Category Archives: Communication

Eat, Drink and Be Scary: Allergen-Friendly Halloweens

As hinges creek from an unknown breeze, a door closes when no one was around, and the sound of footsteps follow you up the stairs. When spooky things are in the air and the sky goes dark…you know that Halloween is here! Happy haunts lurk behind every corner and pumpkins decorate porches as ghost’s float in nearby trees. As you can probably tell, I love this time of year for so many reasons, but Halloween is by far the biggest reason. What’s not to love about this wickedly ghoulish time of year? Well, for some of us there is a different chill in the air that has nothing to do with ghosts and goblins, and everything to do with treat bags and what tricks might be in them. Living with a food allergy during this time of year can be hard to navigate, so it’s important to be aware and look out for our allergens. From parties with friends, to having “trick or treaters” at your door, allergens can be anywhere and or hidden in so many unsuspecting things.

For those of us who are younger and out trick or treating, there are ways to stay safe and avoid your allergen(s). One example is waiting to eat until you get home as this will give you more time to read all food ingredient labels. If you’re handing out goodies, make sure you look for the speciality bags or badges that some children may have to indicate that they have allergies. If you plan to accommodate by handing out allergen-friendly goodies, consider putting a teal pumpkin out to show your support of food allergies, or a teal light in support of Food Allergy Canada’s new “Shine a Light” campaign. This also acts as an indicator to parents and kids that you have safe or non-food related treats. A small gesture goes a long way for kids who are out trick or treating and being conscious of allergens can make their night!

Dressing up is one of the best parts of Halloween. Each year my partner and I bet ourselves that we can out do our costumes from the previous year. Some years involve little to prepare while others take a good hour to create and paint. One important thing I’ve learned while living with food allergies at this time of year is to read everything, and I don’t just mean snacks. Make-up, fake blood, and other things that add a touch of flare to a costume may contain your allergens. Whether you’re applying zombie make-up or making sure your vampire comes equipped with blood fangs, make sure your allergens aren’t present in the product before application. I have found that anything from latex, or nut oils, to sulphites can be found in various makeups. Find something allergen-friendly and do a mark/spot test at least 24 hours before you plan to dress up in order to make your ghoulish appearance one to remember.

As you get older, Halloween becomes less about trick or treating and more about parties, scary movie marathons and other activities with our friends. But, much like going out and getting candy, our allergens can still be found at all of these events. One thing to keep in mind whether you’re binging your favourite horror movie series or at a party with friends is that it’s important to follow the same rules you normally follow in your everyday life. Read ingredient labels even if you’ve had that type of candy before. Some candy or chocolate bars could contain slightly different ingredients or have different labelling for Halloween since these smaller products may be processed in different facilities. If there are homemade goods, check with the chef/baker before eating. Ask about allergens, the risk of cross-contamination, etc., and only eat the foods that you’re 100% comfortable eating. A good alternative is to get your cauldron brewing and make your own treats to share with everyone so that you’re positive it’s allergen-friendly. You could also consider buying candy chocolates you’ve researched yourself and feel confident are  allergen-friendly.

As an adult at a Halloween party, you’re sure to run into some boos, wait no I mean booze. Pumpkin flavoured beers and other holiday treats are staples at most adult Halloween parties. Much like any other food, we need to make sure what we’re eating and drinking is allergen-friendly. If it’s a punch bowl, ask what fruits, flavours, and alcohols are involved. If it’s a shared/serve yourself bowl, make sure there is no risk of cross-contamination or see if you can get first dibs or a special cup/bowl just to be sure it’s allergen-friendly with no risk of cross-contamination. Allergen labelling on specialty beers and wines can be tricky, but I always try to call or email the company if I’m unsure of all the ingredients. A good trick for any party is to bring your own drinks, something you know is allergen-friendly and never leave your glass or drink unattended.

