My husband and I enjoy eating. We like cooking, trying new foods and going out to nice restaurants. We are devotees of the reality show Top Chef; this summer we re-watched all the past seasons on Hulu while we wait for the new season to come out (Dec. 2!). So when we were expecting, we had big plans for the kind of eater we wanted to raise. After years of watching my step-kids order noodles with butter at countless restaurants, I wanted my child to be more adventurous with her meal choices. During the last months of my pregnancy, I would dig into my spicy yellow curry tofu with pineapple from our favorite Thai place, feel her kicking in my belly, and dream of the day when she would sit beside me and share in this delight. I read about how children raised in different cultures were able to tolerate spice and heat at an early age because those were the foods they were given once they began on solids. I hoped that exposure was beginning in the womb!
Last winter, shortly after my daughter turned one, I started giving her peanut butter for the first time. We watched her closely after her first exposure, to see if there was any visible reaction. There was none and she seemed to like it. But soon after, I noticed that when I would offer her peanut butter she would take a bite and then push it away. A small red bump appeared around her mouth; not a rash, no swelling of the lips, just a single pimple-like bump. As an overly anxious first-time parent, I worried that this wasn’t right. But knowing I have a tendency to overreact, and my husband wasn’t overly concerned about it, I tried giving her peanut butter a few more times. And each time, she would get that single red bump. Then I caught her grabbing and scraping at her tongue and I knew we had to go see an allergist. We got a skin prick appointment and they tested her for a number of tree nuts and peanuts. While we waited the 15 minutes for the results, I saw only one red bump appear on her arm. Shortly after it was confirmed that she was showing an allergy to peanuts. We were immediately inundated with instructions, prescriptions for EpiPens, directions on how to use them, and documentation to give her daycare. We came out of that office as a peanut allergy family with little idea about what that meant. Did her reactions to date mean she was only “a little” allergic? Could the next exposure be much worse? The answers to those questions were “not necessarily” and “maybe”. We were told to never doubt giving her the EpiPen, although an injection meant a call to 911 and a visit to the ER.
So we went home and immediately threw out everything in our house that had or may contain peanuts. No more peanut butter in a household that ate it daily. We introduced our older kids to almond butter, gave our daughter soy butter and started to read the food labels on everything. We filled the epi-pen prescription and put it in her diaper bag so it would always be on hand. We discovered the stresses of eating out with a food allergic child – asking waiters if there are peanut products/oils used for cooking preparation, and deciding whether or not to risk the general “may contain” warning on all baked goods at Whole Foods when she would ask for her favorite treat, a blueberry muffin. Bringing her out to our neighborhood Thai restaurant seemed not worth the risk as peanuts and peanut oil are so prevalent in many dishes. Since she has tested positive, we have had only one occasion where we thought she may be experiencing some sort of reaction – from a plain bagel with plain cream cheese of all things. It wasn’t from our usual place and I wonder if there was some peanut butter on the knife used to spread the cream cheese. She started clawing at her tongue after a few bites and we quickly tossed it in the trash and crossed that place off our list of food options. But overall we are lucky and grateful that there haven’t been more situations like this to date.
Her allergy diagnosis coincided with normal toddler food fussiness so it was also the time that she started to reject many foods in favor of blander ones. Luckily she is a great fruit and veggie eater but she doesn’t really “do” entrees or meats of any kind. Cheese, waffles, bagels and pasta are in heavy rotation in her diet. Without the allergy diagnosis I may have pushed harder for her to try new things. But to be honest, I am now okay with her wanting grilled cheese when we go out to eat because, although never 100% certain, it is a safer food choice. I don’t let her have bites of my meals when we are out unless I have ordered something pretty basic. Going out for ice cream with the twins this summer, I had to ask a teenage employee to please wash the ice cream scoop in soap and hot water before scooping her treat (they were keeping the scoops in one water bucket) and even then I was nervous. Toppings at those frozen yogurt places need to come straight from the storage container. We are always thinking and watching and modifying her food selections. Luckily she is young enough that she doesn’t know any better at this point. I worry about when she is older and wants to grab a cookie off a dessert platter at a family gathering like her brother and sister. There are great strides being made for peanut allergy patients and I know of a number of children that have gone through desensitization treatment and are now able to tolerate a moderate amount of peanuts. I am hopeful that if she is still allergic (she will be tested every year now) by the time she is old enough for this treatment, that it enables her to live life without fear of a severe reaction. And just maybe, we will be able to sit down at that Thai restaurant together!