The Unexpected Benefits of Food Allergies: What ALL Parents Can Learn From Two Allergy Moms

Over a recent lunch with some moms and kids from my five year old’s preschool class, I was lamenting over the fact that feeding our families today feels more like a tedious and tiresome daily to-do than the simple formula our parents followed: meat and carbohydrate comfort casserole + something green.  With (legitimate) concerns about obesity, various nutrients or additives being targeted for potential linkage to behavioral or learning problems and a higher known incidence of food allergies, navigating the nutrition waters is tougher than ever. Along the way, food has lost the fun factor. And social media does. not. help.

Two mom friends of mine – Autumn Bechler (mom to 5, 6 and 7 year-old daughters) and Rhonda Gettelman (mom to a 4 year-old son and a 7 year-old daughter) – agree and our lunch conversation quickly landed on how food is often vilified in a viral vacuum of Facebook (FB), Twitter, Pintrest, etc.  Rhonda laughed about an article recently shared on FB about cereal being “bad, bad, bad and filled with all kinds of crap – DON’T GO NEAR IT!”

Enter, Stage Left: Allergies

All kidding aside, these moms have to take what goes in their kids’ mouths very seriously. The two first bonded when their eldest children, who have some significant food allergies – dairy, eggs and peanuts – were in the same preschool class. Together they helped shape the school’s book-based birthday policy which puts feelings – instead of food – first, to ensure all students are celebrated in a consistent and inclusive way.

I have to admit, when I heard about this policy, I was disappointed. Of course I understood, BUT school birthdays without treats?!?  My clearly outdated childhood memories and zero allergy kids defined my normal. Talking to Autumn and Rhonda opened my eyes to the rigorous and often really scary reality of having children with food allergies.

Thriving (Not Just Surviving) Together

Over the last few years, they’ve shared strategies for survival and now managing their girls’ allergies is less of an all-consuming struggle. Read on for more of their stories – you might be surprised by some of their experiences and are likely to find some useful solutions whether or not your kids have allergies.

MP:  How did you feel when your daughters were first diagnosed with food allergies?

RG:  When I was growing up my parents traveled a lot so we were always trying new foods from their trips. They made eating an adventure. This news was in conflict with that approach so I was upset, overwhelmed and felt like figuring it out was all on me. Particularly after my daughter’s positive allergy test results were extensive and the only advice the doctor shared was, “Avoid all of these and good luck to you.”

AB:  I thought I would personally manage but I have a big family and we always celebrate holidays and occasions with meals out. I knew this would make that tradition a challenge and that my extended family may not fully understand at first.

MP:  What is the biggest struggle for “allergy moms”?

AB:  The stigma that comes with it. Because the seriousness (life or death) is often misunderstood and many are restricting foods by choice, others are quick to judge. The response I get from many implies they feel I’m being high maintenance on behalf of my child or overreacting to what is likely just a food intolerance. Even after I explain that my daughter has had two anaphylaxis episodes – a sudden and severe chain allergic reaction that beings with widening of blood vessels and is often followed by rash, swelling and difficulty breathing and requires emergency medical attention – people still don’t seem to appreciate the importance of controlling her food environment; responding with, “but she was fine, right?”

RG:  Fear and loss of control. When your kids are the age for play dates it is a struggle to feel comfortable with them going to other houses – even when you send their own food and an EpiPen. You have to really trust the other parents. It is more work – but often necessary to just host play dates until these relationships are clear.

Rhonda's kids enjoying apple cider popsicles from Crane's orchard in Fenville, Michigan
Rhonda’s kids enjoying apple cider popsicles from Crane’s orchard in Fenville, Michigan

MP:  What do you wish your “seven years later” self could have told your “just diagnosed” self?

AB & RG:  You will figure it out with a variety of resources and particularly a great inner circle network of trusted allergy parents. But, be realistic about the ongoing complexity of managing the allergy situation. It will take time and you will have to push hard in various environments – and with each new environment and school year – to advocate for your child.

RG:  You don’t have to buy the expensive foods marketed exclusively for people with your child’s specific allergies. Many mainstream – and more affordable – foods fit our requirements. We’ve just learned to be very label savvy and know we have to check every time as ingredients (even for the same products) change frequently.

AB:  Your family will be great about this and they will even take restaurant brunches – which are particularly difficult with your daughter’s dairy and egg allergies – out of the family celebration rotation.  All of your nieces’ and nephews’ birthday party food will be planned with your daughter’s inclusion in mind.

MP:  How have food allergies impacted the family food dynamic?

AB:  It is a big balancing act. To make sure our daughter with allergies feels supported and safe and the two girls without allergies are not denied enjoying foods without restriction with friends, we all eat the same way at home and outside the home there is some flexibility. There is jealously – it is hard for my daughter with allergies to know she gets left out and as she gets older there are more questions about how common foods taste and a more obvious (and more frequent) emotional impact resulting from being different.

RG:  We tend not to celebrate accomplishments or occasions with food and instead, share experiences like going to a museum or play together or reward with other non-food treats like books, Legos or an outing with a grandparent.

MP:  Do you have any funny stories about sneaking the foods you crave when your kids can’t have them?

RG:  My husband and I love nuts. About six months after our daughter was diagnosed with a peanut allergy, we went on a vacation alone and reveled in the freedom of being able to eat peanut butter and nuts whenever we felt like it. We even kicked off the trip with a nut snack at the airport before our 8 a.m. outbound flight.

AB:  Living in a dairy-free home, we enjoy pizza and cheese plates on date nights!

MP:  What are the unexpected benefits that have resulted from having kids with food allergies?

AB & RG:  We all eat more healthy and clean, we eat at home more, our kids eat a greater variety of fruits and vegetables than other kids their age (since this is one of the food groups that is not restricted) and our kids don’t think of food first when it comes to celebrations and rewards.

MP:  What do you most appreciate from other parents regarding your kids’ allergies?

RG:  Just awareness and consideration. It is huge when parents are proactive about my child’s restrictions – getting the “all clear” before taking them to restaurants and asking about specific menu items.

AB:  We almost always bring our own pizza and dessert to birthday parties so our daughter can participate. When host parents make special arrangements to have her needs covered, it is a big bonus and we are so grateful for the break.

MP:  What are some of the resources you’ve used?

RG & AB:  Insight and recommendations from other allergy parents; Web sites with research, advocacy opportunities and tools from organizations such as Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE) and Mothers of Children Having Allergies (MOCHA); smart phones for checking for local restaurants that meet allergy needs when on-the-go and cookbooks by Kelly Rudnicki “The Food Allergy Mama”Easy, Fast Family Meals and Baking Book.

AB:  For an upcoming trip my family has planned, I am going to order a Well Amy delivery to our hotel to bridge gaps since I know their food is not very allergy friendly.

MP:  What is an allergy friendly recipe staple your kids love?

AB: Classic Mac N Cheese (dairy and egg free – can be adapted with rice pasta for gluten free families)

RG: Kids Bake ‘Em Cookies (dairy, egg and nut free).

This piece originally appeared on Smart Eating for Kids.