The other night, as I was making dinner for our family of five (even though one of us is too little to eat family dinner just yet…), it dawned on me that certain things that I do to keep my allergic daughter’s food safe and separate from the rest of ours have become so ingrained in me, I don’t even have to think twice. Like a smooth, well-oiled machine, I can whip up a taco night complete with two kinds of cheeses and sour creams. It wasn’t always that way, though. It really did take years for the paranoia and extreme caution to become habit.
Many meals that I make for my family are safe for all of us. Of course, it’s easier to cook that way. You don’t have to wash your hands a gazillion times, say, after making a cheese-laden lasagna so that you don’t accidentally contaminate the dairy-free lasagna you’ve got going on in that casserole dish over there.
Cooking with allergens in your allergic child’s kitchen is not for the faint of heart. I always say, dealing with food allergies is like a version of OCD, where you find yourself repeatedly washing, scrubbing, cleaning and wiping every bowl, every surface, every utensil. It went through the dishwasher? Doesn’t matter. Check it over — it might have residue on it. If so, scrub the dickens out of it and back into the dishwasher it goes.
Some people choose to eliminate all of their family member’s allergens from their house. Totally understood. We actually did this for a while, after an unfortunate milk mix-up that wound 2-year-old Jillian up in the ER. Dairy, egg and nut-free we lived for a good couple of years. Then we slowly started adding certain things back into our kitchen and our own diets. Now you can find eggs, cheese, yogurt and ice cream in our fridge. No milk, though. Or peanut butter. We just can’t go there. Everybody has limits, right?
I actually tried to add peanut butter back in last month (after 11 years without). I bought a jar of peanut butter and stuck it up on the very top shelf of the highest cabinet. My husband used it once, on a banana. But I couldn’t deal. It was too similar to the jar of sunbutter we use almost daily. That’s how the milk mix-up happened — we had nearly identical containers of regular milk and soy milk — no one even realized she had been poured the wrong milk until it was way too late. I apologized for getting my husband’s peanut butter hopes up, and I tossed the jar in the trash. Outside in the garage. Sayonara, PB! Maybe we’ll catch up again once Jillian’s off to college… maybe.
So if you have chosen to keep certain allergens in your house, this post is for you. Some of these things we’ve done from the beginning, and some of them evolved through the years. Either way, they’re tried and true, trust me. As I’m sure you can relate, dining out with allergies can be intimidating (to say the least!), so if you’re like me, you cook nearly 100% of the time.
1.) Keep a designated shelf in the fridge for your allergy kiddo.
If you’re like us, and you have a dairy allergy in the family, this one is particularly important. Cheeses, sour creams and yogurts seem to have a way of crumbling out of their packages and onto fridge shelves. You’ll definitely want to keep safe food safe — anything that’s not kept in a sealed container, or anything you don’t want to accidentally mix up.
Back in the day, when Jillian was first diagnosed, we had a typical side-by-side fridge. Incidentally, we have the same thing in our rental house right now. We keep her food in a veggie drawer — the very bottom one. It’s easy for her to access (even though, at 11, she’s certainly tall enough to reach a higher shelf). But this way, no one gets it mixed up with any other drawer, and we all just kind of leave it alone. Now, at our old house, we had a newer french door fridge, and it had a wide, skinny drawer inside (the cheese drawer, I believe… ironically). Ours had a piece of plastic that served as a divider, so we were able to easily split it for Jillian’s cheeses and whatnot on one side, and I think we kept lunchmeat on the other half. We did the same thing for the freezer. Right now she has her own drawer on the bottom for safe ice cream, popsicles, frozen cupcakes for parties, etc.
2.) Give your child his or her own shelf in the pantry, too.
Or cabinet in your kitchen, if you don’t have a pantry. I took it a step further and made two snack bins for my older kids: one for each of them. Jillian knows she can have anything that’s in her snack bin, so she doesn’t have to ask every time for a snack. Any foods that aren’t safe go in Trevor’s bin (yogurt raisins, candy from holidays or parties). Certain foods are complete no-no’s in the house: Cheetos? Hell, no! That cheese powder is NOT coming anywhere near our home.
Giving Jillian her own safe areas like this has allowed her to become more independent and confident in the kitchen.
3.) Use red and green stickers.
