September 23, 2007

OMG! The Candy Expo!

My teeth ached and my stomach rumbled even before I stepped onto the floor of the All Candy Expo. The Expo was overflowing with every type of sweet as well as some salty snack foods.
The Candy Expo was the first show held in McCormick Place's new West Wing, so everything was clean and shiny new, even the bathrooms. But, you don't want to hear about the bathrooms; you want to hear about the candy. It was everywhere!

Eating my way through the All Candy Expo
The Expo was the equivalent size of nearly 10 football fields. In my first walk down one of the many aisles I tried a chocolate covered crispy cricket. It would have been wise to save something this adventurous until later in the show, but I survived. I did, however, vow to avoid eating insects for the rest of the day.

At the risk of sounding too much like the Very Hungry Caterpillar, I also sampled a dill pickle, chocolate covered sunflower seeds, some upscale nut snacks, and a smoked buffalo steak snack (like jerky, but less chewy). I also snagged a marshmallow crispie to bring home for the boys and a bag of caffeine-enhanced potato chips for DH.

On my trip down aisle two I stopped keeping track of what I sampled or grabbed to take home. By aisle three, I nibbled the tasty morsels offered to me, but tossed most after a bite or two. By aisle 4 (the equivalent of maybe 2 football fields) I groaned with each glimpse of artificially colored high fructose corn syrupy gummy crap.

Another high-end, imported organic 65% cacao chocolate bar? Stop, I can't stand it! Oh, I can take the whole thing home to try? Oh, okay, sure.

By 1:00 I was spent. I looked like a pack mule with my overstuffed bags of candy. I felt like an overstimulated toddler after her birthday party, crashing down from my sugar high. I wanted a nap so badly I could have cried. But one thing stood between the parking lot and me: The Treasure House.

Each Candy Expo pass holder is allowed one trip into The Treasure House. One last, desperate attempt to grab up every possible goodie and stuff it into a small bag. I did not miss my chance. I got some kettle corn, mini-Tolberones, Jelly Bellies, and goodness knows what else.
I've already sent a basket of sweets to the teacher's lounge at my boy's school and we will no doubt be THE house for cool Halloween treats. I'm also planning an awesome PMS survival kit giveaway on my blog, Hormone-colored Days. But it will take many days to try the items that look promising.

Our Taste-Test results
The NRG potato chips looked really promising two days after the show when I was still dragging myself around as I tried to get the boys ready for school and myself ready for work. There are worse things to eat for breakfast, right? Not really, but I was desperate. Turns out the chips were too spicy for a mild food lover like me. The single chip I ate didn't jump start me quite the way I'd hoped and I couldn't handle any more.

Don't tell the boys I ate this without them, but Terra Nostra puts out a dangerously delicious USDA organic "satin milk with creamy caramel filling chocolate bar" that lives up to its satiny-creamy name. At the show, I sampled a bit of Terra Nostra's non-dairy/vegan rice milk-based chocolate, which tasted surprisingly like the real thing.

I hadn't intended to give the boys Fizzies, but they found my samples of this retro drink tablet and suddenly it was a done deal. You add the tablet to water and watch it fizz up like a soda. Packed with vitamin C and artificial coloring agents, I was glad that Smartypants didn't like it, even though he thought the concept was cool. Pikachu did enjoy the Fizzie drinks, though.

On a less artificial note, the folks at Pure Fun showered me with their organic hard candies and lollipops. They're gluten-free, certified vegan, kosher, and USDA organic and are made without artificial colors, which recent studies indicate have a negative affect on some children. But how do they taste? Great! I brought them to large family dinner last night and the nine kids present gobbled them up and filled their pockets with more to take home.

And speaking of gluten-free foods, I'll get back to the food allergy series soon with a post or two about gluten-free diets.

If you're hungry for more sweet details about the All Candy Expo, check out my new blog friends at Candy Addict and Candy Blog.
Adapted from a post at Chicago Moms Blog.

September 15, 2007

Best ever kid-tested allergy-friendly snack round-up

We searched for the best allergy-friendly snacks around, and then we tried them all. I’m here to tell you about our favorites. This post can help you if follow school rules: Nothing homemade! Nothing with peanuts! Or tree nuts! Or milk!. Or simply host an inclusive class party. It’s also a handy guide if you simply want to keep some packaged snacks on hand when your child has a playdate with an allergic friend.

Necessity is truly the mother of invention. Many of the companies noted below were founded by parents of allergic children who saw a need for safe snacks for them to eat and share with friends. Please see the company websites for product photos as well as full details on their ingredients, production facilities, pricing and shipping information.

