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Without wanting to tempt fate, it appears we’ve struck lucky with my son’s new school on the nut allergy front.

D starts reception class in September. We’ve recently been for our initial meeting with his teachers to talk about his allergies. Here’s how we got on…

Nut free school?

When I had a tour of the primary school last December, I was advised that, although the school was nut free, they hadn’t yet needed to impose a “nut ban”, as pupils didn’t tend to bring in nutty foods in their packed lunches. With this in mind, alarm bells went off for me when we received the new starters’ paper work. Although it was school policy that packed lunches should not include fizzy drinks, sweets or crisps, I could see no mention of any nut free policy.

Opinions vary on whether schools should impose nut bans. The Anaphylaxis Campaign website states there are pitfalls with a nut ban approach, namely:

“It would be impossible to provide an absolute nut-free guarantee so the danger is that allergic children may be led into a false sense of security. There is a strong case for arguing that food-allergic children will gain a better awareness of their allergies, and learn avoidance strategies, if they move in an environment where allergens may turn up unexpectedly.”

Another common argument is that, as children can be allergic to so many different things, it would be unworkable to make a school free of all allergens, and it would be unfair to ban nuts when pupils could have life threatening allergies to a range of other foods.

Michael Pistiner discussed the various pros and cons on the AllergyHome blog recently – see “Nut-free”? Points to ponder.

Preparing for the real world

D will have just turned 4 when he starts school. His awareness of his allergy is growing. We’re about to step up our efforts to instill the importance of not sharing food. However, for now, I’m not confident he would turn down the offer of a chocolate biscuit from a friend.

Back in February, I saw the photo of Amelie King with her eyes swelled closed, having touched peanuts in the playground on her first full day at school. Would D fully appreciate the danger if he put his hand in a glob of peanut butter spilled on a school canteen table? I doubt it.

I would therefore feel a lot happier if his primary school was nut free. I do understand the argument about needing to prepare him for the real world but I think this can come later in childhood. When he’s 18, mummy won’t always be there to help him cross a road, but I’d still hold his hand aged 4. The same goes for keeping him safe from nuts.

Impractical and unfair?

Whilst I see the point that it might not be practical to ban all allergens, if a small child has a life threatening food allergy, there is an argument for banning the allergen, whatever it is, at least from that child’s classroom. A Swindon school banned fish from lunchboxes recently, for this reason.

As regards the “fairness” argument, to me, that’s rather like saying to the 10 people on a sinking ship that as there’s only 5 lifejackets, nobody’s getting one. If school can be made safer at least for some allergic children, is that not a good thing? For children with multiple allergies including nuts, wouldn’t many of their parents be glad of a nut ban, so there’s one less potential killer in the midst?

Other safeguarding possibilities

That said, I have heard about some schools that, whilst not having a “nut ban”, they do put effective measures in place to keep children safe. For example, one mum has told me how her child has two buddies, who sit either side of him at lunchtime. They know not to swap food, not to touch each other and so on.

So we went to the meeting with the preference of a nut ban, but if that wasn’t to be, then ready to discuss safeguarding measures.

School dinners

When we arrived at school, our first port of call was the school kitchen. The manager immediately put our minds at rest and D will be having school dinners from September.

The school works on a two week menu system. The catering company provide an allergen chart for all of the ingredients the school will be using. None of the ingredients on the chart we were shown contained nuts or peanuts.

I have since learned that Cheshire East Council’s policy on nuts is:

“Due to nut allergies becoming more common place Cheshire East Catering has taken the decision to remove nuts from all school kitchens.”

Given D’s allergy, the school would now double check product ingredients labels and also check for “may contain nuts” warnings. If any product ever has a precautionary label, the kitchen will make D a separate meal. They will be sensitive in how this is explained to him, so he doesn’t feel singled out.

We discussed cross-contamination and, if there ever is a “may contain” product being used, the kitchen staff know to make D’s alternative meal in a separate area, with separate utensils etc.

The safety plan

I had prepared a list of questions to ask the school based on the details another nut mum had given me of the risk assessment her son’s school carried out (see Starting school with a nut allergy).

