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Navigating summer camp and food allergies 

Send your kids to summer camp without worrying about food reactions. Plus, they win coolness points for the bento box.

Photo by Tricia Gavankar

Send your kids to summer camp without worrying about food reactions. Plus, they win coolness points for the bento box.

The school year ends this week for my son, Ty, which means summer camp isn't far behind. While many parents view camp as a welcome diversion from summer boredom, parents of children with food allergies face a time of high anxiety.

It's challenging enough finding foods to suit picky eaters on an unrestricted diet. Imagine trying to feed a kid who is allergic to childhood staples such as wheat, crackers, breads, milk, cheese, eggs and peanut butter.

A decade ago, parents of allergic children had few food options outside of fresh fruits, vegetable sticks and meats. Fortunately, with the increase in the numbers of allergies has come a bevy of safe and tasty alternatives to traditional fare. For help in fleshing out camp menus, we turned to the experts: parents with the support group NC FACES (Food Allergic Children Excelling Safely). You'll have to pick and choose among the options, depending on your child's particular allergies. Where possible, I have added specific suggestions based upon my children's preferences. Many of the suggestions are healthy choices for all children.

Trish Gavankar, an Apex mother whose 8-year-old daughter Marysa is allergic to peanut, tree nut, dairy, egg, sesame and legumes, knows the challenges well. Gavankar, who is a coordinator for NC FACES, found a clever, partitioned lunch case at Target to pack Marysa's treats in. (Search the Web for "bento box" to find one like it.)

Her daughter's favorite selections include: SunButter spread, sunflower-seed alternative to peanut butter, with crackers; Teddy Grahams with SunButter spread; SunButter and jelly wrap on a tortilla; Teddy Grahams dipped in a small amount of frosting; vegan cheese (Follow Your Heart Soy Mozzarella) slices with safe crackers (Glutino, Schar); vegan cheese quesadilla wrap.

Homemade lunchable: Slice up pieces of lunch meat and soy cheese along with safe crackers and grapes. Add in a small pudding (ZenSoy chocolate and vanilla swirl) or soy yogurt (WholeSoy & Co., Silk Live!) and safe cookies—Enjoy Life, Lucy's, K-Toos and Josef brands are free of most of the eight major allergens, though you have to check for cross-contamination and soy concerns. Divvies offers some of the tastiest milk-, egg- and nut-free cookies we've ever had.

Chicken patty sandwich with a safe bun: Gavankar uses Tyson chicken patties and a bun that she heats ahead and wraps in foil to keep warm until lunch.

Trail mix: "We use MultiGrain Cheerios, Cracklin' Oats, cereal squares, marshmallows, dried blueberries and a few chocolate chips (Enjoy Life chocolate chips are dairy- and nut-free). Very yummy and very safe!" (Enjoy Life makes ready-made nut-free trail mixes.)

Yogurt Parfait: Safe soy or coconut yogurt topped with granola (Enjoy Life) and some dry blueberries.

Gavankar also makes a no-cheese Alfredo-style macaroni and cheese that she calls Marysa Mac.

Marysa Mac

1 box macaroni-style noodles (see shopping note)
1 stick safe margarine (see shopping note)
1/2 cup Tofutti soy sour cream
1 cup Follow Your Heart vegan soy mozzarella, shredded

Boil, salt and drain pasta before coating lightly in olive oil. Combine margarine with Tofutti soy sour cream and shredded mozzarella. Melt over low heat. Stir. The soy cheese will melt, but it takes a few minutes. Fold in the drained macaroni noodles and salt to taste. To keep it warm, boil a cup of water and pour it into a Thermos or food jar and let it sit for five minutes. Pour out the boiling water and put in the freshly heated food before sealing tightly. (I have used this to keep my son's hot dogs warm and it works!)

Shopping Note: My daughter Talia likes Schar gluten-free noodles, found in the bulk foods aisle at the Walmart in Brier Creek. Gavankar recommends Fleischmann's unsalted dairy-free margarine.

Mechelle McClendon's 7-year-old son's multiple allergies to nuts, barley, wheat and eggs provided the inspiration she needed to get creative in the kitchen. The Apex resident devised her own recipe for allergen-free sweet potato muffins and bars. She says they freeze well but rarely last longer than a week at her home.

Stephanie Smith's 14-month-old daughter, Zoey, isn't ready for camp yet, but the Morrisville mother faces the same challenges when it comes to providing snacks for her daughter at preschool.

Some of her daughter's favorite allergen- and toddler-friendly snacks include soft Happy Apple cookies from Enjoy Life. She also loves Van's gluten-free cinnamon French toast sticks, which can be found in the frozen foods section at Earth Fare. They are dairy-, egg-, wheat- and nut-free. Smith lightly toasts the bread, breaks them into sticks, spreads a bit of vegan butter on them and packs them in a Tupperware container to keep them moist until snack time.

Rice Chex works well as an allergen-friendly finger food, and Nasoya tofu cubes tossed in Josef cinnamon cookie crumbles or Enjoy Life apple granola is a favorite snack, too. Smith sometimes substitutes apple, strawberry or banana slices for the tofu and notes that all of the combinations hold their shape well without refrigeration.

Caper Lauver's 3-year-old is allergic to milk, eggs and peanuts, and her 1-year-old is allergic to milk. Like Smith, they've come to rely on staples such as bananas, oranges and grapes along with applesauce, graham crackers, Rold Gold honey wheat pretzels and Glutino blueberry breakfast bars.

If your child is allergic to milk, you can send juice or water. Or you can pack one of the portable flavored juice box-size rice, almond or soy milks increasingly available at many stores.

click to enlarge allergy.jpg

As a reminder to camp counselors, I send my son to camp wearing an allergy alert sticker from mypreciouskid.com. They sell generic ("No Nuts," "No Dairy," etc.) stickers, but they also offer bright yellow stickers that can be personalized with your child's name and the particular allergens to avoid. They serve as invaluable visual reminders to caregivers and teachers.

Many of the products mentioned here can be found at specialty health food stores such as Whole Foods, Earth Fare or Harmony Farms in Raleigh. Kroger is starting to carry allergy-friendly foods, too.

Next month we'll offer kid-tested reviews of numerous allergen-friendly snack foods. See you then!

  • Lunch box suggestions from NC FACES parents, plus a recipe for no-cheese Alfredo-style macaroni and cheese

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