The companies below were generous with their samples. If you are part of a food allergy support group or are trying to expose families from your child’s class or school to allergy-friendly alternative snacks, they may be willing to pass along a sample or coupons to you as well. (Same goes for IM Healthy soy nut butter.)

Vermont Nut Free Chocolates 1-888-468-8373
No peanuts or tree nuts

When the folks at Vermont Nut-Free Chocolates sent us some of their signature goodies, they promised that their chocolates would be as good as any other. The chocolately smiles around my kitchen table confirmed this. Their bars were gobbled up before I could say “peanut free.” I found their chocolate-covered pretzels (available in white, milk or dark chocolate) to be the perfect marriage of sweet and salty. I even managed to save a few for the boys to see if they agreed with me; they did.

Divvies 914-533-0333
no peanut, tree-nuts, dairy or eggs (now sold at Disney World, as well as online)

True to their tagline, made to share, they responded to my request for cookie samples with about a dozen two-packs of chocolate chip, oatmeal chocolate chip and molasses ginger cookies along with caramel corn, rock candy, jelly beans, and their signature pack of cupcakes. Share, indeed! We put out quite a dessert spread when some friend came over for dinner.

We wanted to know what nonallergic people thought of these snacks. Would the parent of a nonallergic child feel comfortable serving this at a class party or keeping these in the pantry or freezer? When it comes to Divvies treats, the answer is resounding Yes! Like the Vermont Nut-Free Chocolates, Divvies caramel corn was as sweet and fresh as any we’ve tasted. The boys approved of all the big, soft cookies, though I found them rather crumbly. Surprisingly for my house, the ginger molasses cookies were our favorite; they even tasted great after a couple of weeks in the freezer.

Divvies offers a clever cupcake kit, packaged in a box that converts to a holder for the decorated treats. Like the cookies, they produced a lot of crumbs. The fours boys I served them to enjoyed decorating the chocolate cupcakes with the chocolate frosting and sprinkles included in the kit. This kit is an ideal allergy friendly treat for class parties. And with their sophisticated packaging, complete with themed boxes tied with elegant bows, Divvies make a great gift.

Nonuttin’ Foods 1-866-714-5411
No peanuts, tree nuts, dairy, egg, rye, wheat, barley, artificial colors, (the list goes on)

Nonuttin’ is best known for healthy nut-free granola products and cereal bars. Their products are not free of all allergens, but each product is clearly labeled with information on the top ten allergens as well as gluten. For example, their cereals bars carry a sesame cross-contamination risk due to their crisped rice supplier. Because of the sesame exposure risk, Smartypants didn’t sample these, but the rest of us did and found the chocolate chip and double-chocolate bars comparable to more popular brands of cereal bars.

We brought Nonuttin’s cinnamon-vanilla granola clusters (made without eggs, dairy, peanuts or tree nuts) to a picnic. “They’re Canadian,” said my friend who read the package, “So you know they’re good.” Some of us think so kindly of our neighbors to the north. The slightly crunchy, slightly chewy clusters were a hit, and proved to be almost as popular as the homemade chocolate chip cookie my friend brought to the picnic.

Check out Nonuttin’s one-time sample pack offer to try before you buy in bulk.

Gak's Snacks (800) 552-7172
No tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, eggs or dairy

Gak’s Snack's tagline is so good you won’t believe what’s not in ‘em. As with Divvies, the company’s motto rang true. The boys gobbled up the large, soft cookies, and they loved the crunchy mini-s too. Ironically, they enjoyed these dairy-free goods dunked in a cool glass of milk. “It makes them taste like Mrs. Field’s cookies,” explained Smartypants. I’ll be honest, it’s been a while since my boy had a Mrs. Field’s cookie, but nonetheless, both boys really liked the organic brownie chip as well as the chocolate chip cookies.

Enjoy Life (their colorful, informative and easy-to-navigate website is worth a look)
All Enjoy Life foods are specially made (in nearby Schiller Park) to be free of all eight common allergens. They contain NO wheat/gluten, dairy, peanuts, tree nuts, egg, soy, fish or shellfish, and they’re made without other common triggers of intolerance: casein, potato, sesame and sulfites. So, they just sell empty bags and boxes right? Far from it.

Their extensive product line includes cookies, granola, snack bars, bagels trail mix and chocolate chips.

I’ve become oddly addicted to their “Not nuts! Nut free trail mix.” It’s got sweet and salty, fruit bits and mini-chocolate chips as well as sunflower seeds. I didn’t miss the nuts, though admittedly, DH did. As for the cookies, Enjoy Life’s soft cookies are about the size of a flattened golf ball. And Pickahu especially enjoyed the chocolate chip cookies, while I favored the Snickerdoodles.

