Please bear with me for a few disclaimers :) As you read this, please remember that this is our unique experience and literally every child/family who deals with allergies is completely different. I faint at the sight of blood so it is safe to say I am most definitely not a doctor and nothing I say should ever be taken as medical advice, ha! I do not want to get into any semblance of a discussion about what causes food allergies. I have spent enough time over the last two years praying for healing from self-imposed guilt that “I must have done something wrong,” and am now grateful to have an amazing allergist I trust as my resource for advice in this area. I deeply hope that anyone going through this has a trusted professional in their corner too (more on that later). Overall, friends, I just know this can be a touchy subject for some people and it feels really vulnerable to share about our experience, especially since it’s something about my child. My hope in sharing at all is that other families navigating allergies may feel less alone (because it can be very isolating), and readers who know someone navigating allergies (I’m willing to bet that means everyone) can get a glimpse into some of the unique challenges this situation entails and how you can best walk alongside us. Thank you in advance for your kindness, should you choose to comment!
Where We Were and Where We Are Now
Our first suspicions of Charlie’s allergies came up when he was 4-5 months old. On two separate occasions, his skin came into contact with dairy and peanut, both of which gave him a mild rash. Because of that, we had him tested for both before trying to give him any once he started solids, and after multiple rounds of tests (since we got a false negative for peanut the first time), he ultimately tested positive for both. After those tests, we gave him almond butter and he had the same reaction, then we tested that and it was positive as well. A day or two after all those tests, we gave him egg, and he had the same reaction. We knew it was an allergy, but didn’t rush back in for tests–we just avoided it and added egg to the tests we did six months later, and found that, sure enough, he was allergic to that too.
An important distinction: there’s a big difference between a food intolerance and a food allergy. Allergies are an immune reaction rather than a digestive one, though symptoms can manifest in the digestive system. I have seen firsthand in some of my closest friends how debilitating intolerances can be and don’t want to downplay that at all! The difference, though, is that allergies always come with a possibility of anaphylaxis, which can be fatal. Let that sink in…for some families, this literally means their child’s life is at risk if they come into contact with an allergen (even if they don’t eat it). Terrifying. One of the most frustrating parts of allergies is that one reaction does not determine another. Even though Charlie has only ever had relatively mild reactions from his allergens (praise God), it does not mean he will never have an anaphylactic reaction. Because of that, we completely avoid his allergens in all forms, cooked or uncooked, anything that may have come into contact with those things, as well as anything that “may contain” his allergens, unless advised otherwise specifically by his allergist. We never go anywhere without an Epipen and Benadryl, and if we’re eating out, I always ask if food we want for him has come into contact with dairy or peanut, even if it’s something that most likely hasn’t.
Now, two years from the start of this experience, I’m happy to report that things have improved. Last fall, we found out Charlie had outgrown his egg and almond allergies. Any progress is a huge blessing, so we were so grateful for this development! We did our second baked milk challenge last week, and he was able to tolerate considerably more than he could six months ago, so we are optimistic about that too. (I’m not going to get into our strategies and treatments we’ve carefully come up with alongside our doctor for Charlie’s specific case, since again, that is extremely personal and everyone is different, so it would not be helpful for me to share.)
At home, keeping Charlie away from the things he’s allergic to is no big deal. The outside world, though, is another story. Just a few weeks ago, I brought him with me to the car dealership so I could get an oil change, and when we went to the kids area, I realized there was a popcorn machine nearby, and buttered popcorn crumbs were everywhere. I almost started hyperventilating with nerves…kids who ate the popcorn played with those toys, which meant it wasn’t safe for Charlie to touch them. We proceeded to spend the hour sitting in the different cars in the showroom! I’ve followed him around like a hawk at birthday parties to keep him away from frosting-covered fingers and innocently shared Goldfish crackers, and we’ve promptly left play places when I’ve seen parents ignoring “no food allowed” signs and giving their kids dairy-laden snacks before letting them go right back to playing without thoroughly washing their hands. We no longer go to some of our favorite restaurants because they don’t use sufficient protocol for avoiding cross-contamination of allergens. Especially at Charlie’s age, when he doesn’t completely understand what he can and can’t eat, we have to do some “helicopter parenting” to keep him away from foods that are dangerous to him. I don’t like parenting that way, but when the alternative is holing up at home, it’s the better option.
Emotionally, everything instantly improved last fall when we switched allergists. With our first allergist, they ordered lots of bloodwork for Charlie every six months (traumatizing to a small child–he is still terrified of Band-Aids as a result), didn’t explain anything to our satisfaction, and basically told us there was no hope of anything changing and good luck to us. After ranting to one of my friends, she suggested that we try UNC’s pediatric allergists since UNC is a research hospital and may be more open to different strategies. I cannot emphasize enough how much we LOVE our new doctor at UNC. She views our case individually (and allergies are wildly different from one person to another), is so kind and professional, and truly cares about how these allergies affect our lives. Whereas the last allergist just sent us on our way, UNC worked with us to come up with actual game plans. Having them in our corner has given us so many answers, but even more, has given us so much hope…not just that we may see Charlie’s allergies change, but that we have trusted support if this is his situation for the long-term. If you’re in the Triangle, I can’t recommend them enough, but if not, consider looking into any research hospitals in your area for what I hope would be a similar approach to this deeply complex field.
