Sunday, July 6, 2014

Coping With Allergies Part 2: Working With Your New Restrictions

Note:  You can read Part 1 of this series HERE.

So, now you have found out what your child/you are allergic or sensitive to.  You have your dietary recommendations in your hand, have your pile of print outs from the internet to help you figure out what else contains the allergens you need to avoid.  You have found allergic friends through blogs, forums or other methods.  And now you sit, staring at your kitchen cabinets with your mouth hanging open in a bewildered look that is half confusion and half scream and wondering what to do now.

And so we come to step 4 of the coping with allergies process which is one of the steps that hurts.  And that is this...

The beginning of my "cleaners" purge
4.  Purge the Allergens (if you have to) or Redo How Things are Stored (if you can)

When my son was diagnosed with his garlic allergy, I realized how much garlic hides in products.  Since his garlic and peanut allergy were life threatening, I knew I had to purge the allergens out of the house completely to avoid cross contamination or having him accidentally ingesting something that could potentially send him into anaphylactic shock if I wasn't paying enough attention.  So, I went through my cabinets ruthlessly and just got rid of anything that wasn't safe.  Period.  My family members loved me during this time as they got a lot of free food, shampoos (to avoid the contact allergies that my poor son had as well), name it.  Having been a coupon queen before the allergies hit, this was a REALLY depressing series of events for me at the time. 

Now, my recommendation is that if the allergies you have to cope with aren't life threatening and you are confident that you can keep your safe foods segmented off from the rest of your food, I'd recommend doing just that.  There is no point in getting rid of all of your tomato products, for instance, and only keeping garlic free ones in the house if your child doesn't like tomatoes anyway.  But, you're going to quickly realize that allergy free food tends to be expensive, so you want to make sure you keep that food segmented off, in rodent proof containers and safe from other people accidentally eating it because they are hungry (for instance my son's nut free M&M's cost me 5.00 to 6.00 per bag, so they get special placement and my daughter only gets to eat them as a very occasional treat). 

You have to work within your limitations.  If you are sure you can keep things clean and uncontaminated, you could probably just start buying safe food, keep it separate from the rest of the food and call it good.  But, if you have life threatening allergies or aren't confident in your ability to keep track (like me), you probably just want to get rid of anything you know of as unsafe and start from the ground floor up.
5.  Prepare to Have Your Universe Expand (Literally)
I feel so bad when someone e-mails me or finds me on the street and starts with, "My child was just diagnosed with (this or that allergy).  Where do I find safe food?"

That is a question where you get an awkward smile on your face and have to resist the urge to laugh inappropriately because you know you're about to ruin a person's day.  Because, folks, "safe food"?  It's a relative term.

My children, between the two of them, have various allergies and sensitivities and it seems like it's hard to keep on top of what is "safe" for them to eat at times.  Because, the bad part is that even once you have the list of foods you've found that your child can eat?  It doesn't mean that the food is "safe".  That's the part that just burns allergic parents everywhere.  For instance there was a certain chip that my son loved and ate constantly.  Suddenly he started breaking out from it and I couldn't figure out why.  Turns out that the company started putting a coconut oil derivative in the "natural flavors" section of their product.  So, once I found that out, one more food that I thought was "safe" suddenly wasn't.  This happens a lot, so stay on your guard when it comes to any processed foods!

As for safe food at home.  Prepare for your universe, and pantry, to expand beyond what you thought possible.  For instance, in the case of gluten sensitivity, I watched my old "Flour", "Sugar", "Bread Flour" and "Coffee" containers on my counter-tops  get replaced by; "Brown Rice Flour", "Sweet White Rice Flour", "Sorghum Flour", "Tapioca Starch", "Guar Gum", and "Gluten Free Flour Blend" (which I'm still working on the perfect counter top arrangement for us).  My coffee no longer even had a spot to sit on my counter-tops and other gluten free flours overflowed into my hallway closet (that now functions as a kitchen closet now) and the bottom drawer in my fridge became yet another spot for gluten free flours (mainly it's where I store the almond flour).  The wheat containing flours ended up contained in a certain spot in my downstairs pantry.  And that's just day to day baking supplies. 

