Saturday, September 19, 2015

Branching Out by Dining Out with Food Allergies

For over 10 years I have kept my son in a protective food bubble as he is allergic to milk, eggs, and peanuts, and he avoids gluten, soy, and artificial colors.  He eats only food that I have made or that I have preapproved.  But he is getting older, and his social life is about to blossom.  I need to begin to pass the torch of responsibility on to him. 

He knows to check food labels, be diligent, etc to stay safe.  He still checks with me before eating anything questionable.  He brings home bags of candy from school to trade for safe candy that I keep on hand.  He knows the drill.  He gets it. 

Two years ago we went on vacation to Disney World.  I had read that they are the gold standard for allergy dining.  I held my breath and watched closely as he ate every bite of his first ever restaurant prepared meal.  He survived.  We went back to Disney again this summer, and I felt more confident allowing him to eat the restaurant food as we had had a great experience on our previous trip.  In fact, when he talks about Disney World, he talks about getting to eat restaurant food.  That was his magic. 

We also made a trip to St. Louis this summer where we ate at the Old Spaghetti Factory.  I noticed they had a gluten free menu, so I asked to speak to the manager about whether or not they could prepare a safe meal for Bubs.  We discussed not only the ingredients of the food, but also how the food was prepared.  I felt satisfied with their answers, and he got to eat yet another restaurant prepared meal.  My confidence was growing.

A couple of weeks ago, our family was planning to eat out at a shopping plaza with lots of restaurants.  I did my research ahead of time and found a restaurant that served gluten-free pasta.  I called a few days before we planned to go to find out about marinara ingredients, food prep, etc.  While the ingredients were all safe for Bubs, I did not feel comfortable in their level of knowledge to keep the marinara free of cross-contamination of cheese.  The noodles are prepared in a dedicated area, so we decided to allow Bubs to eat the noodles from the restaurant, but we would bring marinara from home.  It worked out well, and he was ecstatic.

The hubs and I have a favorite pizza joint we like to meet at for lunch on occasion, and at our latest visit I noticed they are now offering gluten-free pasta.  The owner happened to be sitting in a booth behind us, so I struck up a conversation about food prep, ingredients, and cross-contamination.  I felt positive in their ability to prepare a safe meal for Bubs.  And a safe meal he had!  Hooray!  A local restaurant that can provide safe food!

Now that more restaurants are becoming aware of food allergies and how to prepare food safely, and as my confidence and willingness to try new things grows, Bubs is able to have "normal" experiences such as dining out.  This will be so important as he grows into being a teenager.  Teaching him to to ask the right questions, knowing which restaurants he can trust, and knowing how to advocate for himself will be invaluable. 

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Disney Vacation 2015....with Food Allergies

The hubs, me, grandma, grandpa, GirlyGirl, Cutie, Bubs, and Curls

After brainstorming of the many different locations we could go to for our summer vacation this year, we decided we would return to Disney World.  We visited there two years, and we were blown away with not only the typical magic of Disney, but also the availability of safe food for my kids.

I have four kids, two with food allergies.  We make and take their food everywhere with us. They don't eat anything that I haven't made or approved ahead of time.  So allowing them to eat actual restaurant food at an actual restaurant prepared by people other than myself was a little difficult.  Two years ago, my kids ate at three different restaurants at Disney World, and they were perfectly safe.

Yes, Disney World has a lot to offer as far as entertainment, magic, etc, but what my kids remember most from our vacation two years ago is that they got to eat at a restaurant.  This is one of the main reasons we decided to return again this year.  After all, that means less prep work and packing for me.  :)

I don't have any fun, new recipes that travel well to share with you.  We have found what works and what is simple, and that is pretty much our go-to "vacation food."  What the kids look forward to most, though, is the donuts.  I rarely make them, so they are an extra special treat.

Snickerdoodle, plain frosted, and chocolate donuts; pancake muffins

What I'd really like to share with you is our experiences at each restaurant.

Each morning we ate breakfast in our hotel.  We packed one meal for the day and ate the other meal at a Disney restaurant.

A little quality time with the mouse

The first day we ate at Be Our Guest in Magic Kingdom.  While I knew the menu options would not be my kids' favorite after looking online, I still wanted to go, purely for the atmosphere.  What a beautiful restaurant!  The Beast even made an appearance while we were dining.  The kids each had a salad, steak, green beans, and french fries. And they ate surprisingly well based on the moans I heard once they knew what their options were.

 A feast at Be Our Guest

The next day we ate at Tony's Town Square Restaurant, also at Magic Kingdom.  We ate here last time, and we knew they had safe spaghetti and meatballs served with a roll.  The kids were looking forward to this place for months.  Even though I frequently make this meal at home, there's something special about getting to eat it at a restaurant.