This is what we agreed:

General

  • We will provide the school with at least 2 (and preferably 3) medical kits (each containing an EpiPen, inhaler, spacer and anti-histamine). These will be kept in a classroom cupboard, the staff room and (if we can provide a 3rd kit) in the dining hall.
  • When D goes from his classroom to lunch, his “classroom” meds kit goes with him. Whilst he’s in reception, year 1 and year 2, this is looked after by a teacher. When he’s older, he will carry his meds in a pouch on him during breaks and lunchtime.
  • D’s photo, details of his allergies and emergency plan will be on the wall in the kitchen and the staff room.
  • All staff, including lunchtime assistants, are trained to spot a reaction and what to do in an emergency (administer the EpiPen, call 999 etc).
  • If D has a reaction for example in his classroom, another teacher will go to the staffroom to get the 2nd EpiPen, and vice versa.
  • Classroom equipment (for example, food packets in the home corner) will be vetted to ensure they don’t contain nuts.
  • School are aware of the risk from mouth blown instruments – we will provide his own recorder, for example, if ever needed.
  • All children have their own water bottles on a table in the reception class. D’s will be kept separately, so another child doesn’t use it by accident.
  • Children are encouraged to wash their hands regularly.

Lunch times

  • The children eating school dinners sit at different tables from the children with packed lunches. D’s teachers will arrange for buddies to sit either side of D, who know not to swap food etc.
  • Lunchtime staff will know who D is, where his meds are and are EpiPen trained.
  • Lunchtime staff will wipe down his table before he sits down.
  • Other parents will be advised of the “no nut” policy and asked not to include peanut / nut containing products in packed lunches, given there is a pupil with a life threatening allergy.

Celebrations

  • I will put together a safe treats bag, to be kept at school for any class celebrations.

One thing we didn’t cover, which I need to ask, is that I’m told in advance if there’s going to be a party day, so I can arrange safe food if need be. 

School trips

  • For school trips, the school kitchen provide a packed lunch. I’ve asked for school to please talk to me beforehand to discuss the arrangements for food and his medication kit and to confirm the member(s) of staff who could administer the EpiPen.
  • School have asked that I come along as a helper on trips (which I’m happy to do whilst he’s still little, but appreciate I need to be careful not to cramp his style as he gets older!).

Our homework

So, over the summer holidays, I need to:

  • Put together 2 (preferably 3) medicine kits.
  • Put together a safe snacks box.
  • Obtain up-to-date versions of D’s allergy action plan from our allergy doctors.
  • Obtain a letter from our GP confirming that D cannot eat peanuts or tree nuts (this is required by our Council before they provide a nut free diet).
  • Drum into D two key rules (which I’ve cribbed from another nut mum), namely “1 – don’t eat anything that someone else gives him, 2 – tell the teacher if he feels any sign of a reaction at all”.

Now I just need to persuade him to wear a uniform that doesn’t have Spiderman on it and we’re laughing (well, almost…).

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I thought I had my head round the fact that nut allergies have a far reaching impact on family life. Then I moved house last Friday. I hadn’t given a second thought to the “nut allergy considerations” of the move. Frankly, I had enough to think about organising removals companies, change of address letters and the like, given we had a little over a week between exchange and completion.

So this is just a very quick note to mention three points which took me unawares, in case they are handy for anyone to bear in mind when moving house (or even when renting a holiday cottage or similar):

  1. Moving into the kitchen: what’s been in those food cupboards before? What’s been cooked in that oven? There was a study last year that concluded “Peanut allergen is very robust”, having discovered that peanut residue stays on a surface for 110 days. So stock up on cleaning products and allow yourself extra scrubbing time!
  2. Our new house has a second house in the garden. It’s not so much a bird table, more of a bird annexe. It’s monstrous. Did I think to check for hanging bags of peanuts beforehand? Nope. Obviously, this was something for us to check (and not something you’d ever expect a seller to think about). However, had we thought on about this, it would have been very easy to ask the seller to take any bird feed with them. (For other unexpected sources of peanut, see this handy list on Bestallergysites.com)
  3. Got a nut allergic child, maintain a nut free home, right? Whilst unpacking a box, I found a half eaten chocolate chip cookie among the packing paper. We haven’t had chocolate chip cookies since those days of blissful ignorance pre-peanut allergy diagnosis, when my one-year-old would eat Maryland choc chip and hazelnut cookies like they were going out of fashion. It hadn’t occurred to me to mention my son’s nut allergy to the removals men… or about them snacking as they worked. Next time, I’ll remember to mention the need to keep the house a nut free zone. Not that we’re ever moving, ever again…
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LOUISE JONES’S DIARY

Wednesday 1 January

EpiPens carried 2 (v.g), labels read 14, labels re-read 14, minutes spent finding glasses so can read labels 187,  calories burned lugging around allergy kit 225 (excellent), calories burned chasing after 3-year-old to police potential nut consumption 572 (hooray, will soon be waif!)