We did this in the very beginning, when we were so overwhelmed and awfully confused. When she was just 11 months old, Jillian was diagnosed with allergies to milk, eggs, peanuts, all tree nuts, soy, wheat and oat. What the heck could she eat?!?!?! This was the question we asked multiple doctors and nutritionists, while we tried so hard to keep her from losing too much weight. But that’s a whole different story. Our lives had just been upended, and we didn’t know which way to turn when it came to feeding her. So many questions loomed about what she could safely eat and what was now off-limits. It was way, way too much to try and keep fresh in our minds for every breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacktime. So we devised a simple system:
green = safe
red = NOT safe
We bought a couple packs of those blank garage sale pricing stickers — you know, the colored dots? — and went to town on everything in the pantry and fridge. Anything questionable anyway. We didn’t sticker things like fruit or canned beans, just the foods we would have had to actually pick up and read the label each time to see if it was safe.
This helped a LOT. Like a lot, a lot. We eventually phased out the stickers once it became second nature to feed her safely, but for those first few months these stickers were a real stress-reliever.
4.) Use colored cutting boards.
We’ve always had one set or another of those thin, plastic cutting boards that come in a variety of colors. At first, they were just pretty, but now they actually have an important function! You can choose to use just one color for your allergy foods, or you could do the opposite and, say, use only the yellow board for cheese and dairy prep. Which brings me to my next tip…
5.) Grate unsafe cheese on a cutting board.
And wash it immediately after. Or use a piece of wax paper that you can wad up and toss after you’re done. Honestly, we try to be as eco-friendly around here as we can. We really do. We own an entire business based on clean, green living. But the irony is that with food allergies and cross contamination, sometimes you have to be a little wasteful in order to keep your sanity. For example, I just cannot bring myself to wipe down the kitchen counters with a reusable cloth and then toss it in the washing machine. The bits of cheese residue that it would pick up would go right into our washer, along with our towels, Jillian’s clothes… Eek! I can’t do it. So I use recycled paper towels and I throw them away. *Gasp!* Also, the amount of water we use for washing (and rewashing, and rewashing) is probably not super green. Sorry, not sorry.
Bonus tip! I found this awesome cheese grater at Ikea (sigh… fluttering eyelashes… I heart Ikea), and it has calmed me way down when grating the family cheese. It still requires something underneath to catch stray crumbles, but at least 99% of the forbidden food is caught in it’s own handy container.
Double bonus tip! Jillian has her own separate cheese grater for her soy cheese.
6.) Remove foil from baking sheets IMMEDIATELY after you use them.
Another one to make the super eco folks cringe… Sorry! But after making a super gooey grilled cheese for my hubby (more likely for myself, who am I kidding?), I immediately remove the foil and toss it. Then I leave the baking sheet with nothing on it, so the next time I don’t have to wonder if that’s clean foil or not. Just get a new piece. #notworththerisk
7.) Get your child his or her own dishes, cups and utensils.
When she was little, Jillian ate off of toddler dishes, so it wasn’t an issue to know who’s plate was who’s. But then her little brother was born. When he got to the toddler stage and was using the same dishes, I gave them each a specific color. Hers was blue (her fave), his was green (born on St. Patrick’s Day, didn’t get a choice). Not only did this cut down on confusion of who got which plate or cup — even though we fed him her safe diet for years — I also never had to worry about what might have been on her dishes that didn’t come clean in the dishwasher. To that point, since she is now 11, and for some reason no longer wants to drink out of a sippy cup, she actually has her own glasses with pretty patterns on them, that are for her and her alone. After seeing one of our regular glasses come out of the dishwasher with dairy residue (facepalm!), we thought it best that she just keep using her own. Um, yeah.
8.) Label food containers with masking tape.
Or better yet, invest in two different types of food storage containers with different colored lids. You could go with the red/green trick here, too. Red lids are a no-go, green is good! You’ll always know which food is safe and which isn’t.
9.) Try NOT to buy safe and unsafe versions of the same food in similar containers.
This one goes back to the great milk mix-up of 2008 and my current inability to keep peanut butter and sunbutter in the house. If you’ve got to have regular milk and you keep soy milk for your kiddo, please, please try to buy them in different containers. Buy the plastic jug for cow’s milk and the carton for soy milk. I know so many milks these days come in those cartons, but that was the one detail that caused our horrendous mix-up in the first place. It was just daily habit to grab our organic cow’s milk carton and pour ourselves a glass or a bowl of cereal. We didn’t even realize what mistake had been made until she was in the hospital with her throat closing up when my family member suddenly thought, “what if I accidentally grabbed the wrong milk carton for her snack?” Cow’s milk had been poured, not soy milk. And it could have ended much, much worse.
These are just some of the things that have made life with an allergic child a bit easier in the kitchen. And I only have one child with food allergies. I would imagine if you had multiple children or family members with different allergies, your list would be even more complex! What about you? Do you have any other tips or tricks for keeping your allergic child(ren) safe in the kitchen? Leave them in the comments, I’d love to read them!