What do you say?

We’ve all been in those uncomfortable situations.  Other parents are questioning why they need to change their habits for the safety of your food allergic kid.  Or maybe they are complaining about accommodations made by airlines, or schools, or churches that curtail their freedom to eat peanuts where they want, when they want.  And you are there, listening uncomfortably, to their complaints about how they have been inconvenienced by food allergies.

Magical Phrases

It is tempting to be silent, but please don’t!  Here are some phrases that are almost magical in changing the tone of the whine-fest.  Please only use when completely true!

“Before dear son was diagnosed with food allergies, I felt that way too.”

“Before he reacted at the baseball game, I wondered the same thing.” (true for us)

“Before that trip to the emergency room, I thought…” ( thankfully haven’t been there )

“Before his eye swelled up from contact with ____”

“We are proud of dear son.  He is used to going without and not complaining.  He can have something special to eat when he gets home.”

“Our allergist Dr. Wood told us to…”

“The allergist told us not to…”

“We know he has not outgrown it because …”

“We have thought about going to ___ restaurant, but we were not comfortable after we talked to the manager.”

“I was frightened when I thought about what could have happened…”

“We looked into ___, but our family has decided it was too risky for dear son.”

“I was so scared when I realized I hadn’t been careful enough…”

“After that near-miss, we started to ___.”

[Explaining why dear son can’t eat their home-made brownies.]  “I can cook for peanut allergic kids.  But even now I am not able to cook for kids with milk/egg/wheat allergies.  We just have too much of those in our kitchen; the kids and I are not that careful.”

Tone of Voice

You are not a paranoid, over-protective parent.  You are just stating what has happened in your family and the logical decisions you have made since.  Do you best not to get defensive!  These are all most effective when spoken in a very matter-of-fact tone of voice.  Good luck, food allergy parents!

But Dr. Wood Doesn’t Know Baseball

The “Baseball Welcomes Allergic Fans” article was published in the NY Times last August.  It covers the still-growing trend of peanut free sections at Major League Baseball games.  While it brings welcome attention to the tricky question of taking peanut allergic kids to baseball games, it also perpetuates the myth that food allergy parents are paranoid and overprotective.

In the write-up, Dr. Wood states that “watching a game in an outdoor ballpark posed no significant threat to peanut-allergic children or adults” and that peanut free sections are a “marketing technique.”  Now we love Dr. Wood.  He is our son’s allergist.  But I don’t think he has spent much time recently with active peanut-allergic kids at a ballpark.

Here’s our time at the ballpark when son was younger.

Son brings his ball and glove.  He drops the ball.  He picks it up.  He visits the rest room.  He touches everything.  He walks back to his seat.  He drops the ball again.  It rolls down the aisle.  He plays with the seat.  He stares at the people behind us.   He pokes his friend.  He trips over the seat.  He drops his safe candy.  He wants to still eat it.  He hugs the mascot.  He eats more safe candy. He drops the ball again.

Unless you have reserved a whole block of seats for your group of food allergy friends, somewhere in this mess someone will be eating peanuts and dropping the peanut shells on the ground.

Here are some techniques that do NOT work to keep a peanut allergic kid safe and happy at the ballgame:

  1. Get active son to promise to stay in his seat.  Nag him when he doesn’t.  Keep nagging until son stays in his seat or husband wants to go home.
  2. Ask strangers not to eat peanuts around your child.  This annoys strangers.
  3. Accept that strangers love peanuts.  Ask strangers not to throw peanut shells on the ground.  This also annoys strangers.
  4. Accept kid is active and people love peanuts.  Be super mom with lots of wipes.  Wipe, wipe, wipe.  This annoys husband, kids and strangers.  Mom goes crazy.

We took our 5 year old to a minor league game a few years ago.  It was an uncrowded day with plenty of empty areas; we could scoot away from any peanut eaters.  The game went really well.  On the way out, dear son’s eye started swelling up.  We think he must have touched a baseball with peanut residue and then rubbed his eye.  He was fine with Benadryl but it wasn’t the way we wanted to end our evening.

Please, Dr. Wood, don’t think that peanut free sections are just a marketing technique!  It’s the only way our family will attend a MLB game.  Yes, I do already have our peanut free tickets for July.


Dr. Wood Knows

We live in Northern VA, so it is a challenging drive up around the beltway and up I95 to see Dr. Wood.  But it is worth it!

Back in the preschool years, we had been seeing a local allergist who didn’t understand why dear son was suddenly allergic to chick peas and lentils.  His very conservative advice was to avoid all legumes, including soy.  If you have had to avoid soy, you know it is very tough to do!  Out went son’s favorite bread, soy butter, McDonald’s buns, etc.

We made an appointment with Dr. Wood and waited about a year for it while still following our local allergist’s advice.  What a happy day when Dr. Wood took a medical history, studied the blood tests and told us son could have all legumes except peanuts, lupine,  chick peas and lentils!  We went out to dinner in Baltimore very happy that evening.

