Food-less Christmas Fun

Christmas is a great time to get together with family and friends, but often Christmas parties and activities involve lots of food, baking, and other risky things for those of us with food allergies.  Luckily, non-food seasonal activities can be just as fun.  Here are 10 of my favorite winter activities that don’t involve food:

  1. Making snowflakes.  Nothing is more wintery than making snowflakes, and there are so many creative ways to do this, that the fun might never end.  This is my favorite kind of snowflake to make.
  2. Taking a Christmas lights tour.  Some people go crazy hanging up Christmas lights, and you get to appreciate all of their hard work for free.  Take a drive with your friends around the area and maybe you’ll find a house that has lights coordinated with music!
  3. Play in the snow.  If you are lucky enough to get snow during your Christmas break, cherish the moment, channel your inner child, and go crazy.  Any chance you have to sing “Do you Want to Build a Snowman?” while actually building a snowman is a great time.
  4. Decorate the Christmas Tree. I look forward to decorating the tree with my family each year.  Our tree is filled with such an amazing mix-match of ornaments that really tell the story of all the places we’ve gone and things we’ve enjoyed and reliving those memories is so heart-warming.
  5. Ice Skating. There’s just something special about going to an outdoor ice skating rink with your friends that makes it so especially Christmassy.  Even if the only rink you have access to is indoors, the experience will still be exciting.
  6. Go Christmas Caroling.  I LOVE singing, and nothing is better than walking through a neighborhood with a group of friends while you sing your favorite Christmas carols and spread Christmas cheer.
  7. Make craft kits. Back in elementary school you always made some cheap foam craft to give to your parents as a present. Now that you are older, these crafts are just as fun, and will look even nicer with your big-kid craft skills.  They make all kinds of kits, including food-free gingerbread! 
  8. Go to the Mall.  If you’ve ever wondered what absolute mayhem looks like, its the mall during the week before Christmas.  Whether you go on a hunt for the perfect gift, ugliest sweater, or even just sit on a bench and people watch, malls are the place to be in December.
  9. Watch Christmas movies.  Everyone has their favorite Christmas movie, so why not share yours with the people you enjoy? You’ll never know what new classic might be added to your yearly watch list (my favorite is Olive, the Other Reindeer)!
  10. Volunteer somewhere.  Christmas is a time of goodwill, sharing, and selflessness after all!  Volunteer at a local shelter, help sort donations at a soup kitchen, run an activity at a local retirement community, write letters to those stuck in the hospital, knit a hat for someone in need, the possibilities are endless!

Happy Holidays everyone!

FARECon 2018

Have you ever been in a room with about 500 epi pens? Well, when I went to FARECon this weekend, I spent the whole time in that very situation. FARECon is a conference for teens, family members, and nutritionists to learn about food allergies. I had gone to three of FARE’s Teen Summits before (2013-2015) and I had forgotten how amazing it is to talk to so many people with similar life experiences. As a TAG member, I had the honor of leading the teen ice breakers the first night, being on an “ask the teens panel” for parents, and giving a group presentation on being in college with food allergies. I was FAREly busy to say the least…

If you’ve never been to a FARECon Teen Summit, here’s the run down- about 700 people from all over the country come to a hotel including nutritionists, scientists, parents, and 275 teens with food allergies. It’s a wonderful conference with sessions to appeal to all of the audiences featuring sessions about clinical trials, research, advocacy, how to travel with allergies, and how to manage all kinds of other life things. There is a key note speaker on Friday, followed by some ice breakers for the teens (which I helped run!) and parents. The next day started bright and early with various sessions from 8am-5pm and then after a dinner break, there is a social for the teens. The social is one of the highlights of the conference because it’s just like any other DJ dance, except there’s no food and all the focus is on everyone having fun dancing and talking and using the photo booth. Then on Sunday, the sessions went from 8:30 until check out at 12:30, concluding with the announcement of this year’s FARE Vision Award winners and Young Innovator award winners. This year I learned a lot about why the food industry and legislation are so flawed when it comes to dealing with allergens and what I can do to help push forward some reforms that could save people’s lives. Along the way, there are tables outside the conference halls with allergen-free food samples to try or with companies that will help simplify your life with allergies (and who doesn’t like freebies?).This year was a particularly special conference for me because I had an opportunity to share my story. My first session was a group presentation along with Allison and Anna. We talked about our experiences with managing food allergies in college to a packed house of about 200 people (they had to turn people away at the door!). We had such a good energy together and the parents and teens who attended our session came up to us for the rest of the weekend asking for advice and complimenting us on our presentation! On Sunday, I was able to be a part of an “ask the teens” panel for parents to ask us our opinions on whatever they wanted. This was super informal (in fact, i didn’t even meet my fellow panel members until the day of) and really fun. It’s really interesting to get the parents perspectives on why they do certain things and it’s always good to help reassure helicopter parents that they can loosen the reigns on their kid.  The most amazing feeling that came from giving these talks however, was the validation you got from the crowds from their applause and their recognition of you long after you spoke.

Overall, I had such an amazing weekend at the FARE Conference and would 10/10 recommend attending one if you want to find a community of people who experience the same difficulties in life that you do. It’s always so comforting to know that you aren’t the only one out there. I want to give a special shout out to my friend Alexa for being such a great friend at the conference this year. I met her at the 2014 Teen Summit and we have nearly identical allergies and it was so great to see her again after three years! She gave a presentation about studying and working in the food industry and if you’d like to go check out her blog if you want to follow along in her adventures!