In 2014:

I WILL NOT

  • Rant to myself in supermarkets whilst reading “may contain” labels.
  • Make like Road Runner at the sight of a child eating peanut butter cups across the room at playgroup. Will instead calmly assess the risk, most probably stay, but spend the rest of the morning bouncing on toes like tennis star awaiting opponent’s serve, poised to leap on D if he takes one step in snack eating child’s direction.
  • Give myself indigestion in restaurants each time D coughs or clears his throat. Before considering allergies, I will first assess whether a piece of pasta has gone down the wrong way, or if indeed he is just clearing his throat.
  • Automatically reach for the anti-histamine if we are in a park and he gets a nettle-sting rash on his hands. Will first look around for nettles.
  • Procrastinate for days on receipt of a party invitation as to how best to let the host know that my son has a severe nut allergy. Instead I will simply say to the host that “my son has a severe nut allergy” and discuss the party food options in friendly and clear manner, exuding calm zen like vibes and whilst remembering the mantra “inclusion not exclusion”.
  • Crave Indian takeaways, peanut M&Ms, Revels and similar but instead be thankful of the incentive to cook healthy food from scratch, each and every single day.
  • Leave Easter Egg shopping until Good Friday and then tear around Sainsbury’s in search of Kinnerton eggs in manner of Tasmanian Devil.

I WILL

  • Give myself ample time to get to all hospital allergy appointments, so I can be the “bigger person” in battles for hospital car parking spaces thus avoiding excessive swearing, getting ulcer and/or pranging car.
  • Get contact lenses/glasses chain/my eyes lasered, so I stop wasting half my life looking for my glasses so I can read a food label.
  • Buy a large, stylish handbag from Zara or similar, to cart around emergency meds, wipes, safe foods and the like, in place of rucksack. Thereby channelling mum-about-town vibe as opposed to laden down hiker.
  • Properly explain purpose of my orange wig wearing to the other mothers at playgroup on Orange Wig Day, so everyone knows we are raising money for the Anaphylaxis Campaign as opposed to me being an overkeen mother who joins in fancy dress games with children, in public.
  • Keep plentiful supply of appetising but safe snacks in my bag, ready to whip out at a moment’s notice, thus avoiding having to say “no, you can’t have one of Ben’s cakes as they may contain nuts” and falling into trap of promising to buy safe cake. To then find no nut free options in supermarket.
  • Remember that just because I have found nut free chocolate coins/Christmas biscuits/mincemeat, it does not mean I need 500 bags/packets/jars of each.
  • Finally make a decision as to which is safer: a holiday in an English speaking country versus a short haul flight. Then book first post peanut allergy diagnosis abroad holiday. Will look on the bright side that worrying about peanuts for the duration of the flight will at least stop me stressing about the wings falling off.
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The documentary “Living with an Allergy”, directed by Nina Whitehouse, features four families from the Manchester Allergy Support Group, each discussing how allergies have affected their lives.

From parenting children with severe food allergies to discovering a life threatening wasp venom allergy in adulthood, the programme looks at:

  • How the allergies were discovered.
  • How food allergy changes how you shop for food.
  • The challenges faced when eating out, such as ensuring restaurants are aware of cross contamination risks.
  • The emergency medication (and other safeguards, such as translation cards) that you need to always have to hand.

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The prospect of school is looming.  I cannot ignore it any longer. Next September, D moves out of the protective bubble of nursery and into the big wide world of primary school. The application forms need to be in by mid January.

I’m guessing that (given a choice) parents might ordinarily choose a school on the basis of things like proximity to their home, or the OFSTED rating. And those factors are important to me too. However, the deciding vote will be in favour of the school that seems the most clued up about protecting a child with food allergies. So I have embarked on a tour of our local primary schools, both to have a look around and to broach the subject of D’s peanut allergy with the staff.

Once the appointments were in the diary, I realised that I needed to:

  • Compile a list of questions to ask the school. However, in order to do this, I first needed to know what measures UK schools typically put in place for allergic children.
  • Think about the things I could be doing behind the scenes, both before and after term starts, to make things safer for D (and therefore less stressful for me).

Although I’m still feeling like a novice on the schools front, I thought I would share some of:

  • The excellent advice I’ve been given by Nutmums.com readers who have school age children.
  • The handy tips I picked up at at a recent Manchester Allergy Support Group meeting on “Food allergy in schools”.
  • Links to the other useful resources I’ve found on this topic.

If you’ve already been through starting school with a nut allergy, and have any advice or tactics that may help me and other readers with pre-school children, do post a comment below – I would love to hear from you!

