Ask the parent of a food-allergic child what the scariest thing in the world is and the answer may surprise you. But the fact is, that, for most of us, the most terrifying thing in the world is….Purim!
It’s ironic, but a day that is filled with so much simcha and fun for most of the community is scary for a food-allergic family for the same reasons. Suddenly, every mishloach manos is a potential danger and requires the same level of screening as your carry-on at the airport. I’ll never forget reading about the grandmother who sent over a basket of ‘milk-free’ cookies for her grandson and, in the list of ingredients provided, specified ‘butter’ as an ingredient.
Beyond that, all of our usual activities of daily living – avoiding cross-contamination, checking ingredient labels and so on – become that much harder to do when tensions are running high, schedules are thrown out of whack, and (for some of us) many of the people walking in and out of homes are either stressed, drunk or both!
Truly, it’s enough to make the best of us want to lock our doors and pretend to have gone out-of-town for the day.
So how can you make sure that you’re doing the best you can to keep your child safe? As with everything in life, a little bit of planning goes a long way.
If you have a food-allergic toddler, I would recommend that you leave the child at home. Since so many mothers bring their children with bags of nosh to keep them quiet, you don’t want your child to start screaming because they’ve seen something in someone else’s bag that they want but can’t have.
If you have a food-allergic younger child with no air-borne allergies, prepare a bag of ‘safe-foods’ to bring along with you and make sure you are very clear with them beforehand that they may not share food with any of the other children in shul. My personal feeling is that, if your child isn’t old enough to accept that without a fight, they don’t belong in shul.
If you have a food-allergic older child, they shouldn’t be eating in shul during megillah altogether. The only concern becomes one of air-borne allergies. If this is the case, speak with your Rav, Rabbi or someone else in charge at the shul to make sure that everyone knows not to bring that particular food in during the reading. If this isn’t possible, arrange for a private reading in your home (something that will also suit an older child with an airborne allergy). An older daughter also has the option of going out to a ladies-only reading (either in a home or in a shul) where little children won't be running around with food, and an older son can stay beside whomever is reading the megilla.
If sending your daughter to a private reading in someone's home, bear in mind, that in this smaller setting, it is also easier to ask the hostess to make sure that the allergen in question won't be around to cause a possible reaction (vs bringing your daughter along to shul with everyone else and hoping for the best).
Another thing to keep in mind, is that your child should be told not to share a gragger with anyone. It’s all well and good to make sure that your child isn’t sharing 'unsafe' foods, but if they grab a gragger covered in specks of peanut, the possibilities of a reaction are tremendous: they could touch a 'safe' food with their now 'contaminated' bare hands before eating it, or develop 'just' a skin reaction (like hives or eczema) just from touching the allergen - even if they're careful to wash their hands before actually eating anything.
Though this is obviously more of an issue for more severe allergies and reactions, it shouldn’t be forgotten about. Even a slightly more minor reaction like hives or an eczema breakout – which is never fun – becomes less so when you’re trying to enjoy the day. No one wants to be dosed up with Benadryl and spend the rest of the day groggy because they had a reaction to holding a gragger!
The most obvious (and the safest) thing to do is stay home and make the seudah by yourself. This will allow you to make sure that everything (or most of everything, depending on your child’s allergies) is safe to be eaten, as well as eliminate the concern of cross-contamination.
If this won’t be possible, you’ll need to call up your hostess to review whatever food allergies your child has, so that you’ll know in advance if there will be food available for your child. In the event that your hostess is overwhelmed by the idea, bring along something just for that child. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone to parties and seudos with separate food for my child, just in case – including my own sister’s wedding!
If you’ve purchased your children’s Purim costumes in other years and plan on reusing something you already have, make sure to wash them first.
While it never would have occurred to me on my own, I won’t forget reading the story of a boy who went to a friend’s house and had a severe allergic reaction when they played dress-up. The costumes had previously been worn by someone who ate something the boy was allergic to, and all those months later, the costume was still ‘contaminated’.
My daughter Idy will be a month shy of her third birthday this Purim. Until now, it was really very simple to keep her away from unsafe foods. She’s an oldest child (so she wasn’t trying to take unsafe things away from older siblings) and wasn’t big enough last year to get to things that I put out of reach. But now that she’s taller, older and strong enough to drag kitchen chairs all over the house, I need to be more vigilant.
All of our neighbors know that Idy is food-allergic and so even if they don’t remember what she’s currently allergic to (since she’s outgrown allergies to eggs and nuts) they do know not to give her food without asking me first. If you anticipate people stopping by who don’t know about your child’s food allergies, (such as co-workers) or even if you’re just worried that people will forget in the hustle and bustle of the day, try to put the following into practice, as needed:
1) Hang a big sign on the door informing people that a food-allergic child is present (be fun with the wording!). If you make sure that your door stays closed throughout the day, people should take notice and have that extra awareness.
2) Visit http://www.oliverslabels.com/Designs/Products.aspx?DesignID=38 and purchase labels/stickers to identify your food-allergic child to people who might be coming in. An eight year old won’t need one, but a three year old who can’t verbalize “I can’t have that. I’m allergic" will.
3) As the parent, make sure that you check every package that comes into the house.
a. If your child has a single allergy, create an ‘unsafe’ box of food into which you can put whatever isn’t safe for your child. Have one on a high counter as well as in the fridge for perishable items.
b. If your child has multiple allergies, have a ‘safe’ box of food on a counter and in the fridge that your older child (or an adult, on behalf of a younger child) can go into at any point throughout the day to get something to eat from.
With a little bit of forethought and help from your friends, family and community, there’s no reason why Purim can’t be a little less stressful!
Have some of your own tips to share for making Purim allergy-friendly? Share them in the comments below!