To some degree gluten-free baked goods are an acquired taste. Newbies should be aware that gluten-free baked goods tend to be denser and chewier than their flour-filled counterparts. If you don’t think the whole class will go for them, it’s at least nice to know you can fill a goody bag or provide a special treat to an allergic child, a child whose taste buds, no doubt, are adapted to gluten/dairy free snacks/nut-free snacks.

What are your favorite allergy-friendly products?

September 14, 2007

Food Allergies in the Classroom

Allergy Moms (and Dads) know that food allergy concerns at school aren't limited to the lunchroom. That's why I've always considered the lead teacher or homeroom teacher my most important ally in the fight against accidental exposure to sesame, the allergen that might cause a life-threatening reaction in my son.

When Smartypants was younger, I prepared an informational flyer including his color photo and vital information (like birthdate and weight) as well as allergy information for all of his teachers. I gave his homeroom an extra copy to include her "substitute folder," so that every sub would have the important info about my son. In preschool, I had the teacher post a copy on the "snack cabinet" so any volunteer helpers (parents, grandparents) would be clued in, too.

FAAN publishes several useful guides for school, daycare and camp staff. Closer to home, OPMama, a member of the Chicago Parent online community recommends that schools in Chicago area or nearby suburbs give Children's Memorial Hospital a call. OPMama highly recommends their free informative lectures on the impact food allergies on all families.

As Rees pointed out in the Chicago Parent forums, parents whose lives have not been touched by food allergies often do not realize how serious they can be. A bit of education helps the whole community.

Before a child even enters a classroom there are pages and pages of registration papers to fill out, right? Always skeptical about how closely those types of papers are examined, I mark forms with fluorescent orange FOOD ALLERGY stickers purchased through FAAN. This makes the crucial allergy information stand out.

Mabel's Labels (reviewed by Chicago Parent's editor here) also makes allergy alert labels. Back in June I stuck a regular old Mabel’s name Label on my seven year-old’s water bottle. After 8 weeks of summer camp, countless throw-the-bottle games and many passes through the dishwasher, it’s looks as good as the day I put it on. They are amazing.

Mabel's ultra-durable red and white allergy labels are customized to include your child’s name and up to six allergies. I would have loved these when Smartypants was younger. They are a boon for the preschool or early elementary child who may not be able to clearly communicate her needs. They are great for school, daycare and camp, too. Had they been around when he was little, I would have slapped one of these right on my boy’s shirt before heading off to a party where he might be wandering about, trying to grab a snack without me.

What are your favorite school/daycare survival tips?

Stay tuned: Next week I'll be back with a kid-tested round-up of the best allergy friendly foods on the market and a post or two about gluten-free diets.

September 10, 2007

Making the world a safer place, one sandwich at a time

Food allergies will affect your family even if they aren’t an issue in your home. For example, this summer my boys came home from every camp they attended with a note requesting peanut-free lunches. Chances are you've heard something similar at school. Whether it's a matter of following the rules or a concern for peanut allergic children, I encourage you to try soy nut butter.

Pamela Hornik of the Silicon Valley Moms Blog put it this way in a recent post: I can not stop the war or even keep my daughter's shoes organized, but I can now send sandwiches to school without hurting anyone.

When it comes to peanut-free lunches, we pack our favorite PB alternative, the IM Healthy Soy Nut Butter from a company in nearby Glenview. When sandwiched with jelly it’s almost indistinguishable from PB. Plus it’s lower in fat and safer in schools. The boys and I like the honey creamy style best, but DH goes for the crunchy kind. We’ve been eating this for so long, none of us even like the taste of peanut butter anymore.

At our local Jewel usually carries one or two of the many varieties of the IM Healthy Brand in the PB section (on the lowest shelf, usually in a dark corner) as well in the natural foods section, but it’s usually on the lowest shelf. Try a specialty retailer like Whole Foods for a greater selection of the IM Healthy line as well as other unique “butters.”

Do you have a favorite peanut-free spread (Marshmallow Fluff?) or favorite source for such items?

September 09, 2007

Don't Kill the Allergy Mom

The Allergy Mom. You know her, the one who goes on about deadly foods (everything your child likes to eat) as she politely hands you a list of “safe” snacks (nothing he’ll go near). Once she’s out of earshot, the other parents huddle and express outrage. “But all my kid eats is peanut butter!” “What am I supposed to send for lunch?” “What nerve! Can her kid’s allergy be that serious?”

Yes, it can. Food allergies can kill. And sometimes they do. Sometimes at school. Be thankful you’re not an allergy mom.