What measures do primary schools put in place for an allergic child?

It seems the starting point is the EAACI position paper from 2010: The management of the allergic child at school. This sets out the following “rights of the allergic child”:

“1. To be educated in a safe and healthy environment, with as few provoking allergens and irritants as possible and to breathe clean air in schools.

2. Not to be stigmatized as a result of their condition.

3. To be able to participate in all educational and recreational school activities to the same extent as their peers.

4. To have access to medication and other measures to relieve symptoms.

5. To have access to trained personnel who are able to treat acute reactions.

6. To have their education adapted to their condition if necessary (e.g. physical education).”

The position paper talks about a “co-operative partnership” between doctors, community and school nurses, parents, the school and the child. It sets out action points for the various parties. So, as parents, for example, we need to:

  • Tell the school about D’s allergies and provide the school with a written allergy management plan (obtained from the hospital).
  • Provide the school with a set of D’s emergency medication (and keep track of the expiry dates, so I can provide replacement adrenaline auto-injectors when needed).

In turn, the school’s responsibilities include:

  • Adopting the written emergency treatment plan.
  • Making sure all staff (1) can identify children with allergies and (2) are aware of the location of the children’s (individually labelled) emergency medicine kits.
  • Ensuring all staff are trained in allergen avoidance, recognition and treatment of anaphylaxis (with annual refresher training).

For more information on allergy management plans, see Anaphylaxis Campaign, Setting up a management plan, which links to plan templates on the BSACI website.

Will the school be “nut free”?

Selfishly: I would like D’s school to be “nut free”.

Rationally: I know that children have allergies to all sorts of foods, and I can see how making a school milk, egg, soya, wheat etc etc free would be unworkable.

There is also the argument that, by making a school nut free, you create a false sense of security and don’t prepare the nut allergic child for life in the outside world. Although I can see the sense in this, I think there’s something to be said for erring on the side of over-protection for a young child of four or five, compared to a child of, say, ten, who has a completely different level of awareness.

Of the three schools I have visited so far, two have been “nut free”, to the point where they ask parents not to include peanut- or nut-containing foods in packed lunches. The third school said they hadn’t needed to impose a “nut ban”, as it hadn’t yet been an issue: their pupils hadn’t yet brought in peanut butter sandwiches.

Is there a school nurse?

From talking to our local primary schools, it seems that in our area (East Cheshire) each school nurse works for several schools. So, the school nurse isn’t based full time at any one particular school. However, of the three schools I have visited, all aim to make sure that ALL staff (so teachers, teaching assistants, administrative staff, dinner ladies etc) know which children have allergies (and to what allergens), how to recognise an allergic reaction, where the child’s medication is kept and how to administer an adrenaline auto-injector. Music to my ears, to say the least.

What’s safer: school dinners or packed lunches?

In September, the Government announced that all infant school pupils in England will get free school lunches from September 2014 (see the BBC report and the Anaphylaxis Campaign’s response). My first thought was “we’ll stick to packed lunches, thanks all the same”. Then I started wondering: would it be safer for me to put my trust in the school dinner provider, and have D sitting amongst children eating the same food, or send him in with a packed lunch that I knew was safe, but then live in fear of cross-contamination from the child next to him eating a peanut butter sandwich or nutty granola bar?

My fears on this have been allayed somewhat after talking to the various schools. All three had ladies who prepared the school dinners on site, and one said that I could come into school, before D started, to talk to their cook about D’s dietary requirements. The schools also had a “no swaps” rule and had extra staff on hand at lunchtimes to police this.

When I attended the Manchester Allergy Support Group back in October, Judy Stafford (from the Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital) gave an extremely informative talk on “Food allergy in school”. On the school dinners vs packed lunch debate, she suggested thinking about who it was who wanted packed lunches. Was this mum, thinking it was safer? Or actually something the child wanted (maybe for reasons unrelated to allergies)? Could mum’s fears be overcome, if the nut allergic child ate at a “nut free table”? Or, might it even be sufficient for the nut allergic child to have a seat at the end of a table, where it would be easier for the staff to keep an eye out for spills or attempted swaps?

The schools I have visited do not have separate nut free tables. At one of the schools, children could sit wherever they pleased: there was no segregation of those having school dinners and those with packed lunches. I think I will talk to the cook at whichever school we end up, and make a call on this nearer to the time.

