Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Pumpkin Muffins

I love fall.  The trees that flame in warm reds, light up with sunny yellows, and surprise me with their many hues of happiness. The comfort of snuggling into a favorite sweater and sipping something warm.  And pumpkin.  All things pumpkin.

I'll be honest, I do not relegate pumpkin to it's rightful place as a harvest time delight.  I enjoy it sprinkled into my diet throughout the year.  But in fall, oh fall, I indulge in sinful amounts of pumpkin-y goodness.  It's a wonder the children don't turn orange.

No mediocrity allowed when pumpkin is involved.  Those cute recipes boasting that you can add a can of pumpkin to a box of cake mix and have super easy muffins? They somehow neglect to mention that the result is also super dense, and chewy in an unsatisfactory way.  None of that here.

I would like to share with you the perfect pumpkin muffin.  Moist, tender, and packed with enough nutrition to -almost- make it guilt free. The real bonus? It's allergy friendly.  Inspired by this recipe, but tweaked to meet the tastes of my family.

Pumpkin Muffins

1 1/2 c Bob's Red Mill Gluten-Free All Purpose flour
1/2 c quinoa flakes
1/2 tsp xanthan gum
3/4 c organic sugar
1 Tbsp flax meal
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp nutmeg
3/4 tsp cinnamon
1 15oz can pumpkin puree (I like Libby's)
1/2 c hemp milk (or milk of your choice)
1/2 tsp cider vinegar
safflower oil (or light tasting oil of your choice)

Preheat oven to 375.

In a large bowl whisk together flour, quinoa, xanthan gum, sugar, flax meal, baking powder, baking soda, salt, nutmeg, and cinnamon.  Set aside. (You can mix this the night before! Cover with saran wrap and leave the bowl on the counter.)

Scoop about 1/3 cup of pumpkin out of the can and put into a separate container for another day.  Estimate.  Now, fill the empty space left in the can with oil. Really.  Don't dirty a measuring cup for this part.

Add the pumpkin/oil mixture, hemp milk, and vinegar to a small bowl and whisk to combine.  (You can do this the night before too!  Put it all in a small container, put the lid on and shake well.  Place in the fridge overnight.)

Combine wet and dry ingredients.  (If you woke up to find them waiting for you, just preheat the oven while your coffee brews.  Dump the already mixed wet into the already mixed dry. Super easy morning cooking!)  Spoon into greased or lined muffin tins and bake 27-30 minutes.  Remove from oven and allow to cool 5 minutes before serving.

This recipe is gluten-free, dairy-free, egg-free, nut-free, soy-free, rice-free, wheat-free, vegan, and scrumptious.  It has lots of protein, a bit of healthy fat, and just the right amount of pumpkin.  Yum!

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

To Serve or Not to Serve

It is a topic that brings on emotionally charged debate across the nation, the world even, and often ends in gridlock and hard feelings.  The best presidential candidate?  The solution to rising healthcare costs? The employment crisis in America?  Nope.

The decision schools are making about whether to serve peanut products in their cafeteria.  And in rare instances, the decision to make the entire school peanut free.

I recently sat in a school board committee meeting dedicated to determining their stance on this hot topic.  I had the opportunity to witness the emotion behind both sides of the argument, and to acknowledge the validity within each argument.  I know these conversations are becoming increasingly common across the country as the incidence of food allergy among children is on the rise.

Let me share with you some of the conversations that took place, my take on them as an allergy parent, and some words of wisdom to anyone who must engage in either side of this conversation.  Or at least my version of wisdom.

Diving right into the frenzy of emotion, I'll start by trying to capture the vantage point of the cafeteria workers and school nutrition staff who were present.  Their first observation was that children rejected the taste of the soybutter product, and that allergic parents complained because it was not dairy free (the prepackaged sandwich version).  They further expressed concern that children who were on a free lunch program counted on lunch being provided for them, and often would chose not to eat if peanut butter was not present as an option.  There was genuine concern for the children choosing to be hungry rather than chose an alternative.

My take: It's true, there are students who will chose to be hungry.  As a child on free lunch I regularly drank the milk, ate the canned fruit of the day, and threw the rest out.  Think about the battles you have over dinner at home.  Kids are picky.  They can and will find something to put in their tummy to keep them from starving.  Choosing to be hungry? It happens.  

The difference here is that allergic children can not chose whether to have an allergic reaction or not. Choosing to be hungry will not kill a child, but an allergic reaction could.  Also? Children don't learn to eat outside of their comfort zone by serving only foods within their comfort zone.  The adapt only after repeated exposure and lack of ability to make the familiar choice.

Truthfully, I think the prepackaged Uncrustable is a perfect compromise.  The school is already providing this.  It takes preparation out of the school's kitchen, each sandwich is individually sealed and wrapped so the peanut butter within will not contaminate any other surface in the kitchen during food preparation or storage. Run with it, I say.

The administrator present did not understand how serving peanut butter or not would make a significant impact, as students were still free to bring in their own peanut butter sandwich.  Thus, peanut butter is still present and still a risk factor.

