How I Maintain a Food-Safe Environment for My Little Boy

There is no room for mistakes when it comes to severe food allergies

Maintaining a Food-Safe Environment for My Little Boy

On June 3, 2009 I rifled through the kitchen, collected all of the cookware and emptied the refrigerator except for three apples, a handful of red grapes, and a carton of 2% milk. Then, I sifted through my pantry and gathered the cookie and cracker boxes, candy bars, and lollipops. I sat on the tile floor, put on my glasses, and began to read through each ingredient label.

This chaotic kitchen upheaval happened the day after I discovered my son had a severe allergy to eggs (however we now know he is also severely allergic to peanuts and tree nuts). The process of eliminating all possibilities that could cause another severe allergic reaction was the only way I felt like I could maintain a food-safe environment for my little boy. I needed to start over. It was therapeutic, but perhaps unnecessary.

There is a need for control when you have a child with severe food allergies.

At times it feels like everything is potentially harmful. Weekly grocery shopping becomes a detailed process of reading ingredient labels and calling food manufacturers to confirm the product is not cross-contaminated in the production facility. The routine is repeated every time a new item is purchased because many food manufacturers change recipes or facilities without notifying consumers.

Meal preparation—that once included dialing for Thai take-out and late night steak dinners—demands a greater commitment and a quick learning curve for parents who rarely spend time in the kitchen. Recipes are collected, measuring cups are purchased, and experiments in cookery begin.

Attending a birthday party is no longer a simple celebration with friends and cupcakes. Instead, an email is sent to the party planners, a special meal prepared the night before, including an allergen-free treat to be enjoyed once the birthday cake is presented, and two EpiPen (epinephrine auto-injectors) packed into the knapsack.

An impromptu summer bike ride with neighbours loses its sense of spontaneity when a collection of items must be gathered to accompany the outing. Helmets and water bottles, just like the other children, but also a special snack, just in case there is a candy store stop and it's not possible to find an allergen-free treat. Then check for our EpiPen and a cellphone.

Travelling with food allergies becomes far more complicated and (sometimes) costly. Destinations are limited to locations with familiar grocery stores, such as Whole Foods or Loblaws. Accommodations always include a full kitchen so most meals can be prepared and dining out requires preliminary research and a conversation with the restaurant manager.

Having a child with severe food allergies means there is no room for a mistake.

A family with a child with severe food allergies may live a well-organized, routine-obsessed life because it is the only way to maintain a safe environment. A moment of forgetfulness can become a lesson in carelessness, and as a parent, that kind of responsibility can be overwhelming.

But there are moments when those anxieties give way to a sense of ease. When my son teaches me that he can be careful and not fearful of his severe allergies, demonstrating that he has a voice and can be an advocate for himself, even though he is only five years old. Watching him click the clasp on his EpiPen carrying case that he wears around his waist during school days and summer camp outings, listening to him ask an adult if the chocolates spilling out of a party piñata are egg- and nut-free, and requesting he speak to the restaurant chef to ask for the grilled salmon, instead of the egg-battered chicken fingers from the children's menu.

These are small, but significant triumphs. Observing this kind of responsible behaviour in my little boy makes me feel like I have done at least one thing right. And that may be what saves his life.

Severe allergies are on the rise in Canada.
We teamed up with EpiPen so you can arm yourself with information and be prepared if a life-threatening allergic reaction occurs.
You can find out more about life-threatening allergies and read stories from other parents on our A Parent’s Guide to Dealing with Kids with Severe Allergies page.

After embarking on what was to be a one year move to the U.S., Catherine Romano spent almost a decade living in New York City while pursuing a career as a performing arts manager and contemporary dancer. Since making a few of her dreams come true in the Big Apple, Catherine made a move to Toronto with her American husband and lively, 5-year-old son. Now settled in the city, Catherine is stay at home mom and works as a freelance dance writer and photographer. Catherine's blog, sweet spectacle, is a collection of special moments, with the frequent appearance of her little boy, Julian. Follow her on twitter @catromano.