Spaghetti and meatballs at Tony's Town Square Restaurant

The third day we visited Hollywood and ate at Hollywood and Vine.  Here the menu was quite limited for the list of foods Bubs avoids (milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, gluten, soy, artificial colors).  This is a buffet style restaurant, and the chef offered to grill some plain chicken breasts.  This did not sound appealing to the kiddos.  After talking with the chef in more detail and touring the buffet line, we were able to come up with several options, including a plate full of rice, corn, green beans, and a salad.  They also managed to season the chicken which made it quite tasty.  While this wasn't the kids' favorite meal, they were blown away by the dessert.  The chef told me that they have Enjoy Life cookies for people with food allergies, so I asked for two cookies for both of my kids.  A few minutes later, they came out with a plate that had on it a giant brownie with strawberries and two packages of two cookies each.  I couldn't believe my eyes, and neither could the kids.  Normally I would never allow my kids to eat this much sugar at once, but this was, after all, a very special (and magical) occasion.

A magical dessert at Hollywood and Vine

Our final meal at Disney was at Akershus in Epcot.  We ate brunch here two years ago, and we knew it would be a success.  During our meal, the Disney princesses visited the tables and had a parade throughout the restaurant.  While the staff was excellent here, I have a few brand suggestions for this restaurant.  The allergy-friendly waffles they offer are frozen Van's waffles.  There are many variety of this brand of waffles, and at home we use the ancient grains variety which is Top 8 Free.  I can't remember which variety they used here, but it does contain soy.  While Bubs has a sensitivity to soy from which we rarely stray, we decided to allow him to eat these waffles since soy is not a life-threatening allergy.  (He ended up tolerating this quite well, actually.)  Also, they keep Bob's Red Mill pancake mix on hand, but this mix is processed with tree nuts and soy.  While we were lenient with the soy sensitivity, we are not so willing to take a chance with the tree nuts.  There are other wonderful pancake mixes available that I would recommend the restaurant keep on hand, such as Namaste or Enjoy Life Foods.  I did contact the restaurant after our visit with these suggestions.

Brunch at Akershus

Another exciting find was Aloha Isle, which I was actually keeping an eye out for since I had seen others enjoying this treat on social media.  The Dole Pineapple Whips are Top 8 Free, and they are absolutely delicious.  The kids kept asking to return to that counter for more. 

Dole Whips at Aloha Isle

We were only able to find Aloha Isle at Magic Kingdom, but we were able to find some frozen Minute Maid Lemonade that was safe for them at a few ice cream stands in Hollywood and Epcot.  

At each restaurant, the server was very inquisitive and attentive to my kids' allergies.  Then the chef came to our table to discuss our options.  They were all so friendly, helpful, and knowledgeable.  Not once was I made to feel like a burden for asking for food to be prepared in a manner that is safe for my kids to eat.

 We also spent a day at Universal Studios, but I had difficulty finding allergy dining information online ahead of time.  Not wanting to take any chances, we just packed our food for this day.  We did stop at a few frozen treat counters/stands looking for an allergy-friendly treat, but we were not successful.  One worker just looked at me like I was crazy for asking to see the ingredient list, and she had no idea what I was talking about.

Universal was a very fun place to visit, but they are just not up to par compared to Disney on the allergy dining.  As long is you know that ahead of time, it is a very cool place to visit.

An amazing vacation had by all!

All in all, this was another successful vacation, both in terms of food safety and fun.  We made lots of new memories that will last a lifetime.  Disney World truly is a magical place.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

S'more Crispies (Gluten and Top 8 Free)

What goes better with summer than S'mores?  I was looking for a fun treat to make for our annual family get together this Fourth of July, so I decided to try a twist on this old, classic treat.

These are really easy to make, and I already had all the ingredients in my kitchen.  Doesn't get much easier than that!

2 boxes Enjoy Life Vanilla Honey Graham Crunchy Cookies
4-5 Tbsp milk-free butter (I used Earth Balance Soy Free), melted

The rest
3 Tbsp milk-free butter
1 pkg and 1/3 pkg mini marshmallows, divided
6 c crispy cocoa rice cereal
1 c Enjoy Life chocolate Mega Chunks
1 c Enjoy Life chocolate mini chips
1 tsp coconut oil
1/2 c marshmallow dip

Crush cookies.  Mix melted butter in with crushed cookies and press into 9x13 dish.  Bake at 350º for 10 min.  While crust is baking, over medium-low heat melt butter and 1 pkg marshmallows, stirring frequently.  Once marshmallows are completely melted, stir in chocolate rice cereal and 1/3 pkg mini marshmallows.  Pour over baked crust and press with buttered wax paper.  Top with Mega Chunks.  Over low heat melt mini chips and coconut oil until melted.  Drizzle over top of cereal mixture.  Over medium-low heat, melt marshmallow dip and drizzle over cereal mixture.  Allow to cool and enjoy!