As we grow older it’s easy to lose the spirit of Halloween, dismissing it as a childish tradition. I think we need to get back to our childhood roots, tell each other ghost stories, eat candy together and dress up as our favorite characters and people. This year put out a teal pumpkin or light, have some allergen-friendly or non-food treats ready, grab a scary movie or have a party to get into the spooky spirit. Happy Halloween!

– Arianne K.

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One Restaurant, Two Different Dining Experiences

I travel once a month for work to a small town where I stay for 3 nights. The town has limited restaurant options but enough to give me a variety of foods from which to choose. For this blog post, I want to highlight my experiences at a Tex Mex chain restaurant in particular. I’ve visited countless times and my overall experience has been great! That being said, I want to share two stories of how you can sometimes have completely different experiences at the same restaurant.

Situation #1: The First-Timer

The first time I travelled for work, I chose to eat here because I looked at the menu online and trusted the overall “vibe” I was getting in terms of allergen (peanut/tree nut) safety. What I mean by this is that I saw no peanuts on the menu and the only tree nuts were located in the salad section of the menu, which seems to be very normal these days. They also have a little blurb on the menu outlining their caution with food allergies and their ability to accommodate those living with food allergies. When I got to the restaurant, I let my server know about the severity of my food allergy. She assured me that the restaurant staff are very careful with food preparation in the back and that she would let everyone who handles the food know about my allergy. A few minutes later, the manager approached my table to inform me of their protocols. A specific chef was assigned to the preparation of my meal, sterilized utensils and pots/pans were to be used and they would do everything to ensure there was no risk of cross-contamination in the back. This sounded awesome! I was blown away by the awareness and the careful preparation that their restaurant protocol followed. I was served my meal and the wait staff followed up with me twice to ensure everything was going well, and I have to say, it definitely went well. I walked away feeling quite impressed with my new experience!

Situation #2: The Weird Vibe

The next month when I went back to this restaurant, I asked for the same menu item (steak fajitas-they are SO good!) and the restaurant staff followed the same protocol, with the manager approaching me before meal preparation. Where it got weird was when the manager followed up with my meal after I had taken a few bites. After asking how I was enjoying my meal, she said, “well, we haven’t killed you yet, so that’s a good sign!”

I’m a very easygoing person but for some reason this line irked me. It just didn’t sound right! It could be that the manager was feeling awkward about approaching me as the only person sitting at a table (I’ve noticed wait staff can be very awkward when I go to a restaurant alone, but what else can I do? I’m working!) It could also be that the manager just thought she needed to say something and didn’t filter herself before speaking. Whatever the case, I don’t think a line that includes “not killing” someone should ever be used, especially at a venue that serves food to someone with a life-threatening food allergy.

I’m not overreacting. I’m not even truly upset. I just wanted to share these stories to demonstrate how experiences can sometimes be amazing or weird at the same place for the same person. Weird vibes happen, but what I learned from these two visits is that as a person with food allergies, I should try to not let my guard down or become complacent just because I’ve had a good experience somewhere in the past. Diligence is my number one protector and as long as I am thorough in minimizing my risk, I can feel safe eating out and experiencing the wide world of eating while on the road!

– Dylan B.

Traveling to PEI with Food Allergies

This summer I had the opportunity to travel to the beautiful province of Prince Edward Island (P.E.I) for the first time on a semi-family vacation. As an adult going out east was a bit difficult since I was recently diagnosed with a fresh water fish allergy that has crept over into almost all fish. After a few hives and some close calls, I decided I’d stay away from all fish until I had more tests completed and information received. So what better place to visit this summer then “The Land of Anne” and fresh seafood? Prepping for the trip, I can break down my experiences into three significant food allergy related areas: Road trips, great food and a real confidence boost for me regarding my food allergies.

