Quick Bite With Sam Yaffe

Quick Bite With Sam Yaffe

We regularly hear from parents about how difficult it is to meet the endless demand for meals and snacks as well as, you know, having a job. I can’t imagine how much more complicated it would be if you added serious allergies to that mix. We deal with it in a small way in my family. Julian doesn’t tolerate milk well but can eat cheese and yogurt. And until we can get more thorough tests done we assume they have Ben’s allergies to raw apples, pears, peaches and plums. It’s really not a big deal as it’s a small category of foods and Ben’s allergy isn’t life threatening. I can’t imagine how stressful it would be to worry about a truly dangerous allergy like peanuts – and it’s so common! And it’s not just the food you make that you have to be concerned about, it’s food at school or on play dates.

We were so happy to talk it all over with someone who knows all about it: Samantha Yaffe. One of her sons has serious, life-threatening allergies. She’s the chair of the Toronto Anaphylaxis Education Group and the resident allergy expert and spokesMom for President’s Choice. Of course we wanted to know some of her tricks for feeding an allergic child but we also wanted to ask her about what to do when kids with allergies come over. 

SPC:   When did you realize your kids had allergies?
Seven years ago, when my firstborn was about 16 months, he put a peanut butter and jam sandwich to his mouth, didn’t even take a bite, and blew up beyond recognition. His eyes and ears were literally swollen shut and the hives were rampant. One emergency trip to the allergist and he was diagnosed with allergies to peanuts, tree nuts, egg, kiwi, shellfish and a host of others.

SPC: What’s the most challenging thing for parents of allergy kids
The constant concern for their health and safety (and the insomnia that goes along with it). It’s never just a walk to the park or a birthday party drop off. There’s always training, conversations, questions, Epi-pens… and always the fear of cross-contamination. The memory of seeing my child gasping for breath as he was going into anaphylactic shock, moments after licking the icing off a cupcake, lives in the forefront of my mind and informs everything we do, every day.

SPC:  Did you have to re-learn how to cook when you realized you were raising kids with allergies?
SY: I had to learn how to cook for the first time, ever. Until that point we were a dine-out, take-out family, with the exception of tuna melts and omelets. The minute we became an allergic family was the minute we stopped relying on other people to make, serve and prepare our meals and snacks. In year one especially, red flags were everywhere. Public awareness, policy, medical research and the food manufacturing industry weren’t as hip to the food allergy conundrum as they are today. Labeling was inconsistent, servers were ignorant and peanut-free options were limited. It’s incredible how much has changed in just a few years.

SPC:  How do you cope with your kids going to other families’ houses for play dates?
SY: Depending on my relationship with the other families, I often pack their own snacks. Other times I advise on what my son can and can’t eat. And every time, no matter what, I ensure that the parent (I seldom leave my son on a play date with anyone but the parent unless I am very familiar with the caregiver) is thoroughly trained on how to avoid an allergic reaction, how to identify one, how use his auto-injector, when to use it and the emergency protocol following. If I’m given enough air time, I’ll even train them on reading ingredients and all the cross-contamination landmines they’d never expect (like avoid giving him cookies from an open box, even if they’re nut-free, and never, ever give him jam that isn’t from a brand new jar). Cross-contamination (safe foods that have inadvertently been in contact with allergens) is my biggest concern at other people’s houses and a nuance most non-allergic parents aren’t aware of.

SPC: What’s your favourite snack to give your kids?
Fruit, yogurt and veggies with dip, which I always have out for them when they get home from school or camp. I know they’ll graze on the good stuff if it’s in front of them, but that doesn’t discount their demand for the “real” goods. A favorite in our house right now is the New President’s Choice brand peanut-free Brownies with Dark Chocolate Chips. They’re individually wrapped, and clearly labeled peanut-free, which also makes them a great lunch bag snack.

