The $40 Quesadilla


We recently went on a vacation to Florida.  It really could not have been better; the weather was idyllic, the ocean had the perfect waves, there was a giant water slide and constant poolside activities for the kids.  One early afternoon they offered face painting.  Milo got right in line to get his face painted like a vampire.  The red paint around his mouth was dripping down his chin like blood in the hot sun.  Gino was next.  I checked in on him then I went to put something at the chairs.  As I was about to walk back to watch his face painting progress, I saw him speed walking, stiffly toward me.  I noticed one of the staff members racing behind him.  As he threw himself into my chest, she stood in front of me, shaking.  My heart thumped hard, was it food?  When I pulled him away from me, would he be covered in hives?  Would he be covered in vomit?  Would he be coughing and gasping?  I pulled him away, and all I could think was Thank God, he was only covered in blood.  I mean, how sick is it that I reveled at the sight of blood?  His lips were pursed to catch the drops trickling from his nose.  He had fallen into a very deep and rocky flowerbed.  He was fighting hard not to cry in front of everyone so we hurried to the room and got him cleaned up.  We placed the obligatory band-aids on the scrapes on his chest, covered his nose in a thick coat of Neosporin and put an ice pack on his face.  He was sad.  Not because he fell into the flowerbed but because he may have missed the face painting.

When we returned to the pool, the face painters had waited for him and since his face was pretty beat up, they drew a huge snake up his arm.  I saw the woman who witnessed the fall approaching us. She was holding an apologetic smoothie in her out-stretched hands… a peace offering.  I mean, as if he hadn’t been through enough already.  I walked away from Gino as he finished getting the snake tail painted and let her know that he was allergic to milk.  When she asked about a cookie, I told her he was allergic to egg.  When she suggested a bag of pretzels, I told her he was allergic to wheat.  I stopped her in the middle of her litany of food suggestions, knowing that it was futile, and I suggested instead a non-food item.  She returned ten minutes later with an orange Ugly doll and a t-shirt that burst into colors in the sun.  Gino was suddenly the happiest kid in town.  The fall became his very favorite part of vacation.  You can ask him!

Every game that the kid’s club hosted, Gino would win.  When he won the limbo, instead of an ice cream cone, he won an orange juice and three Chai tea bags (I think my mom had some influence on that prize)! When he won the balloon hula-hoop toss, instead of getting a bag of goldfish, he got two free movie rentals.  For a guy who couldn’t indulge in the poolside refreshments, he sure was making out like a bandit.

Toward the end of our vacation, Sal and Milo were feeling a bit slighted from all of the attention that Gino was getting.  In fact, Milo was so desperate for the same kind of attention from the staff that he wanted me to tell them that he nearly broke his neck in a wave.  The wave barely covered his head, but he could not have been more serious.  Sal felt like he deserved a cheese quesadilla from the poolside restaurant because frankly, it was safe for him and he wanted it.  I said no many times but somehow I turned around and he had weaseled his way into getting one.  As Sal was licking his bean-and-cheese-filled fingers, Milo honed in on this and begged me for a quesadilla too.  He felt that being able to eat one without Gino would somehow level the playing field.  I couldn’t muster up the energy to talk to the chef and find out if the quesadilla had egg or soy or if there may be any cross contamination issues.  I knew this wasn’t fair of me but we had great alternatives and I simply didn’t want to take the chance.  As a consolation, I told him that I would bring him to Chipotle the day we returned to Chicago.  It wasn’t a great deal and he knew it, but it would be good enough.

The instant the plane’s wheels hit the concrete a few days later, Milo piped up, “Mommy, remember you promised me a cheese quesadilla?” but when we pulled into the garage, the kids were exhausted.  We had been up at 4am and it was showing.  I put them on the couch in front of an episode of Bubble Guppies and hoped that they would sleep.  I set off to the grocery store.  As I was about to head out though, Sal jumped up and said he wanted to go with me.  He knew that going on this trip would likely result in food.  I could see hunger in his eyes, and of course, he was right, he would get food.  He hadn’t forgotten Milo’s cheese quesadilla promise and suggested that it would be totally unfair if he didn’t get one too.  A large cheese quesadilla with a side of black beans and chocolate cow’s milk.  $5.