Part One: On the Road Again

My family and I all piled into an already packed car to drive the 11-ish hours through four provinces, three bags of chips, two bridges and only one cell phone charger. I’m lucky the people in the car knew about my allergies before the trip but that didn’t stop us from encountering a few speedbumps along the way. As a group, we had an on-going group chat where we talked and planned activities. Here I was able to communicate all of my allergies and more importantly, I was able to talk about the risk of cross-contamination, and about how I will not eat anything if I can’t read the ingredients first or know where/how it was made. This was cause for a bit of back and forth regarding homemade baked goods and assurance that it would be safe. For me, I am just not comfortable eating something that I am not familiar with, especially on the road in a new place. Mandatory road snacks aside, the biggest issue on the road came late at night. Our first and only stop before reaching our destination was in the province of New Brunswick late at night. Arriving at the hotel we all had cabin fever from spending nine plus hours in the car. I foolishly assumed we’d be able to find somewhere allergen-friendly to grab food before turning in for the night. Well boy was I wrong! Everything was closed and what was open was a pizza restaurant that couldn’t distinguish between sesame seeds and what they called “flavour seeds.” So I choose to play it safe and not to eat there. At 1:00 am, my only option was a vending machine and breakfast bars that I had packed for the next morning. I realized I packed like an unprepared fool. I had no plan B and I paid for it. The next day when places were open, I was able to find food before the last leg of our trip, but it taught me an important lesson of not taking things like pizza places for granted. I made a mental note to pack sandwiches and other things to eat for our way home.

Part Two: Great Food

It can be tough when travelling to a place where your allergen is extremely prominent, especially if it’s a new allergen. I was diagnosed with an allergy to fresh water fish only a few years ago, and I am still not as comfortable with it as I am with my other allergens. Since my nervousness tends to get the better of me, I did some serious emailing and calling to find some allergen-friendly places to eat in P.E.I before we left home. Luckily, we were planning to stay in a cottage where we had the ability to cook the majority of our meals. But, I was still extremely excited to try some local brew houses and great cuisine, so I was both extremely happy to find incredible safe places to eat and disappointed that some places were not safe. The biggest thing I learned was trusting my gut and calling ahead. I am so glad I took the time to call restaurants ahead of time and even received some suggestions from my sister-in-law on where to go. I didn’t let it get me down when places weren’t allergen-friendly, and I certainly didn’t let it stop me from having a drink there or discouraging others from eating or visiting places where my allergens were present. All in all, I had amazing food both made by me and my travel companions, and in lovely restaurants.

Part Three: Confidence Boost

The most important thing I can say about my trip or any trip for that matter, is to stay positive about your food allergies and not let your limitations get you down. If you’re uncomfortable eating somewhere, let people know or refrain from eating and wait until you get back to an allergen-friendly spot. Always carry extra snacks or something when you’re on-the-go and most importantly, speak up about your allergies and let others know if you feel uncomfortable. Even if it may feel awkward to bring up or impede on your travel companions’ food and traditions, if you feel unsafe, speak up and let others know. The weight you feel lifted off your shoulders when you share your food allergy concerns with others is amazing because they’ll likely want to help you and keep you safe. It can be a real boost in confidence when you speak openly and honestly about your allergies, and I’m always grateful when the people around me care and want to listen as well.

I love to travel, whether its seeing our beautiful country or abroad, it’s amazing to get out of my comfort zone and gain a new perspective. Just because I have food allergies, doesn’t mean that I can’t try new foods, see new places, and enjoy myself. Having a plan, packing safe food, and maintaining a good attitude is a sure-fire way to have the best allergy-friendly vacation. Don’t hold yourself back; trust your gut and go out there and explore the world!

– Arianne K.

Addressing the “Allergy” in the Room: Communicating Your Allergy to Others

Going out for dinner, whether on a date, with colleagues from work, or with your closest friends, you are likely to experience some common elements: loud music, clinking plates/utensils, crowded tables, and multiple wait staff running around, each server striving to satisfy the multiple tables under their supervision.

