My daughter was just 10 months old when she had an allergic reaction to strawberries. She had eaten the sweet fruit before, but after breaking out in large hives all over her body, it became obvious that strawberries were no longer something she could eat. Her doctors didn't seem too concerned, but inside, I panicked. Strawberries aren't an allergy most people think about. How would I keep her safe? (I learned quickly to just shout it out at everyone any time they were near my kid, and that seemed to do the trick.) But my fear is recognized by tons of moms all over the world, and the very real worry that someone is going to feed your child something they can't eat is why celebrities like Beverly Mitchell are speaking out about food allergies and sharing how major companies, like Nestlé Tollhouse, are changing the food game.
Mitchell, who's primarily remembered for her role as Lucy Camden on the mega popular '90s show 7th Heaven, is now a mom to two children — a 5-year-old girl and a 3-year-old boy. While neither exhibit major food allergies, Mitchell's youngest is a lot like my daughter and has an allergy to a common food that most people don't think of as dangerous — avocado. Which means her work on educating people about food allergies is personal. "I mean, my son is 3 and he will grab anything from anywhere off of any table, off of any floor, out of any bag — he's like a garbage disposal," Mitchell tells me. She mentions how strange his allergy to avocado is, but given the fact that he'll eat anything anyone hands him, she had to really make him aware of his intolerance. "He actually knows and if people try to give it to him, he'll say, 'Oh I can't have it. It makes me sick.' We worked really hard on teaching him that."
And that kind of self advocacy is huge for anyone, but especially a kid with an allergy. My own daughter is quick to point out that she can't eat strawberries, and I'm so grateful. There have been too many birthday parties where a fruit salad is piled high with watermelon, grapes, cantaloupe, and strawberries, and my daughter has to pass because of her allergy. While it's not too traumatizing for my daughter and she can eat pretty much everything else, Mitchell agrees that it's tough to make sure your kid is safe out there with their allergies, and education is a huge part of it.
"It's a very important thing to teach children at a young age if they have these food allergies and not to be fearful of them, but also to educate other people," she says. "My kids go to a nut-free school and my daughter will literally come home telling me everyone's allergies, who can't have what, and she's very well aware. I mean, she's 5, but she knows she needs to protect her friends. So if we're bringing treats for school, she'll ask if the treats are OK."
But a lot of the world isn't quite as empathetic as Mitchell's daughter. I can't even estimate how many times I've seen an article or social media comment that borders on downright mean about food allergies. "Why should my kid have to give up peanut butter because of your kid?" "Why do I have to check ingredients on snacks for preschool — your kid should just bring their own." To be honest, as a mom of a kid with a not-so-serious food allergy, it's infuriating. Yes, it sucks that your kid loves strawberries, but is it worth their snack time for my kid to be battling hives for three days? According to Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE), 15 million Americans have food allergies. That's a lot of people to ignore so you can eat a peanut butter cracker.
That number is also why Mitchell is so excited about her work with Nestlé Tollhouse and their new Simply Delicious Morsels. "They not only taste great, but I love that they're made out of only three ingredients. I love that I can look at the package and know it's cocoa butter, pure cane sugar, and real chocolate — it doesn't take a brain surgeon to figure out that's all awesome," she says. She tells me that they're delicious, but it's also nice that she can safely bake creamy, amazing treats to take to school, knowing she's not going to do any harm to a child.
This week is Food Allergy Awareness Week, and Mitchell says it's been really eye-opening to learn about the teal cookie jar and how she can integrate things like the Simply Delicious Morsels into the premise. In short, the teal cookie jar works a lot like FARE's teal pumpkin project. "The teal cookie jar and the teal ribbon signify that these treats are safe and it's a great way for kids to know, 'Hey, I can grab that cookie and there's no peanuts, tree nuts, milk, eggs, wheat, soy, fish, or shellfish in it.' They can know it's a completely safe treat and I just think that's really great. It's great messaging, it's great for parents — it kind of gives us a moment to recognize that if you go to a birthday party and you see that, then you're like, 'Oh OK, this parent gets it and I don't have to chase my kid around and try to put them in a bubble.'"
But even when people still aren't on board, Mitchell's adamant that this kind of awareness of food allergies has to be something people focus on. "It's something important that we as parents should kind of integrate into every day, whether your child has those allergies or not. Our kids are going to get to a place where they're going to other people's houses. and they need to know they're safe. You don't want to hold them back from experiences, but at the same time, food allergies are no joke and they need to be taken seriously. And I think some people who luckily haven't had to experience the scares of food allergies, it's important for them to also create a safe space for other children as well."
She stands by the golden rule — do unto others as you would have them do unto you. When it comes to food allergies, no one's saying you have to wipe your pantry shelves of peanut butter, but if sending your kid to school with a cheese sandwich instead, or baking cookies with Nestlé Tollhouse's Simply Delicious Morsels instead of milk chocolate chips, can make a difference in one kid's life, then why wouldn't you? The thought of a child being left out of the birthday cookies because of their dairy allergy is almost too painful to think about. As Mitchell points out, "It's not their fault, and it's really hard on kids. So why should we as parents make it harder on other people's children and make them feel isolated?"
If you're feeling overwhelmed about baking safely for kids, Mitchell recommends a website — Very Best Baking — where you can find recipes that are dairy-free, vegan, gluten-free, and delicious. "It can be really overwhelming," Mitchell says, but she stands by recipes that everyone can enjoy, like the oatmeal raisin chocolate chip cookies. With no eggs and ingredients including brown rice flour and flaxseed, this is a cookie you can feel really good about. Plus, it sounds amazing. "A dash of sea salt makes all the difference," she recommends.
When it comes to keeping up with food allergies and intolerances, it can feel like a lot of work. But by using simple ingredients and focusing on making sure kids (and even adults with allergies) feel inclusive, you can really find a baked good that works. I'm so grateful that the parents in my daughter's classroom are fine with her strawberry allergy — no one bats an eye at bringing watermelon for snack instead — and I hope that if I ever come across a child with an allergy, I'd be just as supportive and empathetic. So put out your teal cookie jars, talk to the parents of the kids around you, and stay creative. Luckily, with so much awareness surrounding food allergies, it's not as difficult to make a safe, yummy treat.