Camp Counselor

A camp counselor scavenger hunt at camp, featuring me hiding in the kitchen.

After returning from my two weeks abroad, I worked the remaining weeks of the summer as a camp counselor at a local Girl Scout Day Camp.  Since the campers pack their own lunches, I did not realize that food allergies would become as much of an issue as they were, but alas, my knowledge became very useful as my fellow counselors and I dealt with various campers.

On the Friday before each new week of camp, each counselor was given an hour to work with their co-counselor to plan activities for the upcoming week.  One of the requirements that we had to fulfill for each week’s schedule was making two snacks every week.  During our planning hour, we received a roster with the number of campers we had as well as any pertinent health information about the campers.  This roster would list any allergies that campers had put on their medical forms.  When we were choosing which theme-related snacks we wanted to make during the following week, it was great to know these restrictions up front.  Since I was one of two counselors with allergies, many of the other counselors would ask me for advice in choosing which foods they could use so that their campers with allergies could be included.  It was a great advocacy experience for me, and it really increased the respect that I had for the camp counselors that I had as a child who didn’t hold me back due to my allergies.

One of the hardest parts about camp was the fact that we never knew what supplies we would have until the day of.  So, sometimes we did not necessarily get what we needed on our supply request form.  During Nature Explorers week, we were making a bird’s nest snack where we stacked pretzel sticks, held them together with chocolate, and placed three jelly beans inside as the eggs.  Now I had a girl with a nut allergy this week which I recorded on the form, but the jumbo jelly beans we got said that they “may contain traces of peanuts”, so we did not give them to the allergic child as a safety precaution.  She was pretty upset about being left out, and the next day at drop off, her mom handed me a note that basically said “thank you for your concern for my child, but she can eat things that say may contain and I don’t want you excluding her from getting snacks all week”.  This situation was really frustrating for me, and luckily all future snacks for the week had no issues.  I spoke to the camp director about this incident and we discussed making a change to the allergy form that the campers submit for next year, and in the meantime, making sure that the foods we are given are completely free from any potential cross-contact for the allergic girls each following week.

 

China Tour 2018

One of the most exceptional experiences that I’ve had in college has been a two week trip to China with the UD Symphony Orchestra.  Traveling away from home for any period of time is scary when you have allergies, and when you go somewhere that has a language barrier, it makes things even scarier.  As someone who is allergic to sesame, nuts, and shellfish, I never really ate much more than edamame and rice at Asian restaurants back at home so I really did not know what to expect as far as eating.  After traveling there, I can confirm that it was very difficult at times to find food.  In addition to barriers of communication, and cuisine, the Chinese people are also not very allergy aware.  Most food was served buffet or family style, and sometimes, there would be one serving spoon to be used with every dish!  In short, there were several days that I had to sustain myself on granola bars and white rice.

One of the scariest moments for me while I was in China occurred during the third lunch we ate in Beijing.  In China, it is typical for a teapot to be placed on the table before the meal is served, and as an avid tea drinker, I usually poured myself tea while waiting for meals to start.  At this particular lunch, I had just poured myself a cup of tea and let it cool on my saucer before drinking it.  A few tables over, one of the other orchestra members stands up and shouts “Does anybody have a peanut allergy?” to which a bunch of my friends pointed to me.  This orchestra member then informed the orchestra that the tea had peanuts in it! I had never seen tea with nuts in it before, but after this person (I still don’t know her name) saved my life, I did not drink any more tea in China unless I was able to ask what was in it first.

Luckily, I had prepared myself before the trip so that things could run smoothly. The most important part of keeping me safe was notifying the trip leaders.  Before I made a down payment, I informed the trip coordinators and they promised that I would be safe.   While in the restaurants in China, I was always with a tour guide or a UD student fluent in Chinese so that I could reduce the communication barrier between me and the food.  Another thing that helped decrease the communication barrier was creating personalized allergy cards from FARE’s website.  This also helped when we had to grab food on our own– and in one instance, it allowed me to get bubble tea all by myself since the employee could understand the card, and was very accommodating.  I also was saved on numerous occasions by packing of instant oatmeal and safe granola bars for those days when the only thing I could eat at the group meals was rice.  This intense snack packing also helped out my friend on the trip with Celiac Disease, and left me with plenty of room in my suitcase for souvenirs as I ate through my snacks. Despite several close calls, I avoided eating anything that could have been potentially dangerous and was able to experience a whole different continent and get closer with the people that I had been playing with in orchestra.  The biggest take-away from this experience for me is that no matter what struggles you go through, the experience is always more important that the food.

 

A few of my friends and I standing outside of a concert hall in China that had a poster with our faces on it.

Quick Summer Update

Long time no post! This summer was super busy for me, so I am going to be posting about all of my summer adventures over the next three weeks before school starts again so that I can share all of my experiences with you.  My summer started off with a two week trip to China with the University of Delaware Symphony Orchestra which is probably the scariest trips I’ve ever taken as an allergic person.  Not only did I have to worry about a language barrier, but I also faced a lack of education and understanding that I have not experienced many other times in my life.  The day I got back began my training for my summer job as a day camp counselor.  I didn’t realize how many lessons about allergies I would have to teach during this job, but without my advocacy it would have been a difficult summer for some of the campers.  Finally, I took  two beach trips- a day trip with my co-workers and a week trip with my family- before having to pack up for college again.  Looking forward to sharing my content with you!