A widely debated topic in the food allergy community is whether or not food allergens should be allowed into a home when a family member is food-allergic. Some people who have a food allergy in the family don’t want that food within a 100-foot radius of their house. Others have a family member with a food allergy but still keep the allergen in the house for others to consume.
When our daughter was diagnosed with peanut and tree nut allergies we spent days ridding our house of anything that contained or was processed or produced with them. We disinfected every pantry cabinet, the refrigerator and put up signs as reminders to check labels.
A year later when our son was nine months old, the Learning Early About Peanut Allergy (LEAP) study was released. It aimed to discover whether the early introduction of peanut in the diet could be an effective strategy to prevent peanut allergy. The five-year study concluded that children exposed to peanut early and consistently had a lower incidence of developing that allergy than those not exposed. With our allergist’s guidance, we introduced the “big eight” common allergens to our son as soon as possible.
For our family, it was all about forming a system – where we kept the nuts and nut butter, how often we exposed our son and how we disinfected surfaces to ensure no cross-contact could occur. It’s been a year and a half since introducing these foods to our son, and thankfully neither of our children has had a reaction. So, if you’re a family that comes to the same crossroads and decides to bring the allergen into your home, here are a few best practices to keep everyone safe (and well fed!).
Food Allergy Coach Top Kitchen Tips
- Organize and label: Designate space, shelves and storage containers for foods containing known allergens. Add your own labeling so the allergen is identified clearly. Specialty stickers can be found via AllerMates, Smart Allergy Friendly Education and Mabel’s Labels. Plastic storage bins add another layer of protection to separate allergens from the refrigerator or pantry shelf. This practice for allergen labeling and storage is also extremely helpful for babysitters. Since our kids are young, all allergenic foods are kept on the highest shelves, so that we have no accidental exposures.
- Form a routine: An allergy food routine should determine how to unload and organize allergenic foods in your home after grocery shopping. The “3-check rule” is handy: check the label at the store; check labels when unloading groceries, labeling allergen foods appropriately; and check the label before it’s consumed for the first time. The trick is to form a system and stick with it.
- Follow kitchen tool rules: In some instances, it can be helpful to have two sets of kitchen tools to avoid cross-contact. For example, for someone with a wheat allergy, keep two toasters, with one designated wheat-free. A can opener is another utensil to consider having in pairs, with one for the family member with food allergies. Use utensils made from slick surfaces such as glass or stainless steel instead of plastic and wood, which are more porous and can easily harbor food allergen proteins. Additionally, consider implementing a color-coding system to offer a visual cue that utensils or cutting boards of a certain color are only to be used for allergen-free food.
- Establish order: Form a system for the placement of meals when preparing dinner. Always put allergen-containing dishes in the same place on the table or counter. For example, dad may love sesame oil but his daughter is allergic to sesame. If sister knows that her meal is always laid out on the far left of the counter and dad’s is always to the far right, she won’t have to worry about her broccoli having sesame oil on it because it’s in her “spot” and was prepared with her utensils.
- Clean up: Allergens are sneaky and hide well. It’s important to clean surfaces before and after eating. Wipe down with warm water and soap, or if unavailable, disinfectant that is wiped away helps. Do not rely on hand sanitizers, which are not effective in killing food allergen proteins.
- Be prepared: Designate a space in the kitchen to store all emergency medications, the doctor-provided food allergy action plan, your emergency contact list and medical insurance information in case of allergic reaction. If possible, have a landline available in case your cell phone isn’t working.
No system is foolproof, but with these best practices in place I’ve found it a lot easier to manage our daughter’s allergies successfully, as well as clients’ allergies.
Meg Nohe is a certified food AllerCoach and consultant with Food Allergy Partners. Visit her website here.