How do you handle all of the birthday parties and holiday parties that occur in the classroom at your child’s school if he or she has food allergies? It seems that with twenty to thirty kids in each class, every month has about two birthday parties with cupcakes or cake. If it isn’t a birthday party, there is a party being planned for Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas or Hanaka, Valentines, St. Patty’s Day or even Easter.
If you child has allergies to dairy, egg, soy, wheat, peanuts or tree nuts (almond, beechnuts, brazil nuts, cashews, chestnuts, gingko, hazelnuts, hickory, macadamia, pecans, pine nuts, pistachios and walnuts) then sharing party treats like cupcakes, cookies or other snacks can be not only difficult but downright dangerous.
I have two boys in school at this time: one is in kindergarten and the other is in first grade. Both boys have had allergies to dairy and egg pretty much since birth and we’ve avoided giving them any peanuts or tree nuts in a hope to fend off developing an allergy. (We will try those foods when they are older and hopefully outgrow the first two.)
My younger son outgrew his dairy allergy in the beginning of his kindergarten year. His egg allergy appears to be mild enough to allow him to eat cooked eggs in baked goods. So over the past five months, after discussion and letter from his allergist, his teacher and I allowed him to participate in eating the party food prepared by other mothers. His classroom is peanut and tree nut free, so there was no risk of those allergens being included in the baked treats. Thankfully, he has been able to eat the foods and only vomited once after eating a cupcake. I think he had a little stomach bug as well on that day, so afterward, his teacher and I decided it was probably the combination of the richness of the cupcake mixed with an already upset tummy to cause this problem.
But what if your child has full blown allergies? Well my older son remains allergic to dairy and egg and we avoid all peanut and tree nuts. Anyone who has baked a cookie or a cake knows that butter and eggs are almost always called for in these treats. I know from first hand experience that it can be difficult to make a cake rise without eggs and make a cookie stay together without eggs. What about taste? Butter is yummy and makes everything so tasty.
Here’s what has worked for me: Last year, when he was in kindergarten, I made a stash of cupcakes, frosted and put them in the freezer. Then when the teacher sent home the list of birthdates, I carefully marked each day on my calendar to remind myself to put a cupcake into his snack bag so that he did not feel left out. Now that he is in first grade, I volunteered to be “room parent” because I have a little more freedom now that my younger son is in school too. Room parents have the responsibilities of planning the parties.
The other room parent and I discuss and arrive at the party plan a couple of weeks beforehand. I normally take over the communication of food items to the other parents, with special care to those who have food-allergic children. If I am to make the cupcakes for the entire class, I will email the recipe to the parents of food allergic children and assure them that no peanuts or tree nuts come near the counter top, in fact we really don’t even have them in our house. If a candy item is planned, I will ask the parent to communicate in email the ingredients and any allergen warnings. I often ask the allergy-parents to do the purchasing, since they are more aware of checking the labels. We always cc the teacher on the email so that she knows which children can have what. Even with a lot of planning and care, I learned the that sometimes I need to pick up the phone and call the other parents...
Last month it was my son’s seventh birthday. So I made cupcakes for the class and emailed the recipe to those mothers whose child has food allergies. One mother said, “Great, my daughter can eat it.” Another mother said, “No, it contains soy.” But there was no response from a third mother. So the day of the party, the daughter of that third mother came up to me and said, “Can I have a cupcake?” I said, “Well it has no peanut or egg, so it might be okay, but your mommy never wrote back to my email so perhaps you shouldn’t have it.” The teacher agreed through a nod of her head. We tried to praise the little girl for being so grown up about asking.
I felt so terrible for that little girl. The other kids loved the cupcakes. One boy said it was the best cupcake he’d ever had in his whole life. After the cupcakes were gone, the little girl came back over to me and said, “I bet those cupcakes were really good.” Ugh! I felt even worse. While I wanted to be angry with her mother for not getting back to me, I realized that really doesn’t help the little girl. So I tried to think about what I could do to prevent this from happening again. I decided that I would call the mother in the future to make sure she got the email and decided one way or the other if her daughter could eat the cupcake.
So now it will be Valentine’s Day in a few days and the big party at school is tomorrow. As I promised myself, I followed up with that mother of the little girl carefully and this time she responded. She agreed to allow her daughter to eat the dairy-egg-peanut-tree nut free cupcake I am making and I forwarded that email to the teacher. I feel so much better about the whole thing. I still feel a bit bad for the girl because I know she has dealt with a lot of disappointment and will in the future, because her mother doesn’t put a priority on this issue, but at least in my own little way, I am making a tiny little difference in that girl’s day tomorrow.
Making cupcakes, cookies and cakes isn’t hard. It might take a few practice attempts, but don’t despair, once you find one recipe that works, that’s all you need. There are a lot of great recipe books out there and it is worth ordering one or two. Here are the basic rules I use:
- Never use any nut, peanut or nut extract period.
- For dairy-free items, I use the earth balance non-GMO buttery spread. It is all vegan and tastes great.
- Beware of other margerines--many contain cow's milk products.
- For egg-free items, I will use one of the following substitutes to try to make stuff rise and stick together:
- 1T of applesauce for each egg (holds stuff together)
- ¼ banana for each egg (holds stuff together and makes it moist, a little banany taste)
- 2.5 tsp. baking powder + 3T oil +3T water mixed together (keeps stuff soft and rises)
- Beware of egg substitutes--many contain egg products, especially in the egg section.
- Always read the ingredients carefully and the allergen warnings. There are detailed lists of ingredients that are derived (come from) the big allergens in my book in chapter 38 --too many items to list here, for instance casein is a dairy ingredient that must be avoided for those allergic to dairy because it is the protein part of the dairy--the worst part for those with allergies to dairy.
It is extra work, but work well worth the effort. You will become a better cook, you will feel better about you child's situation and your child will really appreciate it.