When Smartypants was a toddler, I mixed up a nutritious batch of hummus for him. He loved my homemade blend of chickpeas, tahini (sesame paste) and garlic. I beamed as he gobbled my creation. Then he got tired, started rubbing his eyes and fussing. I figured he’d had a long day and he was telling me he was ready for bed. Wrong, he was telling me he was in distress.

When I wiped off the hummus that coated his fingers, arms, hands and face, I saw he was bright red. He had a rash on every inch of skin the hummus touched. Hives erupted before my eyes. Fortunately, my cousin had advised us to keep a bottle of Benadryl in the kitchen, so DH grabbed the nearby bottle while I phoned the pediatrician.

We gave our young son the medicine and sat watching him, studying the dynamic 3-D show on his skin, dutifully tracking his breathing, the ever-changing hives and his vital functions. And trying not to show how completely freaked out we were.

So, yes, I’m an Allergy Mom.

Thankfully, we were spared a trip to the ER, but that night we were introduced to a whole new set of parenting worries. Allergy testing indicated a potentially life-threatening reaction (anaphylaxis) to sesame. Although not among the top 8 allergens, it does make the top 20 (see below).

Even though sesame is not as ubiquitous as peanuts, it’s out there. Sesame seeds top bagels, loaves of bread and pretzels. It’s a common ingredient in Japanese, Chinese, Greek and Mediterranean foods (falafel, hummus, etc.). Those potentially deadly seeds lurk quietly in many snacks “party mixes” and containers of bread crumbs. Allergy Moms ask questions. We read labels. Always.

Now that Smartypants is older, he takes more responsibility for himself (I still give a heads-up to his teachers- I’ll get into more detail about this later in this food allergy series). But when he was in preschool, I was the Allergy Mom who handed out the “safe” snack list. A list compiled after a long night at the grocery store, examining the fine print and ingredients list on almost every product label in the snack/cracker aisle.

Most of the parents took care to stick with the list or call me if they wanted to bring an unapproved item. Some even insisted I read the product label myself before giving the green light. Their concern meant a lot to me. It’s scary enough sending your child out into the Big World. When that child has serious food allergies that maternal fear inches up a notch or five.

So please be patient; hold back your snarky comments and give the Allergy Mom a break. She’s depending on you to help keep her kid safe.

Over the next week or so, I’ll be sharing some of our allergy survival tips as well as new pointing out some tasty peanut-free snacks, many of which are free of other common allergens like tree nuts, dairy, soy, sesame, and gluten. I hope you’ll chime in with tips and resources as well.

For more information on food allergies:
Illinois Food Allergy Education Association
Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN)
Mothers of Children Having Allergies (MOCHA)
Also, here’s a great piece, "Food for Thought," by my friend Adrienne Martini. (Okay, we don’t know each other that well, but she let me eat all her frites while she was doing a reading at HopLeaf last winter.) Adrienne is going to share a few thoughts and a gluten-free recipe later in this series (wait, maybe she really is my friend!). She is also the author of Hillbilly Gothic: A Memoir of Madness and Motherhood. And you thought your postpartum depression was bad.

Top 8 food allergens

Tree nuts

September 08, 2007

I got a Brazilian!

SushiSamba Rio
504 N Wells, Chicago

I got a Brazilian dish, French Toast and so much more at SushiSamba Rio, a Japanese/Brazilian/Peruvian fusion restaurant.

SushiSamba is one happening place. They’ve got a little something for everyone- a rooftop lounge for the hipsters, unique “Sushi and Sake” classes for the foodies, and late night dance parties with DJs and musicians pumping out Latin-inspired beats along with samba and capoeira performances for those who like to get their groove on. From the food to the music to the décor, everything about this place is cool. So, um, what were we doing there? This is not a place you might think to bring kids, let alone expect them to be invited along on a little press junket. But they were and, you might want to bring your children there, too.

SushiSamba’s Sunday Brunch provides a nice change from the local pancake house. They offer a menu that will please every member of the family. For $15 per adult and $8 per child under 12, you choose from several tasty items to create your meal.

On our visit, we sampled almost every brunch item while chatting with Joanna, a PR representative from the restaurant who you may have seen on Check, Please!

Even though the brunch menu is filled with continental cuisine ("stuff your kids will eat"), SushiSamba adds a little twist. For example, the rich Eggs Benedict (pictured) is flavored with a Hollandaise sauce made with the mild Peruvian aji panca chile pepper and trades ham for smoked salmon. The smoked salmon was also featured in Sunday Samba Roll along with cream cheese and cucumber. We slap this stuff on a bagel; they artfully tuck it into a seaweed wrapper.

