree nuts, and our equipment is not used for any products containing allergens or gluten, ever."

In addition to finding a safe, delicious popcorn, I found a company that is upfront about its ingredients and manufacturing practices — something not always so easy to find. No customer service runaround here, just a simple snack to make my son smile.

The new tasty treat helped us celebrate a milestone for Joseph after his appointment today with his allergist. He has been getting weekly immunotherapy shots for his environmental allergies for a year. The allergist confirmed that they do seem to be helping Joseph. He feels better in general and he has had fewer asthma flare-ups during the past year.

Joseph was happy that the good news meant he could receive his shots every other week instead of every week. Joseph never complains about our weekly shot visit or the discomfort from the injection. I am so proud of the way he handles all aspects of living with allergies and asthma. So, I was thrilled that his new snack was a hit. I have a feeling I will be making another popcorn run very soon.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Preparation key for fun travel with food allergies

Pamela threw herself on the floor, pounding her fists and crying, "I don’t want to leave the beach!" If I were 3 years old like my daughter I would have been doing the same thing Saturday morning when we were packing to leave our favorite North Carolina beach spot, Oak Island.

We had just enjoyed a fabulous week at the beach. The hot, sunny weather gave us plenty of time to ride waves, play paddleball at the water's edge, collect seashells, splash in tide pools and make sand creations. We also made time to ride the ferry to the North Carolina Aquarium, hit the mini golf course a couple of times and play a few rounds of Ocean-Opoly. Our beach experience focuses on enjoying activities and each other, rather than food treats and restaurants. But my trip preparation largely focuses on food.  

Sure I gather the kids' favorite beach toys and toss in plenty of tubes of California Baby sunscreen, but I spend most of the time during the week before we leave in the kitchen. I make and freeze meals free of peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, milk, egg and soy, so that my son, Joseph, can safely enjoy his vacation instead of worrying about his multiple food allergies. Joseph, 8, and Pamela help plan a menu that includes many of their favorite foods, such as pizza (made with King Arthur Flour Gluten-Free Pizza Crust Mix, Daiya mozzarella style shreds, homemade fresh tomato sauce and bacon). Several batches of muffins make for easy breakfast and snack options, and I freeze cupcakes and cake slices that I had made for birthdays and other celebrations during the month before our trip. Of course, there is some negotiation on meal choices based on the cooking tools I bring, but the kids are always pleased to have a week's worth of favorite meals lined up. For example, I don't bring my big pot or mixer so mashed potatoes are out. But no one complains about the French fries I make on the cookie sheet I bring. My George Foreman grill is a helpful multipurpose tool because I can grill burgers one night and switch out the plates in the morning to make waffles ('Cause You're Special Hearty Pancake and Waffle Mix). 

The increase in allergy-friendly products during the past few years has made travel a bit easier. Thanks to companies like Enjoy Life Foods, I can pack safe cookies, snack bars and cereal for my family to enjoy. There are other essentials I pack, such as Vance's DariFree non dairy milk alternative, that I know I won't find at the local grocery store. But because the beach is in our state, I am familiar with what the grocery stores in Oak Island carry. For example, I knew I could provide Italian ices at the beach by stopping in the local Food Lion for a box of PhillySwirl ices.

Of course, my packing wouldn't be complete without ensuring that I had included full prescriptions of all medication and safe brands of any over-the-counter medications that might be needed. In addition to the medicine pack that is always with Joseph (including two EpiPen auto-injectors, Benadryl and an inhaler), I also packed a medicine bag to keep at the condo that included two more EpiPens, all of the medicine Joseph takes for daily maintenance of his seasonal allergies and asthma, plus the nebulizer and a full prescription of Xopenex. We also know the locations of the closest urgent care, pharmacies and hospital in the area.

My preparation continues when we arrive at the rental condo. I wipe down all surfaces with Clorox wipes, then cover kitchen counters, the microwave interior and refrigerator shelves with paper towels. The extra layer or protection just makes me less worried about anything the cleaning crew might have missed when I think about all of the allergen-filled foods that had likely been eaten in the condo before us. Despite booking a smoke-free, pet-free condo, I always hold my breath during the first day, waiting to see if Joseph's asthma will act up. In fact, his peak-flow readings were higher than usual during the whole week — maybe there is something to the theory that salt air helps asthmatics. By the time I put our pillows on the bed and set up the beds (Joseph brings his own bedding to try to avoid asthma triggers) I'm ready to sink my feet in the sand and breathe in that salt air.

I could enjoy my children's shouts of joy as the ocean welcomed them with waves lapping over their bare feet because I had done what I could to create a safe zone, including reiterating the rules that are in place at home and away. While Pamela and Joseph only ate the allergen-free foods I prepared, the adults sometimes did indulge in local flavor. I appreciate that Gary's dad, who traveled from out of state so we could enjoy a vacation together, sat in his designated seat at the table, let me handle all of the food, washed his hands after every meal and waited for me to serve the kids first before I touched any unsafe food in the one spot I had allowed takeout meals to be placed. Joseph and Pamela enjoyed lots of quality time with their Papa Sal during our trip because he was willing to defer to my judgment about how to keep my child safe. He even asked me to inspect his sunscreen to be sure it was safe to wear near Joseph.

When our trip was over, I was thankful for a lack of allergic reactions, asthma attacks or worrisome health issues with my kids. I was especially glad that the only tears were shed over the end of a wonderful time. Food-allergic families can never take a vacation from vigilance, but we sure can enjoy a trip to the beach.

For more tips on travel for people with food allergies, visit:
·      Food Allergy Initiative (FAI),
·      Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN),

Friday, July 1, 2011

Favorite summer treats

"Magnificent, absolutely delicious and yummy" are a few of the words Joseph used to describe his new favorite summer dessert treat. It's safe to say the allergen-free version of a Chipwich that I created for dessert tonight was a hit.

The new crunchy cookies by Enjoy Life Foods are delicious in their own right — my husband and 2-year-old daughter, Pamela, love the vanilla honey graham flavor, while Joseph and I vie for the chocolate chip cookies. But they also are the perfect size and texture to make cookie ice cream sandwiches. I put a scoop of my homemade dairy-free vanilla ice cream between two cookies, smoosh it, and then roll it in Enjoy Life Semi-sweet Chocolate Mini Chips.