Sometimes in this environment, it is easy to feel anxious or feel like it is a burden to mention your food allergy to the wait staff (or to the company you are with) when you go to order your meal, because it is one more thing they need to worry about. Growing up with a severe peanut/tree nut allergy, I’ve struggled with how to handle situations like this. As a child, speaking to any “stranger” is scary enough, let alone to inform them of a possible life-threatening reaction to occur under their supervision. It took me a long time to find my confidence and even still, it is not always easy. However, the reality is, we should all feel safe going out to eat and be able to enjoy an anxiety-free meal with the company we are with.

OK, so let’s say you are now at a table with friends and the waiter is making their way around the table taking orders, and you are next up. Instead of being anxious and overthinking everything in your head, start thinking about what questions you can ask the waiter to ensure you feel comfortable eating there. For example, you can ask questions about food preparation and the risk of cross-contamination to prove that you are quite serious about the safety of your food. Or you can ask what their process is for handling tables with allergies. It is important to communicate that this is a life-threatening allergy; this is not an intolerance or a preference, this is an allergy. Another tactic is to get in front of the issue by pulling the server aside before ordering and asking them what dishes are safe or easy to prepare to accommodate someone with a severe food allergy. You will find that most of the time the servers are educated to handle this scenario and more than happy to offer recommendations as well as assist in finding you a meal that you will safely enjoy. If there is ever an instance that the response you receive is not entirely confident, I would recommend speaking with the chef themselves or choose somewhere else to eat since nothing is worth the risk of having an allergic reaction.

This above scenario not only applies for the wait staff, but also for the people with whom you are enjoying the meal. Some people are not accustomed to dealing with food allergies, or never grew up in an environment with someone that had a severe allergy. Have you ever been out for lunch with a friend and they decide to order a dish with the allergen you are severely allergic to? How do you address this without hindering their dining experience and avoid the rest of the lunch being uncomfortable? I have been in this situation and to be honest, the first time I definitely could have handled it better. I was extremely uncomfortable and anxious knowing that the allergen I have been conditioned to avoid for the majority of my life is in the dish right beside mine. However, once you confront the issue the first time, the rest is a breeze. One possible solution is to simply ask your friend to slide to another seat at the table to minimize the cross-contamination risk. Allergies are so common now and being able to speak about them with your friends, family or the waiter should never feel uncomfortable.

So next time you go out for a bite to eat, check the menu beforehand, read the reviews, and make sure your company and the waiter are informed of any food allergies. This is your safety, your life, your allergy and most importantly, it is YOUR responsibility to communicate.

– Phil Greenway

 

Required Reading: Remembering to Read the Label, Even When You’re Comfortable…

Everyone always tells you, never visit the grocery store when you’re hungry. With a rumble in your stomach, everything on the shelves can start to look delicious. From chips, to cookies, to mashed potatoes, you’d buy just about anything to sate the hungry in your stomach. Satisfying your “hangrier” self can be a bit tricky when you have multiple food allergies. A grocery store can suddenly become a library of required reading with a hefty test at the end before you can go home and eat.

With so many labels to read and so much fine print to understand, it’s easy to get complacent and glance over ingredients with glazed eyes. Sometimes we can become too comfortable when it comes to brands or foods we’ve known and used for some time. My thought process in a store has bounced between, “it’s always been safe,” or “I’ve never had an issue with their other products,” and regrettably even, “this looks good I’ll read it later.” I’ve been guilty of making the mistake of throwing a commonly used brand product into my basket without reading the label, assuming it will be fine. However, a recent experience with a familiar brand taught me to take the few extra seconds no matter how busy I am, and always read the ingredients no matter what.