I’m not sure if I’ve lost you or your kids here, but my boys ate these unique items up. Even though they also filled their bellies with scrambled eggs and steak, they managed to find room for the melt-in-your-mouth-delicious Doce de Leite French Toast, and a taste of everything on the Smoked Fish Platter-white fish, salmon, trout and bagel chips.

It’s only as I write this out that I realize how much food we ate in one sitting, because that wasn’t all. The boys, DH and I also sampled the Carmen Miranda, a fresh fruit platter with granola and yogurt flavored with yuzu, a tart Japanese citrus fruit, as well as hot, sugar-coated Brazilian Churros served with Peruvian chocolate and caramel dipping sauces.

Happy and full as we were, we begged our hostess to let us try Feijoada (fesh-wada) ($13), a Brazilian specialty. It’s not part of the continental brunch, but it can be ordered and served family style. She demurred, so we loosened our belts a notch and tasted the traditional stew of black bean, shredded pork, seared beef and carne seca accompanied by white rice, collard greens, and farofa (a toasted flour, somewhat like cornmeal). DH could have made a meal out of this, but though the boys and I liked it, we were glad we got to sample the other foods.

The boys loved the Batidas, frothy Brazilian smoothies made with condensed milk instead of yogurt ($7). And they enjoyed choosing flavor combos for the custom blended drinks, which are large enough for two or thee young children to share. Their favorite was pineapple-orange-banana.

At SushiSamba you can go Brazilian or enjoy fresh sushi and one of the world’s largest selections of sake, Japanese rice wine. In fact, Joanna told us that in Japan sake is now considered an old man’s drink. Sake companies flock to SushiSamba to film commercials featuring hip young Americans drinking it in order to sell the beverage to Japanese young adults.

Sake. Batidas. Brazilian, Japanese. Fusion cuisine. Family brunch. They have something for everyone, except the wee ones in diapers, that is. There are no changing facilities. Which answers that eternal question: can a place be hip and offer diaper-changing facilities? Apparently not. Still, the bathrooms are a thing to behold. Not quite Ally McBeal, not quite a hall of mirrors, definitely something to see for yourself.

SushiSamba provides valet parking for $12, but there’s also a self-park garage a block away. If you’re lucky, you might find street parking.

Above: me taking a picture of Splinter washing his hands in the men's room on the other side of a glass divider.

Your kids will have fun washing up before the meal.

September 03, 2007

Tears in my Salad

My eyes welled up as I stood chopping veggies, but no onions were in sight. I was near tears because I was listening to a story on NPR about a camp for children whose parents died in the Iraq War. The piece was more than gut-wrenching. It was a call to action. I can no longer sit and listen to these stories. I must do something to help end the war.

Months ago I asked my boys what we can do to stop the war. Us? Our family? Don't you mean what can the President do?

I explained that in a democracy, it's up to the people to tell the president what to do. Not the other way around (in theory, at least). But we never acted on our discussion. Not until last week when I got invited to a war vigil. So I gathered up posterboard and markers and set the boys loose. Well, sort of. First my boys and their friend started printing colorful messages like "Bring the Soldiers Home" and "Soldiers Come Home." Seven year-old Pikachu's created a more abstract message of peace with flags and countries and tears and....

And then the boys began asking thoughtful, probing questions- who's fighting with us and who are the enemies? How many people have died?

Finally, as happens in our house, things degraded. Rapidly.

Can I draw fighting? No.

Can I draw guns shooting? No.

Can I draw just guns? No! This is a peace vigil for goodness sake!

I already drew a soldier, is it okay if he has a gun? Soldiers have guns, you know. Ugh. Always a loophole. Fine, the soldier can have the gun, but after after you draw it I'm putting away the markers!

The vigil (or war protest, as the boys liked to call it) attracted about 40 or so like-minded people, including four families with children to a busy intersection to spread a message of peace. Many who drove past our group honked or waved "peace fingers" in support. Okay, one guy waved a different finger and shouted something that I couldn't quite make out, except for the words m-----f-----. But overall the people driving through town were cool with our message.

"I didn't know standing around with a sign was going to be so fun," said Smartypants at the end of the muggy evening. We both felt like we'd done something good, something worthwhile. (Pikachu, not so much; he's rather hawkish.)

I can't say if I'm entering a new era of political involvement, but I did just invite the Senator Obama and his wife to meet me and a crew of my mommyblogging friends. Now what will I serve them if they show up?

BTW, the girl in the picture did not make posters with us. She would never even think of drawing guns on a peace sign.


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