I'm always happy to add an allergen-free version of a familiar treat from my childhood for my kids to enjoy. Joseph, who is allergic to peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, milk, egg and soy, is thrilled to enjoy treats that would be forbidden in their traditional form. It's no surprise that another big hit in our house is a blondie sundae. I substitute the flour, eggs and butter to make an allergen-free version of the Toll House Blonde Brownies my mom used to make, top with homemade dairy-free ice cream and drizzle melted Enjoy Life Semi-sweet Chocolate Mini Chips on top. Pamela even made up a song ("I love blondie sundaes") and dance for that dessert!

As I add another fun summer dessert to our table this season, I'm reminded of some of my favorite tools for summer treats. Our use of homemade ice cream by itself or in various desserts gives my Cuisinart Frozen Yogurt - Ice Cream and Sorbet Maker a workout. I love that I can mix up the ingredients and let them spin in the ice cream maker for 25 minutes for a creamy frozen treat. Thanks to my friend Kathy, we also are enjoying the cool frozen treats we make in the Zoku Quick Pop Maker. In minutes I can fill orders for a berry and lemonade pop; orange and apple pop; and chocolate pop with a layer of chocolate chips in the middle. My kids love being able to customize their frozen pop, and I love that I can make a quick, refreshing treat in the time it takes me to do the dishes.

Of course, summer produce is the quickest and easiest summer treat. I love watching Joseph and Pamela chatting over slices of watermelon with pink juice outlining their smiles and dripping everywhere. A juicy plum or a sweet peach hit the spot on hot summer days, and blueberries are wonderful to snack on. We also recently enjoyed a blueberry pie I made using 'Cause You're Special Homestyle Pie Crust Mix. I make a lot of fruit salad and for that I rely on another trusty summer tool, the Oxo Cherry Pitter. The pitter makes it so easy to pit fresh cherries for a salad, to use in cobbler or to serve in a bowl.

Tomorrow morning we will be scouting fresh peaches at the local farmer's market. I'm counting on finding enough of the tasty fruit to make a fresh summer pie and perhaps I'll use one of my favorite summer kitchen tools so I can serve it a la mode.

My ice cream recipe:
2 cups dairy-free milk (I use Vance's DariFree Non Dairy Milk Alternative)
1 cup sugar
3/4 cup Vance's DariFree milk powder
2 tsp vanilla

Mix the sugar and milk powder together, then blend in the milk and vanilla. Once blended, pour into an ice cream maker and let it mix for 20 to 30 minutes. Add any mix-ins, such as dairy-free chocolate chips, cut up cherries and allergen-free brownie chunks, during the last 5 minutes of mixing. Freeze for a few hours. (It can be eaten right away, but will be very soft.)

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Food-allergic kids rock in Cary

"ROCK!" Joseph shouted the lyric in his favorite Kyle Dine tune, shook his music maker and rocked back and forth to the beat with a big smile on his face, thoroughly entranced by Dine's interactive performance of "Food Allergies Rock." The title song of Dine's newest album about food allergies capped off yesterday's concert on a boisterous note for my son and the other food-allergic kids who attended the event hosted by our local food allergy support group NC FACES (Food Allergic Children Excelling Safely).

We were thrilled that Dine, who hails from Canada, brought his concert to Cary, North Carolina. The world's first food allergy musician has been entertaining, educating and encouraging our family and countless others since 2007 when he released his first CD, "You Must Be Nuts!" His upbeat tunes are fun for singing along and dancing. But his lyrics are what really make his music special. The songs educate about food allergies, while providing a sense of hope and empathy for kids like my son. Joseph loves to listen to the fun songs that remind him that he is not alone in being scared or feeling isolated. After all, Kyle has multiple food allergies, too. Kyle's music reminds Joseph that he has support and that he can be anything he wants to be.
Kyle exhibited a sense of compassion and empathy that made each child at the Cary performance feel special. For example, at one point he gathered the children around him and gave them each a turn to speak into the microphone. My 8-year-old son confidently stood and said, "I'm Joseph and I'm allergic to peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, milk, egg and soy." It was touching to watch each child speak about their allergies and even more moving to see them look around at each other, feeling good to be surrounded by other kids who understand what it feels like to navigate life with food allergies.

I was impressed at how Kyle integrated educational information about food allergies through various games, conversations and props, in between song performances. He struck just the right balance that kept the kids moving — even diving for balls during a game of food allergy baseball — and laughing, but never downplaying the seriousness of food allergies. For example, Kyle showed the kids the EpiPens he carries for his own safety and discussed the importance of always carrying the life-saving medication. He also got a lot of laughs when he brought out his superhero puppets, Epi-Man and Epi-Man Jr. My daughter, Pamela, sat with me and quietly soaked up the entire performance. Once we got home, though, she couldn't stop mimicking the funny puppet that kept saying, "Epi, Epi, Epi."
Joseph had a blast singing along with Kyle and the other kids throughout the show, dancing and even holding a Stop sign to help perform the song, "Stop! Please Don't Feed Me". Joseph did not want to leave when the concert was over, lingering near Kyle after he received his orange "Food Allergies Rock!" guitar pick. He loved every minute of the performance, and was thrilled to meet and talk to Kyle, who took the time to talk to Joseph about his interests and to compare medical identification bracelets.

My dad summed up the experience in one word, "Phenomenal!" I agree.

Monday, June 13, 2011

No bull, peanut-free section a hit

Joseph leaned over the wall in left field with his Dada, his eyes growing bigger as he watched the baseball sail right past him over the wall in left-center field for a home-team home run during the first inning of the Durham Bulls game last night. Gary and Joseph high-fived as the crowd at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park erupted in cheers. My 2-year-old daughter Pamela and I joined them at the wall as we peered above our heads at the famous big snorting bull that was emitting smoke in celebration.

Joseph and Pamela happily soaked up the atmosphere, athletics and antics that are part of what make Triple-A minor league baseball special. The experience is especially exciting because baseball games are usually off-limits for my son, who is allergic to peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, milk, egg and soy. The peanuts eaten and strewn throughout the stadium threaten his safety, striking out any possibility of fun. But thanks to the Durham Bulls organization and our local support group NC FACES (Food Allergic Children Excelling Safely), we get to enjoy a family baseball outing once or twice a year.

