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Nepal, Austria, Greece & Keeping on Track with Food Allergies

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This spring was quite busy to say the least. As I prepared to finish my Bachelor of Nursing Science degree, write my nursing licensing exam, and begin the search to find a “real person” job, I also found myself in the midst of planning a volunteer trip to Nepal for the beginning of June. I’ve volunteered abroad before and am quite interested in global health so I was very committed to the idea of taking some time to go on a volunteer trip before taking on ‘adult responsibilities’ in the ‘adult world’. Before I knew it, after I organized my trip to Nepal, I also tacked on a week of visiting relatives in Austria and then arranged a one week tour of the Greek Islands. Could you say that I had a bit of a panic attack thinking that after I got my first nursing job I wouldn’t have any free time to travel again? Absolutely. Was this a slight overreaction? Perhaps…but no regrets, right? Anyway, along with the challenges of organizing three very different trips there is always the challenge of taking appropriate precautions with regards to food allergies.

In the weeks leading up to my trip departure I did basic research on the cultures I would be visiting and what sorts of food I would likely encounter. In Nepal, their cuisine takes influence from India as well as China with their main meal being Dhaal Bhat (rice &lentils). With my allergies being to wheat, eggs, and nuts I was a-ok with that. I was familiar with Austrian cuisine since my grandparents would always cook Austrian meals growing up. That being said, before even booking my trip I knew their love of schnitzel doesn’t work with my wheat allergy and sausage would also pose a challenge. What I did have going my way was the fact that, when in Austria, I would be meeting with my cousins who luckily could speak German and would be able to help me find suitable food options.

Finally, the mediterranean diet would for the most part agree with my food limitations of wheat, eggs, and nuts. But it would still pose some risks in terms of cross contamination. After getting an idea of what foods I would encounter while travelling, I also did the routine task of contacting airlines and informing them of my food allergies. I will admit I did not pick my airline based on which ones were allergy friendly. Instead I looked at which ones offered the best deal. I then had to find out that some airlines such as Turkish Airlines did not accommodate allergies in anyway such as even offering a gluten free meal option to passengers. This at least tipped me off to be well prepared with snacks for my air travels.

Other preparations before I left for my trip included making sure that I had not only one auto-injector to take with me but in fact several stored in different bags so I had backup options in case one needed to be used or perhaps accidentally got lost. I also packed anti-histamine medication which I use for less severe allergic reactions and a few inhalers in case I had one of my in-frequent asthma attacks. Having travelled by myself to other countries before, something that I always like to bring is allergy cards. You can order these online through companies like Select Wisely.

These allergy cards are neat because you can have these pocket- sized laminate cards made to state your allergies as well as other phrases such as ‘I am having an allergic reaction please get me to an English speaking hospital’ in virtually any language. I naturally ordered a fresh batch of these allergy cards in Nepali, German and Greek. But the roadblock I encountered was that, although I ordered these cards five weeks before my departure date, because they were coming from the USA they didn’t actually arrive before I left. The real kicker is I flew out on a Saturday and my allergy cards arrived the Monday after! Oh well, c’est la vie! I found that a useful and convenient alternative for communicating my allergies was downloading the google translate app on my smartphone. By downloading this app I could use very simple language to communicate my food allergies and inability to eat certain foods and type this into the app. I then saved the phrases that were produced so I could easily bring them up when ordering food.

So after months of planning and prepping for my trip it was finally time for departure. For my time In Nepal, I was living in Kathmandu and the work I was doing involved volunteering with the largest women’s health NGO in Nepal. I got connected with this group through a volunteer liaison organization that provided room and board for those coming to the country to volunteer. This provided some obvious perks such as not having to find my own accommodations as well we had all of our meals provided for us by an in-house cook. I knew in Nepal it was customary to eat rice at most meals (usually at least two meals a day), but when I had my food allergies explained to the cook I could see her eyes bulge as I am sure she began to ask herself ‘what else can I make for this girl besides rice, rice, and more rice!?’