When we returned home through some sixth-food-sense, Milo could tell Sal had eaten at Chipotle.  Maybe he could see the satiety in Sal’s eyes.  Milo insisted, in no uncertain terms, that it was his turn.  I could not have been more exhausted.  He couldn’t have been more insistent.  As Milo got dressed, I saw Gino’s eyes gaze downward.  Despite all of the spoiling on vacation, this was different for him.  His expression rode directly on the border between sadness and anger.  I don’t even think he knew which emotion that he felt more.  He wasn’t sure if he wanted to cry or slam a door. Even though the quesadillas were meant to even out some inequality from vacation, vacation was over.  We were back home and suddenly things didn’t feel fair.  I told him to think of something special he wanted to do with me when Milo and I got back.  At Chipotle, Milo joyfully shoved down his cheese quesadilla with a side of black beans and a chocolate cow’s milk.  $5.

When Milo and I got home, Gino was sitting on the stairs with his coat on.  As we headed out, from the couch, Lucy yelled out, “Me?  Pink surprise?”  I couldn’t believe that she was in on this too!  Gino chose to go to the toy store.  We first picked out the cheapest but cutest pink surprise we could find.  A pink bracelet.  $10.  Then I encouraged Gino to choose a small toy, perhaps a multicolored pen or a puzzle or a deck of cards.  He, instead, found a build-it-yourself transistor radio and once he set his sights on that toy, nothing else could measure up.  $20.

It cost me $40 that day to make things feel fair.  Obviously, I am not the master negotiator.  But boy, if a build-it-yourself radio helps ease the ache of a quesadilla-less world and make things feel right and just, so be it.  I know that there will come a time when all of this overcompensation simply won’t be enough and no matter how many toys or color-changing t-shirts that I shower over him, he will come to the very true realization that it just isn’t fair.  I hope that when all I have left to offer him is a big hug that somehow that will be enough for both of us.

Sarah | 38 Comments | Permalink

Like Mom, If I Could Be Like Mom (or The Power of Starbucks)


So, I have been called upon to write a post that won’t make you cry.  I thought, oh, that’s easy, I’ll post a recipe but then I thought that would sort of be cheating.  Here is my attempt at a non-tear-jerking post but I can make no promises…

If the kids are good (well, even decent) in church, on the way home, we bring them to Starbucks.  I get my grande, no water, no foam, extra-hot soy chai. Gino, Lucy and Daddy get an orange juice. Milo and Sal get a cow’s milk.  We wipe down the table and chairs, and while doing so, we usually get a few what-in-the-world-are-they-doing glances.  Then we sit.  We sit in such a way that the baby, Lucy, can’t have accidental access to the cow’s milk.  Gino is now old enough to know he doesn’t want to drink the cow’s milk but still he sits closer to Lucy and can act as a buffer.  Milo knows he can’t take a sip of my drink because of the soy.  As soon as we are settled into our complicated and assigned, wiped-down seats, we open the orange juices first and then move on to poking the straws into the cow’s milk boxes.  This preparation takes awhile which is why I order my chai extra hot.

On the way home one Sunday a few weeks ago, Gino had a revelation.  From the rear of our minivan, he yells over a cranked-up Adele song, “Mommy, now that I am not allergic to soy anymore, can I order a chai from Starbucks like you next time?”  Luckily we were pulling in the garage so I could take him aside to explain the complicated concept of cross-contamination to a five-year old.  I explained to him that when they make the drinks at Starbucks, they make them really fast because there are always long lines.  He understood that.  I told him that when people are making drinks really quickly that they do not have the time to clean the equipment that they use to make the drinks.  So, if they don’t have time to clean between a coffee with cow’s milk and a soy chai, then cow’s milk could get into your soy.  Did he understand what I was telling him?  Was it going to disappoint him that he couldn’t get the same drink as I do?  He was quiet for a moment.  Then, ah-ha, he got it.  “Okay, Mommy.  Yeah, I do not want cow’s milk in my soy chai.  But I still want to be able to have a Starbucks soy chai like you.”