This was the ninth year that NC FACES has teamed up with the Durham Bulls to provide a peanut/nut-free section and it gets better every year. Not only did we get to attend a game in a section free of nuts that was thoroughly cleaned for our safety before the game, but also we got a great view of the action from a big, covered section down the third-base line complete with tables and chairs.

While a lot of work goes into ensuring the safety of our children, the process is seamless for ticket holders. We are all given "Be A PAL" stickers with our tickets to easily identify us for the peanut-free section and Durham Bulls hosts monitor the section, which is sectioned off and clearly marked, to ensure that no other fans enter the area. It also is a comfort to know that an EMT is posted nearby as a precaution. We were relieved this year to have permission to enter the stadium through the season ticket holders' gate right near our section, thus avoiding a precarious walk from the main gate through the concession area and the floor covered in peanut shells. In addition, the park concessions management sends out an ingredient list about food items sold in the park that details allergen information for those wanting to purchase food at the game. We don't purchase food at the game, but I was impressed at the level of detail the list provided and did take advantage of the fact that we were allowed to bring our own snacks into the park.

The Durham Bulls and NC FACES organizers take several measures to ensure a safe, fun outing for food-allergic children. Their efforts allow us to sit back and just enjoy some baseball. Gary and Joseph dodged foul balls, and laughed at the fan quizzes and other entertainment on the field between innings. Pamela ran to her Dada for a few high-fives and was thrilled to see the Bulls mascot, Wool E. Bull, every time he appeared on the field or in the stands. When I asked Joseph what he liked about the game, he said, "Everything. I was just so happy to be there!" 

Thursday, June 9, 2011

A refreshing take on snacks

When I read my friend Sally Kuzemchak's Real Mom Nutrition post today, I wanted to cheer. In her blog, "THAT Mom: The Sequel," Sally addresses the need for kids' sports teams to do away with chips and sweet drinks and instead, provide healthy fruit and water for the young athletes. She didn't just sit on the sideline and complain about all the junk the parents were providing for each game's snack, she took action and responsibility. Sally sought change because as a mom and registered dietician she wanted her children to have healthier food while exercising.

As the mom of a food-allergic child, the benefits of kids eating healthy snacks are even greater than the obvious nutritional boost. My 8-year-old son, who is allergic to peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, milk, egg and soy, knows that his life could be threatened if he eats, or even touches, food containing an allergen. He can't eat the snacks, such as pretzels, flavored chips, peanut-filled sandwich crackers, nut-laced granola bars and cheese-covered goldfish crackers that many kids eat. He tenses up when he sees melted candy on the ground as he's walking into the supermarket, kids eating granola bars and bags of flavored chips on the sidelines of a sports field or a mom carrying a box of Dunkin' Donuts to the park. He can't even escape unsafe snacks at the library — a place where food and drinks are prohibited, mind you — as some kids can't seem to go 20 minutes during storytime without munching on cheese-coated goldfish crackers.

I understand the need to provide snacks as I offer food to help my kids get through the day. And I certainly don't expect parents to alter their snack choices because they might come across a food-allergic child — even my son with multiple allergies eats foods that other kids are allergic to.

But the encouragement for kids to eat fresh fruit is refreshing. Joseph wouldn't eat fruit that has been cut up by someone else because of the danger of cross-contamination. But he can easily bring his own fruit and safely feel like part of the gang. It is not a problem if he touches fruit or if another kid, who just ate an apple, touches him. He can safely eat fresh fruit and enjoy an activity with other kids without being anxious about having an allergic reaction because of the food they are eating.

Sally took a stand for her kids' health regarding food, something parents of food-allergic kids often must do to ensure their child's safety. She didn't know how the other parents would react, but her children were more important than her popularity among team moms. Her letter to the other parents provides a positive example of how to clearly state the need for a change, the reasons and a solution — without offending anyone.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Tennis star serves hope for food-allergic child

When I blew out the candles on my birthday cake tonight, I thought about tennis star Novak Djokovic celebrating his birthday today in France.  A lot of attention is focused on the second-seeded men's singles player as the French Open begins today on the famed clay courts at Roland Garros. We have followed his incredible success on the tennis court this year, but news last week about his gluten-free diet made my family even bigger fans.

The Wall Street Journal's article, "The Diet That Shook Up Tennis? Starch Madness: Novak Djokovic's Domination of the Sport Has Coincided With His Gluten-Free Turn," indicates that the Serb's switch to a gluten-free diet might have contributed to his phenomenal season, which includes an unbeaten streak of 39 matches. Djokovic learned that he was allergic to gluten last year and has since revamped his diet to remove the protein common in most flours, according to the article. I don't know the details of his allergy discovery or whether his new diet is contributing to his tennis success. But when I told my 8-year-old son that one of the tennis stars he admires can't eat wheat, just like him, he grinned and said, "Cool!"

Joseph, who is allergic to peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, milk, egg and soy, would never wish the dangers of a food allergy on another person. He is well versed in the fact that one bite of an allergen has the potential to take his life. But he also often feels the sting of isolation common for food-allergic kids. For example, he is the only child at a party with his own piece of cake, he stands back as other kids run to the ice cream truck and he can't go out for pizza to celebrate a success. He is a great kid, who focuses on the positive aspects of his life and on the things he can do and eat. But he has told me that it does upset him when he feels like he is the only one dealing with food allergies and that other people don't get it. So when he finds out that a successful adult or famous child has a food allergy, it makes him feel a little less alone. It gives him hope that he too will be successful in spite of his allergies. The fact that he now has an allergy in common with an athlete, who is excelling at the top level of Joseph's favorite sport, gives him a little morale boost.

Joseph knows the thrill of nailing an ace during a tennis match, he understands the need for drills that work his forehand and backhand, and he gets excited every time he learns a new skill to help improve his tennis game. He has followed the careers of tennis greats Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Joseph, like many other fans around the world, also noticed Djokovic and his rise in the ranks of men's tennis. He excitedly recounted the news about Djokovic's recent win over Nadal in the Rome Masters.

