Managing Multiple Food Allergies
Managing one food allergy can be daunting but managing "multiples" and living a robust life is downright admirable. Jennifer Keller, an active and dedicated mother of 3 young children, generously shares some of her best advice and top picks. Her youngest, Elliott, is allergic to dairy, egg, peanuts and several, but not all, tree nuts. She navigates it all with grace and optimism. A self-proclaimed non-cook, Jennifer manages to safely feed her son and her family's soul.
Unique challenges of managing multiple allergens?
Finding and serving safe foods for Elliott to eat is a major challenge. When he was first diagnosed my family ate more processed food and with all of his allergens, especially milk and egg, you simply can’t.
It's hard to order food in a restaurant and not feel like you are overwhelming the server – they often get visibly nervous when I start listing Elliott's allergens. I end up having to guide servers through the process.
The silver lining of Elliott's food allergies is that my family eats so much healthier now. Before I read labels for calories and now I am much more aware of additives and other unhealthy ingredients.
What Was Some Of The Best Advice You Received Early On?
When my son was diagnosed an allergy mom told me to go to the grocery store with my iPhone and spend a couple of hours looking at the ingredients of everything I could get my hands on, and photograph products he could eat so I'd know going forward. Grocery stores like Whole Foods who carry alternative ingredients have revolutionized this process.
The woman I met with was my lifeline because she had already been through everything. Spokin is the online version of what she did. She was a friend of a friend, and we were connected in the hopes that she could help me. She met with me out of the kindness of her heart and ended up talking to me for two hours.
Do You Keep All Of Your Son's Allergens Out Of Your Kitchen?
No. We have a peanut-free kitchen because my son's peanut-IgE levels are off the charts but my older two children eat milk and egg.
We have one drawer in our refrigerator that has cheese in it and he knows to avoid that drawer, and I keep eggs very high up in the fridge. I can’t make our entire family eat only his diet – I don't think it's fair.
I started out making Elliott separate meals, but that was too much work. We found a good balance - we keep family meals mostly allergy free but cheese and butter can be used as toppings – so if we make pasta with olive oil my other kids will put parmesan on top of theirs and my son will use a cheese substitute. He loves follow your heart’s parmesan.
most difficult allergy to avoid or substitute for your family?
Definitely Milk. It is literally in everything. Frosting, crackers… it is everywhere.
How do you Handle educating your older children about food allergies?
No one in my family had ever had an allergy before my son was born, and the learning curve is pretty steep. It was tough to have to train my older children to avoid certain foods and be careful around their younger brother. I found it was hard burdening them with that especially at their young age but kids are so resilient. Luckily now there are great resources like Spokin to help newly diagnosed people adjust. Managing multiple food allergies is so hard, but you can get through this.
I consider my other two children my son’s biggest advocates. They are very defensive of what others feed him and are always double checking on his behalf. My oldest daughter is in 4th grade, and one of the candidates for the 4th-grade president’s platform was to make the school nut-free, and that mission sealed her victory.
Birthday Parties With Milk And Egg allergies make cakes tough. how do you handle them?
At other kid’s birthday parties we always bring our own treats, which Elliott loves – he gets so excited to “order” his treat.
On Elliott’s first birthday party I got a vegan cake, and nobody ate it but him. Since then - I typically get cupcakes, and I just have a similar looking vegan cupcake for him. I read this article once where this mom said she started out eating only what her food allergic child could eat. Then she thought about it and asked herself “if my daughter was in a wheelchair would I make the other children use a wheelchair?” Her answer was ultimately no and that really resonated with me.
You call yourself a non-cook, what's your approach to recipes?
I prefer to eat out but when I do cook my rule of thumb is choose recipes with the least amount of substitutions for the best results. We eat very simple and clean foods such as baked chicken and roasted vegetables. Once you start getting into a complicated recipe, it almost always has something in it that Elliott is allergic to and when you have to start substituting too many ingredients it typically doesn’t taste good.
Gwyneth Paltrow’s cookbooks (It's All Easy, It's All Good, and My Father's Daughter) are incredible as the recipes are both simple and allergy friendly. Julie Turshen’s new cookbook Small Victories also has great substitutes for allergies and deliciously simple recipes.
What are your best tips to eating safely in restaurants?