Ideas for working with the school

A recurrent theme running through both the position paper and the support group talk is the need to work WITH the school. One Nutmums.com reader told me that she worked with her son’s school to put together a risk assessment, which set out all the steps that his school would take to minimise the risk of an allergic reaction. Her son was diagnosed as peanut and tree nut allergic during the summer holidays before starting Year 4 (ages 8-9). The measures the school put in place (and which I will be using as a guide!) included:

  • All staff trained on use of Jext pens.
  • Son to take in packed lunch and own snack for playtime.
  • Lunchtime staff to be able to identify son, and also ensure his table is wiped down before he sits down to eat at lunchtime (he was taken into the kitchen on the first day of school to say hello to all the dinner ladies!).
  • Son’s emergency allergy kit to be placed in office, clearly labelled as his and with his photograph on it (I put together a tupperware containing his Jexts, antihistamines, ‘blue’ inhaler and clear instructions for use plus lots of copies).
  • Procedure established for staff to go and get the allergy kit immediately in case of emergency.
  • Emergency plan laminated with son’s photograph on it and placed in an obvious place in every classroom and the school kitchen and staffroom (my youngest son told me he has a peep at his big brother’s photo every morning in his classroom before the register is taken!). The emergency plan states … what my son is allergic to, where his emergency kit is kept, how to recognise a reaction and what to do if a reaction occurs. It also sets out a vast array of emergency contact numbers from myself, my husband, grandparents and local auntie and uncle!
  • School implementing a “no nut” policy so parents are advised via school newsletter not to include nuts, nut products, peanut butter, nutella etc etc in packed lunches and snacks – this is a massive relief, and has been probably the main factor in allowing me to relax during the day. Parents are to be re-reminded about this at the start of every new term.
  • We are to send in bag of allergy friendly snacks so that when other children are handing out treats on birthdays etc, there’s a stash of goodies that my son can have so he doesn’t feel left out.
  • We are to be informed in advance of party days/class treats so can liaise with teacher to see what food is going to be provided and send in suitable alternatives if needs be.
  • I have to be a ‘parent helper’ on school trips wherever possible.
  • Children are also encouraged to wash hands before and after eating.

One other suggestion (from a teacher who herself has allergies), is to provide the teacher with a list of acceptable foods. The teacher would need to check the food label each time, but a “safe list” would give them a starting point if they wanted to do treats.

Feeling daunted? You betcha…

At the moment, if we take D out with his scooter, we have to walk on the outer edge of the pavement and steer him back towards the hedge when he starts veering towards the road. The speed is there, the control isn’t, and neither is there any proper conception of the danger of the oncoming traffic. When I look at older children zipping along on scooters by themselves, it’s difficult to picture D doing the same. I know it will happen. It just seems a long way off.

In the same way, I struggle to picture D saying “no thank you” to a child in a playground who offers him a chocolate biscuit. D knows that nuts will make him poorly (“because I hab allergy”), that we need to check ingredients labels (“check label! no nuts!”) and that he has special medicine if he is ever unwell. But is he at the stage where he would say “no” to a food? I don’t think we’re there yet. But we need to be at that point, in ten months time.

What can we do at home to prepare and plan ahead?

Two key rules…

A reader told me that every morning, she makes her son repeat the following two key rules:

“1 – don’t eat anything that someone else gives him

2 – tell the teacher if he feels any sign of a reaction at all”

I think this is a tactic I will be copying wholesale!

Another suggestion is to build up your child’s allergy awareness generally, for example by talking to your child about checking food labels when supermarket shopping, or by explaining what’s happening at a restaurant (when you are reading a menu and checking the position on allergens with the staff).

Anticipating risk areas

What things at school pose a particular risk for the nut allergic child? And, crucially, what can you do to prepare for them and make them safer?

A key piece of advice which stuck in my mind following Judy Stafford’s support group talk was to always ask “what are the options?”, always looking at the situation from the perspective of what your child CAN do (inclusion) rather than what they CAN’T (exclusion). So, say there is a school party coming up where food is going to be served: what are your options? Well, firstly, you could talk to the school about the party food, as it may be that everything is already nut free. If not, you could:

  • Keep your child home that day, so they miss the party altogether.
  • Provide a packed lunch for your child to eat, whilst all the other children eat party food.
  • Find out what party food will be served, and provide a packed lunch with nut free versions of those foods (as far as possible).
  • Offer to do the shopping for the party, so that all of the food is safe for your child and they can dig in and pile food onto their plate like everyone else.

Other common risk areas for food allergic children at school include:

Birthdays. The birthday boy or girl might bring in treats to share with the class. Events such as Halloween and Easter pose a similar risk. One nut mum I know has instilled into her child that Haribos are safe, but anything else is off limits. The position paper suggests that “Food-allergic children may benefit from an individually labelled box, containing allergen-free ‘treat’ foods for class celebrations or rewards”, so it’s worth talking to the school about a treats box and to agree that you will be given a heads up on any impending food-related events.