How We Make It Work
One of the few “plus sides” of a dairy allergy? Charlie eats really healthily compared to a lot of kids his age, since so many classic “kid foods” are dairy-centric and not an option for him! It always feels like a breakthrough to find a new food or recipe we can add to his repertoire, so here’s a big list of some things he eats*, off the top of my head.
Breakfasts: oatmeal with almond milk and honey, fruit, Cheerios or Oatmeal Squares and almond milk, scrambled eggs, cinnamon toast made with Ezekiel bread and Earth Balance, avocado toast with Ezekiel bread, green smoothies (usually almond milk, banana, spinach, flax seed, cinnamon, and vanilla), dairy-free pancakes (Love Real Food has dairy-free modifications listed with each recipe), French toast made with Ezekiel bread and almond milk (Note: when he was allergic to almond, we used Trader Joe’s coconut milk or unsweetened Ripple for things like cereal and oatmeal.)
Lunches: some combination of turkey or ham roll-ups (bought pre-packaged, not from the deli, where cross-contamination is too hard to confidently avoid), hummus “quesadillas” (hummus on a Trader Joe’s whole wheat tortilla, cut in triangles), almond butter and jelly sandwiches on Ezekiel bread, bell pepper sticks or Trader Joe’s Multigrain Pita Bite crackers with hummus, fruit, Trader Joe’s Chicken Sausage (we like the sun-dried tomato one best)
Dinners: We try to give him whatever we’re eating, or at least part of whatever we’re eating. A few examples include:
– Cajun salmon (I put less seasoning on Charlie’s piece), roasted broccoli, and brown rice
– Turkey tacos (we give him the turkey, dairy-free tortilla, and avocado)
– Grilled chicken and vegetables
– Hamburgers (no bun) and sweet potato fries
If we’re eating something he can’t eat (like pizza after he goes to bed), we usually serve him Golden Platter organic chicken nuggets or Aidell’s pineapple teriyaki meatballs (both from Costco and always in our freezer) with a vegetable and whole wheat pasta with tomato sauce or olive oil. I try to time non-Charlie-safe meals for days when we will have leftovers for him, but usually, Dave and I stick to things Charlie can eat, since he tends to eat more enthusiastically when we are all having the same thing :)
Out to eat: Our go-tos for him are grilled nuggets and fruit at Chick Fil A, guacamole, black beans, and brown rice at Chipotle (he devours this!), scrambled eggs, sausage, and roasted potatoes at many brunch spots (if the restaurant’s sausage doesn’t contain dairy, it’s easy for most places to make this dairy-free), a burger without a bun and fries at most lunch/dinner restaurants. Honestly, we don’t attempt much outside of these things.
Snacks: fruit, veggie straws, Trader Joe’s coconut milk yogurt, Cheerios, Pressed by Kind bars, applesauce pouches, Nature’s Bakery fig bars
Treats: Trader Joe’s soft-baked snickerdoodles, Annie’s bunny grahams, graham crackers, apple juice, coconut milk ice cream at Two Roosters, pictured in the first photo :)
*Note: a handful of these things would not work for people with severe or life-threatening allergies, since they are manufactured in facilities that use dairy/peanut. If that is your situation, PLEASE call the facilities to confirm something will be safe for your unique case.
How to Support a Family Dealing with Food Allergies
First and foremost, understand and acknowledge that allergies are serious, and join the parents in ensuring an allergen-free environment when your kids are together. I completely understand it is inconvenient to deviate from your own child’s typical meals or snacks if they’ll be spending time with a friend with allergies (trust me, it can be inconvenient to us every meal of every day!), but I’m sure everyone agrees that the safety of children always needs to come first. One of the most loving things some of our friends have done for us was pack only Charlie-safe snacks for their son when we went on a trip to Asheville together last year. It made the entire weekend so much more enjoyable and relaxing for Dave and me! Any time someone asks how they can accommodate Charlie or makes sure there’s a safe food for him at a birthday party or dinner means so, so much to us. It’s hard enough to turn down fun experiences and invitations if we know it won’t be a safe environment for him (like a pizza party), so being able to say yes to something and know he can partake is always a blessing.
I hope this post was helpful, whether you are navigating your child’s allergies yourself (big hugs to the handful of mamas who have emailed me about this over the last year!) or you know someone who is. Thank you, as always, for reading, if you’ve made it this far :)