In the last 20 years, the frequency of food allergies has increased by about 50%. In fact, that’s why the level of food safety has also increased dramatically in schools and daycares. The classroom is where there are the most children with various allergies, so that’s why rules like no homemade muffins or cupcakes for snacks were created. From the outside, allergies can be frightening, but… what does a family caught in this situation really go through?
Meet the Marois family and their four children
To better understand the situation from an insider’s point of view, this week we met a really special family. For 17 years, they have been living with food allergies on a daily basis. Meet the Marois family. Luc and Marie are the proud parents of four children, Simon (17 years old), Florence (15 years old), Rosalie (12 years old) and Sarah (8 years old).
First signs: Discovering allergies
At birth, Simon was a beautiful baby in perfect health. At 9 months, he started eating “real food” that made him regurgitate. This didn’t concern anyone. Simon was simply categorized as a “difficult child”, so his parents decided to cut dairy products from his diet. His reactions decreased suddenly, but didn’t disappear completely. After a many tests, everything became clear: Simon was allergic to milk, eggs, peanuts, raw potatoes and some medication!
New reality, new way of life!
As soon as her son’s allergies were confirmed, Marie had to get used to a new way of life gradually. With an allergic child so young, leaving a food allergen lying around in close range was really dangerous. Her first reaction was perfectly normal: “But what can I cook for him?” Then she realized that she would have to be even more careful and started looking for new recipes. As the years passed, Marie became an expert in food safety and developed many ways to keep Simon out of harm’s way. So here are the tricks that she’s adopted over time. They worked really well for her, but it’s up to you to decide which ones are appropriate for your situation!
TRICKS that the Marois family has developed over time
Checking ingredients: an absolute must
Carefully read the list of ingredients on all products before buying them. Many snacks and desserts say “may contain” which can be misleading. It’s always better not to take risks and leave those products aside as this warning is often there to protect manufacturers in case something happens.
Learn which product derivatives her son was allergic to because in the past, some manufacturers designate ingredients as milk, eggs and peanuts under other names on the product labels. Health Canada’s website offers a list of the ten priority food allergens with all the names they can also have on the label. As labelling requirements have become stricter today, using these names is normally prohibited. However, if you see one of them, don’t buy the product.
Go to grocery stores specially built to allow parents of allergic children to shop more easily, without living disappointment after disappointment when seeing the list of ingredients. The company Namaste Foods offers its customers a wide variety of healthy products without allergens that you can buy online, or in specific grocery stores chains across Canada. Scattered across Québec, there are also Rachelle-Béry health food stores that have organic and natural products. This means that it’s always possible to see what products really contain!
Hygiene before everything
Hygiene is the word of the day at the Marois house. Handling anything in the kitchen or leaving the table without washing your hands isn’t allowed! We often tell kids to wash their hands before eating, but when there is a child with severe allergies around, it’s even more important to do so. A simple forgotten drop of milk can cause an allergic reaction for Simon.
Removing allergenic products, not a solution
According Marie, removing allergenic products from the home is not a solution she recommends to protect her child. Since he was young, Simon learned to look at a product to know if it was dangerous or not. If all products were banned from the home, when he went to a friend’s house, he wouldn’t have necessarily developed his skills enough to differentiate the products that were safe for him from the dangerous ones.
Keep allergenic products out of children’s reach
Luc and Marie quickly learned that Simon, who was curious by nature, loved opening cupboards and the fridge door, and touching everything in sight. They didn’t have any other choice but to remove unsafe foods from his reach.
They started by moving the unsafe foods to the upper cupboards so that they were impossible for their child to get to. Then for maximum safety, they installed a child-proof lock on the fridge door. As soon as Simon was old enough to understand that he should stay away from certain foods, his parents removed the lock.
Everyone uses a placemat
At the Marois home, everyone has their own placemat. Simon washes his after each meal to avoid contamination, then stores it in a safe place.
Sometimes Simon has trouble figuring things out in a fully-stocked fridge. Which dishes can he eat? The family quickly implemented a very simple colour scheme to help organize the fridge. If a plate has a green sticker, it’s okay to touch. If there is a red sticker, it’s not. This method allows the kids themselves to prepare dishes themselves as long as they can identify the right colour.