The mind-racing we all experience kicked in, racing to find an alternative, racing to figure out how I can make a drink that was somehow the same, but different.  When I remembered that they sold the same Tazo Chai Tea at the bookstore, we took a quick walk and picked up a container.   If I warmed that up with the newly-safe vanilla soy milk, voilà, a Starbucks soy chai.  When we made the soy chai together, I put a small amount in a plain white coffee mug.  I made a similar rice milk chai for Milo who has FPIES (food protein-induced enterocolitis syndrome) to soy and they each took their first sip of a lukewarm chai. After the first sip, Milo guzzled his.  Gino drank it more slowly, maybe he liked the experience more than the actual flavor but he would never admit to that.

When I put Gino to bed that night, I could tell he had something on his mind.  When I pressed a little, he said, “Mommy, I loved that chai today but I am trying to figure out how I can make it like yours.  Can I make it and then bring it to Starbucks and pour it in a cup that matches yours?”  I had an epiphany.  I grabbed my phone and brought up a picture of the ceramic Starbucks mug that looks exactly like the paper to-go cup.  He took the phone out of my hand and used his thumb and pointer to make the picture as large as he could and then he giggled.  “Oh, Mom, I love that lid.”  (The lid is a simple black travel mug lid.)  He fell asleep dreaming about the possibility of having one of those mugs with that amazing lid all for himself.

When I picked Gino up from school the next day, I had a Starbucks bag with two mugs wrapped in tissue paper inside, one for him and one for me.  Before he even opened the bag, he threw his arms around me in pure joy.  He thanked me over and over.  “Now I can drink a soy chai in a cup just like you!!  Can we make it as soon as we get home?”  And so we did.  But when I was putting him to bed that night, he again seemed like he was thinking about something.  When I asked him what it was, he quickly explained, “I’m really happy that I got to have a soy chai in that Starbucks cup but do you think Saturday you could make us both one and then we can go do some running around like you like to do with your chai?”  “Yes, Gino, we can do running around with your chai on Saturday.  Good night…”











There is something powerful about the desire for a child to emulate his parents and something equally as powerful in the Starbucks brand.  It means acceptance to him.  It means doing what everyone else is doing.  It means fitting in. And he found a way to do all that but still do it safely.  As I looked down at him as we did some running around that Saturday morning and he held that heavy ceramic Starbucks mug clumsily in his little hands I realized that I, too, loved that Starbucks mug and that silly black lid.  As I was pouring love over him, he looked up at me, took a sip and smiled… and I suddenly felt a powerful desire to emulate my son, his purity, his easy satisfaction, so I did the same.  Soy chai never tasted so good.


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Sarah | 100 Comments | Permalink
My Stories, Observations

Child, Heal Thy Mother


I rode in an elevator with four other mothers of food allergic children on our way to a Food Allergy Initiative (FAI) luncheon a couple of weeks ago.  As we rode up to the 24th floor on an unusually warm midwestern January afternoon and upon finding out that I was an allergist, one of the mothers asked me desperately, “So, what did I do wrong?”  Another mother echoed her, saying, “I ate so many peanuts when I was pregnant.”  And yet another mother with a sad downward gaze said quietly, “I feel so bad.”  The conversation was steeped in guilt and blame.  Wearing my physician hat, I held the arm of one of the mothers and told them all that they did absolutely nothing wrong, that it was not their fault that their child had food allergy.  I am not certain how convincing I was however.  Even though, as a physician, I whole-heartedly believe a parent cannot be blamed for pediatric disease, as a mother, I still, in every chamber of my heart, blame myself too.

