A Pricey Checkout: Grocery Shopping with Allergies

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I recently read an article reporting on healthy diet costs. The findings showed that in order to eat a healthy diet, families would spend approximately $2,000 more annually compared to those who do not follow a healthy diet.  I then thought about this compared to those who have food allergies and if they wish to buy certified ‘allergen-free’ food (i.e. gluten free, dairy free, etc.). They have no choice but to grin and bear a hefty checkout bill or resort to making their own food replacements, or simply go without.  I personally can say that being a university student living on my own, I simply refuse to buy items such as gluten free/egg free bread or granola bars based on what I can afford on my budget.  I do make up for some of the items I’m not buying at the grocery store by making my own breakfast granola or cookies to treat myself. However, even allergy friendly baking can add to costs with the added price of specialty flours, dairy free alternatives etc. Added prices can also be seen when eating out, although some restaurants are offering new alternatives such as gluten free options, these can come at an additional cost for the product, adding to your bill at the end of the night.

That being said, while facing the reality of having to pay more for allergy safe foods, I personally always try to stay mindful of how things are greatly improving in terms of allergy friendly food options that are available.  I remember when I was younger (we’re talking around 15 years ago!!) my parents would struggle to find safe foods for me to eat and would actually have to order allergen free foods that would be MAILED to our house. Even more unfortunate is that although this food was delivered right to our house, it wasn’t exactly the most ‘tasty’ and I wouldn’t even want to eat some of it.  Today however, it seems that more grocery stores than not have at least a small health food section offering food alternatives for those with allergies.  It seems as the number of people who have allergies and other food restriction increases; the number of products available and the quality of these items continue to increase.

So while it may be premature to hope that the price tag of allergy safe foods will become closer to regular food items, it’s still worthwhile noting all the improvements made allowing allergen free foods to be more accessible and even more tasty!!

Feel free to comment with what your favourite ‘allergy friendly’ foods.  Or how do you avoid purchasing these pricey items and find different alternatives to enjoy the foods you love safely (i.e. baking or doing your own cooking) 🙂

TRAVELLING TO TANZANIA WITH FOOD ALLERGIES (Part 2)

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Hello my name is Caitlyn and I am allergic to wheat, eggs and nuts.  A little over a month ago I wrote a blog about my preparations to make sure I stayed safe with my allergies while travelling to Tanzania for three weeks and then touring Germany and Amsterdam for a week afterwards.  Now that I have returned to good old Canada, I’m happy to report that I stayed free of any allergy reactions over my 4 weeks of travelling!  That’s not to say that there weren’t risks and precautions that I needed to be diligent about, but by doing so I was able to stay safe for the entirety of my journey.

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In terms of travelling on the plane, I was able to pre-order gluten free meals and could be assured they also would contain no nuts.  Even though I was given assurance that I would have food that I could eat, I still brought extra food to be safe.  This paid off on two of the total four flights I had. One of the flights I was on,  one of my meals was accidently given to another women who had ordered a vegetarian meal.  This mistake was not realized until  it was too late leaving me without a meal.  Another flight there was an error made and the airplane ended up not having any gluten free meals on board at all.  Both times the staff on the airplane tried to accommodate for the mistakes and created make shift meals for me out of extra salads, fruit and cheeses, even sneaking food from first class for me!  On top of this, having extra food in my bag allowed me to last the flight without having to feel hungry.

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Staying safe while eating in Tanzania proved not to be too difficult since I was living at a house with 25 other students and we had a cook who worked for us providing our meals.  I met our cook Witness on the first day I arrived and was instantly put at ease as she explained to me how everything would be ‘Hakuna Matata’ (no worries!) about food and she would always make sure there would be lots for me to eat…and there always was!   There were times when I would eat out in restaurants but found the wait staff would always be able to speak English.  To further make sure they fully understand what I meant when I said I had food allergies, I used my little food allergy pocket cards that were printed in Swahili and said I would have reactions to eating wheat, eggs and nuts.  I would even get the staff to bring one of the cards with them to show the cook to make sure communication was accurately passed down.  One of the biggest events when I needed to really ensure I stayed safe with my allergies was when I went on a four-day safari.  This was because for four days I would be in the middle of a safari park, hours away from any remote medical centre.  Again, I was fortunate because the safari company I planned my trip with provided our safari group with a personal cook for our journey and I was able to inform them when booking our trip what I was allergic to and the severity of my allergies.  All in all I was so thankful for the wonderful experience I was able to have in Tanzania, and on top of this to stay safe with my allergies.

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After leaving Tanzania I travelled for a week in Europe visiting western Germany for a few days and then departing for Amsterdam to finish off the week.  Staying safe here while eating involved mainly just being smart eating out at restaurants.  I personally found that since I travelled to popular tourist area, any of the wait staff I encountered were able to speak English.  That being said, I still had my allergy pocket travel cards also printed in German and Dutch to aid in communication to make sure nothing was lost in translation.  The biggest challenge I always found was initially picking a restaurant that looked safe to eat.  It was common practice for restaurants to post their menus in their windows, however most times this would just be in their native language and  I would have no idea what food was actually offered.  Restaurants who posted menus featuring an additional English translation definitely had the upper hand in getting my business, but I found often you could ask the restaurant staff and they would have an extra copy of their menu in English to make things easier.

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Overall, I found by staying smart and using common sense along with practicing open communication to compensate for a communication barrier, there was no reason not to stay safe with allergies while travelling abroad.  Most importantly there was never a reason to let allergies stop you from enjoying all the incredible experiences travelling allows for!

Travelling to Tanzania with Food Allergies

My name is Caitlyn and I am allergic to wheat, eggs and nuts.  One of my biggest interests is travelling.  I personally caught the travel bug in high school when I travelled for a week and a half to England and France on a school trip.  My first solo trip happened right after I graduated high school when I travelled to Costa Rica for two weeks, where I volunteered to work at a sea turtle conservation site. Currently, after finishing my second year of nursing school, I am combining two of my passions—travelling and nursing by volunteering for three weeks in Tanzania working in a hospital with the organization Work the World.  With any kind of travelling there is a lot of planning and organization involved, especially if your travels are for an extended period of time.  On top of this, having allergies adds a lot of responsibility and things that need to be accounted for.

Though this isn’t my first time travelling abroad, to organize this trip there were still a lot of measures and precautions I had to take to make sure I stay safe with my allergies.  Precautions that I took included making sure I will be able to safely eat when I am in Tanzania.  To do this, I informed the organization I am working with about my allergies very early on.  This allowed them to take steps to ensure there is food for me. I will be staying at a house through the organization that has a cook who can make sure all meals will be allergy friendly.  When it comes to eating out, language barrier is a huge issue and something that always concerns me a great deal when travelling.  To help with this, I was able to find a company that provides wallet size pocket cards that state all my allergy information in Swahili.  I will still have to be vigilant when eating food, always carry my medicine with me and make sure I know where local medical facilities are located just in case.

Other preparations I have taken to make sure I stay safe during my trip with my allergies include making sure all my medications are up to date (something that should be done anyways!) and making sure I have multiples of my medications as well.  I will be packing these medications in different bags reducing my chances of losing any medications for reasons such as loss or misplaced luggage.  In order to make sure I am safe in flight, I contacted the airlines I will be travelling with and made sure all snacks provided are nut free—I have a nut allergy and some airlines apparently will still distribute peanuts as snacks, luckily my airline does not.  I did have trouble finding a meal that is offered by the airline which is egg, nut and wheat free since my airlines were unfortunately not that accommodating.  Since I am aware of this I am able to plan ahead and make sure I bring enough food to last me for the long flight.

There’s no question there is a lot of extra planning needed for travelling when you have food allergies but your allergies should never be a limitation from exploring the world.  Stay tuned and I will post a follow up blog in June talking about how my trip went and how I was able to manage my allergies while travelling.

What are some of your travel experiences, and how did you accommodate your allergies?

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Explaining Allergies to your Friends

Friends diningMy name is Caitlyn and I’m allergic to wheat, eggs and peanuts.  Like so many others, I have gotten pretty used to informing people about my allergies. However, doing so can vary a great deal in terms of who I am actually talking to.  When it comes to explaining food allergies to my friends, it’s a lot different than explaining food allergies to a chef at a restaurant. Talking to my friends about allergies is at a much more personal level. It often involves more questioning and explanations which helps friends gain a greater understanding of what your going through living with allergies.  Situations however, can vary depending on how well you know the person (e.g. A best friend since forever or newly met acquaintance), as well if you’re having a one-on-one conversation or are in a large group setting.  Either way it’s always important to stay open about your allergies!

        Personally, I find whenever I begin to become friends with someone and inform them about my allergies, there are some pretty typical responses. One being: “WHAT DO YOU EAT!?” or another common one being: “So what happens if I eat ______ in front of you?”  No matter what their questions are, I always answer them since I see it as something positive in that they are showing an interest in trying to  understand my allergies.  I also take that time to inform them of simple precautions that they can take such as avoiding eating nuts around me.  Being in a larger group of friends and explaining allergies can be more intimidating, especially if the attention shifts all of a sudden on you.  If you have informed people about your allergies, don’t feel pressured to keep talking about your allergies after you have explained all that you can. Simply change the topic.  Personally, I never try to dwell on my allergies more than is necessary. After all, there are many other things I like to talk about! I still find it important to make sure my friends are informed about my allergies. If they are true friends they will be interested in knowing about them too and how to be safe around me.

        Even when your friends know about your allergies, they still may struggle fully understanding what you can and can’t eat.  For things such as social events where people want to bring food, they may become concerned about bringing food that’s allergy friendly.  In his situation, I don’t just inform people of the foods I can’t eat and what they should avoid bringing, but I also inform them of everything I CAN eat and give them as many ideas and options as possible.  I also bring my own allergy-free alternatives such as a gluten-free bun to a barbeque or my own cupcake to a birthday.  By doing this, not only do you feel more included by eating what everyone else gets to eat (I mean who doesn’t want cake at a birthday right!?), but others will also feel better knowing you can eat something too.   When it comes to eating out somewhere, be open with your friends about where you can’t eat so you don’t end up at a restaurant that can’t accommodate your allergies. Again, give them options about other places that work for you so that everyone can still make a decision together.

        It can be a challenge explaining allergies to friends, especially in a group situation.  Just keep in mind that it’s important for your friends to know about your allergies and how to help keep you safe. Plus if they’re good friends then they’ll be just as interested in your allergies and want to learn everything they can!

How do you explain your allergies to your friends?

Fearless Field Trips with Allergies

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Oh field trips… a student’s opportunity to escape the mundane everyday classroom routine if even just for an afternoon or the day.  However, for those of us with allergies these mini-escapes aren’t always as simple and involve some extra planning and coordination to make sure we stay allergy safe— after all who wants to miss out on that riveting museum exhibit!

Even though my field trip days are sadly behind me as I am now full on into post-secondary education, I still remember the extra work it took to stay safe on school trips.  My biggest concern was making sure I had safe foods to eat (who wants to go hungry…am I right!?) while also making sure that those around me, whether they be classmates, teachers or those running the trip were made aware of my allergies. I found organization and communication to be key when attending school trips. My school had a specific procedure set up that required the same protocol to be taken for every school trip I attended. This involved both my teacher as well as myself to carry a set of my medication on the trip. This worked well however, I can’t stress enough that there are a lot of students who are attending one school trip. For me, it was a must to talk to my teacher well before the actual field trip to remind them of my allergies, the protocol to be followed and also to figure out other details about the trip.

The most important thing I needed to sort out before a school trip was what the food situation of the trip would be like. I.e. How many meal opportunities would there be on this trip, and whether these meals were being provided to us or we were responsible for providing our own meals.  If meals were being provided for us, then it would be necessary to contact whoever was providing the food and make sure they were aware of my allergies and see if they would be able to safely accommodate my allergies.  Many times this would be the case but there were always times when I would play it safe and bring my own food instead. Throughout my schooling I was very fortunate and went to an accommodating school. They always requested that if lunches and snacks were to be brought on school trips that they had to be nut free. However because I and other students had multiple allergies, it was very important to stick to our own food and avoid sharing. It’s never worth the risk no matter how tempting a lunch ‘tradsies’ may seem.

When it comes to overnight trips even more planning needs to go into food preparation. I would always have lots of extra food stashed in my luggage just in case. Rice Krispie squares had always been my favourite go-to snack.  However don’t just rely on yourself, make sure you make contact with whoever will be providing meals and make sure they can accommodate allergies. I also found whenever I went on an overnight field trip where I would be away from my teacher as some points, I would designate a close friend as an ‘allergy buddy’ who carried another one of my auto injectors and who also was trained in how to use it.

Though going on field trips with allergies requires some extra planning and vigilance to make sure you stay safe, there’s no reason why you can’t get as much out of that exciting escape from classroom life as anyone else!

What have been your favourite school trips, and how did you stay allergy safe when attending them?

I have allergies… but I do eat food!

My name is Caitlyn, and I have a severe allergy to peanuts, as well as a wheat and egg allergy.

One thing that I always notice, which I’m sure that others with allergies also experience, is the age old question that I am constantly asked: “What do you eat!?” Recently, I started a new job, where one of my coworkers was absolutely astounded to learn about my allergies. She went on and on about how hard it must be for me to find foods to eat and how it was probably impossible for me to eat anything at all. Meanwhile, I was chowing down on a large lunch that I had packed –a bit of a contradiction there!

I will admit that it does take more work to find foods that are allergy safe and stay safe when eating – but there are options out there! I would like to take a moment to appreciate how much allergy friendly foods have improved and how many more options have become more available over the years. I’ve had known allergies since I was about one year old. When I was young, I remember my parents having to order allergy friendly foods to be delivered to our home each month, including crackers, bread and cookies. Even though this food had to be specially ordered, they were NOT that good in taste, especially compared to what is available today.

Allergen free symbols, including peanut-free, egg-free, milk-free, nut-free, wheat-free, and fish-free symbols.As people become more aware of allergies and food intolerances, the foods available to accommodate those dietary needs are also increasing.  Not only are health food stores common carriers of gluten-free and allergy friendly products, but many grocery stores also have products free of gluten and the most common allergens. Even the local grocery store in my very small town has introduced a ‘gluten free’ section, offering many gluten free products, as well as allergy friendly foods that are dairy and egg free.

Depending on where you live, it is also becoming more common to find bakeries that accommodate allergies, either as a common practice or by request.  It is also great to see how many companies are taking extra steps to ensure that their food products (such as granola bars and chocolate bars) are labeled as peanut free. That is not only assuring for people with food allergies – it also makes it easier for others trying to find safe snacks that won’t put others at risk.

Restaurants can also be very accommodating, providing you inform them about your allergies.  With some investigation, you may find some Italian restaurants that provide gluten free pasta or pizza options, which is great for people with gluten intolerance or wheat allergy. I have even eaten at restaurants that strive to be peanut free. Of course, eating out still provides many challenges and requires people with food allergies to be aware and communicate about their allergies – however, the number and quality of restaurants accommodating food allergies are definitely growing!

It is hard for food manufacturers to accommodate the wide variety of allergies out there – but the products that are available are continuing to improve. Hopefully, as allergy awareness continues to grow, eating will only become easier and tastier for those with allergies!

Moving on Up – Taking on new allergy responsibilities at university

My name is Caitlyn, and I have a life threatening peanut allergy as well as an allergy to wheat and eggs.

Three college friendsAfter recently completing my first year studying at Queen’s University, I thought I would share my experiences with transitioning from high school to university when it came to being responsible for my food allergies. Although I always thought I was independent and responsible for my allergies when I was in high school, I came to realize that independence takes on a whole new level in university. In high school, I had a built-in support network of friends, parents and teachers who all knew about my allergies, what foods to avoid around me, and where my epinephrine auto-injector was located, just in case. All this changed coming to university, where I had to face a new reality: no one knew anything about me, it was my sole responsibility to be accountable for my allergies, and I had to try to rebuild a new allergy “support network.”

Of course, living in residence was a concern. Although I was fortunate to go to a peanut free high school, there’s no such thing as a peanut free residence! Not only did I have one roommate – but I ended up in a triple room, living with two roommates. I made sure that I contacted my future roommates before school started, and after explaining my allergy situation, they had no issue making our room a peanut free zone. They were also extremely cautious with foods containing wheat or eggs, so there would be no cross contamination.

I was also able to meet with my floor’s Resident Adviser on move-in day to explain my allergies to him. During residence orientation, I was also able to let my floor mates know about my allergies. While it would be unrealistic to expect everyone on my floor to avoid peanuts, they became aware and cautious of my allergies, and no one brought peanuts to any floor events. I also found that by being open about my allergies, I was able to meet and become friends with some really great people who had similar allergies as me – it was great to meet people I could relate to!

Another reality of coming to Queen’s was realizing that the food I would be eating for the next eight months was going to be prepared by strangers who had no idea who I was or what my allergies were. The day I arrived at Queen’s, I met with the cooks from my school’s cafeterias to let them know about my allergies and find out what precautions should be taken to make sure I could stay safe at meal times. That was a great move! The cooks were extremely accommodating, and it’s fair to say we got to know each other very well and became buddies over the next eight months.

Three young women dining out togetherAnother big change I experienced with moving to a new city was the challenge of going out to eat, since most of the restaurants were completely new to me. I personally preferred not to order delivery and would avoid doing so. I felt more comfortable eating out at a restaurant, where I could discuss my allergies in person with restaurant staff to ensure they could accommodate my allergies and no cross-contamination would take place.

Finally, the social scene at university can be really fun but risky for anyone with allergies, if they aren’t aware of the risks. Common sense is important when going out. Just like you should never go out alone, I realized that for people with allergies, you should never go out without friends who know about your allergies and where you keep your auto-injector. That being said, the responsibility of staying safe is primarily your responsibility – and no matter how inconvenient it can seem sometimes, there is never a good enough excuse to not have your auto-injector with you.

My first year of university was a great experience, a lot of work, and a lot of fun. I did find having allergies added a lot of responsibility – but even with that added responsibility, I was able to enjoy my first year experience while also making sure that I stayed safe. And let’s face, that’s the most important part!

For more tips and strategies for managing your allergies at school, check out these great resources:

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