I will admit.. I ate ALOT of rice when I was in Nepal. Breakfast usually contained of fruit and some form of rice, rice donuts, fried potatoes or even fried rice noodles (I believe the cook was trying to get creative as I could not eat things like toast or egg). Lunch typically involved fried rice prepared with some fried vegetables and potatoes or beaten rice (another form of rice quite popular in nepal…usually fried). Dinner again usually consisted of dhal bhat (rice and lentils) with curried vegetables. If you want a true picture of Nepali cuisine don’t just use my blog as a source they DO eat food beyond rice including their famous stuffed dumplings called Mo-Mos as well as various noodle dishes but as I definitely experienced rice is their main staple grain.

While my day-to-day meals were always allergy friendly I did eat out from time to time and had to be careful with ordering my meals. It was tempting not to eat out in Nepal since for $3-4 american could get you a LARGE meal of your choosing. In terms of ordering safe, I always try to stick to foods I can identify as likely being allergen free and then reconfirming when placing my order. In Nepal this involved ordering a lot of curries and traditional plates of dhal bhat that came with curried vegetables, pickled vegetables, your choice of meat as well as potatoes. It was here that I would bring out my phone and show waiters my pre-typed allergy message. The organization I worked for was stationed in Kathmandu (the capital of Nepal) and I was surprised how many people in Nepal could speak or understand some English. That being said, allergies are next to non-existent in Nepal so while some educated Nepali people know of allergies this is not something they encounter regularly like we do in North America. Therefore it was important to always re-evaluate the waiters understanding while placing my order and even confirming again when the order arrived.

While I found it easy to avoid food allergens when eating out, I actually found it harder to avoid allergens at my place of work. The volunteer organization that I worked for had its main branch located in Kathmandu. However, due to the recent earthquakes that struck Nepal, we were going out to areas around the Kathmandu valley and working in health camps. Regardless of whether we were at the main branch or out in the field, lunch was always provided for the staff (something commonly done in many places of work in Nepal). These would be simple lunches of Mo-Mos (dumplings) or packets of dried noodles which are extremely popular in Nepal (yes, exactly like the ones you ate in grade school). That being said most days I could not eat any of these lunches and instead brought my own.

Some of the staff did not speak English so, when I politely declined their offer to have some of their food, it was hard not to feel completely rude. After a couple of these offers, during which I received strange looks for not wanting their food, I brought my phone with me to work so I could communicate to everyone that it wasn’t that I didn’t like their food but literally could not eat it. They definitely understood and even on my last day of work made me a special lunch with only foods I could eat— just one small example of the incredible kindness and hospitality of the Nepali people. I am thankful to say I did not have an allergic reaction while in Nepal and in fact was more successful at avoiding my food allergens than avoiding drinking untreated well water…but that is an accident and a story for another time!

After the trip of a lifetime to Nepal, I flew to Austria for a week. Here I will admit I was fortunate that, for about 2/3 of my travels, I was with cousins who could help with translating food allergies when ordering or helped with reading ingredient lists. While on my own I still didn’t find it too difficult to order food and communicate my allergies. I attribute most of this to the fact that I was in tourist centres like Vienna and Salzburg where it wasn’t hard to find those who spoke English. When it came to buying food at stores, when in doubt, I simply would look for a friendly stranger who spoke English and could help me translate what the package said. I had the google translate app ready to go but found I didn’t need to use it often at all. Again I was fortunate that Austria proved to be a trip that was reaction free!

For my final stop in Greece, I found it slightly more difficult to order food than in Austria. I obviously didn’t have family right there to translate, as well I found English wasn’t quite as commonly spoken here. That being said, while travelling the Greek islands, many of the cities are tourist hot beds so you will find someone working in a restaurant that does speak some English.

Another thing I found was that sometimes the personality of servers in Greece were such that, depending their mood or how busy they were or maybe just how they were feeling that day, this would dictate their promptness for allowing you to order with a ‘special request’ (i.e. a allergy safe meal). Despite this I did appreciate that they always did pay attention to my actual concerns and were very good about making alterations as necessary so I could eat safely wherever I was.