Then there are safe snacks.  If you can find ones your child can have and are portable (and that they'll eat...that one I'm still hit or miss with), you quickly find that sites like and Vitacost are your friends.  I buy safe snacks in bulk and the more bulk the better because if you run out of nut free and oat free granola bars?  You can't really go down to the stores around here and buy more.  Run out of baking powder?  If your child has a sensitivity to corn and potato you'd better hope you have a large amount of cream of tartar in your cabinets to make more baking powder or you're stuck. 

When you live about 1/3 of your week in your car/on the go (like us with therapies and such), these snacks become a necessary lifeline and one that I would not do without.

So you quickly come to realize that yeah, your grocery bill just doubled on a weekly basis, but now you're going to have to find room to store a bunch of new things you didn't have to pre-allergies.  And if you're me, you also have to buy containers to make sure those items are in rodent proof containers so you don't lose a fortune should you get a rodent invading your abode.  Consider "safe food" to be a priceless investment that you will continue to invest in for years to come.  If you need to find space, trust me, you can find space in unlikely places (like my hallway closet storage area, or try under beds, in a corner of your master bedroom closet, etc.).
Various things in my Spice Cabinet
6.  Start Small:  How to Start Cooking Safe Foods
When you first have to start actively living with an allergy, it can be overwhelming.  My advice is to make a small list of foods you know are now safe.  Go out and get groceries you can eat.  Even a couple of familiar comforting items will make a world of difference in how you tackle other things.  For instance the first thing I did with my son's peanut allergy was to go online and find treats that he'd eat as I knew that was the thing he was going to miss the most and when I had to tackle the garlic allergy...well I knew that I could cook with shallots, meat was okay, and salt and pepper could do in a pinch until I figured the rest of it out. 

Once you are comfortable that you're not going to starve you can move onto the next step.  Which is then to tackle the problem areas that you realize the store can't help you with.  The easiest way to do this, and really the ONLY way to tackle this is to start small.  Literally.  Find every small minute thing in a recipe, figure out if it is safe.  If it is not, make your own.  And move onto the next ingredient.  Repeat.  For instance, if your child was diagnosed with a severe corn allergy and you want to make brownies.  Yes, you can get corn free baking powder at the store.  The flour might be safe.  You can find corn free cocoa powder.  But, if you don't think small first and make your vanilla extract with safe ingredients before you even begin all of that work buying safe products was for naught.

One of the first things I did when my son was diagnosed with his garlic allergy was to start making my own chili powder.  Why?  Well it turns out that chili powder is the basis for a LOT of different seasoning blends.  By making chili powder I was able to open the door to making spice blends, taco seasoning and so forth.  Which led to FLAVOR going into food.  Which was so important to making cooking...well...normal again.

Once you start getting your small stones in place, a foundation will slowly start to form in your culinary life, which will become second nature to you in time.  Trust me.

I learned that shallots were a decent substitute for raw garlic, that quinoa flakes were an okay substitute for oats in some recipes (downright ucky in others) and slowly but surely as I came up with recipes that my entire family could eat, I started to feel in control again.  And you will too.  Start small.  I can not stress that enough.  Find substitution foods where you can to make your life easier.  I almost cried when I found Annie's ketchup was garlic free (at the time it was garlic free anyway...not sure if it still is).  It was the same way when I found that I could buy a few brands of canned or boxed tomatoes that were garlic free and that there was a brand of potato chips that weren't off limits with my daughter's corn allergy.  This is where having allergic friends comes in handy as they can point you toward those few products that will save you time and effort to put that time and effort into other things liking cooking food that your family can eat and enjoy.  And you'll quickly find that time becomes a premium with allergies and any product that makes your life simpler is a God send.
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7.  Finding Safe Products.  The Organic Food Section is Your Friend.

