My daughter was 8 months old when she had her first allergic reaction. It landed us in the emergency room with strict orders to see an allergist asap. Two days and one skin test later, we had confirmed allergies to both milk and egg with orders to avoid peanuts and tree nuts until further notice. Suddenly, the world took on a whole new light. Food, something that usually is nourishing and comforting, overnight became a toxic substance, a poison to my child.
What was worse was that this “poison” was consumed by other people and was publicly available and accessible to my child. It was (and still is) a very uncomfortable feeling to say the least. Something as tame as a trip to the grocery store became frightening. Visiting the local play center became hazardous. Because my daughter is allergic to milk (both contact and ingestion), when she was small and crawling around, it was very difficult to find a place where she could safely play with other children. Little ones are always walking around with sippy cups full of milk in their hands and nibbling on Goldfish.
I found the only real control I had was over my home. So I began the necessary task of making our home safe. I rearranged the house and set up some ground rules to ensure that, at least in this one space, my daughter would be safe. Below I’ve listed what has worked for us. Everyone has their own journey and there are no “rights” or “wrongs”. Some changes were not necessary for her safety, but were necessary for my peace of mind.
- Decide what foods you can live without. I love peanut butter. In fact my wedding cake was chocolate with peanut butter filling. But when it came to keeping my daughter safe, it wasn’t worth it to me to have it around the house. We also felt that butter was too easy to mix up with butter substitutes so we eliminated that. Any snack foods that contain milk are out. My daughter had an anaphylactic reaction to shrimp. I haven’t been able to eat one since and I do not allow it in my home.
- Organize your fridge for safety. There were many products that we didn’t ban. My daughter is allergic to milk, but my other daughter drinks it every day. Our solution was to isolate the foods. My daughter who is allergic has a drawer that is all hers. It is filled with foods specifically purchased for her. Foods that are unsafe (e.g. cheese) also have a designated drawer. The rest of the fridge is filled with food that is ok for everyone to eat. On the doors I have a separate shelf for milk and products that “may contain” an allergen. I also make an effort to buy packages that are not easily confused. For example, the soy milk carton is a different shape, size, and color than the cow’s milk container.
- Organize your cabinets. The rare items that I buy that are unsafe for my daughter are kept up high and away from the common items that we all eat. I replaced staples such as pasta, cereal, and spices with brands that I am sure are safe. My cabinets are now almost entirely stocked with foods that are safe for the everyone in the family. This offers me peace of mind that there would be no mix-ups. As my daughter has grown, it has also helped her to be more independent and to feel secure at home. (You can also use stickers to designate safe and unsafe foods.)
- Keep surfaces clean. Baby wipes are my best friend. I think I single-handedly keep Huggies in business. I always have wipes on hand. Not only do I use them to wipe down counters, picnic tables, grocery carts handles, etc. when I’m out, but we keep them on hand at home as well. If my older daughter eats cereal with milk, she knows the drill. The bowl immediately goes into the sink. The surface where it was sitting gets wiped down and she must wash her hands and face. Baby wipes make this process easier. It is important to note that when it comes to cleaning allergens, research indicates that most household cleaners and commercial wipes are effective, but hand-sanitizers and dishwashing liquid are not.
- Make your kitchen safe. After my daughter had her most serious anaphylactic reaction, I threw away the grill pan on which I had cooked the shrimp. I know I could’ve washed it, but I couldn’t bear to look at it. That pan was gone. I now have one skillet that I use for eggs or other foods that she cannot have. I never cook her food in that pan. Is it necessary? Maybe not, but it decreases my anxiety. Likewise every time I bake, I line the pan or baking sheet with foil and toss it afterwards. It makes clean-up easier and makes me feel better.
- Change everyday habits. These habits will be unique to everyone based on their child’s allergies. For example, I always pour and immediately serve my daughter’s soymilk separately from the rest of the family. After almost accidentally serving her the wrong the bowl filled with cow’s milk, this has become the habit. Also, little things like using the same spoon to stir two cups of coffee, or two different foods, I no longer do. I used to butter my toast, wipe the knife and then use it to spread on jam. I can’t do that either without cross-contaminating the products. As a result, I wash a lot more dishes. At parties or dinners where unsafe foods will be served, I always set aside a plate of safe food for my daughter before everyone else is served. Once multiple people are digging into all the food, the chance of cross-contamination is too great.
- Keep an allergy kit in a central location. I have several “allergy kits”. They always contain two Epipens, and two one-dose spoons of an antihistamine. * For the one in my handbag, I also carry my daughter’s asthma medications and a spacer. However, the one kit that I found to be the most important in my home is the one in our kitchen. Both times that my daughter has had an anaphylactic reaction, this was the kit I used. There wasn’t enough time to rummage through my handbag or the medicine cabinet. The easiest kit to use was the one I had tacked up to the bulletin board in my kitchen. For this kit, I use a red pencil case with a clear window on one side. I put a ring through the binder holes and tack it to the board with the zipper open for even quicker access. I also make sure that the Epipens are taken out of the cardboard box they come in. As it states on the Epipen package, “Every second counts,” and this is true. Keep one kit handy at all times.
- Don’t forget to check the non-food items in your home. Items like cosmetics, hand creams, hand wash,household cleaners, shampoos, and the like can contain food ingredients. You wouldn’t want a child with milk allergy to use a goat’s milk soap, and likewise, you wouldn’t want to kiss a child that has a nut allergy with lipstick that contains a nut oil. When I checked my home, I found lip balm with almond oil, shampoo with milk, and a hand cream with sesame in it. The labeling laws are different for non-food items. Manufacturers do not have to clearly list the top 8 allergens so reading the labels can be difficult. I often check the internet to research the ingredients. In addition, food items can be hidden behind words like “fragrance” or “flavorings”. The only way to really be sure of the product’s contents in this case is to contact the manufacturer.
These are a few of the changes we’ve made to make our home safer. I hope they have been helpful. Please feel free to share what has worked for you and your family.
All the Best,
Gina Mennett Lee
*The medications I keep in our kits are based on my daughter’s food allergy action plan. Please make sure to consult your doctor in regard to the proper medications you must have on hand to treat your child’s allergic reaction.
For a printable version of our tips, see below.
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