Even on my last night in Greece I was dining with some people in Athens and after having one of the best dinners of my trip the waiter/owner of the restaurant brought everyone at our table a piece of a pastry. I graciously thanked the man but explained that this was also something I could not eat. He of course understood and then came back a few minutes later asking if I could eat watermelon. After I said I could, he came back with an entire chopped up watermelon for our entire group! One of the greatest experiences of my travels had to be seeing the generosity and thoughtfulness of people are all across the world!

Yes, it can definitely be extra work and an added responsibility when travelling with food allergies. But I am a firm believer that it is not something that should hold you back from allowing you to gain life- changing experiences and travelling around the world! There are so many other things to consider and precautions to take when travelling with food allergies. While I tried to take precautions that made sense to me, feel free to comment below with tips and tricks you use to stay safe while travelling!

Caitlyn P.

How Your Parents Treated Your Allergies Then and Now: Once a Parent, Always a Parent

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I was three years old when my family found out I had a life threatening food allergy to peanuts and nuts. Now, I don’t remember much from that fateful day, but the bits and pieces I’ve gathered seem to allude to the following: I ate a cracker with peanut butter on it and immediately went into anaphylactic shock. My parents rushed me to the hospital because they had no idea what the heck was happening to me.

Afterward, the doctors broke the news to my family that I was anaphylactic to all nuts and peanuts (my life story and my family’s were sent down a very different, but interesting path). At the beginning, my parents did everything to keep me safe; and I mean everything. My saint of a mother spent hours baking everything from cakes and cookies, to ice cream and bread. There were no regulations for food safety, and few companies could guarantee a safe products free of cross-contamination. So our food options were limited. Collectively, my family and extended family decided to clear our houses of all of my allergens (and my brother’s when we figured out his allergy) to limit the chances of either of us having a reaction.

They painstakingly created one space where I could feel completely safe to eat anything found in our kitchen. On top of creating meals, snacks, and even birthday cakes for fellow classmates, my mom helped create support groups for fellow parents of children with food allergies. She also become an integral part of the organization AAIA (Allergies, Asthma Information Association) and spread the message about food allergies to our local school board (to eventually make my school nut-free before its time).

Through it all, my mom and dad did everything in their power to make me feel included in events, safe and, most importantly, normal. It can be so hard on a child’s self-esteem to grow up with a food allergy, and my family did everything in their power to both help me be comfortable with my allergen and to be vocal about informing and educating people. BUT, that did not stop her from telling anyone and everyone about my allergies, sometimes in the most pre-teen embarrassing way, or announcing to any room that would listen that we had a quote “Special Alert” – me.

Fast-forward 20 years to my adulthood. My mom is still taking time to make homemade foods for me when I visit, informing anyone who will listen about food allergies, and is still taking time to discover new and safe foods for me. My family is still my pillar of support when it comes to new or lasting issues I have with my food allergies regardless of distance between us. My food allergies have been consistent in my life and my family’s for such a long period of time that they are no longer a constant topic or issue for us. Over the years we’ve found restaurants that can accommodate, safe places to travel, and resources to make our lives easier.

My parents still choose to not keep my allergen in their home, and not to eat them even while travelling. I guess some habits never go away. And between you and me, it makes me smile every time I think about it. My mom still ever-so subtly prompts me to inform servers and chefs about my allergen before I even get a chance to sit down when eating out. She still makes me re-read ingredients after she reads them and still insist on joining me on every trip I take to the allergist. My parents have always been a beacon of love and support in my life, from allowing me to spread my wings and experience life, to helping me create values and roots to come back home to.

Arianne K.

Cottage Season and Allergies

 

open field

Summer time is usually synonymous with cottage season for a lot of people in the city. Cottage season usually implies parties, barbeques, and family events. Your allergies do not have to hamper your experience. The key to enjoying these events safely is to do the proper planning. I’ve listed some common cottage events below, as well as some key points you should take note of when you plan these events (in regards to your allergies).