Now that success means even more to my son because he has something in common with one of the sport's top players, other than a love of tennis. He too follows a special diet and can gain inspiration for his own dreams as he watches Djokovic succeed while living gluten-free. I hope Djokovic had a chance to enjoy a gluten-free birthday cake as yummy as the allergen-free cake I enjoyed with my family.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Cool treats

The weather is heating up, which means my ice cream maker is back in action. Joseph and Pamela were thrilled when I suggested making ice cream after playing outside in the warm sun yesterday. They couldn't wait to dig their spoons into the cool, vanilla ice cream topped with melted chocolate. Tonight they chose to savor every lick of their ice cream in a pushup pop. As, once again I started singing Van Halen's "Ice Cream Man," I remembered the blog I wrote for Living Without magazine last summer, "Cool Finds for Food-Allergic Kids," and thought I would share it again. It includes links to the pushup pops we love and the recipe for allergen-free ice cream and magic shell we enjoy. Here's to enjoying cool treats on hot days!

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Simple meal stirs memories, appreciation

A wave of nostalgia came over me tonight as I prepared dinner. I looked over at my son and daughter playing and thought about Joseph's toddler years when his go-to meal was plain grilled chicken cutlets and applesauce paired with a fresh, steamed vegetable and a sweet potato or mashed potatoes. It was a simple, safe meal to make for my son, who is allergic to peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, milk, egg and soy. But it also was his favorite. It's no surprise that the meal quickly became a standard in our house several years ago. It is healthy for all of us and easy to whip up quickly, especially with my handy indoor George Foreman grill. We went through a lot of chicken during those years.

I hadn't made grilled chicken in a while, so tonight's meal of grilled chicken, mashed potatoes (made using Earth Balance vegan, soy-free natural buttery spread and Vance's DariFree non-dairy milk alternative) and carrot sticks brought memories of my early attempts at allergen-free cooking. I also thought about how happy I am to offer my family so many more meal choices now than I did seven years ago when we became part of the food allergy community. My toddler daughter certainly has a more diverse meal selection. We still eat a lot of chicken. But I prepare it in many different ways, such as simply roasting a whole chicken (saving the carcass for homemade chicken noodle soup), cooking chicken thighs with chopped lemons, coating chicken strips with crushed potato chips and baking them (recipe from Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN)) or making kid-friendly EZ GFCF chicken nuggets. My family also enjoys Irish beef stew with parsley dumplings (I substitute the flour in these recipes with my gluten-free flour mix), turkey meatloaf or meatballs and beef pockets. Pizza is even in our meal rotation now, thanks to King Arthur Flour gluten-free pizza crust mix and Daiya mozzarella style shreds.

Sure I've had several years to experiment with various substitutions and meals to build my recipe repertoire, but I'm especially thankful that there are so many new recipes, cookbooks and products geared toward people with food allergies and other special diets. It is so gratifying to be able to take a meal request from one of my children, such as, "Can we have macaroni and cheese?" and know that I can find a website or blog with an allergy-friendly recipe to help me fulfill that food wish.

As we plan for Joseph's quickly approaching 8th birthday, I remember the allergen-free cupcakes I made for his 1st birthday. They were pretty dry, but thankfully he enjoyed the experience. I've learned a lot about allergen-free baking since then and will be happy to bite into this year's birthday cake. For his Harry Potter-themed party this year, I will be making a snitch cake modeled after a photo I found online. He can't wait to bite into our favorite recipe from Cybele Pascal for Red velvet cake in the shape of the snitch ball and he will happily sample the rich and chocolaty base cake, thanks to the King Arthur Flour gluten-free chocolate cake mix.

Our family, as well as its meal choices, has grown since the days when grilled chicken reigned on the menu. But we still delight in simplicity, whether a simple, healthy meal or the simple pleasure of savoring a slice of tasty birthday cake.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Egg-static at Easter

Joseph clutched his orange basket and ran across the field with a determined grin on his face. He picked up various colored eggs — shaking them first, of course, to see if they met his standards. Pamela's pace was a bit slower than her big brother's, but she was so proud of the prize-filled eggs she found and just as thrilled as her big brother to be on the hunt. Even when her prized Easter bonnet blew off while she ran across the field, she just giggled and held onto it with her loot.

Both of my children enjoyed the annual food-free Easter egg hunt hosted by our local food allergy support group, NC FACES (Food Allergic Children Excelling Safely). As always, I am thankful for the chance to participate in a holiday tradition without the stress of candy-filled eggs that threaten my son, who is allergic to peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, milk, egg and soy. Instead of worrying about smeared chocolate, peanut butter candy and other remnants of children indulging in their candy at traditional egg hunts, I get to sit back and soak in the joy my children experience as they do some silly dances and then hunt for treasure. They love sitting with the other children after the hunt and opening each egg to find a prize, such as a cool yo-yo, dinosaur eraser, bubbles or bouncy ball.
Those plastic eggs get a lot of use near Easter at our house. I use plastic eggs in our homeschool lessons for various games that are suitable for my 7-year-old and 2-year-old. Both love when I hide the eggs and the assignment that follows is always met with enthusiasm. Eggs can be used for matching, color sorting, counting and letter recognition for younger kids. They are also great for vocabulary, story building and math for older kids. For example, I fill eggs with Bananagrams tiles and ask Pamela to identify the letters she finds, while Joseph must make up sentences based on a chosen theme that start with the letters in his eggs.

We've used plastic eggs in crafts and even used stickers to decorate them. But my favorite egg-decorating tradition involves wooden eggs. I found white wooden eggs at Oriental Trading that are perfect for Easter egg crafts. The bonus is when they are inevitably dropped, they don't crack or fall to the ground in a heap of shells and yolk. Both kids love painting them and adding glitter or other decorative craft supplies.

The lack of real eggs in our house is not felt at Easter because there are so many other ways to celebrate the holiday without putting my food-allergic son at risk. Both children are getting ready for Easter with fun food-free activities, crafts and games. We also are already planning the allergen-free treats we will bake and both children are anxiously awaiting Easter morning when they will find their baskets full of prizes. Joseph hopes the hints he's dropping about a certain Lego set will make it to the Easter bunny's big ears, while Pamela keeps asking when she can go on another Easter egg hunt. Yes, we will be putting those plastic eggs to use once again on Easter when we fill them with small prizes and hide them in the yard. The biggest prize will be sharing in my children's joy on a special holiday.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Music for the soul — and lungs

Pamela puffed out her cheeks, blew and giggled with delight as the first squeaky, breathy sounds floated out of the harmonica. Her immediate success creating any kind of noise with her new instrument was all it took to get my 2-year-old's toes tapping with every new note she hit. Joseph, too, tapped into the joy of soulful harmonica playing while he experimented with the different sounds he could make as he moved his mouth across the instrument.