My take:  Peanut butter in the food preparation area can lead to cross contamination of other foods as well as preparation areas, leading to unintentional allergen exposure and hard to trace reactions.  Children who bring in their own lunch do not contaminate the food preparation, only their area of the table.  There is still risk for allergic children, but it is not as great and is more easily managed.

One allergy parent brought up that the district had eliminated pork from it's menu in an effort to simplify the lunch process for those students who avoid pork due to religious preference.  Cafeteria personnel were quick to point out this was a practical decision, as going through the ingredients present in each dish with each of the pork avoiding students was dramatically slowing progress through the lunch time, costing valuable eating time to be lost for many students.

My take:  Eliminating food in order to save time seems like an illogical argument to me.  It seems like an easy task to put a sign up by each food declaring it to be pork-free, so the children can identify on sight and not need to ask.  In addition, no physical harm comes from accidental ingestion that is against a religious belief.  Accidental ingestion of an allergen can stop the entire school while the EMS responds to a potentially serious allergic reaction.  No disrespect intended, but these repercussions do not carry the same weight. 

My final thoughts: I would never ask a school to ban an allergen. Ever.  My daughter has multiple allergens, at varying degrees of severity.  I know hundreds of allergy parents with so many different allergens.  Tell me which school would ban dairy products to protect a child with a contact sensitive anaphylactic reaction. It really is a slippery slope, if you ban one child's allergen how can you say no to the parents of a child with a different allergen?  It also harbors a false sense of security among staff when they feel the threat is not present, and they do not feel the need to be as vigilant in watching for reactions.  

Instead, I prefer to work with each school to find safe accommodations for each child as an individual.  Educate the staff about how to keep each student safe, put safety protocols in place to make it achievable.

If you have to enter into this conversation some things to remember: everyone has the same goal.  Safe and healthy children.  Try to take the emotion out of the conversation and discuss the facts, as the more emotion you bring to the conversation the less people are able to hear your message.  Also, approach any meeting with an attitude of teamwork.  Striving to find a win-win solution helps everyone benefit, and makes it more pleasant to work with you!

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Classroom Celebration, without food

As a parent of a child with multiple food allergies, I am intensely aware of how often schools use food as an incentive for positive behavior with students.  I know I'm not the only one baking cupcakes at midnight, scrambling to come up with a last minute allergy-safe pizza, or dropping ice cream off at school so that my allergic child can participate with the other students in their food based celebrations!

Unfortunately, those are just the events we are notified about.  Many times there are food events at school that we don't know about until after our children get home.  Unplanned birthday treats that surprise the teacher, and little rewards from other teachers that slip through the notification system.  Yes, I have a box of safe treats stashed in the classroom for just such events, but I'd rather not.

The number of food based incentives really adds up when you look at the number of adults each week that our children interact with: the teachers, principal, cafeteria workers, coaches, tutors, music lessons, etcetera.  I'd rather be teaching my kids how to reward themselves for good behavior in ways that don't involve food.  How to celebrate in a way that encourages good health.  Too many of us as adults still struggle with this concept, and reach for indulgent foods when we want to reward ourself.  Wouldn't it be nice if we could lessen this struggle for our kids, regardless of allergies?

With this in mind, I sent a letter to my daughter's school, asking them to consider more non-food rewards.  These ideas can be used for birthdays, to celebrate classroom victory in school wide competitions, and many other times.  Feel free to borrow my letter.  Tweak it to match the culture of your school, add some of your own ideas, or use it just as it is.  Send it to the school board and superintendent and encourage the district to move toward food free celebration as a whole!

Dear ________________________,

I applaud all you do to build enthusiasm in your building, both among students and staff.  I am always impressed with how positive the attitudes are no matter who I interact with while I am there.   Thank you for working so hard to maintain such a positive environment.

That being said, I would like to make some suggestions for your consideration regarding classroom rewards and celebrations.  It seems that the most frequent way to reward a classroom for achievement is with a food of some sort.  I feel that foods are not easily adapted to the many possible dietary restrictions you may have in your building.  (Including diabetes, allergies, and religious preference among others.)  Many students also enjoy pizza, ice cream, and other treats at home with their families, which makes the treat somewhat less exciting at school. 

In addition, when you stop to consider the number of adults providing food rewards to our children over the week, it adds up to an alarming volume.  This is in direct conflict with the nutrition teaching we are doing: it teaches children to eat when they are not hungry, and to indulge in low nutrition treats.  It also excludes children who are not able to enjoy the same treat.  That is a lot of negative impact for what is intended to be a positive reward!

