It’s Groundhog Day and I’m blogging about Valentine’s Day. Confused much?
I mention the celebrated whistle pig’s day mostly because I feel somewhat Bill Murray-esque to be tackling the topic of food allergies and parties yet again. I really do have some more recipes to share at some point, but I find gearing up for parties is one of the most challenging aspects of coping with kids and food allergies. It’s the aspect I most wish I had a road map or instruction book for when Max was little.
Also, as fast as some of the parties follow one another, it does sometimes feel as if we are trapped in that 1993 movie. As much as it seems as if we just put away the Christmas tree, Valentine’s Day is less than two weeks away. Planning is about to get under way for another class party.
I like to be upbeat. We have been beyond blessed and spoiled these last few years to have room parents that go above and beyond for Max. I have no doubt this next party will work itself out much the same way.
Yet at the same time these last few parties have been a revelation to me. Even in the best of situations surrounded by multiple caring adults and considerate alert teachers, parties still create frustrations.
While I very much appreciate the offers and love it when everything falls into place perfectly as it as with the last few parties, I find in practice it is hard to communicate the complexity of eliminating dairy.
When I try to explain, my examples come off even to me as clunky and long winded. The one I use most often is a mild reaction Max had a couple of years ago. It was pepperoni. We had gotten in a groove of making homemade pizzas. Jason mentioned he missed his favorite toppings: pepperoni and mushroom.
I didn’t think that sounded particularly kid friendly, but I diligently went to the store and read a few labels. I wasn’t new to this and while the pepperonis I previewed predictably had a number of fillers they all looked pretty much OK.
The big day came to serve up the pepperoni and Max was excited. And (unfortunately, as it turned out) he liked the taste of it.
He was three or four bites in and still raving about it when he said he tongue felt funny. It was maybe a minute later when the hives began to form around his mouth.
After dispensing the Benadryl and taking the pepperoni away, I went back to the label. It still looked OK, but after a little research I discovered “lactic acid starter culture,” which I was sure we had encountered before. A little more research, and I discovered it can be derived from dairy.
I concluded in this case that Hormel’s brand must have been. Ingredients are listed by weight. The starter culture was one of the last ingredients listed, which meant it didn’t have much. Nonetheless it was enough to cause some minor problems. The hives went away, but it was a reminder of how little it takes to set off a reaction.
By now most peoples eyes have glazed over but they cluck appropriately here. I don’t want to scare them or bore them or overstate my case, but I also want them to understand the potential seriousness.
I hope the example also points to how dairy can be hidden in places that most people would never suspect. While I can suggest a snack that is usually good for him, companies change ingredients often. If someone buys a different brand or a different flavor or even different size of an item, it can mean a change of ingredients. Occasionally snack size candy have different ingredients than the full size version, for instance. I mean who knew that? I wouldn’t have if I hadn’t been religiously reading labels and food allergy blogs for years.
While most people recognize milk, cheeses, yogurts and the like are out, few people unfamiliar with food allergies get that you have to watch out for everything from popcorn to bread to hotdogs to gum to french fries. McDonald’s french fries most famously contain a dairy derivative.
This leads to conversations like the one I had with a mom while r.s.v.p.ing to a birthday party a couple of months ago.
Me: “I know you know about Max’s food allergies. I just wanted to check about the menu: if you were going to have pizza or anything like that at the party. I wasn’t sure because of the time.”
Sweet mom: “Well we were just starting to think about that. What can we have that he can have? Would hotdogs work?”
How to answer?! The truth is hotdogs could work, but you’d have to carefully pick both a bun and a brand of hotdog. That means reading the label, and it’s going to mean knowing the words for hidden dairy or in the case of the hotdogs understanding the kosher system.
The new labeling system, which requires companies to clearly disclose when a product contains one of the top allergens, is designed to make reading labels easier, but it’s not uncommon for products not to include this or worse to only boldface certain allergens but not others.
I could explain all of this, but it’s going to require some time and effort, and I’m still going to want to double check it when I get there. When you’re a guest at a party, that is the last kind of imposition you want to place on someone. Plus Max is getting to the age where fitting in is important, and the less fuss the better.
That very sweet mom eventually accepted my protestations that he would be fine with whatever she planned and went with pizza. Max brought his own.
As promised he was fine with that, but I think the mom may have felt hurt that her well-meaning attempt at extra effort was seemingly rebuffed.
I hate for her to feel that way because I appreciated her concern. I know she was sincere.
He is still mostly so pleased when someone goes the extra mile and makes or serves something for him that he can have.
A room mom last year went above and beyond to make him his own special treat bag full of only safe treats. The look on his face when he got home and dumped the bag’s contents on the table and got to decide what to eat first instead of what to give back was pure happiness.
The year before he had been excited that the room moms (including the mom in the party story above) had decided to have a serve-yourself, build-your-own goodie bag so he could pick out the treats that were safe for him without having the other kids feel deprived. Brilliant!
The cotton candy machine and all those safe fruit and treats were equally well received at the Christmas party this year. Just getting to ooh and aah over the cotton candy machine as it came in the room went a long way to making him feel a part of the group, I think.
Still, there are times I just say no. We joined a new church this summer. By early fall, the church has already had a couple of potlucks, both of which we skipped despite multiple invitations to stay. Every time we have cut out early Max reminds me of the potlucks we have gone to in the past where I have made him several dishes and then we have supplemented with dishes from a few trusted friends. While I am sure we could do that again and I am sure we would find many kind people willing to help us, it is an effort I don’t always feel like making.
At the same time, he is getting to the age where fitting in is paramount. I would love to take advantage of more of these opportunities to have him included, but as I think I discovered this week it can be exhausting and while he has in his life only had mild reactions like hives and itching after eating party food, those minor reactions have happened frequently. The whole process still feels risky.
That risk illustrated by both the pepperoni example and his anaphylactic reaction to the Burger King burger just last summer (see Our Journey) are still always in the back of mind even as I am truly appreciative and humbled by just how many people are around trying to make it easier on both him and us.