I bought children's harmonicas yesterday after reading about a program at Sinai Hospital of Baltimore that uses the instruments to help pediatric patients with pulmonary disease to exercise their lungs in a fun way. The story in RT: For Decision Makers in Respiratory Care (RT) noted that the breathing required to play the instrument could help children with asthma or pneumonia. It states, "The harmonica requires diaphragmatic breathing, pursed-lip breathing, and the use of both phases of ventilation (inspiration and expiration) to play a tune. These are maneuvers that health care providers encourage when a patient is admitted to the hospital with pulmonary conditions."

I don't usually jump after reading about one program or study that might help with my son's asthma. But the timing of this seemed to fill a need. Joseph went for his post-pneumonia lung check last week and, while the infection is gone, his lungs still have some inflammation. So he will need to continue extra breathing treatments before exerting a lot of energy, such as when he plays tennis — his favorite sport. I know that the effects of pneumonia linger for several weeks, especially in an asthmatic like Joseph. But the news about his lungs still brought me some dismay. After all, he is finally feeling good and we are both so tired of hearing me tell him to take it easy. So it seemed like a fun idea to bring a little musical therapy into our house.

While both of my children happily made their own kind of music, I fondly remembered my grandfather's skill at coaxing melodies out of the small wind instrument. Anytime I hear a harmonica I think of Grandpa Al and the way music lit up his warm face. I can still picture the shiny, silver harmonica with the red center fitting naturally in my grandfather's large hands. He would sit me on his knee while effortlessly playing folksy tunes.

The sounds resonating from my children's harmonicas evoke fond memories of my grandfather and hope that maybe those notes are helping my son's lungs. I don't know if our foray into harmonica playing will improve Joseph's health in any way, but we are enjoying it.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Miserable March Madness

Swish! Cheers erupt as he sinks yet another basket for 20 unanswered points. Joseph takes a break from his stunning performance for a sip of water, blows his nose and shoots again. This time the backboard lends a little help, but the scoring streak continues. Joseph's cardboard box standing in as a hoop is full of basketballs (a.k.a. tissues).

March Madness is in full swing. I'm so excited that my Nittany Lions are playing in the NCAA tournament and my husband will be parading around in his blue and gold when the Mountaineers take the court. But the college basketball tournament is only part of the story in our house. The other madness that has taken over is the kind that would put fevers, ear infections, coughs, asthma and pneumonia in their own brackets.

After both of my children were sick for most of February, we were hoping March would offer a respite and bench those nasty germs. Not a chance. Last week, an ear infection, fever and cough plagued Pamela. By the time the germs danced over to Joseph, I had spent a few nights up all night with Pamela only to awaken to a broken coffee maker. It is an unfair move to take the required daily caffeine dose away from this coach. In an effort to pump up my sick team's spirits, I made allergen-free chocolate chip cookies for breakfast one morning at Pamela's request. My rationale? We really needed something to boost our spirits and really, how different is that than chocolate chip pancakes?

The cookies certainly helped morale a bit. But by our second visit to the doctor last week with both kids coughing and using tissues at warp speed, we needed something more to curb the malady madness. Joseph had a tough weekend and seemed to get worse, so we went back to the doctor today only to find out that he now has pneumonia. Extra asthma treatments are essential for Joseph's lung function when he's sick, especially with a cough. But in the breaks between the hum of the nebulizer we turned to the hard court.

The poor kid feels miserable, but there's nothing like a little hoops to lighten his mood. Sure, he watched the college games over the weekend. But today when he shot those snot-filled tissues across the room and reveled in the cheers from his little sister and me, the madness took away some of the misery.

Friday, February 25, 2011

No cake walk

My daughter ran to Joseph squealing, "I got cake!" He looked at me and immediately asked if it was OK to touch her. Once he knew he was safe when I explained that we had thoroughly washed her hands and face, his next response came in the form of tears. Joseph once again felt left out because of his life-threatening food allergies to peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, milk, egg and soy. But this time his disappointment felt even worse because it was his own sister.

Pamela has followed her big brother's allergen-free diet all 21/2 years of her life because of her risk of developing allergies and also to continue to make his home the one place Joseph feels safe. Pamela's tendency to throw food, walk around with parts of her meal, and send food splattering by banging her food-filled utensils on the table made my decision to keep her on Joseph's diet simple. After all, one splash of yogurt in Joseph's dinner could send him to the emergency room or worse.

Joseph faces the risk of exposure to unsafe food everywhere he goes. For example, another child eating a peanut butter sandwich at the park and then hanging on the bars before Joseph touches them; or friends sitting closely while eating pizza, ice cream and cake at a birthday party. I didn't want the toys my children play with at home to be a source of risk for Joseph if Pamela were eating allergens then mouthing those toys or kissing her big brother. But once my daughter turned 2, I knew it was time to make sure her two negative food allergy tests panned out in real life. I didn't want to let her have a piece of birthday cake at a friend's party thinking she'd be fine without really making sure first.

So, I bought her a slice of cake and got out the Benadryl just in case. I watched her, looking for any signs of an allergic reaction, as she savored a huge forkful of dessert. Her only reaction was asking for more, which I refused until I was satisfied that she was OK. Introducing any new food — even after I've checked the ingredients and called the company to ensure there was no cross-contamination — has been nerve-racking since Joseph's diagnosis seven years ago. I was still anxious with Pamela's cake, after all I've witnessed my son's anaphylactic reactions to one tiny bite of food, so I knew what I might face if Pamela were to react to the cake. But this time was different because Pamela has not shown signs of any food allergies and she's been exposed to the allergens through nursing. I did read the label to ensure there were no peanuts or tree nuts (those were not entering my house under any circumstances). When we were done, I made sure there was no cake residue on Pamela or the table, and then I prepared for Joseph's return home from an outing with his Dada. 

I knew Joseph would be upset about the cake. He understands the severity of his food allergies and he loves all of the safe desserts we make, but that doesn't make it easy for a 7-year-old to be left out. I will be letting Pamela try some foods when Joseph is not home or when she and I are out just to make sure they are safe for her. But I don't plan on making Pamela's cake experiment a habit. Joseph's allergies mean he often feels isolated or excluded when food is involved. That doesn't have to be the case in his own home. I would like to avoid adding to his tears as much as possible. 