The home corner. It seems common for infants school classes to have a “home corner”, where children can play house or play shop. Empty food packets are often used as props. One nut mum I know has been very pleased with the comprehensive way in which her sons’ school and nursery have dealt with their allergies, however the school has recently taken to using empty boxes of Crunchy Nut cornflakes as home corner props. Fortunately, her son (aged 5) can recognise the packaging and knows not to play with that particular box. However, I guess if your child was less aware, it would be a case of talking to the teacher and maybe offering to provide alternative props.

Water fountains. Rather than use the water fountain, could your child have bottled water on hand instead?

Sporting events and school trips. For any events where the child is going to be taken out of school (for example, for swimming lessons, to play football against another school, on a school trip), parents need to talk to the teacher in charge beforehand, to check:

  • On arrangements for food.
  • That both your child’s emergency meds and a person trained to administer them will be on hand.

(see the Anaphylaxis Campaign’s advice on Out-of-school activities).

At the support group talk, Judy Stafford mentioned that you could consider volunteering to be a parent helper, however you need to bear in mind your child’s age, as this can be socially awkward for the child as they get older. Judy also suggested that, if you know there is a residential trip coming up in year 6, you could do some groundwork beforehand, for example:

  • Going on school day trips.
  • Have sleepovers at grandparents’ or a friend’s house.

At the support group talk, it was suggested that someone could also test your child by offering a peanut-containing snack. (Although that sounds a good idea, when D gets a bit older I think a potential flaw might be if he then holds a grudge against the “tester” as having been trying to poison him!)

Christmas party. See above – you might, for example, send in safe food for your child or get involved in organising the food for everyone.

Cookery lessons. Home economics classes (or whatever they are called now!) sound like a potential food allergy minefield. However, it seems that a food allergic child need not necessarily be excluded from cookery classes or clubs, but there will need to be some discussion with the teacher beforehand as to how things can be made safe. Recipes could be adapted to be nut free. The child with allergies could use their own designated work space and utensils, for example with baking tins which can be easily differentiated (for example, a different shape or colour).

My list of questions for the initial appointment

It has been a relief that all of the schools I have visited so far have had experience of allergic children and already had systems in place to care for pupils with allergies. However, I still have more to visit, and, in case they are less forthcoming, these are the questions I will ask:

  • Do you have experience of other children with allergies?
  • If D joins your school, will we put together an action plan? What would you like me to provide?
  • Can all staff identify those children with allergies? (Do you have their photos on a wall?) Where are their emergency medicines kept?
  • Do you have a school nurse? Do all staff know how to use an EpiPen / Jext pen?
  • Is the school “nut free”?
  • What are the arrangements at lunchtime? Is there a nut free table? Are swaps forbidden?
  • As regards school dinners, would it be possible to come in to talk to the cook about D’s dietary requirements?

Further information

 

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When I went to collect D from nursery yesterday, his pre-school room supervisor asked me if he could safely handle conkers (aka horse chestnuts)?

I’ve now looked into this and discovered that, in 2004, the BBC reported that several schools were banning children from playing conkers because of nut allergy fears. Hazel Gowland (food adviser to the Anaphylaxis Campaign) suggested, to The Telegraph, that it would be sensible if nut allergic children stayed out of the way when their classmates were playing conkers and the players should wash their hands afterwards.

The Anaphylaxis Campaign website advises that:

“…we can find no credible reports suggesting that conkers pose any risk to people with nut allergy.

We have heard a few anecdotal reports from people saying they have skin reactions to conkers when they handle them. Clearly if this happens, they should be avoided. No one should be eating them as they are poisonous in their own right.”

We happened to have a hospital appointment this morning, so I was able to check this out. Conkers shouldn’t pose a problem for D. Saying that, I may let him play with them at home first, before he handles them at nursery, just in case he has a skin reaction.

For more information, see:

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This is just a quick post to recount a conversation I had with my 3-year-old at the weekend.

We have been following our allergy doctors’ advice to use trips to the supermarket as an opportunity to gently introduce the topic of nut allergies to D. So, when we’re shopping, I will pick up (for example) a loaf of bread and say something along the lines of “I’m just checking the ingredients list to make sure there are no nuts in the bread … because nuts would make you poorly … oh good this one doesn’t contain nuts … so we can put it in the trolley”. We’re now at the point where D will say to me, as I’m reaching for an item, “Check ingredients! No nuts!”.