A crumbling experience: There is a brand of crackers I’ve trusted for as long as I can remember. Normally when I go grocery shopping I read every boxed or canned item I put in my basket. This routine started by my mom who would let me read ingredient labels after her and would quiz me about what’s safe, what isn’t and why. But that day, for a myriad of reasons and silly excuses I grabbed a box of crackers, a new flavour that looked good and put it in my basket. I went on my way busily preparing for a potluck the next day. For some reason, I didn’t even think twice about reading the ingredients for the crackers in my basket. I assumed, like all other flavours from the brand, that it was safe, and you know what they say when you assume… I got the other items to make a yummy dip to pair with my box of crackers and went on my way.

It wasn’t until the next day when I was plating the crackers, mere minutes before my guest arrived that I noticed something odd about these crackers. On the outside, they seemed fine but once cracked open there were seeds, sesame seeds to be exact, something I am allergic to and something that had never been on or in this brand of crackers before. I was dumbfounded and frankly disappointed with myself for not reading the ingredients list beforehand. After that night, and narrowly avoiding a reaction, I promised myself no matter how comfortable or familiar, I will always read every label and ingredient before I buy anything.

I was able to avoid a reaction that night but found myself wondering how many times I may have put myself at risk in the past because I forgot to read ingredients or was overly comfortable with a brand. As we get older, day-to-day errands can be overwhelming and sometimes reading every label in the grocery store can seem like a task you seriously just don’t want to do. When you’re stressed and hungry, you want to get in and out of the grocery store as quickly as possible. Even when we’re in a hurry though, it’s important to take an extra 10 seconds and read labels to ensure the foods you’re buying are safe. I always try and think of it along the same lines as the precautions I would take when dining out. I would personally never eat anywhere without researching, calling ahead and always ensuring the kitchen is aware and capable to handle cross-contamination. The same rules and precautions should be applied to our kitchens and shopping experiences.

As an allergy community we’re always looking for new and safe brands to add to our pantries. If we take the time, do some research and find safe products, we’ll have a better, and safer cooking experience. Creating culinary treats can challenge us to experiment in the kitchen in the best ways, so don’t let a little label reading stop you from cooking up a delicious meal.

Bon appetit!

– Arianne K.

Eat, Drink, and be Married: The Allergen-Safety Guide to Weddings

It’s wedding season, and each year it seems there are more and more events to attend. From showers, joint stag and does, to respective bachelor/bachelorettes and of course the big day, your summer calendar can fill up pretty quickly. It’s no secret that a big part of these celebrations are the food and drinks. What can you do to stay safe while celebrating your friends’ or family’s happiest day yet? Do you bring a large purse filled with your own food? Do you say no thank you to every food passed under your nose even though you’re so hungry the ice sculpture is starting to look delicious? If you’re anything like me, weddings can be the happiest but also the most worrisome day when it comes to food allergies. I’ve been to a lot of weddings both as a guest and as part of the wedding party and I’ve figured out some sure-fire tips to a successful evening with the least amount of allergen-related issues.

Telling the bride and groom in advance: It seems like every invitation to a wedding these days has an online RSVP. It’s simple, easy to use and certainly saves everyone a lot of time. It’s also a great way to let the happy couple know beforehand about your food allergies. Usually there is a section to send a message which is where I like to let them know about my allergies. If you’re close with the couple, send them a personal message or give them a call and ask about the food being served. They can then easily relay the information on to the caterer and inquire about accommodations they offer. Letting everyone know beforehand can help quell your worries and ensure they are aware of your allergies during the planning process with the caterer.

Talking to the chef/venue: Once you’ve told the couple about your allergies, they might refer you to the venue or caterer of the event to get more information for your specific case. If this is the case, see if you can contact the chef or food and beverage manager to discuss your allergies, cross-contamination and their food preparation process. Find out if it’s a buffet or plated meal. If it’s a buffet, I always ask if it’s possible to have a plate straight from the kitchen instead, as this reduces the risk of cross-contamination at the buffet bar. I also inquire if the serving staff will be aware of my allergen beforehand or if I should discuss it with them the day of the wedding. It may seem like a bother to the bride or groom but offering to talk with the staff about your own allergies could help relieve some stress on both your parts.