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Books provide an allergy-friendly nook

I came across a bookmark today from one of my favorite bookstores, the Book Nook in Block Island, Rhode Island. Much to my children's amusement, I immediately starting singing the silly little song I made up about the shop during a ferry ride leaving the island several years ago.

We haven't been back in eight years, but I have so many fond memories of our trips to the beautiful island in the Atlantic Ocean, such as enjoying sun-soaked days at the beach, walking on the bluffs, watching boats in the harbor while enjoying tasty seafood and stopping at the cozy bookstore on Water Street to pick out some reading material for our visit. The books I picked out during our trips to the Book Nook hold sentimental value because they transport me to those wonderful vacations with my husband. I hold emotional attachments to many other books because they remind me of various people, times or places.

My children, who also love books and the stories they tell, gladly accompanied me this week to two book sales — one to benefit our local libraries and the other to say goodbye to our local Borders store. Pamela was thrilled with her selections that featured Barbie, Kai-Lan and Dewey the library cat. Joseph was happy to pick up a guide to writing magical stories, a book about football and a Geronimo Stilton selection. But he was most excited to add to his Harry Potter collection.

He has been engrossed in J.K. Rowling's tales, joining Harry and his friends at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry for adventure. He can feel exhilarated as he imagines speeding on a broomstick to catch the snitch during a quidditch match, face the evil Lord Voldemort or beckon items with the wave of his magic wand. He can even enjoy a huge feast at the end of the term just like all of the other students without even mentioning his life-threatening food allergies to peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, milk, egg and soy. That is not an option in real life, where even touching one of those allergens could cause a reaction and eating the same food as hundreds of other kids certainly doesn't happen.

Books give Joseph a chance to embark on fantastic adventures without worrying about what he or anybody else is eating. Sure he pauses when an allergen is mentioned in a story. For example, I think Joseph felt more fear when a schoolmate passed Harry Potter some peanuts at a celebration than when Harry went against a Death Eater. But it gave us a chance to talk about how he would handle the same situation and he went back to enjoying his book.

I'm so glad that my children find so much joy in books. Maybe someday they too will visit the Book Nook. But, whether they find those stories in a cozy island bookshop, the local library, chain bookstore or online, they are developing connections to last a lifetime. 

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Doctor care is the best medicine

On most Tuesday mornings, I can be found sitting on the floor of the local library with my two children listening to a few stories and chuckling at a puppet show during story time. But we haven't been there in a month. Instead, we have spent the past three Tuesdays at Western Wake Pediatrics.

Today as I sat listening to the doctor explain the latest illness to afflict one of my children, I wasn't begrudging our lack of library time. On the contrary, I was feeling blessed that such skilled, attentive and caring doctors and nurses care for my children.

Both kids have been battling various illnesses, including the flu, ear infection, sore throat and now, a sinus infection, during the past three weeks. Each time we have visited the doctor's office or I have called the nurse's advice line, we have gotten the help we need — medically, mentally and emotionally. For example, the nurse I called last week soothed and informed when she promptly called me back with a detailed answer to my question. And during each visit, the doctor has taken the time to patiently assess my child's symptoms and explain our latest plan of action. I appreciate that level of care even more this week because I know the pediatrician's office is busy attending to a lot of sick children. I can only imagine the amount of snot, vomit, crankiness, crying and anxiety they have had to deal with from kids and parents.

When my husband and I were choosing a pediatrician before Joseph was born almost eight years ago, never did I imagine how much we would rely on the doctors we chose. Sure, I knew our child would go for regular checkups and the occasional virus or ear infection. But I quickly developed a greater appreciation for our doctors after Joseph's first anaphylactic reaction to dairy at 9 months old and the subsequent diagnosis with life-threatening food allergies to peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, milk, egg and soy. Joseph's pediatricians, allergist (Carolina Allergy & Asthma Consultants), nurses and their staffs have been our partners as we navigate life with food allergies, along with asthma and environmental allergies. 

Because we have spent so much time at doctors' offices during the past seven years, Joseph is comfortable and happy to be there knowing they care about him. He grins when we walk to the exam room as doctors and nurses call out a quick, "Hey, Joey!" They are always friendly, often taking the time to hear about the latest book he is reading or newest tennis skill he is practicing.  We leave relieved to have more knowledge, reassurance and a plan of action.

Next week, I hope to be back on the library floor with two healthy kids fully engaged in the children's story. But I'm thankful that a caring group of doctors, nurses and staff are right down the road if we need them.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Lovin' allergen-free sweets for Valentine's Day

My kids have caught Valentine's Day fever. I much prefer it to the other kind of fever that has been lurking in my house for the past two weeks. Both kids have been in various stages of fighting the flu, fever, ear infection, sore throat and the accompanying misery. They are not out of the woods yet, so jumping into Valentine's Day seemed like a great way to perk them (and me) up.

They have been reading books with warm and fuzzy themes, playing concentration with heart-shaped cards, creating heart paintings and making crafts featuring what my 2-year-old calls "love hearts". Today, we started making desserts to celebrate.

Yes, I know there are still four days until the holiday. But I couldn't resist the huge strawberries at Whole Foods, knowing they were perfect to cover in melted chocolate. Pamela loved helping me dip the juicy strawberries in melted Enjoy Life semi-sweet chocolate chips, especially as she took a bite out of the sweet fruit. Those simple chocolate-covered strawberries delighted my husband and son, as well. We are all looking forward to the sweets we will whip up next.

There are so many yummy options for our allergen-free Valentine's Day desserts. Even starting four days early, we won't be able to make everything that catches our eyes. That wasn't the case when I tried to sweeten Joseph's first Valentine's Day after his diagnosis with life-threatening allergies to peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, milk, egg and soy. He was thrilled with the heart-shaped pancakes I made him when he was 1. But thankfully, during the past seven years I have greatly expanded my allergen-free baking repertoire and skills to match his much higher expectations. The recent explosion of allergen-free recipes and cookbooks has provided a plethora of delicious options and has made my job much easier.