Risk-free method for pots: the double wash
Marie started the good habit of always pre-washing the pots and serving dishes, then putting them in the dishwasher for a second washing. She can be sure that they won’t be contaminated anymore and that they won’t dirty the other items in the dishwasher.
Eat homemade food
When Marie realized that the majority of desserts and prepared foods contained eggs, milk, peanuts or traces of one or many of these, she started cooking at home more often. With a little research at the library, cookbooks written especially for people with food allergies can be found. Here are a few examples: Yummy Yum for Everyone: A Childrens Allergy Cookbook, Allergy-free Cookcook, The Whole food Allergy Cookbook 2nd Edition, The Kid-Friendly Food Allergy That Are Wheat-Free, Gluten-Free, Dairy-Free, Nut-Free, Egg-Free and Low in Sugar. Some sites have a « cooking without allergens » sections like Real Food, Allergy free, Allergic Living, All recipes Canada and even Facebook, which is sure to please everyone because it offers a variety of safe recipes according to each person’s allergies.
Be with your child during play dates
“Parents don’t all understand the seriousness of food allergies. Some tell themselves that the allergic child should simply not overindulge in these foods or that cooking the food will make it okay. Others forget that most desserts have milk or eggs, if not both. As for me, my son will end up in the emergency room at the hospital if he comes into contact with ONE single drop of milk. We don’t mess around with that!” – Marie Marois
It was Simon’s 2nd birthday when his mother realized that not all parents are sensitive to this food problem. She agreed to offer a glass of milk to one of Simon’s friends even though she had clearly warned the friend’s mother to make sure he didn’t spill it and to rinse the glass right after. The friend’s mother wasn’t very careful and just left the empty glass under her child’s chair. Simon, who loved to touch everything, went looking for the glass and drank the last drop. The whole party was instantly ruined as Simon started having trouble breathing and had to be brought to the hospital emergency room.
Compromise with other family members
Simon’s allergies don’t have a huge impact on his sisters’ lives. Why make everyone in the family drink soya milk when only one person is allergic? At the Marois home, children have always been allowed to eat foods that contain allergens: milk, eggs, yoghurt, mayonnaise, cheese, butter, cookies, chocolate… They just have to be extra careful, clean their placemats well, eat at the kitchen table (and not in the living room) and wash their hands properly afterwards! As a precaution, the whole family has deprived themselves of all foods containing peanuts. It’s only been a little while since peanuts have reclaimed their place in the family pantry!
Always find an equivalent of the meal
“Whenever Simon was invited to a friend’s party, he was sad because he couldn’t eat the birthday cake with the other kids. So I always brought an equivalent for him: a sweet muffin or cupcake without eggs or milk, that he could enjoy it at the same time as his friends without feeling left out!” – Marie Marois
Young allergic children don’t always understand why they’re told no, why they’re the only ones who can’t enjoy certain dishes or desserts that seem really delicious. By giving them similar meals, children will forget that they were sad because they missed out on something and will even feel special to be able to eat something that’s unique that nobody else is allowed to eat. As for Simon, he liked it when his mother brought him muffins without allergens for all his friends because he L-O-V-E-D to share.
What resources are out there?
Despite the fact that she felt disoriented when she took her first few steps in the realm of food allergy, Marie gradually discovered many resources that made her life easier while reassuring her. These resources also helped her understand that she should consider herself lucky because her son is in perfect health even though he has food allergies.
Join a support group
By speaking with other parents living in similar situations, Marie could talk about her worries, questions and personal discoveries. She is part of a support group on Facebook where members can write about and respond to anytime in order share their experiences and discoveries in a respectful environment.
Refer to the experts
Many experts dedicate their lives to food allergies in order to help parents. Marie is indeed a fan of Marie-Josée Bettez, author, blogger and speaker who devotes her career to helping families fight food allergies. Herself the mother of a boy living with 30-odd allergies, she wanted to respond to a pressing need to build a community in order to break the isolation and questioning regarding this matter. Marie very often refers to her blog, Facebook page, as well as Déjouer les allergies alimentaires her book about fighting food allergies. Health Canada’s website can also be a very useful source as it has a list of the top ten food allergens, as well as a detailed page for each one to help people learn everything about food, allergic reactions and how to protect yourself and your family.