He will also point at coconuts on display and say “Can’t eat them! They’re nuts! Make you poorly!”. (I have decided, for now, not to get into a discussion about the relationship between coconut and nuts and how D appears to be fine with eating it!).

So far, so good. However, he’s also at a stage where he will say things to me to test my reaction. Such as “I BASH Bailey?” (our dog). If I reply “no, don’t bash Bailey”, this is met with a devilish grin.

On Saturday, we had been to the park and had stopped off at a pub on the way home (The Egerton Arms, Chelford). D had been listening intently to my conversation with the waitress and manager about whether they could cater for someone with a nut allergy (they could).

Half way into eating his tomato pasta, he turned to me and said “Don’t like pasta. Want to eat NUTS”. I think my face froze in some kind of clenched teeth smile. D seized the moment to tell me again “Mummy, I want to eat NUTS! I want to eat them!”.

I replied “No you don’t, they’ll make you poorly”. Cue the grin. He’d got me again.

A health visitor once told me that if your toddler is saying or doing something you don’t like, your best bet is to “ignore, ignore, ignore” and eventually they’ll stop. I think that’s the tactic we’ll be adopting here.

If anyone else has been through this and has any top tips on how to deal with it, do post a comment below, I would love to hear your thoughts!

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UPDATE (JAN 2014): See the Nutmums.com directory of nut allergy friendly restaurants for recommended UK restaurants, pubs and cafés for people with nut allergies.

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I’ve now taken my quest to find a nut allergy-friendly restaurant, pub or café on tour… to Cornwall!

You may already have seen my list of the restaurants, pubs and cafés we have so far visited in Cheshire. As we’ve just returned from a week’s holiday in Mawgan Porth, Cornwall, I’ve also compiled a list of the Cornish eateries we have tried. This again sets out whether:

  • They were able to provide a peanut and nut free meal for my son.
  • If not, whether they were happy for him to eat food brought from home.

Menus and policies can change, so obviously do make your own enquiries each time you visit. For tips on eating out safely with food allergies, please see:

Restaurants and cafés

1. The Bowgie Inn, Crantock

Date last visited:  September 2013.

Were they able to provide a peanut and nut free meal?  No. I was advised that there were nuts in the kitchen and therefore they could not say that a meal was nut free.

If not, were they happy for the allergy sufferer to bring their own food?  We decided to eat elsewhere, so didn’t go on to ask.

2. Blue Beach Bar, Porth Towan

Date last visited:  September 2013.

Were they able to provide a peanut and nut free meal?  No. The lady I spoke to advised that the stone baked pizzas did not contain nuts as an ingredient. However, there were nuts in the kitchen and so they couldn’t promise that there hadn’t been cross-contamination with nuts from another dish.

If not, were they happy for the allergy sufferer to bring their own food?  Yes. They were very happy for my children to eat a packed lunch, whilst we ordered food from the menu.

3. Hendra Holiday Park snack bar

Date last visited:  September 2013.

Were they able to provide a peanut and nut free meal?  No. This came as a surprise. We had visited the Oasis Pool at the Hendra Holiday Park on a previous holiday to Cornwall in June 2013. On our way out, we stopped by the snack bar and asked if they could cater for my son’s severe nut allergy. On that occasion, we were referred to another member of the kitchen staff who produced a large file, listing the ingredients for every item on the menu. We ordered our son a cheese and tomato pizza, which was described as “nut free”.

So when we visited again in September 2013, we were hoping to be able to have lunch again at the cafe. Unfortunately, this time, we were advised “we do gluten free, but not nuts” (helpful…). Could we look at the black file again, which we had seen three months ago? “I didn’t work here then”. Could we please speak to someone who did? “We are very busy”. So we gave up and ate elsewhere.

If not, were they happy for the allergy sufferer to bring their own food?  We decided to eat elsewhere, so didn’t go on to ask.

4. The Merrymoor Inn, Mawgan Porth

Date last visited:  September 2013.

Were they able to provide a peanut and nut free meal?  Yes. We popped in for a drink and on the way out, I mentioned my son’s severe nut allergy to one of the staff and asked about the pasta and tomato sauce on the children’s menu. He checked with the chef and confirmed that the pasta (and to the best of their knowledge) the home made tomato sauce were safe for nut allergy sufferers. On our next visit, I explained the situation again to another member of staff. He, in turn, relayed the severity of my son’s allergy to the kitchen staff, stressing the need to make sure the pasta and sauce hadn’t been anywhere near nuts.