Event: Family Barbeque

One quintessential summer cottage event is the family barbeque. Barbeques, in and of themselves, are actually pretty safe. The barbequed ingredients are simple, for the most part: steak, hamburgers, sausages, hot-dogs, grilled vegetables, etc. However, some precautions that should be taken. This include checking the ingredients in sausages and hamburgers. If they are bought at a store, they may include different seasonings. So you want to be sure that they are safe for you. In addition, your family members may bring their own foods. Call these people in advance and make sure that they are aware of the severity of your allergy (or allergies). If you do not feel safe eating these foods, avoid eating them. Explain your concern to your family members. Given the severity of your allergy, they should not be offended.

Event: Hiking

Hiking is a fun activity that is easy to plan for. The main allergy “risk-factor” involved with hiking can be trail-mix or other snacks. Do not rely on others to provide snacks for your hike and never eat trail mix packed by others. Take a zip-lock bag and fill it with your favorite snacks that you know are free of your allergen(s). Pack your own water as well. Trail mix is usually filled with nut products. So, again, the safest option is to bring your own snacks. Also, in all cases, make sure that your epinephrine auto-injector is with you at all times. Keep it in a fanny-pack around your waste and tell your hike-partners about your allergy and how to use your auto-injector.

Event: Sleepovers

If you are the organizer of your own sleepover, you have total control over the types of foods served at your party. In this case, you are in an optimal position when it comes to safe food options. You can choose the foods that you like and that you know are safe. Make sure your friends and/or family know that you have a severe allergy and show them that you have an epinephrine auto-injector and how to use it. If you are invited to a sleep-over, let you the organizer know in-advance that you have a severe allergy and that you carry an auto-injector. Read all the ingredients on all the food you consume. One extra precaution that you could take to be extra safe would be to pack a small bag of your favorite snacks so you know that you could turn to a safe source of food if you feel hungry.

Cottage events are very enjoyable! Hopefully you found this advice helpful! These are some fast and easy steps you can take that will
allow you to be safe and to have fun during your next cottage event.

Saverio M.

Movie Nights at Home: The Snacker’s Guide

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I recently hosted a Hobbit movie marathon at my house with a few of my Middle-Earth-loving friends. For those unfamiliar with The Hobbit trilogy, it’s essentially three awesome fantasy adventure films based on a single short children’s novel written by J.R.R. Tolkien. Some people say three movies was excessive. I disagree. But that argument can be saved for another time.

A very essential part of this marathon day, and any movie night at home for that matter, is FOOD! If you’re like me, snacks are a big part of the movie watching experience. However, with a food allergy to peanuts and tree nuts, I have to be careful what I eat and what the people around me eat. For this reason, I like to involve myself in the snack planning. That way, I can enjoy the movie more as I will be more confident that everything will be safe to eat. As a side note, before I share some of my snack ideas, be sure to clean the surfaces where you will be sitting. If it’s at a friend’s house, offer to clean the couch and nearby tables to minimize the risk of cross-contamination. Also, politely ask everyone to wash their hands before handling any food. It’s really not a big deal to ask and your friends will appreciate your diligence.

Here are a few ideas for allergy-friendly snacks for a movie night at home. Please keep in mind your own food allergies while reading through this list and adjust according to your food preferences and requirements.

1) Popcorn. This is a staple food for most movie watchers. I like to buy unpopped kernels so that I can prepare them how I like. If I’m feeling adventurous after popping them, I’ll sprinkle cinnamon on top. Or sometimes butter and salt. If you like spicy foods, chili powder is also a fun popcorn topping. You could also try coconut oil for something different. The possibilities are really endless with popcorn!

2) Veggies and dip. This one takes a little more planning. I like to make sure that I buy the veggies and prepare them myself so that I am confident that there is no cross-contamination risk when chopping them up. As for dip, store bought dips are great. But sometimes I prefer to make my own. Adding spices to a mayonnaise or plain Greek yogurt base can make for great dips. Then simply serve and enjoy!

