I remember how it felt, standing in the grocery aisle reading label after label on the boxes of crackers. Then putting each one back because it contained a potential threat to my son...a food allergy. I exhausted every brand of cracker in that store. That's when it hit me: I have no idea what to feed my child.
This week is Food Allergy Awareness Week, and all the articles and discussions online have reminded me what it was like in the beginning...when we first learned of my son's allergies. The information was overwhelming. At only 2 years old, my son relied completely on me to provide him with food. And I suddenly had no idea what he could eat. That first trip to the grocery store was, in a word, traumatic.
If that's you, overwhelmed mom whose child has just been diagnosed with a food allergy (or additional food allergies), here are a few tips that helped me get through those early days, and continue to help me today:
1. Learn to read labels. At first, this can be a daunting task....You want me to read every single label of every single food my child puts in his mouth?! Yes. Always. Even (and especially!) the "allergen statement" listed after the ingredients. This is the "May contain" line after the ingredients that will tell you if there's a potential for cross-contamination. You'll soon learn what brands are safe and which ones contain allergens, but always read labels as ingredients and manufacturing practices can change.
2. Learn to ask questions. Of everyone...restaurant servers, daycare workers, teachers, church nursery volunteers, and other parents. If they will be serving food your child will eat, it is your responsibility to know what is in it. If you're not satisfied with the answer, keep asking. I've actually had young, inexperienced wait staff respond to my allergy questions with, "Oh, he should be fine." Yeah, that's not gonna fly with this mama. I'm going to need to talk to someone who knows something (and maybe has a driver's license). Be kind, but firm...and tenacious if you need to. Your child's health (and possibly her life) depends on it.
3. Start with what you know and go slow. You don't have to chuck everything out of your kitchen and start from scratch. (If it's a serious allergy, you may want to get the allergen completely out of the house, at least for a while.) Start with what you know is safe. Can your child have fruit? Stock up on fresh fruit, frozen fruit, and fruit cups. No dairy allergy? Load the fridge with cheese sticks and yogurt cups. Don't make it too complicated at first. Find a few meal options and snacks you know are safe and stick with those for a while. You'll soon find other options you can add to your rotation.
4. Join a community. Believe it or not, when my son was first diagnosed, it was difficult to find much practical information online. Everything I found was from a medical journal. Oh, how far we've come in four years! If you know another mom who navigates food allergies, pick her brain. I'm sure she's a wealth of information and would love to share what she's learned. There's great value in online community as well. Need some recipe inspiration? Debra at Worth Cooking has some great allergy-friendly recipes, and I've heard Food Allergy Mama's cookbook is very helpful. (I've not read it, but I've heard good things.) And you can find some great, allergy-friendly recipes every Wednesday at The Domestic Diva's Allergy-Free link-up. You can also find some of my favorite recipes here, follow my Food Allergy board on Pinterest, or join the Food Allergy 411 Facebook page.
5. Always, always carry your Epi-pen. Just last week, my son had a reaction to some muffins I made with garbanzo flour....garbanzo flour?!? He has eaten hummus too many times to count, so it never dawned on me that he would react to garbanzo flour (even though he is allergic to peanuts and soy...both legumes). Fortunately, I did not have to use the Epi, but I was glad I had it with me...just in case. The thing about allergic reactions is that each one can be more severe than the last. So, even though we've never had to use our Epi, that doesn't mean we won't. And I'd rather be safe than sorry.
So, take a breath, Mama. It's going to be OK. You can get up off the grocery store aisle floor where you've been in the fetal position for the last 30 minutes. You don't have to answer all your questions today. You don't have to know what you'll serve at your child's graduation party or wedding. You just have to get through today. Tomorrow you'll know more than you do today, and the next day you'll know even more.
And someday, even sooner than you think, when you see another mom in the grocery aisle with 14 boxes of crackers in her arms and that deer-in-the-headlights look, you'll be the one to walk up to her and say, "It's going to be OK. I did this, and you can, too!"
What advice would you give a mom who is just starting the food allergy journey?
If you're looking for more helpful tips on food allergies...
A Crash Course in Food Allergies
Making the Most of Food Allergies
What's the Difference Between a Food Allergy and Food Sensitivity?
Navigating Parties with Food Allergies
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