Daily life is sometimes harder for an allergic child
Even if his parents do everything so simplify his life, Simon lives with daily challenges that other kids know nothing about. Here are a few examples of issues that must be considered if we, our child or someone close to us has food allergies:
Going to a friend’s house: bringing your own food is often more convenient!
When visiting friends, it’s just easier to bring your own food. You avoid asking the host to cook two different dishes. It also relieves the potential stress of coming into contact with eggs, milk or peanuts.
Eating in a restaurant: Call ahead to find out!
Simon’s friends sometimes organize restaurant get-togethers and it’s not always easy. Some restaurants don’t keep their kitchen clean which increases the risk of cross-contamination between foods. When choosing a restaurant, Simon always has to call to make sure that there are some appropriate meals on the menu for him. The simplest way is to speak directly to the chef to ensure that he can eat worry-free that evening.
A week at camp: it’s possible!
Since he was young, Simon went to an outdoor camp for a week in the summer to meet up with friends and enjoy nature. Every year it was the same story: Marie would call the camp’s cook to find out what the week’s menu was and prepare meals similar to the ones the other campers would be served, but without the allergens. When he got to camp, Simon would store all his meals in the freezer. Before each meal, he would choose the one similar to what the others would be eating. Simon always gets excited when the cook takes the time to prepare a special lunch or dinner for him or when she would serve uncontaminated snacks to all the kids and that he could also enjoy!
Family dinners: Serving yourself first is key!
For family parties, Simon must really watch what he eats. His trick? Put the quantity of food he thinks he can eat throughout the evening on his plate before everyone else does to ensure that the serving dishes and utensils don’t touch any allergens. This is how he avoids serving himself again and having to ask if any of the food was mixed together and what he can still eat. It also allows his family to use eggs, milk or peanuts in certain recipes without worrying that he will take some!
In short, Simon, his parents and his sisters are an example of a family who have a full life despite the sword of Damocles constantly hanging over their heads. Allergies are a big challenge to overcome daily and it’s perfectly normal to feel disoriented when we’re starting out in this world. Being discouraged dissipates quickly because of the many resources and possibilities available to us that help us deal with the whole thing. The important thing is to sensitize the family and loved ones, develop personal tricks to live well on a daily basis and not to deprive ourselves when we go out and to take a bite out of life. Just make sure not to take a bite out of the foods you’re allergic to – haha!
*First and last names of family members were changed to protect their privacy.
Over here if you’re curious
Allergies in daycare
Daycare centres are responsible for feeding the kids who spend their days there. Therefore, it’s their job to serve meals uncontaminated by food allergens to kids who have been previously diagnosed.
Parents are responsible for providing a doctor’s note regarding their children’s allergies, learning about the menus, asking for any changes should a need ever presents itself and providing emergency medication, as well as any prescription relative to administering the medication.
Educators manage all contamination prevention including: making the other children in the group aware of allergies, ensuring that everybody’s hands and mouths are washed after meals, teaching children not to share food or utensils, properly cleaning the dining room after meals, changing a child’s clothes if they become contaminated with allergens, etc.
Other children’s parents are responsible for properly washing their child’s face and hands, as well as making sure that their clothes don’t have traces of food before bringing them to the daycare in the mornings.
Allergies in primary schools
Primary schools must follow the policy on healthy lifestyle habits put in place by their school board, but the rules concerning food vary quite a bit from school to school. Why? Besides removing nut and peanuts from schools, each school or class adopts specific rules according to the allergies of their group of children. Some children have their snacks in the room at their desks. Imagine that a child drinks a carton of milk and spills a few drops on the table and her friend who is allergic to dairy products then comes to join her, thereby coming into contact with the allergen. A reaction can be provoked as simply as that!
Teachers must, therefore, watch that allergic children eat only what’s in their lunchbox and that all the other kids respect the rules imposed specifically by their school or class.
Other children’s parents must obey the rules and only give their children foods that are permitted.
For more information, visit Government of Canada’s website.