During my pediatric residency I saw guilt literally destroy parents in front of my eyes – I have watched their spirits crumble, I have heard their hearts break, I have witnessed their hands wringing in pain and their lips trembling in fear.  How could I have done this to my child?  And it didn’t matter how many, “It’s not your fault”, that I poured over them, they didn’t believe me.  They couldn’t let themselves believe me.  What their child was about to endure had to be someone’s fault and it made complete sense to them that they had to own the blame. After all, we are completely responsible for the well-being of our children and so, of course, we feel equally responsible for their disease.

I have found a way to blame myself for every food allergy of each of my children.  I can pinpoint the moment I did it to them.  Rationally, I know that it is not my fault.  Emotionally, the guilt weighs heavily on me.  And on top of it, every other article that comes out feels like it is blaming me too – too clean, too little sun, no pets, not enough nuts, too many nuts, nuts too late, nuts too early…  But I guess it doesn’t really matter how I did it, I have still managed to make their life so much harder for them.  They can’t eat pizza.  They can’t eat out at a restaurant. They have to bring their own food when they go to their friend’s house.  They have to carry medications with them wherever they go. So, yeah, I feel pretty terrible about it. And because we all want our children’s lives to be easier than our own, the burden on a parent of a child with a chronic disease is heavy and perpetual.

A few years ago when my sister graduated from college, my parents threw her a party at one of our favorite restaurants downtown.  I had the four kids packed in the car and my mom drove with me through the Friday afternoon traffic so she could help me get the kids into the restaurant.  When we sat down, I did my standard preparations, wiping the tables and the chairs at our end, moving food and items they couldn’t have down to the other end.  Just as I finished, the waiter brought the baskets of bread.  My oldest son, without food allergies, swiftly grabbed up a piece of bread, warm and soft, covered it in butter and started eating it.  Enter guilt, stage left.  If I wouldn’t have waited so long to introduce Gino to wheat, maybe he wouldn’t have had anaphylaxis to four penne noodles and could be joining his brother in this bread indulgence.  Instead, he grew impatient and hungry.

I grabbed into the food bag and found the broccoli I had prepared for Gino and Milo.  I didn’t bring anything comparable to a breadbasket so they had to dig into their meal.  When the appetizers arrived at the other end of the table, the twins ate their pasta and when the pasta and meatballs arrived at the other end of the table, the twins ate their rice krispie treats.  I clearly did not bring enough food.  They were still hungry and everyone else was still eating.  When they repeatedly asked for more, I had nothing to offer.  They kept asking anyway.  Again, I had nothing.  Nothing.  On the other end of the table, everyone was celebrating and eating, and on this end, we were struggling.

Then, with unfortunately impeccable timing, Lucy vomited and no, it wasn’t just a little spit up that could be soaked up by a bib.  Her outfit was sopping wet.  The car seat that she was sitting in had a puddle of puke.  She looked sick.  She was sick.  I had to get her out of there. I felt so overwhelmingly responsible for the isolation that Gino and Milo were experiencing that when the baby got sick, it was sort of a relief to be forced out of that situation.  I grabbed the baby and told the twins to follow me.  I left Sal there, eating.  Happy and eating.  On our way home, Gino was sullen.  He would not speak to me, let alone look at me.  He stared ahead with glassy eyes.  I tried everything to get him to smile, to laugh.  I begged, I bribed.  He would not break.  When we got home, I took him in my arms and he pushed me away.  I could feel that he was blaming me.  Then he spoke, “You should not have made me come home.  I wouldn’t have eaten their food.  I was having fun.  You made a mistake mommy.”  And big, juicy tears fell from his giant, brown, three-year-old eyes.  You see, he was not blaming me for having food allergies.  He was blaming me for ruining his fun.  He doesn’t blame me for having to eat different food.  He doesn’t feel angry at me for not being able to eat what everyone else is eating.  He only blames me for limiting what he is able to do because of his food allergies.

I’ll never forget how I felt when that three-year old boy was able to articulate his disappointment in me.  He was disappointed because I let my feelings of guilt and sadness affect him.  This was the first time I took a serious look at this blame-game I was playing with myself and realized that it was not only unhealthy for me but detrimental to my son as well.  What if he saw this in me and began to feel angry and resentful about his allergies?  I realized at that moment that I absolutely had to stay positive.  I had to keep him involved no matter how hard it was for me.  I had to lead with optimism.  And so, from that moment on, that is what I have tried to do.  This is not to say that I never fail at this and that I don’t still have to deal with my feelings of guilt but I do try and I think it makes a difference.

