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Explore nut-free foods for allergy safety
MISSISSIPPI STATE – Increased childhood peanut allergies in America have turned many school cafeterias into no-peanut zones, but kids do not have to give up tasty and healthy foods while keeping their allergic classmates safe.
“A peanut allergy can be a severe allergy because it affects the respiratory system more than other allergies,” said Diane Tidwell, associate professor in Mississippi State University’s Department of Food Science, Nutrition and Health Promotion. Tidwell, who specializes in food allergies, said peanut allergies are a serious issue because allergic children can stop breathing.
Banning peanut butter from schools is a controversial topic among many parents, who rely on peanut butter’s nutritional value and convenience. For families with allergic children, the ban may be a life-saving necessity, said Amelia Killcreas, Starkville parent of a child with a severe allergy to peanuts.
“People assume my child has to actually eat peanut butter to have an allergic reaction, but that’s not true,” Killcreas said. “There are levels of severity of allergic reactions, and my daughter’s is severe enough that she can’t touch peanuts or peanut products.”
Peanut butter is oily, and the oils tend to stick to surfaces. Children with severe allergies cannot sit at a table with other kids eating peanuts or peanut products without having an allergic reaction.
“As an example of how severely allergic my daughter is, she once got a library book, and as she turned the pages, she started getting hives on her face, which is her first symptom of an allergic reaction,” Killcreas said.
Killcreas, who loves peanut butter and tree nuts, understands the frustration many children and parents have with schools banning peanut products.
“I read labels all the time,” she said. “As a mom, I make things from scratch because mixes and processed foods often are labeled as being manufactured in a plant where peanuts and tree nuts have been processed. I try to be resourceful in finding nut-free alternatives.”
Reading labels is important when bringing food to school and into the classroom, especially as the number of children diagnosed with allergies to nuts, milk, soy and wheat is increasing. But being careful does not mean kids have to give up flavorful foods.
A little creativity can turn lunchtime into fun time, Tidwell said.
“I always go back to vegetables and fruits, because they’re easy to snack on and most kids don’t get enough servings every day,” Tidwell said. “For kids struggling to give up peanut butter during the week, nut-free alternatives exist, such as sunflower seed butter or soy nut butter, which even comes in honey and chocolate flavors. Some kids are also content with a cream cheese and jam sandwich.”
With proper refrigeration, lunch options can be as simple as rolling sliced deli meat and cheese into a tortilla and cutting it into slices for bite-sized pinwheels, or a mini pita stuffed with egg, tuna or chicken salad.
“Cold foods, such as yogurt, need to be refrigerated or kept at or below 41 degrees,” Tidwell said. “Ice packs won’t keep it cold all day. Alternatively, pack foods that are safe at room temperature, such as shelf-stable packaged cheeses or fruit juices.”
Carrot sticks, cherry tomatoes, or any crunchy vegetable with a favorite healthy dip can help children eat more veggies. Chips and salsa can spice up lunch time too. Small portions, a variety of textures, and fun shapes add to lunchtime festivities. Fresh fruit, fruit salad and yogurt mixed with fruit are healthy alternatives to jellied fruit snacks, which are more sugar than fruit, Tidwell said.
“A child should feel safe going to school and know they don’t have to worry about being exposed,” she said. “If you could save a child’s life just by what you keep in your lunch, wouldn’t you do it?”