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A Course in A​llergies 101: A Way to Help Your Kids -- and Yourself!

September 4, 2008
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If your child has food allergies, this is probably not your favorite time of year. Don't despair, says Terry Traub, author of the new book Food to Some, Poison to Others. With a dash of careful planning, a pinch of sensitivity and a smorgasbord of yummy recipes, your whole family can survive (and thrive!) this school year.

Kids with food allergies face plenty of challenges in the summer. Small pleasures their friends take for granted -- enjoying an ice-cream bar on a hot day or a slice of birthday cake at a swimming party -- are forbidden fruit for them. But when school's in session, things get even tougher. As classmates scarf down corn chips and snack cakes while laughing at your child's "weird" lunches, it's hard for him not to feel singled out and deprived. Add plain old menu boredom to the mix and it's easy to see why he -- not to mention you -- dread this time of year.

Traub says it doesn't have to be this way, for kids who must live with food allergies or for the parents who must prepare safe, nutritious meals for them.

"There are two 'Ps' to remember: positioning and planning," explains Traub. "The way you talk to your child about his condition will make all the difference in how he handles it. And how organized you are will determine the quality of his food -- and how crazy it makes you to shop for and prepare it!"

Traub speaks from hard-won experience. A dental hygienist and the mother of two sons with celiac disease (gluten intolerance) and one with lactose intolerance, she wrote her book and created her Web site -- eattobeallergyfree.com -- to help families and individuals who struggle with food allergies.

The first step, of course, is getting educated. Traub's book helps parents figure out what's causing their kids' distressing symptoms -- food allergies can take the form of runny noses, coughing, asthma, itchy throat, diarrhea, abdominal pain, excessive sweating, mucus in the chest, eczema, constipation, and/ or vomiting -- and provides a wealth of recipes, pantry lists and meal-planning menus to combat the condition.

Once you've eliminated the offending foods from your child's diet, you're free to start focusing on the delicious, nutritious meals he or she can enjoy. And now, with a new school year under way, is the perfect time to try out some different recipes.

· "Great Start" Breakfasts: Help your child kick off a healthy day with one of the breakfast ideas from Traub's book or Web site. Apricot-Nut Bread and Rue's Fruit Bars are two examples of grab-'em-and-go breakfasts a child can enjoy on the way to school. If you tend to have more leisurely mornings, add a bowl of sliced strawberries or cantaloupe and a frosty glass of orange juice.

"Breakfast is a great time to connect with your child," notes Traub. "Whether you sit down at the table or both have breakfast in the car, be sure to eat the same foods. She'll feel more 'normal,' whatever that means, and will have a sense of belonging."

· Lunch-Box Favorites: The book is filled with recipes for lunches that your child will actually look forward to eating. He may even find that he's the envy of other kids, who find themselves monotonously munching the ever-present (and nutritionally empty) white-bread-sandwich-potato-chip-and-soda combo.

For example, the Barbecue Asian Chicken Sandwich With Cranberry Dressing -- dairy-free, egg-free, corn-free and gluten-free -- is packed with nutrients and flavor.

"Kids with allergies often end up with far more delicious, healthful and thoughtfully prepared lunches than their classmates," says Traub. "It's easy to be somewhat 'mindless' about lunch when there are no restrictions. Necessity is the mother of invention, after all, and moms of kids with food allergies can get pretty darn inventive!"

· Tasty Afterschool Snacks: After a long day of reading, writing and 'rithmetic, kids are ravenously hungry! Have a yummy snack waiting for them, and they will be ready to tackle that homework with fervor. (Okay, a parent can dream!)

Two widely disparate options Traub suggests are Penny's Granola and Turkey-Honey-Dijon Wraps. "If your child attends an afterschool program, you'll need to figure out a way to get snacks to her," Traub points out. "If she's older, she may be able to carry the snack to school and 'save' it for later, but if she's in kindergarten, you may need to take tomorrow's snack in when you pick her up each day. Again, it's all about planning."

You might be thinking, "Well, my child doesn't have allergies but some of these foods sound pretty darn good!" Allergy-free foods don't have to be bland and tasteless.

"Lots of kids out there are suffering from undiagnosed allergies. Follow my plan, and you might be surprised to find that his perpetual sinus or stomach problems clear right up. Why not try eating allergy-free? At the very least, you'll discover some great new foods that might just become family favorites."

Here are nine ways to make the food-allergy-free lifestyle work for your family:

· Learn everything you can about your child's food allergy. The more educated you are, the better. Do extensive research on his/her particular allergy: its symptoms, causes, treatments and so forth. And never stop learning. Make it a priority to stay on top of the latest medical news.

· Hold a family tribunal. Once your child's food allergy has been diagnosed, set aside an hour or so to teach the child and other family members all about it. If your child understands and takes ownership of his situation, he'll be far less likely to "cheat." And if everyone else gets the big picture -- and realizes that this is a condition that affects not just the child with food allergies, but the entire family -- they won't inadvertently do things to sabotage him.

· Get organized. No, really organized. It's hard enough for most families to juggle work, school, homework, grocery shopping, cooking and everything else. But for parents of kids with food allergies, it requires a monumental (Mom-umental?) level of organization!

· Get your child involved in the process. Take her shopping with you and teach her how to read labels. Enlist her help in meal preparation and lunch-box packing. Challenge her to come up with new recipes for allergy-free snacks, candies and fruit smoothies. And make it fun.

"The idea is to educate her on how to take charge of her health, and let her see firsthand that, though it's a lot of work to eat allergy-free, it's not impossible -- and it can be an enjoyable challenge," says Traub.

· Emphasize the long-term benefits of good health. Explain to your child that he's eating his "special foods" not just so he can feel better today, but so he'll be healthier and happier for a lifetime. Connect the notion of vibrant health to concrete things he can relate to -- playing football like his favorite athlete, for example. "You might add that the classmates he sees eating lots of processed junk foods will likely have health problems later," notes Traub.

· Make sure the whole family eats the same foods -- at least, most of the time. No one is saying the non-allergy-sufferers in your family can't have a "forbidden" food on occasion, but refrain from preparing two separate meals -- one for the allergic child and one for everyone else. This will make your child feel that the allergy-free diet is a "punishment" and unfair. Instead, choose tasty recipes (and there are plenty of great options out there!) and no one will have to feel deprived.

· Send a few extra treats for your child to share with friends. If your child has a favorite, especially delicious snack or candy, send several extra servings in her lunchbox so she can share them with friends. When other kids see her special food as desirable, they may not tease her so much. In fact, she may start to feel privileged, rather than deprived.

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