SPC: What are your pantry life savers?
President’s Choice peanut-free Arrow-Root Biscuits are a staple. A cup of chamomile tea or glass of milk with two of these classic goodies is a perfect evening treat for all of us. I’m also never caught without rice cakes, organic raisins and Blue Menu Alphabet Pretzels, which are particularly handy for messaging my kids. I’ve been known to leave notes in pretzels all over our house.

SPC: How do you not burn out making school lunches every day?
SY: I do. But it helps to let the boys choose from each food group. I’m also big on leftovers, so cold pizza and spaghetti get in the rotation and help off-set the burnout rate.

SPC: What’s in a typical school lunch for your kids?
Turkey sandwich on challah, a couple mandarin oranges, a mini Greek yogurts, some veggies (carrots, peppers, celery), water and a peanut-free snack such as PC Chocolate Chip Little Penguins Soft Cookie. Also, a cool pack to keep it from spoiling.

SPC: If I’m having a play date at my house and I know there are allergy issues, what can I do to be safe?
There’s nothing better than a non-allergic parent asking me what they can give my son or what they need to know before he comes over. Having to initiate these conversations takes years off my life. Being open and proactive about hosting allergic guests gets you 90% of the way. Most allergic parents will be armed and ready to give you all the answers you need. Today it’s so much easier to accommodate a peanut-allergic child. I used to opt to send his snacks because it was too much to ask another parent to run across town or spend more money, but now there are so many options at our fingertips. President’s Choice, for example, has more than 80 peanut-free products in their stores that are easily identified by a peanut-free icon. It is important, however, to always read ingredients and allergy warnings no matter how many times you’ve bought a product. Also, it’s important to note that peanut-free doesn’t always mean nut-free and vice versa.

SPC: How do you deal with pickiness in your kids?
Thankfully, I don’t have to. The irony of my life is that my kids have several food restrictions, but they love eating and seem to want it all.

SPC: What do you like about cooking at home?
It’s safe.

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  1. Karine
    September 01, 08:14 Reply

    Such a great interview. Sam, the way you handle your challenge with such grace is inspirational! Thanks, girls!

  2. shawna
    September 01, 13:09 Reply

    great interview (love the alphabet pretzel bit). and thanks for the play date tips, as well!

  3. Alison
    September 01, 17:02 Reply

    Great tips! Such a challenge but you are doing it with grace and love. what a role model!

  4. Tracy
    September 02, 01:49 Reply

    Thanks for helping to give me an insight into life with a child with severe allergies.

    My son was diagnosed with milk and egg allergies when he was 7 months old. We don’t know the severity, and so far, his contact has been limited. We were prescribed an epi-pen in case he does have a severe reaction, but I’ve been good about keeping him away from things that might make him sick.

    My son is only a year now, but it’s difficult to buy anything for him to eat since so many products contain milk and or eggs. It’s been easy so far since he eats simple foods, but I’m afraid to even let him have bread since I can’t be sure that there isn’t milk or cross-contamination.

    It’s changed the whole way we live life, especially me since I’m nursing and have had to cut those ingredients out of my diet as well.

  5. Lisa
    September 02, 11:18 Reply

    Thanks for this. Such a helpful, insightful article/interview.

  6. Catherine
    September 02, 15:38 Reply

    Great interview and topic. My three year old son is allergic to eggs and peanuts and once I found out about his allergies (after a reaction), my life changed. I cleared out my cupboards, educated myself, and became a “chef”.

    Things are much easier now, but still trying at times. I cook all of our meals (so no take-out or restaurant dining), and for all of the packaged foods we eat (cookies, dry pasta, orange juice), I call the food manufacturer to confirm that their is no possibility of cross-contamination of allergens. It would be nice to just go to a birthday party, or Christmas dinner, but we have adapted and my son is a happy, healthy boy, fully aware of his food allergies.

    One side note: I use a great deal of products from PC Organics, PC, and Whole Foods. PC has their phone number on each product, so you call, tell them the UPC code of the product and request allergen information. Simple.

    Whole Foods brand, 365, goes a step further and lists all of the allergen information on the product label, just below the ingredients.

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