A few years later son reacts to peas ( with hives ) so those go on the NO list.  He is also really happy to avoid lima beans, which we all hate anyway.

Suddenly last fall, soy butter “makes his tongue itch” ( of course when we are on the way to the Kennedy Center!  Thankfully dear son was fine.)  Dr. Wood’s office puts “food with soy in the title” on the NO list.  That means no soy butter, soy milk, tofu.  We had been on a break from yearly visits with Dr. Wood, but the nurse encourages us to come back to see him.

More on this visit coming soon!

Our Family’s Vacation Tips

A condensed version of this article appeared in the June/July 2010 edition of the Food Allergy News, published by The Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network.

We are a family of four:  dad, mom, older daughter and younger son.  Our son Robbie was diagnosed as peanut allergic as a toddler.  Since then he has reacted to chick peas, lentils and peas.  We also avoid tree nuts and lima beans.  Fortunately, Robbie has never been allergic to eggs or dairy.

We have enjoyed fun trips to Disney World, Boston, Chicago, and various beach areas.  We are fortunate that our son has not had a food reaction on any of these trips, thanks to good planning, helpful people and some luck.  Here are our planning tips.

1.  Is this a risky location? Hmm, so it’s an isolated beach thirty minutes from anywhere.  Or a bay side resort accessible only by boat.  For my own peace of mind, we don’t go there.  I like a modern hospital and EMS service nearby.  A remote location could work for a more adventurous mom, but it is just not for me.

2.  Things always happen on vacation! In our family, someone is always getting pink eye, or a fever bug, or a finger stuck in a door.  Next time, it could be an allergy emergency.  So we bring our allergy stuff!

  • two or more Epipens, that have not expired
  • a doctor’s letter explaining why Robbie needs the Epipens
  • antihistamine medicine such as Benadryl
  • inhalers if needed
  • wipes
  • lots of safe snacks
  • chef cards listing the foods Robbie must avoid

3.  I know you don’t want to cook on vacation, but… When we are traveling to beach areas, we try to rent a condo instead of staying in a hotel.  Having a small kitchen lets us save money, feed the kids more quickly and better manage ingredients.  We once found a spoon with caked-on peanut butter in the silverware drawer, so we definitely take a look around the condo’s kitchen before we start cooking!

4.  Don’t be like us.  Nothing is worse than wandering around a strange vacation area looking for a safe restaurant.  Unless it is wandering around a strange vacation area with a hot tired hungry cranky family that includes a grandma with bad knees and the family dog.  Don’t let this be you!

  • Get some restaurant ideas from your laptop, a local map or hotel employee.
  • Check the menus for two or three places.
  • Call ahead to ask if they can make a safe meal for your allergic child.
  • If you are tech savvy, pull out your iPhone and search while you walk!  (More on food allergy apps coming in a future post.)

5.  Are we there yet?  We’d been driving on a turnpike for hours.  We finally pulled off to a rest stop, waited in line for restrooms and then waited in line for food.  When we got to the front of the line, the manager couldn’t find the ingredients sheet.  Robbie ended up eating snack bags from the tourist shop.

Each state has different vendors for their turnpike fast food restaurants.  Check before you start loading up the car to see which can provide a safe meal for your child.  Many now have allergen information online, or provide an email address to find out more.

6.  Go with the tried and true. It is OK to go with an old standby.  Robbie has eaten at McDonalds and Burger King in the midst of wonderful food courts full of diverse ethnic treats.  His sister ate there too, by her choice.  I’m not proud of this, but it worked for us.  My husband and I enjoyed trying different foods while the kids were having Skittles for dessert.  We all ate something we liked.  Experimenting with new foods is not part of Robbie’s vacation experience.

7.  Trust your instincts. Just because a restaurant server is nodding their head doesn’t mean they understand you, your chef card or food allergies in general.  If you talk to a server and then a manager and still don’t feel understood, this restaurant may not be the place for dinner.  The server may just be in the US for the summer.  Or the manager may not believe food allergies are real.  On vacation, I don’t feel like it is worth my time to educate a new restaurant.  Keep walking!

8.  Don’t visit the place that serves peanut soup. Yes, here in Virginia there are restaurants with peanut soup as a specialty.  No, we don’t ever eat there.  Peanut soup, peanut sauce or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on a menu raise a red flag.  I don’t want the food service worker to jump from making a pb&j sandwich to Robbie’s ham and cheese.  Unless this restaurant has a wonderful reputation with the local food allergy support group, then stay far away!

9.  Let your child do the talking. Vacation is a fun time and it can also be a learning time.  Some day your child will prefer eating out with their friends instead of the family. Start getting them ready now!  Let your child begin the allergy conversation with the server.  A shy child may find it easier to hand the server or manager the chef card that explains his allergies.  You are right beside your child to support them and clarify any issues.

We hope you have a super vacation time this summer with your family!

Christina Black has been a member of FAAN since 2003.  She has written two allergy books for children:  “Mommy, Is This Safe to Eat?” and “Starting School with a Food Allergy.”