Food on trays: During cocktail hour and even dinner, there is no end to food stacked high up on silver trays everywhere you look. As various hands pick, choose and mix the delicious treats you can’t help but wonder, where have their hands been as they sift through various trays. Much like buffets, when everyone can take their own food, there’s always a risk for cross-contamination. I try to stay conscious of this and make sure I let a server know about my food allergy and ask if I can have first dibs from the kitchen or receive a special plate all to myself.

What if it’s all unsafe? Here’s a rare situation, but what if you’ve told the couple in advance, called the venue, talked to a chef and you’re still unsure or not 100% confident about eating at this wedding. What do you do? Send your regrets and a nice gift in your place? I personally wouldn’t go that route. Food isn’t everything, and it certainly shouldn’t stop you from celebrating with your friends and family. There are several things we can do to ensure our appetite is sated. One example is eating before you arrive. Attend the ceremony and leave for the dinner, then return for the reception or if you’re comfortable being around the food, come back during dinner so you can listen to the speeches. Another option is you can pack your own food. Here you can do one of two things: 1. Give it to the serving staff before they serve everyone else and request that they not take it out until it’s at your plate (to reduce the risk of cross-contamination). Or, you can keep your food with you in a car and grab it before the meal. It might seem awkward and you may feel embarrassed, but a quick conversation explaining your food allergies to your tablemates can easily turn into a fun icebreaker table topic!

Wedding season can be a hectic, stressful, budget breaking, amazing, happy crying, dance party, wonderful time. Our food allergies should never stop us from enjoying ourselves and celebrating two people who love each other. Like any other dining experience, if we take the time to talk to the right people and ask the right questions, we’ll feel safer and more confident in our dining choices, whatever they may be. Oh, and bring comfortable shoes, because who doesn’t like to dance at a wedding?

– Arianne K.

Adults and Allergies in the Workplace

As an almost thirty year old, I’ve been dealing with allergies in the workplace for about half of my life. From my first job in fast food, to my current job in an office setting, having a severe allergy and a career can be challenging.

Luckily (or maybe unluckily), when I was a kid, there were posters plastered all over the school with my picture on them, along with a little slogan about the fact that I’m allergic to tree nuts and peanuts. Unfortunately, this route is much less effective, and much more embarrassing in an office of 250 people. Lunchrooms and cubicles can be full of people eating allergens. It’s especially difficult to focus when the scent of your allergens lingers throughout the office. However, as a working adult, I can’t just go home every time someone walks by with a sandwich, or when I see someone eating a protein bar. In a large office setting, it’s next to impossible to keep track of who is eating what, and where they’re eating it. As adults working with other adults, it’s important to have a plan that’s both realistic, and effective at keeping you safe.

So how does one deal with allergens in the workplace? It is a good idea to let the people you work directly with about your allergies as they might be more than willing to help you feel more comfortable. In my situation within a large company, you learn to work around everyone else. If groups of people are sitting in the lunchroom consuming my allergens, I politely remove myself from the lunchroom, and find an allergen free place to eat your lunch where I’ll feel more comfortable. If at a colleague’s cubicle, and there is a nut-filled protein bar at their desk, I make sure to not touch their desk during any of my visits. If you’re in a profession where you’re meeting new people, and shaking hands constantly, washing your hands often is a great idea. You never know what type of allergens someone has touched.

Sanitation is also a key component when you’re trying to avoid an allergic reaction in the workplace. If many people work in your direct workspace, it’s important to sanitize and clean the desk area regularly. Wiping down everything from countertops, to telephones, to door handles, and even pens can help in keeping you safe. Washing your hands is also an important aspect to staying safe in the workplace. I always keep antibacterial hand sanitizer at my desk, and ensure I wash my hands regularly throughout the day.

Staying safe from allergens in the workplace can be a challenging ordeal at first, but once you get the hang of it, it will easily become a part of your regular routine.

– Rachel MacCarl