But when he was 3 months, in the bleary eyed moments between naps, we discovered his "cradle cap" was not what it seemed. A rash was growing across his face, and then down his back. Spots were forming in several places on his face that would grow, then ebb. Stippled dots and large spots grew around his tiny body; a dollar-coin sized spot on his leg grew and created bubbles, which opened into clear liquid-filled pits. He cried. He rubbed his eyes. He suffered. And we were desperate first time parents looking for an answer.
And it came in one word: Allergies.
Our pediatrician advised removing dairy from his diet. He was solely breastfed, so that meant removing dairy from my diet. We were encouraged when his rash started to fade, but after a week, it was only partially gone.
So a couple weeks later, we removed soy from my (and by extension, his) diet. Soybeans, soy milk, and the most frustrating of all: soy lecithin, which hides in nearly any processed or packaged foods, especially wheat items that need long term shelf-stabilization. Gone were bread, crackers, even tuna ~ which hides in the "broth" of tuna in water, margarine, even chocolate!
Immersed in conflicting feelings of panic for his safely and my own guilty sense of deprivation of the foods I loved, I began to get a fast education about hidden food allergens, cross-contamination, alternate ingredient names, and oil blends. I found that no restaurant or pre-packaged food seemed to be able to provide a way to guarantee an allergen-free product. It was overwhelming, frustrating, time consuming, and scary.
Hard for me, who now had to remove what seemed like everything I liked to eat from my diet. No more cheese, milk for my coffee, most salad dressings, mayonnaise (nearly all of it is made from soybean oil), no going out to eat because there was no way to avoid cross-contamination ~ and believe me, we gambled and lost once, on a local organic restaurant whose chef swore they would provide an allergy-free meal, and he suffered for days afterward.
How could we protect him from all of this, not just now but for his whole life? It was daunting.
Yet, as challenging as it was, removing soy from his diet resulted in a dramatic improvement: his facial spots nearly receded and his leg almost immediately healed. With the new diet, a topical hydrocortizone and a very mild steroid foam, nearly everything changed. He was calmer, happier. And we were thankful.
But a couple months along, we still saw stippled dots across his back very often. He had terrible reflux, keeping all of us up night after night. He scratched his head night and day, and the crooks of his arms and knees were constantly breaking out in rashes. Our pediatrician suggested we consider any other allergens that he might be exposed to. While we'd been using fragrance free detergent and color-safe bleach, we stopped using any fabric softener whatsoever. No one with perfume or who smoked got anywhere near him. All good, but still ... something was going on.
The next stage of diet adjustment was the most dramatic. Our Pediatrician suggested we go gluten free. For good measure, we also decided to go nut free. (This based on a reaction he had when I ate peanut butter with a spoon one night after I had a particularly bad ice cream craving.)
And within days, his skin was like porcelain. Pure, smooth, baby skin. Joy!!
But at this point, I should step back and explain something. Or rather, confess.
I am not only a mom. I'm a travel addict and foodaholic. There is an insatiable desire in me to experience the world and its cultures through food. This has driven me to travel as often as possible, in our country and beyond. When I'm in a new place, I search out the local stuff. The best masala dosa and idlis for breakfast in Chennai. Wonderful pad kee maw in Bangkok, where I lived for a year. Wings in Buffalo, where I grew up. Bangers, beans and tomatoes in Limerick. Coffee with the richest cream in Honduras. Medialunas in Buenos Aires. And my friends will let you know I've gone days looking for a good Vietnamese Banh Xeo.
Maybe I was thinking I'd share my love of the world with our son through food, too. Maybe it was hard for me to imaging not doing so. And maybe I reacted, at first, to the situation as if I was being dragged into a prison made of tasteless beans and boring carrot sticks, forever in fear that the next meal would hurt his health as much as it would be tasteless to me. Obviously his health trumps all, but there was a dark moment back there, I've got to admit.
There was never a moment when I considered not breastfeeding. But it was a tough to accept that for a long, long time I would be missing things ~ and even worse to imagine that once the breastfeeding was over, we still couldn't just walk into a restaurant with our son and order "whatever's good." We would always have to worry, ask questions, and be fiercely protective of our son. Fear is counter to the way we want to raise him.
I realized an important thing, though. I had done precisely what I was trying to avoid instilling in our son: I'd reacted with fear. Instead, why not see this as a huge adventure?
So, we began a hunt for anything we could eat. So what if we couldn't have convenience foods? Couldn't we cook for ourselves from local, wonderful produce and scratch from food sources we knew to be safe? Isn't there a cuisine or two that doesn't rely entirely on dairy, soy, gluten or nuts?
Suddenly, it became fun! It was a treasure hunt! I discovered making corn tortillas by hand. Found delicious chorizo sausages handmade and reasonably priced in a local Spanish grocery. Made lots of rice dishes with chicken and ginger. Ate many salads with sunflower seeds as my croutons and my own homemade dressing. My husband even surprised me with a flourless chocolate birthday cake with butterscotch icing (a recipe that he researched for days to ensure was perfect... and it was!)
When our son began to eat semi-solids, we made his baby food by steaming squash, apples, pears, peas, sweet potatoes, and sought out a soy-free rice cereal because most of the commercial brands include soy lecithin. Healthy, happy, delicious food ended up in front of him and he thrived. I got into a groove of healthy allergen free food, and amazingly lost all the baby weight by the time I finished breastfeeding at 16 months. It was easy to forget sometimes how sick he really had been.
Then, when he became a toddler, he was really ready for more solid finger foods. We used the same basic strategy for finding foods he could eat as I had for myself: read the package, try to make most of the stuff ourselves from scratch. But we did get into a rut. Hot dogs, rice pasta, turkey slices, puffs, apple bits, oatmeal. Day in, day out. Sigh.
Thankfully, our son has an amazing Nanny. Her name is Jessica, and she is an inspiration to us. I could go on for months about how much of a positive impact she has had on our son, and how lucky we are just to know her as a person… she’s a strong, forthright, straight-shooter with the heart of a lioness, and the happiest, loudest, most genuine laugh. She’s smart, loving, and sharp as a tack.
And she is tireless in trying to find ways to feed him things other kids do, with a twist. One day, I came in to find him gobbling up chicken breast that she’d added basil and olive oil. Another day it was gluten free bread turkey sandwiches with lots of ketchup. Yet another, he was learning to tap cinnamon into applesauce. Next, he was stirring “eggies” in a bowl so that she could make them into his breakfast. I was embarrassed to realize that in my constant process of weeding out dangerous foods, I forgot my sense of play when it came to what he could eat!
Suddenly the hunt was on again… together, we found soy free chocolate chips, and suddenly there were chocolate chip pancakes made with rice flour, eggs, gluten free baking powder. We made turkey roll ups with corn tortillas. Chicken noodle soup. French toast, sandwiches, chocolate rice milk… the list continues to grow.
So, this blog is intended to chronicle that journey. As I discover new dishes to cook that follow my son’s diet, I’ll provide the recipes, pictures, and even name brand names.
This is a foodie journal for one adorable audience: our sweet son. But come on in and join the party!
Here’s a list of the foods we avoid:
- Dairy (i.e. milk including casein)
- Nuts (peanut and tree nuts)
- Everything else!