3) Chips. I’m a big chip fan. However, if you are allergic to wheat or any other chip ingredient, the good news is that some companies have found innovative ways to make chips. For example, using beans instead of wheat (very, very tasty!!). You can also make your own using other ingredients. There are hundreds of simple recipes and instructions online or in books describing how to make chips out of bananas, kale, apples, potatoes… pretty much anything! These are great for impressing your friends with something homemade and tasty.

4) Candy. This one is tough to make at home. But I’m sure there are recipes out there somewhere on how to do so. If not, just be sure to read the ingredients twice to ensure that your allergen(s) are not present.

5) Pizza. This is another great food for movie night at home. Just be sure to read ingredients and/or inform the pizza maker about the severity of your allergies. If you feel uneasy about ordering or buying oven-ready pizzas, it’s really simple to make your own. Use a tortilla or a bagel, top it with your favourite ingredients, bake, and share!

6) Other. I will leave this other section for you to fill in with your own ideas. Be creative and safe!

Also, feel free to post comments about your allergy-friendly snack ideas for movie nights at home. I’d love to hear them!

 Dylan B.

Expectations when Eating Out with Allergies

Waitress

When talking to other people about my allergies, a common topic that comes up is how hard it must be to eat out at restaurants.  For the most part, however, I have had nothing but positive experiences when it comes to eating out. I will admit that there have been some less than positive incidents, for example where it was not detected that the menu item I ordered contained food allergens. And only once did a restaurant refuse to serve me because of my allergies. While these are not positive events, they for the most part are preventable by having my own routine for how I inform servers about my allergies along with the responsibility I expect to see from the restaurant for serving someone with allergies.

The expectations I have when eating at a restaurant include always making sure I get confirmation that the chef is going to be informed about my allergies and that whatever I ordered is going to be prepared in an area where no cross-contamination will occur.  When I order food, I also expect waiters or waitresses to be investigative to ensure that the meal I am ordering is actually free of any possible allergens. One of the incidents where I had an allergic reaction in a restaurant occurred because the waitress misread the ingredient label for a veggie burger, which actually contained egg.  Therefore, I always prefer when a restaurant has a binder that contains a list of what ingredients are in what menu items. Since this is not always possible at every restaurant, I also find that it is a good sign when a waiter/waitress comes back to the table to verify ingredients with me— as this signals they actually have been looking into the food I have ordered.

Overall it is my hope that restaurants will be very accommodating when serving someone with allergies since they want to encourage business but also don’t want to trigger an allergic reaction in one of their patrons.  The incident where a restaurant refused to serve me occurred at a restaurant in Toronto. This restaurant had all of their food shipped in from an outside supplier and could not verify all the ingredients in their food and then could not guarantee any food items were definitely allergen free.  This was obviously a frustrating incident. But it was the right call since no food item could fully assured to be safe. Some incidents where restaurants get ‘brownie’ points for their service in regards to managing food allergies include when the chef comes out and personally talks to me about menu options and what is safe for me.

This exceeds my expectations for eating out and completely reassures me that my meal will be safe. Furthermore, the more flexible a restaurant is with altering their menu options to make safe meal choices also puts a restaurant in my good books.  This gesture is obviously much more work for a restaurant kitchen but is a testament to their commitment to providing an allergy- safe restaurant experience for their guests. It is a shared partnership between myself and the restaurant I eat out at to ensure that the food I eat is allergy friendly. For the most part, however, I must commend restaurants for the steps they take to make my experiences eating out safe and enjoyable. What have your experiences been like eating out at restaurants with allergies?

Caitlyn P. 

Staying Safe on Valentine’s Day with Allergies

young couple having fun in the kitchen

Roses are in shops, chocolates are on shelves, and the year’s biggest romantic movies are in theaters. Love is in the air and so is everything else. Having a food allergy can make it hard to navigate through a holiday filled with chocolates and treats. But taking time and explaining your allergens can help ensure a great date.

Staying safe on Valentine’s Day can be tricky at any age. But following a few simple guidelines can help you avoid an allergic reaction and help you spend this special day safely with your significant other.