We like to take the kids on “dates” so they get some alone time.  Gino was going on a date with my sister last Saturday.  When my sister asked him what he wanted to do, he said that he wanted to bring his own lunch and go out to eat, maybe he would be able to get chips and pop.  He could’ve picked anything – a movie, the bookstore, bowling, but no, he wanted to go to a restaurant from which he could basically eat nothing.  He was beside-himself excited.  At school lunch, a teacher approached me and said, “Gino is an amazing child.  He is so excited to go to a restaurant to eat knowing he can’t eat any food from there.  He just wants to have a good time.  It’s beautiful.  He just doesn’t feel sorry for himself. “

He is amazing.  This child heals his mother and her guilt-ridden heart every day.  I have tried to see myself through his eyes and I can see that he doesn’t blame me for any of this.  We must try not to blame ourselves anymore.  It holds us back from being the best that we can be for them and if you aren’t able to give your kids the best of you that would be the only thing for which you could truly blame yourself.  So go forward, friends.  We must leave the guilt behind and stop trying to figure out what we did wrong.  Then we can be free to celebrate all of the things that we do right. After all, for me, the guilt was just not getting us anywhere and my kid wants to go places – whether he has to bring his own food or not.

Sarah | 114 Comments | Permalink
My Stories, Observations, Parties

Santa, baby, slip off your cookie-filled gloves, for me…


Every year we swear we are going to see Santa early, beat the crowds.  Every year we see Santa on December 23 or 24 and every year, we wait and wait.  The line was overflowing with red bows and little boys in over-sized sport coats.  It was filled with children bursting with excitement and adults eager for the line to move.  The parents flung out ipads, smart phones, coloring books and of course, food, to keep the little ones occupied as the line crawled at a snail’s pace.  As we waited, we talked about what each of the kids wanted to ask for from Santa: a drum set for Sal, a spiderman web shooter for Milo, a peek-a-boo baby for Lucy but when it was Gino’s turn, he couldn’t contain his laughter.  When he caught his breath, he told us he was going to kiss Santa on the lips before he asked him for a pottery wheel.  For many obvious reasons, we recommended against a lip-to-lip kiss (every time the boys see people kiss lip-to-lip, the giggling kicks in) so then everyone agreed to just shake Santa’s hand.

The line started to make a turn and we got within the sight line of the white bearded man.  The kids’ energy levels bumped up and they watched every move he was making.  And so was I.  I mean, he is Santa, after all.  The boy in line directly in front of us sat on Santa’s lap.  He was beaming.   He was talking to Santa and I saw Santa nod yes.  Great, he’s going to get what he wants and now he should pop off Santa’s lap so I can get my brood on and out.  Instead, however, I realized that what Santa agreed to was sharing chocolate chip cookies with this boy.   This had to be a joke.  The child right before us has to be the one to ask for a cookie date with Santa?

As Santa eats, not one, but three cookies, his stark white gloves became tainted with milk chocolate smudges and his significant white beard was catching every crumb that didn’t stick in his mouth.  And as he shared this very sweet moment with that little boy, I began to feel nervous.  Should I say something?  What if he thought Lucy was really cute and grabbed her cheeks with those now milk-filled gloves?  What if Gino went in for that kiss thinking he could get a laugh out of his brothers?  I felt like I couldn’t judge the risk quickly enough, we were almost up.  I leaned over to the girl in charge and I said to her, “Um, hi.  I know this may seem like a strange request to you but my children have life-threatening food allergies to wheat, egg and milk and Santa just ate those cookies and…”  She interrupted me.  Oh no, I thought, I asked the wrong person and I thought for sure she and Santa were going to be annoyed with me.  Instead, it was quite the contrary, she got it.  She told me that she has peanut allergy and that she was going to fix this.  Now I was the one who wanted to kiss someone on the lips!