Rewards can be a tremendously effective way to motivate positive behavior in children.  My preference is to shift the celebration away from food.  With all of the dietary restrictions in the building, as well as the growing obesity epidemic in our society, I would love to teach the children how to reward themselves with treats that are not food based.  I have many suggestions for this, ranging in price from free (yeah!) to budget friendly. If you factor in time to serve, eat and clean up for each celebration, I estimate that each celebration is about 30 minutes of time.  Many activities can be done in that time.  Here are a few ideas:

  • Watch an age appropriate short cartoon or movie.  
  • Have extra recess time outdoors.
  • Play teacher directed games in the classroom or the gym, or chose a special host to direct games. If a guest hosts, the teacher gets the reward of extra planning time!
  • Have the winning class do a “victory lap” around the school (through the hallways), singing the school song or other parade appropriate chant. (Focusing on celebration, not teasing.)
  • Have a parent come in for a guest appearance reading, doing a magic act, or showcasing another talent.  (We have many parents that could entertain with stories, music, or crafts.)
  • Eat (their own) lunch as a class in a unique location, such as the teacher's lounge, outside, or in the library.
  • Chose a favor from the treasure box.  This can include bouncy balls, erasers, novelty pencils or pens, party whistles, etc.  If you watch clearance items it is amazing what you can find for under $2!
  • Decorate a box or blank journal and send it to the classroom.  Have each member of the class write a sentence about what helped them to succeed in this victory, an experience with the person being celebrated, or other thought relevant to the celebration.  Display this in the hallway where other children can view it, then send it home with the person of honor or allow it to live on a ‘victory shelf’ in the office or classroom.
  • Provide supplies for a craft that is related to the reason for celebration.
  • Host a dance party in the classroom or gym, and teach the class a new line dance or dance move.
  • Time to play board games in the classroom: scrabble, banana grams, etc.  Make a traveling game box full of games reserved especially for victory celebrations.
  • An opportunity to chose a unique location for a ‘read in’, where the class has their silent reading time outdoors, in the gym, or another location they chose.
  • A phone call home from the principal to brag about the student’s accomplishments
  • A certificate of recognition
  • An easel by the office displaying a picture of the victor and a caption explaining their victory.  They can take the picture home or add it to a book of school victors that is on display in the office.

Thank you for your time and consideration in reviewing these ideas.  If none of these ideas seem to fit with your ideal celebration, I would like to request that a minimum of 1 day advance notice be given to all recipients of the food based party.  Sending a note home with students not only allows the parents to plan appropriately for alternate accommodations, but it also allows the students to build anticipation, heightening their enjoyment of the event.  

Thanks again,

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

504 Follow up

A week ago I shared my anxiety about starting a new school.  Anxiety driven by the lack of communication with the school and how they would prepare for my allergic kiddo.

I am happy to be able to report that my last minute 504 meeting went much more smoothly than I expected.

I walked into the meeting full of uncertainty.  I went with a copy of our 504, and plenty of training materials to share should it become obvious that the staff needed additional training.  I had notes to remind me what additional points of clarification may be needed.

Arriving at the building for a meeting scheduled just 30 minutes before the school wide open house only enhanced my anxiety.  How could a 504 meeting be planned to overlap with the open house, when the teachers should be in their rooms greeting their new students? Hmm.

Then, when the teacher greeted me in the office and took me to her classroom for the meeting, my heart sank.  It was obvious that the staff had time boxed our meeting to a mere 30 minutes.  How could I address misunderstandings and promote an open two way conversation in such a short period of time? I was feeling defensive and uncertain.

The meeting opened, and it quickly became obvious that the staff was incredibly willing to work with me.  They were open to each of the items on the existing 504.  They showed no resistance.  None.  Everyone seemed willing to accomodate my allergic kiddo, and seemed amused that I needed to verify their level of awareness and willingness to make accommodations.

My only point of contention is one that is not of the school's doing, and does not reflect negatively upon them.  In our current 504 the responsibility of each partner is outlined: how the parent, the child, the teacher, the staff will all work together to form a team designed to ensure the safety of the allergic kiddo.  The principal informed me that when the plan is re-written at the one year mark, it will no longer include any verbiage about the parental role in helping to keep the child safe.  I find it reprehensible that they are no longer allowed to state what they expect (and need) from the parent in order to safely accomodate the child.

Managing food allergies in the classroom is not the sole responsibility of the school!  Parents need to be actively involved in communicating needs, staying informed and providing updated information as it becomes available.  Schools should have the continued ability to not only request, but require parental involvement.

*ahem* I digress.  Since the 504 meeting, the teachers and the staff have shown on more than one occasion that they are taking the presence of allergies quite seriously.  I am very pleased with their responsiveness to our requests, their actions to keep the classroom a safe environment, and their willingness to keep the lines of communication open.

As an allergy parent, my biggest fear is being perceived as adversarial.  I worry constantly that that I will come across in a manner that seems demanding, contrary, or unreasonable.  Especially now, in a building full of people that do not yet know me!  My goal is simple: to keep my daughter safe in the way that causes the least inconvenience to the building.  Really.  Safe is the priority, but with the least hassle is important.  I don't want to be the high maintenance family that inspires eye rolling and muttered grumbling.  I strive to find the middle ground where the win-win solutions live, so that everyone can move forward with a good attitude and a sense of satisfaction.  I encourage other allergy parents to do the same.  (I'm not saying to compromise safety.  Never.  Just to be pleasant and honestly striving for teamwork rather than focusing solely on fulfilling a list of your expectations.)

How did your 504 meetings go?  Any stories of inspiration, unexpected and creative solutions, or lingering frustrations YOU would like to share?