Life with allergies is daunting, worrying and tedious but I try to stay positive. And when I can't stay positive I eat egg-free cake.
If your child has just been diagnosed, here are some tips for coping.
Become the expert. Fast.
Learn everything you can about your child's allergy. Start with Allergy UK and their helpful forum. Then use Google; there is a raft of information out there. If your child has been diagnosed with Coeliac disease, or an allergy to gluten or wheat, Coeliac UK is a great resource. The Gluten Free Message Board forum is also very useful.
Look around your kitchen. Don't panic.
It's like a horror film. There are food allergens, everywhere. Although your child must now follow an exclusion diet, it can be hard to sustain for the whole family and the croissant lovers may rebel.
Have a dedicated cupboard in the kitchen where safe food for your child can be kept and where it can't be contaminated.
The refrigerator can be a disaster zone for spilt milk and yoghurt smears. Tanya Wright, who is a specialist dietician and allergic to milk and eggs, recommends using a separate refrigerator. If this is impractical, designate the top shelf as an allergy free zone. Tanya also advises having different cooking equipment for allergy sufferers.
If your child cannot eat gluten or wheat, you will need a separate toaster and separate jam and butter to avoid cross contamination with bread crumbs. If you use wheat flour it can remain in the air for a long time and will then settle onto work surfaces. Prepare to spend a lot of time cleaning.
Cleaning, the new C word.
Food allergies mean more cleaning. After each meal the table and chairs need to be wiped with an anti-bacterial cleaning product, not just water.
Remind everyone to wash their hands after eating and if you have a baby/toddler you'll also need to clean under the table.
Got allergies? Let's go shopping.
Having safe food to hand is an ongoing challenge. Most supermarkets will have a 'Free From' section but read the packaging carefully. Many items will be gluten and dairy free but may contain eggs. Online ordering generally offers more choice and a wider range of products. See below for a list of stockists.
Online Food Shopping:
Eating out, let battle commence.
It's hard to eat out with food allergies. There is so much potential for cross contamination, no allergy labels and have the staff really understood the problem?
Many places will have a list showing allergy information for some meals, but be prepared to question the waiter and ask to speak to the chef if you don't feel happy.
Gill Cain, whose two boys have food allergies, recommends carrying sachets of Heinz tomato ketchup in your bag (it's gluten free) in case there is only unlabelled ketchup available. She adds: "Accept that McDonalds are very good at declaring ingredients. Their plain burger - without the bun - with fries is actually OK."
It's rare to find somewhere offering a vegan (dairy and egg free) dessert, so it's always worth taking some form of sweet treat with you.
Be prepared for your child to eat a lot of fries; often it is the only safe food on the menu.
Back to school.
Provide staff with a clear 'allergy plan' stating your child's allergies, symptoms to watch for and what to do during an allergic reaction.
Make sure that medication has not gone beyond the expiry date and that every teacher knows where to find it.
At least one staff member should know how to administer an adrenaline injection ('Epipen').
Ask questions. Do they only use gluten free play dough? Where do children with allergies sit in the canteen? Have they stopped accepting milk cartons, flour boxes and egg boxes for junk modelling?
In a larger school suggest that a photograph of your child is displayed in the staff room with a list of his/her allergies.
Ask your child's teachers to give you advance warning if they are planning a baking lesson so that you can send in replacement ingredients.
At the beginning of term send in a box of allergy-friendly treats for the times when cakes or sweets are shared at school.
Allergy wristbands are a great visual reminder to teachers. My daughter loves hers which list her allergies and show my contact details.
Allergy alert stickers on lunchboxes and drink containers are also helpful.
Make sure that all your contact numbers are up to date.
Prepare for the worst. Buy a bigger handbag.
From now on expect to carry antihistamine medication, safe treats for your child, an Epipen and a stash of emergency food. It's definitely time to buy the bigger bag that you've been coveting.
If you have been given an Epipen, you need to know how to use it. It is worth ordering a trainer pen to practice with and if your child is older, s/he can practice too.
Always take the Epipen out with you. Of course nothing is going to happen but if it does, can you imagine the lecture from the paramedics when you say: 'I forgot it'?
On the day my daughter's allergies were confirmed, I listened to the consultant and asked questions. Then I met the nurse who looked at my daughter's blood test results and winced.
"It won't be easy" she said and that's when I cried. The nurse was right.
Living with allergies isn't easy, but it is possible.
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