The shorter an ingredient list on a nutrition label, the better.  The less chemicals you have to look up online, the better.  Both of those items will lead you inevitably to the organic food section at your local store because, trust me, that is where the holy grail of allergy free foods are.  And yes, you will pay more for them. 

Is it worth it?  In my opinion heck yeah!  Now mind you, once you find the foods you can eat?  Hit Amazon.  I buy a lot in bulk from them that is WAY cheaper than buying it at the store.  Just be careful with Amazon, because they are SOMETIMES cheaper, but not always.  Like I added a gluten free cereal that I found to my Amazon cart, wanting to get it for schools come August and found that our local Carrs carried the exact same cereal, but for 2.00 cheaper regular price than on Amazon.  So, shop around.

If you aren't sure if your kid will like something?  I recommend Vitacost (or  Yes, they have a 10.00 shipping charge to Alaska, but you can order ONE of an item if you want in a lot of cases, or the lots you have to order in are relatively small (three, etc, in the case of Vitacost anyway), so you won't end up with 12 of something your child wouldn't eat if you threatened them with a painful death.

And, this is important, no matter how often you buy the product, ALWAYS check the nutrition label to make sure those ingredients haven't changed.  Because they can and that could lead to problems.

And this next one isn't really a step or a coping skill so much as a warning, because I ran into it myself.

8.  Do NOT Expect Immediate Improvement

When I started taking the allergens out of my son's diet, I really expected...I don't know...his eczema to clear up and his mood to improve and life to get rosy in a week or less.  So, here we are two and a half years later.  His eczema still flares and the causes are a mystery.  He still has to take Zyrtec a couple of times a week just to keep environmental allergies in tact and he just had to start Singulair on top of it.  He is still autistic (I know.  Stupid right?  But, honestly, I had hopes that once I got his allergies under control his autism would get better.  What did make the autism easier for him, and us, to cope with?  Therapies, a good school and hard work.  Still worth it though :). 

Now mind you, Alvah's eczema isn't HALF what it used to be.  Sure, he flares, but not as badly as he used to by far.  Now here's the kicker folks.  It took a YEAR before I honest to goodness noticed an improvement in his eczema.  Why?  Well, when your gut is irritated by allergens and intolerances, it takes a long time for that system to de-irritate enough to have things start working properly.  And that time varies.  So, please, do NOT give up getting allergens out of yours or a loved ones diet because you don't notice any difference for a long while.  Trust me, it'll pay off.  It just takes that annoying thing called time.
And finally #9, which is, in my mind, one of the most important lessons you'll ever learn.
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9.  You Are Going to Make Mistakes!
Everyone makes mistakes.  We are all human.  No matter how careful you are, mistakes happen.  That is why we carry epi-pens and why we read an article and think, "Crap!  I didn't know that!"  When my daughter got diagnosed with the corn I had no idea what that all entailed and I made SO many mistakes with the garlic allergy at first it blows my mind looking back on it (like buying 70 lbs of tomatoes to make tomato everything...tomato sauce, salsa, tomato juice, etc without garlic in it and then coming to realize that there actually WERE canned products I could buy that would get the job done for tomatoes). 

If there is one thing I've learned from having to deal with allergies is that yes, you are going to make mistakes.  All you can do is learn from them, move on, mourn when necessary, laugh when you can and just live as a fulfilling of a life as possible with the new restrictions you have to deal with.  I always joke, "Well at least we're not allergic to oxygen" and just try to do as well as I can with the lot I am given.
Well, I hope that this little bit of experience has helped a few of you feel more in control through the roller coaster ride that is allergies and maybe make you realize that you aren't alone in the world.  There are others of us who can safely say, "We've been there too."

Enjoy life!  Even with Allergies!

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