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Our Experience of Navigating Allergies

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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.)

The Challenges

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.

The Game-Changer

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.

And a few of my favorite resources for recipes and ideas: Oh She Glows, Cookie and Kate, Minimalist Baker, Allergy Awesomeness

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 :)

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  1. Darby

    June 13th, 2019 at 12:08 pm

    Thank you so much for sharing! I never realized just how much this allergy could affect. I am taking notes to be more aware of the things I do (and let Rory do). I am always looking for easy, “healthy” meal ideas for Rory and I am taking note of a few you listed. You’re doing great, Lisa! :)

  2. Lisa

    June 18th, 2019 at 8:41 pm

    I can say with confidence that any small measures taken will be so appreciated by families with allergies! And so glad you found some new meal ideas here too! :) xoxo

  3. Sarah

    June 13th, 2019 at 12:50 pm

    Thank you so much for sharing your experience. My 18mo is allergic to eggs, peanuts and some tree nuts. I am encouraged by your experience with a second doctor. We have an appointment next month with a new allergist, and I wish I had thought to find a new one sooner.

    Thank you for mentioning the difference between intolerance and allergies! A friend’s son is intolerant to gluten (which I know is a challenge of its own!), but not anywhere near as scary as anaphylactic allergies. Our son is starting a half day preschool in the fall and I am already nervous about everything, even though the school seems to be accommodating.

  4. Lisa

    June 18th, 2019 at 8:39 pm

    I will be praying that your experience with your new allergist is a positive one!! I truly can’t emphasize enough what a big difference having that professional support system we truly trust has made for us.

    I’m with you on school nerves–Charlie is starting in the fall too. I’m hoping to sit down with his teachers before school starts to review our plan for navigating it, but I know it’s going to be a whole new world.

  5. Gillian

    June 13th, 2019 at 1:15 pm

    Thank you very much for sharing! I truly found it enlightening as a non food allergy family. I appreciate knowing how to support others with allergies.

    My husband had an anaphylactic reaction when we were dating in high school— 15 years later it still gives me chills to think about. Thanks for your post!

  6. Lisa

    June 18th, 2019 at 8:36 pm

    I’m so happy to hear that! Honestly, something as simple as asking how you can help keep a child safe can mean the world to a family dealing with allergies. So often, we have to be the ones to speak up first, so any small bit of support means the world!
    Anaphylaxis is truly terrifying. We’re grateful every day that it has not happened to Charlie. I’m so glad your husband was okay!

  7. Mary

    June 13th, 2019 at 2:50 pm

    You guys are awesome! I loved reading about what he eats. You should be proud of all the hard work that you do for him, especially regarding preparing lots of meals for him. Since our kids don’t have the allergies, I take for granted that we can give them convenient food sometimes. We love Charlie so much!

  8. Lisa

    June 18th, 2019 at 8:33 pm

    Aw, we love y’all!! Thank you so much for your encouragement! xoxo

  9. Shannon

    June 13th, 2019 at 4:11 pm

    As a fellow dairy allergy mom, I loved this post and it was super encouraging. We had a similar bad experience with our first allergist and were clueless and overwhelmed. The biggest help I had was a fellow dairy allergy mom literally walk the aisles of our local grocery store. She taught me how to read labels and shop for a dairy allergy. She also taught me a lot of how the immune systems play a huge factor into the severity of a reaction and how to manage birthday parties and playplaces without making her allergy single her out or feel punished. Always on the hunt for new meal suggestions and snacks too so your list was super helpful!

  10. Lisa

    June 18th, 2019 at 8:31 pm

    I’m so happy you were encouraged and found some new ideas from this post. I’d love to hear any of your go-tos as well :) So awesome that you had another mama living this out as a resource–I wish I could’ve tagged along on that grocery store trip! :)

  11. Summer

    June 13th, 2019 at 7:42 pm

    What an amazing mom you are!! Love this post. I can’t imagine navigating a toddler w food allergies (though we have intolerances in our home). You’ve clearly invested much time making his food journey fun & enjoyable while keeping him safe. You’ve inspired me to be more creative in the kitchen, despite the challenges of feeding sensitive kids safely & healthfully!! And you’ve definitely given me new recipe ideas :) I pray your son is fully healed of his allergies & you guys get to enjoy a whole new world of food together!

  12. Lisa

    June 18th, 2019 at 8:29 pm

    Thank you so, so much for your encouragement and prayers! Truly means so much to me. It has been a process and a learning experience, and we still have so much more we can learn. I have been especially inspired by the cookbook “Pure Delicous” by Heather Christo and the blog Allergy Awesomeness. Both women’s children have many more restrictions than Charlie but they refuse to let it steal the joy of food/eating. Definitely check them out if you’re navigating food intolerances too :)

  13. Em

    June 13th, 2019 at 8:57 pm

    You’re doing such a great job, mama! As an IRL friend, I love having this list of Charlie-friendly foods. We’ll be ready for our next playdate! :)

  14. Lisa

    June 18th, 2019 at 8:26 pm

    We appreciate that so much!! Let’s make that play date happen soon :)

  15. Kate

    June 13th, 2019 at 11:11 pm

    I discovered I have a tree nut allergy when I was in college – ate some pistachios, and spent the night in the ER with a Benadryl IV. It was a hard adjustment to make, since I wasn’t used to having to keep track of an Epi Pen, read ALL the labels (I hadn’t eaten nuts much before anyway, so that wasn’t a huge loss, but there are so many things with “may contain” on the label!), and ask about everything I eat in restaurants. I’ve often thought about how hard an allergy diagnosis must be for families with small children, who might not understand what they can and can’t eat.

    I’ve been very very careful and haven’t had a reaction in years, but one of the most frustrating aspects at this point is that I can’t eat much in social settings and often have to turn down others’ hospitality. I never eat at work events where people bring in food, and probably would have a hard time signing up for a meal train after having a baby or anything like that. When I do eat at friends’ houses, I ask to read all the ingredient labels myself (which feels rude, but I know people understand!).

    I’ll end this super long comment with a tip :) – when flying Southwest, you’re able to mark a nut allergy on your ticket. This allows you to board early to wipe off your seat/choose a seat without food crumbs from the previous passenger, they won’t serve peanuts on the flight, and they’ll announce that there’s an allergy and ask other passengers not to eat snacks containing nuts!

  16. Lisa

    June 18th, 2019 at 8:25 pm

    Thank you so much for sharing your experience. It’s really interesting to me to hear from the perspective of an adult who has food allergies, since neither Dave nor I do and this topic is so Charlie-centric to us right now! I definitely related to what you said about asking about everything in restaurants or at friend’s houses though. I admit, I had to laugh when Charlie was really little and could imitate me saying “dairy, egg, peanut, almond” since he heard it so often!
    Oooh, and thank you for the Southwest tip!! One more reason to love them :)

  17. Dana

    June 19th, 2019 at 10:37 am

    NO MILK AND NO EGGS! HOW AM I SUPPOSED TO RUN A FARM WITH NO MILK AND NO EGGS?! BAH! Charlie and Farmer Brown can relate :P
    He’s come so far!! You are awesome and we should all eat a healthy diet like Charlie.


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