5. National Maritime Museum café, Falmouth

Date last visited:  September 2013.

Were they able to provide a peanut and nut free meal?  No. The café staff were frank that there were cakes containing nuts in the kitchen, so they therefore couldn’t vouch that their homemade sandwiches were “nut free”.

If not, were they happy for the allergy sufferer to bring their own food?  Yes.

6. Pizza Express, Falmouth

Date last visited:  November 2012.

Were they able to provide a peanut and nut free meal?  Yes.

For more details, see Let’s hear it for Pizza Express!

7. Sam’s on the Beach, Polkerris

Date last visited:  June 2013.

Were they able to provide a peanut and nut free meal?  No. The manager I spoke to was extremely frank in that they couldn’t warrant that anything was nut free.

If not, were they happy for the allergy sufferer to bring their own food?  We decided to eat elsewhere, so didn’t go on to ask.

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Has anyone else become a bit of a ditherer since their child’s allergy diagnosis? I keep finding myself in situations (for example, when reading a food label or examining a suspicious looking rash), which make me have a complete Mavis moment. I’m suddenly a rabbit in the headlights and (in quavering Mavis voice) “I don’t really know”.

There have been countless times over the last year where a friend or relative has emerged from their kitchen with a packet of biscuits (or similar snack) and asked “Are these okay for D?”. Each time, two things happen. Firstly, I need to find my glasses (one thing D’s peanut allergy has taught me is that I really need to get my eyes lasered … but I digress). Secondly, I have to read the ingredients list and make a call on whether the offered snack is safe. What usually happens is that the said friend and I stand together, both staring at the ingredients label, with me muttering something like “just need to check the ingredients list and make sure there is no mention of peanuts or nuts … yep, these look fine … oh hang on …”. Yes: I’ve spotted the may contain wording. The warning which says something like “may contain nuts” or “ingredients: cannot guarantee nut free” or “not suitable for nut allergy sufferers”. Although our doctors advised us that we could ignore “may contain” warnings (provided nuts or peanuts weren’t listed in the ingredients), we have tended to avoid foods with such advisory wording. So, time hangs whilst I go through the process of (1) spotting the may contain wording (2) assuming the rabbit-in-headlights expression (3) running through the doctor’s advice on may contain wording in my head (4) assessing the likelihood of a tantrum when all his friends have chocolate cake and he has a rice cake (5) ultimately, deciding not to take the risk and explaining to my friend that I’ll give D something else instead.

The other scenario which triggers a dither is the moment where I notice D has a rash. A few recent examples:

  • The other week, I went to a friend’s house for a coffee and for D to have a playdate with her little boy. I noticed a nettle sting-type rash on the back of D’s hand. Out came the anti-histamine medicine and on came the “Dora the Explorer” DVD, to encourage the boys to sit still and take a time out for 10 minutes. What could he have reacted to? The handwash in the bathroom? I scanned the ingredients list. No mention of nuts or peanuts. Could it be cat hair? D had been climbing on the stool that the cat sleeps on. However, he’d never reacted in the past. But hold on … we’d been to the park before going to my friend’s house … and D had fallen over on the grass. So – might the cause of the nettle sting rash in fact be … a nettle sting?
  • On another occasion, we were in a playground and I noticed four spots in a line on D’s cheek. I got him to sit down, whilst I had a closer look. “Let mummy just look at your face, I need to see if you need some medicine.”. Turned out, there had been a toddler fight over a toy car. It seemed the “spots” were most likely nail marks.
  • Once at bath time, he had what looked to be a rash around his mouth. As his dad and I peered anxiously down at him, dithering over whether to give him a spoonful of anti-histamine, D looked at me and held his tongue between finger and thumb. “Itchy”, he said, then adding “Cough” followed by a pretend cough. It seems even my 2 1/2 -year-old sees Mavis coming.

So, is it just me who suffers from an attack of “the allergy mum dithers”? Or is this a widespread phenomenon? Even after having written this blog post, I know you can’t be too careful and I’m sure whenever I am next faced with “may contain” wording or mysterious spots, I will go through the same thought processes. I just hope that in time, I’ll master the art of at least appearing decisive!

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UPDATE (JAN 2014): See the Nutmums.com directory of nut allergy friendly restaurants for recommended UK restaurants, pubs and cafés for people with nut allergies.

* * *

I thought I would compile a list of the restaurants, pubs and cafés we have visited (mainly in Cheshire), to record whether:

  • They were able to provide a peanut and nut free meal for my son.
  • If not, whether they were happy for him to eat his own food that we had brought from home. Continue Reading