Valentine's Day is a chance to make some desserts that have become part of our tradition, such as heart-shaped sugar cookies with frosting and homemade sugar sprinkles. Both kids also requested two must-have desserts that are favorites in our family. Pamela will be thrilled when she sinks her teeth into the fudge we make from the Divvies Bakery Cookbook "Oh Fudge" recipe. (I substitute Earth Balance dairy-free, soy-free Natural Buttery Spread for the margarine; Vance's DariFree milk alternative for the creamer; and Enjoy Life semi-sweet chocolate chips). Joseph can't wait to eat a big slice of red velvet cake thanks to Cybele Pascal's wonderful recipe for Red Velvet Cake with Velvet Frosting. This scrumptious cake, which we all enjoyed with orange-colored frosting for Halloween, will have fluffy pink frosting for this holiday.

We also look forward to trying new recipes. This year, I'm excited to make biscotti for my husband. It is a treat he has always enjoyed and I haven't yet tried my hand at an allergen-free version. So I was thrilled to see Mary Capone's recipe for Gluten-free Orange-Cherry Dipped Biscotti in the latest issue of Living Without magazine.

I still make heart-shaped chocolate chip pancakes, but I've tweaked them so they taste better now. I hope as my family enjoys the Valentine's Day treats that the only fever remaining in our house is for the holiday celebrating love.  

Friday, February 4, 2011

The only peanuts that make me smile

Peanuts have recently been making my kids crack up. I can even refer to them without feeling like I'm going to be sick to my stomach or thinking about how one speck of the legume could kill my son, who is severely allergic to peanuts and several other foods. I'm talking about the gang led by Charlie Brown, of course.

How could I resist the round-faced boy, his precocious beagle Snoopy, his little sister Sally and her "sweet baboo" Linus, and various friends created by Charles M. Schulz?

I broke out "A Charlie Brown Valentine" yesterday as an early treat to help cheer up my sick daughter and to reward Joseph for being such a patient big brother this week. His giggles were infectious as Snoopy donned a red wig, Charlie Brown got his sleeve stuck in the pencil sharpener or Lucy doled out her psychiatric advice. Pamela was excited to see "love hearts" on Valentine cards throughout the show.

Both of my children developed an affection for the Peanuts gang during the fall when they watched "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown." They watched it over and over again, giggling as Charlie Brown tried to put on his ghost costume, and heartily laughing every time Charlie Brown said, "I got a rock", while trick-or-treating. Pamela loved the Halloween special so much that she requested it well into December. We watched it so often that Joseph and I were debating details, such as the position of the moon in various scenes. The kids also fell in love with the Thanksgiving, Christmas and Happy New Year specials. So I knew the Valentine special would be a sure thing when we needed an extra giggle.

Thankfully, Schulz's characters rise above the name that puts so much distaste in my mouth. Apparently, even the gang's creator disliked the "Peanuts" title that the syndicate provided for his strip, originally called "Li'l Folks." (The Great Idea Finder)

While the name makes me cringe, I'm glad that the Peanuts gang has been so popular. Those kids have made millions laugh for generations and I'm so happy that they can bring comic relief to my house. 

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Wishing for some magic during flu season

My children were happily chattering tonight as they enjoyed their dessert, homemade dairy-free ice cream with my really easy version of magic shell (melted Enjoy Life chocolate chips). But I couldn't fall under the chocolate spell.

We were indulging in the ice cream dessert at my daughter's request to help ease some of the misery she is feeling with the flu and an ear infection. I was thrilled to see that the treat did make her smile for a bit. But my worries needed more than chocolate this time. Not only do I wish that I could wave a magic wand to make my little girl feel better, but also I'm concerned about my son's health. Today he's fine, but I'm just hanging on waiting to see what path this illness will take us.

Joseph has asthma, in addition to multiple, life-threatening food allergies. A cold is never just a cold for him and the flu is certainly nothing to take lightly. Flu-related complications cause about 36,000 deaths in the U.S. each year, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma, & Immunology (ACAAI), and people with asthma are at a higher risk for those complications. Everyone in our house, except Joseph (because of his egg allergy), gets a flu shot each year to try to shield Joseph's exposure to the virus. Joseph already takes a full slate of daily maintenance medications for his asthma and environmental allergies, and he also receives weekly immunotherapy shots to help combat his environmental allergies. But when he gets any type of respiratory illness, we immediately increase his asthma medication. Because it is likely that he will catch any illness his sister has, we also ramp up his treatment when she is sick. So when I came home today with Tamiflu for both children, Joseph knew he would also be joining his sister for breathing treatments tonight. As the nebulizers hummed, I hoped the medication would do the trick for both of them.

In the fall of 2009, all four of us contracted swine flu. As soon as my husband came home sick, we followed our usual procedure of increasing Joseph's asthma treatments as a precaution. But, as expected, he too came down with the virus. He, however, couldn't kick it without a trip to the emergency room for oral steroids to help him breathe. It took a long time, but his lungs returned to his normal breathing capacity. Then, a year ago this week, he started a pattern I hope we can avoid this year. Respiratory illnesses and environmental allergies plagued him during the beginning of February, March and April 2010. Each time we followed his asthma plan for illness, but two of those times he still ended up in the emergency room with breathing trouble serious enough to warrant oral steroids. While we were dealing with those illnesses, his doctors again modified his maintenance medications and recommended immunotherapy shots to help with his environmental allergies, thus hopefully decreasing his asthma symptoms when those allergies trigger breathing difficulties.

So tonight, I anxiously pray and wait to see if maybe this time Joseph's body can respond to preventative treatment and fight off the germs that come his way. As I soothe my sick daughter, I'm also waiting for her fever to break and hoping breathing difficulties won't plague her. I've never been good at waiting. I would much prefer a little anti-flu magic.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Ten things Joseph wishes people understood

Joseph looked up from my laptop with tears in his eyes. He took a deep breath and told me, "I feel like I'm the only one sometimes." That item in the list from founder and life coach Gina Clowes' new ebook "Ten Things Children with Food Allergies Want You to Know" resonated the most with my son. He noted that none of his closest friends or members of our immediate family have food allergies and sometimes that makes him feel left out.

We always point out when anyone successful or famous has food allergies, Joseph reads books that feature characters or real people with food allergies and he loves listening to Kyle Dine's music about food allergies. Our local support group NC FACES also is a wonderful way for Joseph to spend time with other kids who also must avoid allergens. But it's true, that isn't the same as having a really close buddy dealing with the same issues and emotions that come with food allergies.

