For Emily Barenbrugge, planning a holiday meal is about more than setting the perfect table or baking the most delicious pie. As a mother of a child with severe food allergies, it can be a life-threatening situation.
“I have never had anxiety in my life until my daughter was diagnosed with her food allergies,” said Barenbrugge, whose 4-year-old daughter Shayla is allergic to peanuts and tree nuts.
“Every single day is a gamble when it comes to eating or touching things. The fact is food can kill my child. That’s scary.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, eight foods or food groups account for about 90 percent of serious allergic reactions in the United States. These include milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, wheat, soy, peanuts and tree nuts.
Although the immune system typically protects people from germs, when people have food allergies, their immune system responds as if the specific food was harmful. There is no cure for food allergies, and the only way to prevent a reaction is to eliminate the food altogether.
That’s Barenbrugge’s line of attack at their Naperville home.
“Our home is ‘safe’ for her,” her mom said. “Everything in our home is peanut and tree-nut free. She can eat anything here that she wants and not have any fears about it.”
Because of Shayla’s allergies, Barenbrugge has become a food expert and detective, spending countless hours researching every item before purchasing it. She said holidays centered around food can be stressful for her, but fortunately not for Shayla.
“She knows I will have it taken care of and that is the way I want it to be,” Barenbrugge says. “She does not need to worry.”
Taking care of it includes hosting many of the holiday gatherings, but when that’s not possible, she goes on the offense to make sure others are aware of Shayla’s dietary concerns.
“I always need to speak with the person hosting to kindly ask that her allergens not be present in their home or in their dishes that she can eat,” she said.
“Many times I have to bring a safe meal for her anyways as it is hard to request people use caution by double cleaning things.”
Christine Palumbo, registered dietitian and nutrition expert, said parents are “a child’s most important advocate” when it comes to severe food allergies.
“In addition to verbally telling the host about the allergies, reinforce them in writing with an email,” said Palumbo, of Naperville.
“This way, the host can print it out or review on their phone while menu planning or at the grocery store. Explain the severity of the allergy and acknowledge that it is not simply a preference or a case of picky eating.”
Palumbo also suggests bringing several food items specifically for the child so it is less of a burden on the host.
“Make them look festive and appetizing so your child does not feel deprived,” Palumbo said.
Barenbrugge said education is critical, and the more people know about food allergies the better — and safer — things will be.
“Do your best to educate your child, no matter how young,” the mom said. “Show your child labels, read allergy friendly books to them, and as hard as it will be, let them be kids and do ‘kid things.’ I do my best to do all these things, and pray. It can’t hurt, right?”