How I Deal with My Daughter’s Severe Nut Allergy and Find the Positive
by Dr. Deirdre Hahn, Lifestyle Contributor | I’m the mom of two terrific and very different daughters. Katie was born in 1994 and Lilly was born in 2009. Yes, that’s a fourteen-year difference! During those fourteen years between Katie and Lilly, I completed my bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees, started two new careers, divorced, remarried, travelled, and sporadically cooked. I wasn’t particularly concerned about nutrition, and the term food allergies was not even in my vernacular. I didn’t breastfeed Katie, and I’m certain that I gave her peanuts and shellfish before she was even six months old! Katie’s pediatrician handed out cookies and candy and she emerged into adulthood relatively unscathed by my lack of cooking and lackadaisical parenting skills. Fast forward 14 years, I was educated and felt better equipped for a baby. Lilly’s pediatrician presented her father Dave and I with a personalized folder of advice, warnings and lists of things to avoid before age one. Nuts and shellfish topped that list. I breastfed for a year, and faithfully followed all the rules and advice.
So, on her first birthday, we were anxious to feed Lilly her first bite of peanut butter. She dipped her finger in the peanut butter and then tasted it. She smacked her lips, then rubbed her eyes and we smiled. But, within seconds her eyes swelled, she coughed and cried. We rushed her to the pediatrician’s office where they gave her a breathing treatment and shot of antihistamine. They referred us to an allergist.
We learned that Lilly was not only severely allergic to peanuts, but she tested allergic to all tree nuts, shellfish, sunflower and sesame. I felt defeated and deeply worried I wouldn’t always be able to keep Lilly safe. I started carrying an epi pen. I cleaned out our pantry and started over. I made Dave and Katie eat peanut butter in the bathroom. I learned to bake my own bread and we had almost all meals at home. If we went out, I would pack Lilly a special meal to eat. It was a huge lifestyle change, but we had it under control because Lilly was still so young.
Then in early 2010, we relocated to Singapore for Dave’s work and my anxiety about managing Lilly’s food allergies shot through the roof. You see, packaged food labels in Asia were not required to carry the same allergen warnings as in the U.S., and many food items were in another language. The use of nuts and sesame are very common in South Asian foods. Western-type grocery stores were inconveniently located, and maze-like wet markets were intimidating. In short, I had to completely relearn how to shop for foods and, even more challenging, I had to learn how to cook… really cook. If we wanted allergen-free graham crackers, I learned to make them. If her dad wanted ice cream, I learned to make that in a Ziploc bag. I learned to make stock, jam, ketchup and mayonnaise. I figured out how to bake bread in 90% humidity. I taught myself to cook by weight instead of volume. Everywhere we went, Lilly had a cold pack of homemade food. We stopped eating meat and became fish-only vegetarians. We managed extremely well in Asia for almost three years with only a few close calls of cross-contamination. We moved back to Scottsdale, Arizona in the fall of 2012.
Feeling comfortable in my cooking skills, I became obsessed with learning about food additives, food production and understanding our food supply. I’ve had to manage Lilly’s food allergies for every activity… from travelling, choice of schools, classroom/lunchroom safety, playdate locations, birthday parties, sports, eating out, dinner parties, grocery shopping, and meal planning. We do not make easy guests, but our family made a few amazing friends in Scottsdale who thoughtfully accommodated our food restrictions. In the summer of 2014, we moved to Fort Worth, Texas. Once again, I found myself in the position of renegotiating Lilly’s food allergy restrictions with a whole new set of people, school, places, and activities. Yet, throughout this time, Lilly has gained some invaluable skills:
- Since age 4, Lilly could communicate her food allergies and symptoms clearly and concisely.
- She expertly navigates restaurants by ordering her own food, stating her allergies, and request to speak to the chef if she needs reassurance.
- She is acutely aware of the smell of foods and feels empowered to leave a room or situation if she senses allergens are present.
- Lilly learned how to read nutrition labels at 4.
- She can still enjoy birthday parties by bringing her own treat to eat.
- Lilly enjoys a wide array of foods and is not a picky eater.
Since moving to Texas, Lilly has completed two food challenges and we were able to strike shellfish and almonds from her list — hooray! New research shows that Lilly may not have as many food allergies as her skin and blood tests suggest. We will be doing more food challenges in the future.
My philosophy is this: Lilly’s food allergies will be her responsibility to manage as she becomes more independent. I never want her to enter a new situation assuming other people will be responsible for keeping her safe. I’m acquainted with a few moms who place the responsibility of food safety at the feet of every person their child encounters. I see those parents frequently frustrated and at conflict with other adults and children. Has Lilly been teased and made to feel different? Absolutely. But Lilly is not a fearful child. She plays the harp, plays tennis, started a math club at school, and loves diving. Lilly is a nationally ranked, competitive springboard diver. Her food allergies do not get in the way of her life. Like any parent, our deepest hope is for Lilly to stay safe by teaching her to stay vigilant.
Mom Style Lab is thrilled to have Deirdre joining our team as a regular contributor and resident domestic goddess!! In addition to sharing tips on navigating the daunting world of nut allergies, she’ll be talking about nutrition and the importance of eating right, sharing her favorite healthy recipes and writing about her adventures in the kitchen.