Sunday, June 28, 2015

A New Diagnosis...and Having Food Allergies

A couple of weeks ago, Bubs returned home from summer camp and was complaining of being very tired.  I blamed it on a week away at camp.  A few days later he had some puffiness in his face, which I attributed to seasonal allergies and had him resume taking Claritin.  He continued with other complaints including difficulty catching his breath, decreased appetite, nausea, headaches, and ongoing fatigue.  I thought, dehydration, seasonal allergies, too busy with activities, etc.  I also noticed that his torso was getting thicker, for lack of better words.  But I thought this 10 year old boy may be in the beginning stages of puberty.  I even joked with him about becoming a man.  


I tend to be on the "we don't need to go to the doctor until an arm is falling off" end of the spectrum.  But when there was notable swelling in his entire body, I decided I should take him in.  

We went to our office's walk-in clinic the next morning.  When they weighed him, we found that he has gained 13 pounds in the last 4 months.  That is a ton of weight for this skinny kid.  We saw a nurse practitioner who spent a lot of time with us.  I could tell she was concerned and didn't really know what to think.  His physical exam seemed normal.  Heart and lungs sounded good.  Eyes, ears, nose, and throat looked clear.  No tenderness to palpation in his tummy.  She decided to order some labs to see if anything was off with his bloodwork.

This kid dreads anything with a needle.  He calls anything involving a needle a shot, whether it is a vaccination or a blood draw.  He loathes going to the allergist because he knows he will have to get a "shot."  So now, on top of all of his other symptoms, he was experiencing anxiety too.  

We were supposed to get the results the following morning, but I received no phone call that morning.  Bubs' face and body looked even worse.  I called and left messages asking for a phone call back.  My mind was spinning thinking of all the different things that could be wrong.  Heart failure, kidney failure, liver failure, cancer.  If he had to be hospitalized, would they be able to feed him, or would I be able to bring in safe food for him?  I was thinking they weren't calling me back because something was so skewed that they had to look further into what was going on.  If everything had been normal, they would have called right away when they said they wouldFinally, at the end of the day, the phone rang.  (The delayed phone call had been because an additional test had been ordered to check for mono, which apparently takes longer than the standard testing they were doing.)  

Diagnosis: Hypothyroidism.  While this isn't a wonderful thing to have, I am so greatful it is something that is managebale with meds.  We can handle this.  Except the sample pills they gave us guessed it.....MILK.  

I always check for lactose monohydrate on pill bottles because this is commonly an inactive ingredient.  I didn't know what to do.  It was now after hours, and I wanted to start this medicine first thing in the morning as Bubs continued to swell up.  I called the on-call nurse practitioner asking for a liquid form of Synthroid.  She called around to several pharmacies, but none of them were able to make that compound.  The pharmacy that she knew of that could make it was already closed for the evening.  We just had to wait another day.  I gave Bubs an ibuprofen hoping it would help with the inflammation, which it did.  He looked better within an hour.  

The following day the nurse practioner called me back saying they had decided to start Bubs on a gel capsule of levothyroxine called Tirosint.  I was happy with this as I had been inundated with support and suggestions after posting a comment on Facebook asking for help from the food allergy community.  Tirosint was a drug that several people had suggested as hypoallergenic, and it does not contain any milk.

He began the gel tabs two days ago.  Now we wait to meet with an endocrinologist in a month.  I told Bubs that he will get used to needles as he will have many blood draws in the near future.  

Dealing with food allergies is something I have become accustomed to.  But now having to navigate our way through a new chronic disease that involves daily meds which we have to check for his allergens is new territory.  We will get through this together.  

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Overnight Summer Camp....With Food Allergies

One of my favorite childhood memories was going away to a week long overnight summer camp.  We got to swim, do archery, sing songs, camp under the stars, make new friends, etc.  This is something I have always wanted my kids to experience too.

Most typical activities are more challenging when food allergies are involved.  This is compounded when the plan is for these kids to be away from home for five days without a parent around.  Luckily, there was a parent from our church who would be at camp with my kids for the whole week (our church sent a small group of kids to this camp).  She knew some general info about my kids' food allergies, but she needed to know more  She willingly met with me prior to leaving for camp so I could really give her the low down.

About two months before the camp began, I spoke with the camp director on the phone, and he told me that I could provide all of my kids' food.  He told me that I would get the menu about a week ahead of time so I could prepare similar food.  He also told me that they wouldn't offer peanut products the week we would be there.  He couldn't guarantee that everything would be "peanut-free" since they may use some products that may have been processed with peanuts.  But they would do their best to eliminate straight peanut products.    