We like to go to restaurants that serve dishes a la carte, such as a steak house. This makes it so much easier to ask the kitchen to make sure your food is safe. I also always ask to see if they have a grill so they can make a plain burger for my son. Grills are typically not coated with butter the same way a pan or a flat-top would be. It gives me peace of mind that they are not changing their process too much which allows for less room for error.
I am always upfront about my son's allergies and find communicating right at the beginning is key. Before we even place a drink order, I review my son’s allergies with the server and ask them to talk to the chef to see what they can make to accommodate those allergies. I have found that typically higher end restaurants are much more accommodating.
Favorite hometown food allergy friendly restaurants?
Because my son has so many allergies, we typically like to find a specific dish that works for him at a restaurant.
Frankie's Scalopine's marinara has butter in it but they do have another sauce in the back that is dairy-free, and they will make my son's cheese-free pizza with salami, pepperoni, and other meat. Many restaurants, including Frankie’s, will make steamed vegetables like broccoli to add some variety to his meal.
Hugo’s Steak House: They have low turnover on their waitstaff so we always get the same table and the same server and they bring out the hamburger for Elliott and sorbet for dessert without even asking. It is fantastic not to have to go through the whole nerve-wracking process to make sure the kitchen understands Elliott’s allergies. Having allergies makes us loyal to the restaurants that are so helpful.
Nico Osteria is phenomenal with allergies and keeps my son's allergens on file – they are aware before they even come to our table!
My husband and I went to GT Fish and Oyster for dinner one night, and they presented a special menu that had all the ingredients and allergens in all their dishes. I had never seen anything like that – it blew me away!
favorite baking recipes:
My vegan friend has shared a few recipes with me that I love, and my son can eat since they don't contain dairy or eggs: vegan gingerbread recipe and vegan frosting recipe (below). I also love this vegan chocolate chip cookie recipe from Food 52.
Favorite Kitchen Hack
Cherryvale Farms baking mixes are incredible time savers and they taste great.
Van's Foods’ waffles don’t contain eggs or milk so they are a simple and healthy breakfast option.
In a pinch?
Surprisingly, Elliott can eat McDonald's chicken nuggets because they are made with soy and do not contain butter or eggs.
Favorite Egg Substitute
Follow your heart, makes a fantastic plant-based egg that is so good, we eat them scrambled.
Favorite Allergy Friendly Sweet Treat:
Favorite Allergy Friendly Bakery
Sprinkles- they have a mixer and assembly line that is both vegan and nut-free, which is perfect for us!
Do You Ever Cheat And Eat?
Last summer, my oldest daughter and I were going on this epic bike ride on the lakefront trail. We stopped at a Starbucks and my daughter and I both got peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. We sat at Oak Street Beach, ate our sandwiches in silence and it was delicious. We never eat peanut butter in our house. I realize that she needs and deserves those moments of freedom.
Favorite Travel Destination with your family?
We have been going to The Breakers for years with another family whose daughter is allergic to peanuts. They are amazing with food allergies, and it's one of the main reasons we are so loyal. When you order room service, they have his information on file and if I try to order something that he is allergic to they will proactively tell us that he cannot eat it.
The Four Seasons in Santa Barbara is another great hotel. The first time we went the concierge put my son’s allergies in our reservation notes. They left little gift bags with surf sweets which was amazing because I immediately knew that he could eat them. So much more welcoming than the ambiguous box of chocolates.
When we ordered room service they asked how many days we would be staying with them and they went to the grocery store to get the specific provisions for him that he could eat. We felt so taken care of and safe the whole time. Those are the things that keep you coming back. We have had so many positive experiences there as they are extremely conscientious.
When I found out my son could go to sleep away camp. I never imagined he could ever attend. Camp Laurel South in Maine, where my daughter goes to camp, has a full-time person whose sole job is to manage the allergies of the children at the camp. The camp is also peanut-free and tree-nut free, which is a huge relief.
You have learned so much - is there anything you need help with?
We would love to travel outside of the U.S., Italy in particular. If any Spokin readers have traveled to Italy and can share recommendations, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What Is Your Advice To Someone Whose Child Is Newly Diagnosed?
Be brave; you will get through this, too. We will find a cure soon.
What is your Silver Lining?
I feel like I am so much more educated about food and eat so much healthier now. I would never have gotten to that point if it were not for my son's allergies. Having a son with food allergies is not easy, but it has changed my life, and in so many ways, we are all better off.