One of those feelings is sadness. Joseph nodded right along when Clowes mentioned in her list feeling sad and left out at birthday celebrations while everyone else is digging into the birthday cake. He knows staying alive is more important than trying even a tiny bite of cake at a party, and he truly enjoys helping to make and decorate the cake slice or cupcake he brings to special occasions. But that doesn't erase the feelings that crop up with the isolation.

Another common emotion that Clowes addresses is fear — both the child's and the parents' fears about dying from an allergic reaction. Joseph's tears started flowing again when he talked about how scared he gets when he thinks about having a life-threatening reaction. He doesn't remember much about his anaphylactic reaction to a sip of milk when he was 21/2. But I certainly remember my own fear as I watched my little boy go from moving his tongue funny, to crying, vomiting and struggling for air within a couple minutes. I will never forget jabbing the EpiPen into his thigh and rushing to the hospital, where he needed more epinephrine, oxygen, steroids and other medication during an overnight stay to combat the anaphylaxis.

Those fears are valid. The reality is that food allergies have tragically ended too many lives. The ebook's forward by Sara Shannon, whose 13-year-old daughter Sabrina died from an allergic reaction to a trace of dairy, is testament to the seriousness of food allergies.

I think it's important for Joseph to talk about his fears, but we also don't dwell on them. We focus on what he can enjoy and do everything we can to keep him safe. It's those efforts to help him avoid peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, milk, egg and soy that sometimes bring misunderstandings, insensitive comments, judgmental stares and isolation from others. Perhaps Clowes' ebook will help more people understand how food-allergic children feel, what steps are necessary to maintain their safety and why those steps are necessary.

It also provides support and advice. The explanations about each of the 10 things listed could help parents who wish they knew how to succinctly explain reasons they take certain cautions to avoid cross-contamination or other contact with allergens. For example, it's nothing personal when we ask you not to kiss our child on the face after you have eaten food that is unsafe for him, it's just that your sign of affection could cause him to break out in itchy spots. Each chapter provides a statement from a child's point of view, along with "What you should know" and "How you can help" sections.

Joseph and I wiped our tears and had a good hug after reading Clowes' ebook. I hope that the more people understand the voices her book represents, the fewer tears children like my son will need to shed.

Click on Ten Things Children with Food Allergies Want You to Know for information about the ebook and the related teleseminar Clowes is hosting on Thursday, Jan. 27 at 7 p.m. eastern time.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Cookbook contentment

This morning my children were lounging on the floor, surrounded by sweets. The peanut butter and jelly cupcakes disgusted Joseph, but the extremely tall frosting on the strawberry cupcakes had his mouth watering. Pamela was excited to see chocolate chunk cookies and loved how the heart-shaped chocolates looked.

Not to worry, I was not taking my kids along on an early sugar binge, nor was I letting my severely food-allergic son near unsafe foods. We simply were perusing piles of cookbooks. I have always loved cookbooks and have a bookcase full of various genres that reflect the different stages of my life. There are books from the 1970s that my mom once consulted; recipe collections from B&Bs my husband and I visited; a Penn State University tailgating cookbook; several holiday-themed selections; a shelf full of dessert temptations; recipes for low-fat cooking; big books full of Italian recipes; and allergen-free cookbooks. So, it is no surprise that my kids also enjoy flipping through the pages, especially of the dessert books.

When Joseph, 7, was first diagnosed with life-threatening allergies to peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, milk, egg and soy, many of those cookbooks started collecting dust. At 9 months old, Joseph didn't need much food yet anyway. But it was more because my focus was on making the house a safe place for him and on finding foods he could safely eat. Looking at many of those books full of foods that could make him sick or even end his life disgusted me. I was frustrated, too, because every recipe called for at least one allergen he had to avoid.

But as I became more confident cooking for my son's allergen-free diet, I saw those books for their potential. So did Joseph. A few years ago, he collected photos of sweet treats that he had cut out from magazines, catalogs and the little cookbooks that are sold at the grocery store checkout line. It didn't bother him that he couldn't have the actual food in the photo because he knew we would find a way to make our own Joseph-safe version.

Most recipes I follow require some type of ingredient substitution — even allergy-friendly recipes often include something Joseph is allergic to or doesn't like. But that's OK. I know how to substitute and now, I relish the challenge. My family is used to my explanation that I had to "punt" because I didn't have an ingredient or that I wasn't sure what I did to make something taste so great. I love putting my creativity to work in the kitchen and I love having all those cookbooks to give me ideas. I'm especially thankful for the wonderful allergy-friendly cookbooks and websites now available to provide safe ideas.

We didn't make any of the treats Pamela and Joseph spotted today — we actually were supposed to be looking for a biscuit recipe. But I'm sure we will be turning back to at least one of those pages to make our own tasty version soon.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Having a ball with sandwich bread

Today at lunch, my 7-year-old son Joseph was thrilled to add another item to the list of things he has in common with his Dada. Those two are best buddies and already share many traits and interests. But their favorite food choices are not always in sync, especially when we factor in Joseph's allergies to peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, milk, egg and soy. But when Joseph bit into his big meatball sandwich, he happily told my husband it was yummy before chomping down for another bite.

One of my husband Gary's childhood nicknames was "meatball" because it was a favorite lunch choice that his schoolmates could see him pull out of his lunch bag. Flimsy little sandwiches were not an acceptable choice for little Gary to bring from his mom's Italian kitchen and he certainly had no complaints. Joseph has heard Gary's stories about his big meatball sandwiches and the accompanying nickname, so he knew he was tapping into something good with his own sandwich.

Sure, I often make meatballs. My turkey meatballs packed with grated zucchini and carrot, and applesauce are a family favorite. The beef version (with the same ingredients plus Daiya dairy-free mozzarella style shreds) also is a hit. But a great gluten-free sandwich bread has eluded me. Until now. I have a go-to gluten-free bread recipe that has worked fine for years. But it is not the right consistency for sandwiches and every mix I had tried in the past didn't work well using egg and milk substitutes. They were too dense, too dry or just didn't taste good. But a few months ago I tried King Arthur Flour gluten-free bread mix and it is fabulous! It has a great texture, it rises nicely and it tastes wonderful. We all love it for dipping in stew, making toast and finally, for making sandwiches.

Joseph is thrilled to have safe, tasty bread that can be used for sandwiches. And it is a savory bonus that he and "Meatball" can compare lunches.