Thursday, May 24, 2012

Fun, allergy-friendly times in Happy Valley

My family and I spent a fantastic weekend visiting my alma mater. All I wanted for my 40th birthday was a trip to Penn State where I could enjoy with my kids a place I hold dear and spend time with some amazing friends. But traveling with a food-allergic child can be stressful. For me, that anxiety is eased with preparation, consideration and awareness.

I don't allow Joseph, who is allergic to peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, milk, egg, soy, sesame and mustard, to eat any food that is not prepared by me. So before we embarked on our 8-hour road trip, I loaded up the cooler, insulated bags and lunch boxes with safe food for my 9-year-old son. Lots of wipes and paper towels, along with disposable placemats also are staples. Of course, we don't go anywhere without Joseph's medical pack containing two EpiPens, Benadryl, his inhaler and a copy of his allergy action plan. In addition when we travel, I make sure all of his daily medications have a full prescription, and pack his nebulizer and Xopenex, and two additional EpiPens that are usually kept at home.

Once I booked our feather-free suite (Joseph has asthma and environmental allergies, as well), complete with a refrigerator and microwave, it was time to plan the menu with Joseph. After all, I want him to enjoy his food while he's watching the rest of us sample restaurant fare. My daughter Pamela, 3, also eats only Joseph's food when we travel so that she doesn't create an added risk for him.

I cooked and froze several entrees, generally enough so that they each could get two meals out of each dish. I have included a sampling of his trip menu at the end of this blog post. We also packed plenty of fruit and non-perishable food, such as Enjoy Life granola that both kids like to eat for breakfast or as a snack, single-serve applesauce, Enjoy Life cookies and Green Mountain Gringo tortilla strips that made an easy snack eaten plain in the car and a plate of nachos in the hotel room with a little melted Daiya cheddar and mozzarella. I had frozen some cupcakes and cake slices that we had made for celebrations during the previous month so the kids could have special treats, as well.

The biggest treat for them was spending time with friends. The consideration and kindness of those friends made it possible for Joseph to just safely enjoy himself, instead of being singled out or anxious because of his allergies. Before the trip, my friend Michele asked what snacks would be OK for her kids to eat near Joseph and what they could do to make him safe. I asked her just to avoid anything with peanuts, peanut butter or tree nuts and asked that everyone wash their hands after meals. Not only did Michele and her kids avoid nutty snacks and wash their hands after each meal, but also they did so without mentioning it. Each time we stopped to eat at a restaurant, I wiped Joseph's table area and chair and placed his paper placemat in front of him. As he pulled his own plastic cutlery, juice box or water bottle and safe food out of his lunch box, the happy chatter of friends continued. There were no disparaging comments about what Joseph couldn't eat or begrudging attitudes about washing their hands.

The simple steps they took to help Joseph feel safe without making a big deal about it or making him feel bad about it, means the world to me. Their kindness helped us all to enjoy our time in Happy Valley. Joseph and Pamela were thrilled to meet my friend Stephanie and listen to us reminisce while we walked through campus one afternoon, stopping of course to climb on the statue at the Nittany Lion shrine. They had a blast hanging out with Michele's kids, Jason, Brooke and Ava. Whether they were checking out footballs at the Penn State All-Sports Museum, posing by the Joe Paterno statue, having water battles in the hotel pool or playing mini golf, Joseph got to enjoy himself as one of the gang.

As the summer travel season heats up, it's important to decide and review what steps will result in an enjoyable and safe trip for food-allergic family members. Everyone has different comfort levels about what is safe and what works for him. Food-allergic families can find resources about traveling with food allergies from sources such as the Food Allergy Initiative (FAI), Kids with Food Allergies (KFA), Living Without magazine, Gina Clowes' article, "Food allergy tips: You can take it with you", and The Nut-Free Mom's top travel tips. The AllergyEats website and app also allow people to find ratings regarding food allergies about restaurants in the towns they are visiting.

I'm thrilled that preparation and kindness helped us all to leave State College, Pennsylvania, with such happy memories.

Joseph's trip menu included: