My younger daughter has a nut allergy. In clinical terms it’s not severe, but that doesn’t mean it’s not alarming and sometimes difficult. 2 years ago, when she wasn’t yet 3 years old, we gave her a biscuit containing chunks of Brazil nut. We hadn’t consciously thought about it; she had eaten peanut butter once before (and not liked it), but it hadn’t affected her in any other way. She suffers from eczema (a genetic inheritance from me), and some foods do cause it to flare up, but nothing like this.
When it happened we were fortunate that we were able to get her to the local GP surgery within a few minutes, and get her anti-histamine and steroids. She came out in a vivid red flush over her throat, face, neck and torso, including angry raised hives. Her airways weren’t affected, and by the next morning she was mostly recovered, although it took a couple of weeks for her eczema to return ‘to normal’.
From that day on, our life changed: we scrutinise food labelling; we ask bakeries and restaurants about their policies and ingredients. Some food brands are very good while others seem to abdicate responsibility. There might be a long list of products buried within a website, or (like Walls/Unilever) they seem to ignore the presence of allergies and hope that no one complains (or is taken ill).
Only a few weeks after Ella’s initial (and thankfully only) reaction, we went on a month-long trip around France. It’s a stereotype with some justification that France is a barren place for vegetarians, but our early fears were utterly unfounded. Boulangers were understanding and sympathetic, food labelling seemed good, and many restaurateurs were terrific. One chef-patron in St Emilion even came out of the kitchen and asked her in English what she would like, and what he could make for her off-menu.
UK restaurants have been less consistent. Wagamama and Nando’s are good. They have comprehensive booklets that are available to staff and customers, so you can check the recipes, ingredients and preparation methods. On the other hand, Pizza Express were rubbish, so we don’t eat there any longer, just as we no longer buy Walls icecreams or many Cadbury’s chocolate bars. It’s easy to vote with our feet when Ella’s health is the issue.
Icecream and Easter Eggs are by far the toughest products to find that are both suitable and properly-labelled, but we’ve been delighted that Winstones Ice Cream and Kinnerton Chocolate are exceptions proving the general rule. The other main area for concern relates to ‘Other Places’ or ‘Other People’, especially birthday parties. We usually provide a supply of ‘alternative’ biscuits or treats. Commercially-made cakes are almost never any good, and so many chocolate brands ‘may contain traces of nuts’ that even home-made chocolate cakes are a non-starter.
In short, we take responsibility. We appreciate all the help and understanding of her Playgroup leaders, and indeed she starts school next month, and we’re providing them with full precautions and instructions, including specific things to avoid. We do expect the school to ensure she’s not put at risk, but there’s only so much they can do.
Sorry to be churlish, but when well-meaning friends say things like “Oh I’m sure this would be OK” it really gets on my nerves. How sure are you, exactly? What understanding do you have of Eleanor’s condition? Have you actually checked all the food labelling and ingredients? Please don’t take offence if I choose not to offer Eleanor something if I don’t have complete confidence. Please let me take the decision over what’s OK.
Ella has so far showed herself to be mature way beyond her age (she’s still only 4), being remarkably proactive in checking if foods are ‘alright for her’ and at being swift to ask for alternatives (lollies instead of icecream, jelly babies instead of chocolate). On occasions when there is no alternative, she’s usually pretty pragmatic, much better than other children. She takes responsibility for herself, and it often winds me up when others don’t do the same.
We’re going to Spain next week and are busily swotting up on the relevant vocabulary. How do I say ‘groundnut oil’ in Spanish…?