She walked over to Santa and he nodded.  He took off his gloves and rinsed his hands with water from a little water bottle he had next to his giant chair. He looked over at me and winked as he beckoned us toward him.  I thanked him as we approached and he just couldn’t have been more considerate.  He took a lot of time with us and asked me who had the food allergies.  He was careful but loving and inclusive.  The boys shook his bare hand and asked Santa for the gifts that they wanted the most.  Maybe the risk was low, I don’t know, I just know that this Santa without gloves felt a lot less risky.  The kids got their picture taken with Santa and they each picked out a stuffed bear or penguin.  They were delighted and I was relieved.  Relieved to finally be out of the line, relieved that no one was angry with me for trying to keep my children safe the only way I know how and relieved that Santa losing his traditional white gloves didn’t take away any of his mystery.

As the kids walked away, I stayed back to thank Santa for his kindness and care.  We spoke about food allergies and he told me about a little girl earlier in the day who was very ill but was so happy when she got to sit with him.  He told me that it can be pretty emotional being Santa some days.  I looked at him intently as we spoke, he drew me in. His moustache and beard were full and real and gleaming white.  His belly moved as he spoke.  His blue eyes were twinkling and abundant with compassion.  And for a few moments, I thought, just maybe, he really was Santa.

I hope that everyone had a wonderful holiday.  Please remember to share this blog with your friends.  The more we can educate, the better!  And if you haven’t joined for updates, please do.  (Right side of site.)  Thank you all for reading!

Sarah | 52 Comments | Permalink

More Meatballs, Mom!


As I was writing a list of what I needed to cook for this week’s holiday celebrations, it reminded me that I had not yet shared a recipe with you!  Several people had asked me to post a recipe from our Top 8 Allergen-Free Halloween party and since I am using one those recipes for Christmas Eve at my Gramma’s house, I thought I would share it with you.

When Gino first bit into one of these meatballs, he brought his hands up to his face and put them on his cheeks.  He looked up to me and asked, through an ear-to-ear grin, “Mommy, if I eat all of these, can you make more?”

Mom’s Meatballs

3 lbs ground round 

1 medium white onion finely chopped

5 crushed garlic cloves

1/3 cup Minute Instant Brown Rice

1/4 cup Glutino Gluten-free Breadcrumbs

1 tsp kosher salt

1 tsp garlic salt

1 tsp seasoned salt

1/2 tsp onion salt

2 shakes of oregano

5 shakes of basil

10 twists of black pepper from pepper grinder

1/4 tsp crushed red chili peppers

4 TBSP Rice Dream Organic Original Rice Drink

Make sure that all of these ingredients are well-mixed, but use caution not to overwork the meat! Roll the meat into inch-round balls. Place them on a cookie sheet about 1 inch apart. (I like to use a deeper cookie sheet so that grease doesn’t drip into the oven. So, wait, if the cookie sheet has sides, is it still called a sheet?) Bake them at 350° for about 25 minutes, rotating them occasionally. Time may vary; assure that they are browned nicely.

I plan on putting them in a Crockpot that I will plug into the car (see, I found a use for that A/C converter that failed us at the tailgate!)  So when we get to Gramma’s, the meatballs will be warm and ready for us to enjoy.

And yes, Gino, if you eat them all, I will make more!

Happy and safe holidays, friends.


SAFETY NOTE:  Although this recipe is meant to be top eight (cow’s milk, egg, soy, wheat, peanut, tree nuts, fish and shellfish) allergen-free, I cannot guarantee that all of the products that I have used will remain top eight allergen-free.  I encourage you to always read food labels thoroughly each and every time you use a product as ingredients and manufacturing practices may change without warning. Please omit and/or substitute any ingredients that are unsafe for you or your family members for ingredients that are safe.  If you need help finding substitutions, please let me know and I will do my best to help.  If you have questions about whether a particular food is safe for you or your family members, please contact your physician.

Sarah | 6 Comments | Permalink