As always, it is important to make sure that the person you are with knows about all of your food allergies, where they can be found, where your auto-injector is, and how to use it. Making sure that your intended date knows what is safe for you to eat and be around is an important first step to staying safe on Valentine’s Day. Sometimes it can feel like the mystery and romance of the holiday is taken away. But, by talking about your food allergies in advance, you will both be prepared. A good way to ensure that a dinner date goes smoothly is to give or ask for a list of safe places to eat in advance so that you can both be better prepared.

Candy, chocolates, and roses are the quintessential staples for any good Valentine’s Day. There are plenty of safe options for delicious treats available to make your day special. If you’re buying, make sure that you read the labels very carefully, look out for “may contain labels” and, if you’re unsure, there are plenty of resources online and numbers to call and confirm ingredients. If you’re a whiz in the kitchen and you’re making a special treat from scratch, a few measures can be taken to ensure that your snack stays safe. Make sure your cooking area is cleaned and that all of your utensils are disinfected. Never use the same utensils for different foods. Ensure that you know all of the food allergies that the person you are cooking for has. Cross-contamination is just as dangerous as an allergen. So always be aware of what is around you.

Every Valentine’s Day date should be sealed with a kiss. The “will they or won’t they” butterflies in your stomach don’t need any accompaniment from stress butterflies caused by wondering if your significant other has had any contact with your allergen.  The best way to avoid any unwanted stress is to, again, make sure that you communicate your allergens clearly and ensure that your date knows the severity of them. If you’re the one without the allergies, consider a dish or meal that is free of your partner’s allergen to ensure a smooth evening.

Having a food allergy should never stop you from experiencing your ideal Valentine’s Day date. Taking simple precautions to stay safe with your food allergies will ensure a magical date and a night to remember for all of the right good reasons.

Arianne K.

 

A Night at the Movies with Allergies – Take Two

Woman with Hat

To religious movie-goers, a night out at the movies represents all things fun and exciting. There’s a lot to look forward to. Whether it involves touching-base with friends or waiting in anticipation to see your favorite actor play his or her roll on the big screen, movie nights usually equate to fun times. Having anaphylaxis does not have to limit your fun night out. Here are a few tips that you can keep in mind during your next movie night.

  1. Before arriving at the movie theatre…

One of the most important things to do, regardless of the outing you are attending, is to let those around you know that (a) you have a severe allergy (and what you have an allergy to) and (b) that you have an auto-injector. If your friends don’t know how to use an auto-injector or what an auto-injector is, give them a brief demonstration of how to use it and where you store it in the event that you have a reaction. Having your friends be aware of your allergy is crucial to your safety at any event. They will know exactly how to respond. So, in sum, make sure that your friends are aware of your allergy.

  1. While at the movie theatre

Whenever I go out to the movies, my friends always rush to grab some snacks before the movie begins. Eating-out with anaphylaxis is always tricky – you have to be extra-careful about which snacks you choose. Here are some tips you can follow to snack safely:

  • Always choose snacks that are pre-packaged by a brand-name company (not by the movie theatre). There should be a detailed list of ingredients on the back with “may contain” warnings. Preferably, choose snacks that you have tried before so you know that you are safe.
  • If you really love popcorn, bring some along with you. You don’t know what oil is used and how the popcorn has been handled by the theatre staff. The risk of cross-contamination is a lot higher with popcorn that is freely handled.
  • If you don’t feel like eating at all, but you still want to ‘participate’ with your peers, drinks are usually a safe option. Always try to opt for bottled or canned drinks – preferably water, soda or juice. Some coffees and teas are sold in bakeries that sell other baked goods that contain common allergens (ie. peanuts and tree-nuts). So the safest thing to drink is something that is sealed.

In summary, these are some simple tips that you can follow during your next outing to the theatre. Don’t let your allergies ruin a fun night out with your friends. Just be aware of what you are eating and make sure your friends are aware of your allergies.

Saverio M.