With this knowledge and knowing that an educated adult would be there, I eagerly signed the kids up.  For the next two months, I kept telling the kids how much fun they would have at this camp.  But deep down, I was having anxiety about their food.  New experiences are difficult, especially if I can't be there.

The weekend before they left, I spent lots of time in the kitchen preparing a week's worth of food, packaged and labeled for easy reheating and serving.  I did my best to make it easy by labeling each container with which food it contained for which day/meal and for which kid.  I had bags of dry food, each labeled in the same fashion.  I felt confidant as we headed down the road to camp on Monday morning.

Drop off was at the Dining Hall.  There were camp counselors and nurses there.  As soon as I said our name, the nurses knew right who we were.  She took our EpiPens and inhalers and told us she would escort me to the kitchen once I got the kids settled in their cabins.

After giving my kids a big hug and kiss goodbye, I found the nurse and we headed to the kitchen.  This is where I got nervous.  It didn't seem as if these three ladies (working in the kitchen) were expecting me.  Also, the first meal was supposed to be tacos, but they were making grilled ham and cheese.  When I asked about it, they simply said they had to switch around a few meals.  I got flustered because I had labeled everything by day and meal to match their menu.  I was trying to make it easy, and now things wouldn't line up right.  The adult from our church was with me and said, "It will all work out.  I'll help them get it straight."  I was thankful for that voice of reason.

During my explanation of all the food stuff to the kitchen staff, I also mentioned that they need to wash their hands before handling my kids' food because of cross-contamination.  I got lots of blank looks while I was talking to these ladies.  My anxiety grew as I continued to talk.  One of the gals said that they have a peanut butter bar at each meal.  Before she could say anymore, I said that the camp director had told me that this week would be "peanut-free."  She said that was fine, and she would wipe down the counter where they usually have that set up.

It seemed to me that there was a breakdown in communication somewhere.  If it weren't for this parent volunteer, I would have been a wreck and spent a lot more time there talking to all the staff.  But she kept me calm and told me she would look out for my kids.

I left the camp, feeling very uncomfortable.  The parent volunteer told me she would text updates to me each night so I would know everything was OK.  She texted me later that day saying that following lunch (their first meal), she met with the camp director and nurse, and they decided to move all of my kids' food to the staff fridge, and she would be in charge of reheating and serving my kids' food.  This would completely eliminate having to rely on the kitchen staff .  They also decided that all the kids at camp would wash their hands after each meal to help prevent a reaction.  :)

What a huge relief that was!  After receiving that text, I didn't worry a second more!  I enjoyed my week home with my little girls while the big kids had a blast at camp.  And they created all sorts of wonderful new memories that will last a lifetime!

I'm so glad I took the leap to send my kids with food allergies away to summer camp.  It's scary for all of us, but so worth the experience!  They can't wait to go back next year!

Scalloped Potatoes (Gluten and Top 8 Free)


One of the menu items for my kids at summer camp this year was scalloped potatoes.  I had never made these before, so I thought I'd give it a try.  They were quite easy to make, and they turned out delicious and creamy!

Scalloped Potatoes
5 lb bag of potatoes, peeled and sliced
11 oz container So Delicious Culinary Milk
1 pkg Daiya cheddar cheese
2-3 tsp dairy-free butter (I use Earth Balance soy free)
1 tsp onion powder (or real chopped onions)
1 tsp garlic powder
1/2 tsp black pepper

Preheat oven to 425º.  In a medium saucepan, melt over medium heat milk, cheese, butter, onions, garlic powder, and pepper, stirring frequently.  Spray 9x13 dish with cooking spray, then place sliced potatoes in dish.  Once sauce is completely melted, pour over  potatoes and bake for 30-45 minutes (until potatoes are soft).  It's really that simple!      

Before baking

Monday, May 25, 2015

Cookie Dough Cups (Gluten and Top 8 Free)


Who doesn't like eating raw cookie dough?  I have eaten plenty in my day, even with the worry of consuming raw eggs.  But now that our family is egg-free, we can all eat raw cookie dough without a care. 

I have been playing around with this recipe for a few weeks, and Bubs decided he would like these little desert shooters tonight to celebrate his birthday with extended family. 

These are really easy to make, and you probably already have all the ingredients in your kitchen.  You can quickly whip these up and enjoy right away, or chill for a bit to savor the classic cookie dough texture.

1 c dairy-free butter (I used Earth Balance Soy Free), room temperature
1/2 c sugar
1 c packed brown sugar
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp baking soda
2 tsp vanilla
1/2 c unsweetened applesauce
2 1/4 c gluten-free flour
1 pkg chocolate chips (I used Enjoy Life chocolate chips)

Beat together butter, sugar, brown sugar, salt, baking soda, and vanilla.  Add applesauce.  While mixer is on low speed, add flour a bit at a time until well blended.  Fill small cups alternating dough and chocolate chips.  Serve chilled.