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Most people don’t know the fear of living with deadly food allergies, but for some families it means scouring food labels, reciting a mantra of dangerous allergens - milk, egg, peanut, cashews, shellfish, soy, wheat, sesame – and vigilantly watching their children.
When Katrina Roe’s daughter was three years old and heading to a friend’s birthday party, her mother was astonished to hear her daughter say that she hated parties. When her mother questioned why, her daughter’s answer was, “I can’t eat the cake. I can’t eat the lollies in the piñata. I can’t have the lollies in the lolly bags. I feel so left out.”
Katrina says she felt upset that her child had to miss out on so much because of her nut and egg allergies and felt a need to educate children and parents about the community responsibility of caring for children with allergies.
“I really do think it’s a community issue. I don’t think it’s okay for people to say ‘we don’t have allergies’ so we don’t have to worry about people who do,” Katrina says.
“It surprises me that people think they have the right to eat whatever they want wherever they want when it can put someone else’s health at risk. It’s about caring for one another.
“It’s on the whole community to take responsibility and care for children who have extra needs.”
When they are little the greatest challenge is the fact that they can’t have what the others are having. You have to watch them like a hawk because they’re always pushing the boundaries. As they get older the challenge is trusting in the child.
An award-winning children’s author, Katrina wrote Marty’s Nut-free Party, a story about a cheeky monkey who loves to party. Unfortunately, Marty finds out he is allergic to peanuts and parties are no longer fun or safe for Marty. Marty and his friends have to find a way to make their parties safe and fun for everybody.
The book, shortlisted for the 2013 Speech Pathology Book of the Year Award and the Caleb Prize, is relevant to all children with food allergies and teaches the child how to manage their food allergy.
It’s also a good resource for helping families educate their extended families, friends, teachers and carers about how to take care of children with food allergies.
Marty’s Nut‐Free Party focuses on the social issues having allergies raises. For young children, birthday parties are the highlight of their year, but they can also be very stressful for allergic children and their families.
It is hard to have fun when you always have to worry about what you put in your mouth. Also, as young children are messy eaters, with little hands dipping in and out of food bowls, the potential for cross contamination is enormous.
Katrina says that when talking to children she reminds them that the most important thing at their own birthday parties is taking care of their friends.
“I’ve heard of people serving things at their party and it’s something that their best friend is allergic to. I remind them that their friend is more important than anything else and that everybody has a role to play in keeping their friends safe.
“Kids love the book. Kids really do feel a lot of empathy for this character in the book.
“It’s wonderful if children can think about what life might be like for someone else. Children are better than adults at putting themselves into another person’s shoes.”
Parties and social situations in general are a major challenge for parents of children with allergies. Dangers lie everywhere no matter how well the children are prepared. And the smaller the children the greater the danger that something may fall into their hands unexpectedly.
Parents talk about the mental challenge of telling their children they can’t have pretty cupcakes and decorated sweets when all the children around them are gorging on exotic party food. Some feel the psychological torture isn’t worth it and prefer to keep their children away rather than have their child feel excluded or punished.
“When they are little the greatest challenge is the fact that they can’t have what the others are having. You have to watch them like a hawk because they’re always pushing the boundaries,” Katrina says.
“As they get older the challenge is trusting in the child. You have to trust that they’ll do the right things. I’ll drop my daughter at a party and tell her, don’t have this or that. She’ll push the boundaries and eat something that I told her not too. That was hard. She had to learn.
“That’s one of the things that the book is very clear on. Everyone has to work together to keep Marty safe. It’s not just Marty’s parents or Marty himself.”
Katrina encourages parents of children without allergies to reach out.
“If your children have a friend with an allergy it’s good to be in touch with them. Parents can call up before a party and ask ‘what would you like me to serve to meet your child’s needs?’. Be accommodating of that need and just touch base.
“Also, everyone should know what the common allergens are. Know the nine and know the signs and reactions. If everyone knows that it would make life a lot easier.”
Here are some of Katrina’s tips
- Always make sure that you know your friend’s allergies. Make sure your kids know them and you know them.
- Know the nine common allergies. Nine foods cause 90% of food allergic reactions, including cow's milk, egg, peanut, tree nuts, sesame, soy, fish, shellfish and wheat.
- Remember that allergies are all different.
- Check with the family of your friend at a playdate or party what food is safe for them to eat.
- Always wash your hands and face before heading to preschool if you’ve eaten egg or peanut butter in the morning.
- Everyone has a role to play in keeping each other safe.
Top tips from Allergy & Anaphylaxis Australia (www.allergyfacts.org.au)
0 – 3 years
- Playgroup - When you first join a playgroup, let other parents and carers know you have a child at risk of anaphylaxis.
- Visit the ambulance station - Prepare your child emotionally for the possibility of an ambulance trip to the hospital.
- Babysitters - Remind babysitters, grandparents, neighbours and anyone else who looks after your child, to avoid eating or handling the food allergen whenever your child is in their care.
- Play – Borrow or buy a toy medical play kit for your child. Acting out doctor and patient routines helps make children comfortable with the idea of visiting doctors and hospital.
3 – 5 years
- Special celebrations – double-check Christmas/Easter presents in case that little packet of “goodies” comes without an ingredient label.
- Take time to relax - Arrange with your partner, friend or relative to take turns caring for your allergic child during social events. This will give you a chance to socialise and relax with friends and family, knowing that your young child is well cared for.
- Out and about - Teach your child not to accept food of other people and to always check with mum or dad if food is available or offered.
- Parties - Keep suitable party cake slices or cupcakes individually wrapped and stored in the freezer. When the child is invited to a party, special occasion or school celebration you can choose a safe food from your freezer.
Wacky Cake Recipe (nut‐free, egg‐free, dairy‐free)
- 1 ½ cups plain flour
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 cup cold water
- 3 tablespoons cocoa (Some brands of cocoa contain traces of nuts or milk. Check that the brand you are using does not contain a nut warning.)
- 5 tablespoons vegetable or canola oil
- 1 teaspoon bicarb soda
- 1 tablespoon white vinegar
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- ½ teaspoon salt
- Sift dry ingredients. Add together in order and mix with a wooden spoon. (No need to use an electric mixer).
- Bake in a moderate oven for 30 minutes.
- Can also be used to make cupcakes.
- To make butter icing that is dairy free, use a dairy free margarine, such as Nuttelex, instead of butter.