Quarantining With Food Allergies
One teen’s recipe for navigating COVID-19 with food allergies: “A bit of work, a pinch of creativity, and a lot of communication.”
Guest post by Teen Advisory Group member Blythe Bath
Hi! My name is Blythe Bath, and I have life-threatening allergies to dairy, eggs, peanuts and tree nuts. My severe food allergies shape a large part of my life, from eating out and grocery shopping to travel, school and so much more. This summer, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused significant changes in the American lifestyle. However, while the coronavirus-induced quarantine may simply mean social distancing and mask wearing for average people, it poses some entirely different problems for the food allergy community.
The problem: How can I order safely from restaurants online?
With many restaurants closed, and others reduced to takeout or delivery orders only, many food-allergic individuals’ established routines for obtaining safe restaurant food have been completely derailed. Whether your favorite allergy-friendly restaurant is temporarily closed, or you simply do not feel comfortable ordering online, there are several steps to take that can help ensure that your special accommodations are adhered to.
The solution: Research, call and double check
Do your research! Check which restaurants in your area are open and see if you are familiar with any of them. Try to stick to restaurants that you have eaten at safely in the past instead of exploring new options. When ordering online, look for a “comments” or “notes” section in which you can explicitly explain what you are allergic to, how to prepare your food, and any other accommodations you need. After placing your order, it is a good idea to call the restaurant and ask to speak to a manager or chef about the order you just placed to confirm that the individual preparing your food is fully aware of your food allergies. Finally, when you get your food, verify with the delivery worker or waiter that they have given you the correct food. You can also crack open the food container yourself to catch any obvious mistakes. Of course, there is always the risk of invisible, underlying allergens, but by checking your food you can catch any blatant mistakes such as chopped nuts on top of a salad, for example, before it is too late to request a redo.
The problem: Grocery stores are out of ingredients I need for OIT!
Due to a lack of workers at food production plants, the “accumulate and hoard” mindset of individuals worried about venturing back to the grocery stores, and other reasons, many grocery stores may not have the same abundance of foods that they used to. These stores will prioritize keeping staples in stock, such as meat, bread, fruit, etc., but more obscure foods may go unreplenished. This poses a significant issue for individuals with food allergies, especially those who require very specific ingredients to continue their oral immunotherapy (OIT) treatment. For example, for my OIT, I need egg powder, cashew milk with a specific ratio of cashew protein in it, peanut cereal, and cow’s milk. When I ran out of cashew milk, it was nowhere to be found. Even worse, with COVID-19 rampant, my family was trying to stick to shopping online for groceries instead of heading to the stores ourselves. The workers that collect the items on your order often do not realize the necessity of getting a specific brand for food-allergic individuals, which meant that we received deliveries of the wrong brand of cashew milk, or none at all.
The solution: Stock up and freeze
When facing a shortage of specific but necessary foods, the best option is to stock up on these foods and freeze them. When my family finally found the right brand of cashew milk, we bought 3 cartons, poured them out into the appropriate measurements for my OIT and popped them all into the freezer. Now, I don’t have to worry about whether or not the grocery store will have cashew milk in stock because I know that I have a backup supply. It is also a good idea to talk to your allergist about potential alternative ingredients for your OIT. For example, some allergists say that in a pinch, yogurt, ice cream, or cheese can be used in specific amounts to substitute for cow’s milk for an individual undergoing dairy OIT. Be sure to check with your allergist to see if this is an option for you before attempting to try this on your own.
The problem: Cooking is difficult because my grocery store is out of my favorite allergy-friendly foods
For the same reasons that explain the lack of OIT ingredients, stores may be out of allergy-friendly snacks, condiments, staples and more. Luckily, with a few adjustments, cooking can be nearly as easy as before the quarantine!
The solution: Creativity
Get creative with your recipes! Try to use food items that you already have in your house or try shopping from different grocery stores that may have options for you. You can even research recipes that can be made with ingredients you already have on hand. As with the OIT ingredients, it is a good idea to invest in staple food items that are shelf-stable or can be frozen. Another option is to make large meals and freeze half of them into homemade “frozen dinners” that can be reheated in a snap when cooking is a challenge.
Quarantine may be difficult and arduous, but there are some benefits. A greater concern for cleanliness is a nice bonus for the food allergy community, as most restaurants and public areas are now routinely wiped down. Additionally, the emphasis on hand washing and limiting contact with surfaces adds a further element of protection for food allergy sufferers. While the impacts of quarantine have certainly been severe, remember that with a bit of work, a pinch of creativity, and a lot of communication, obtaining safe food during COVID-19 is definitely possible.