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Lessons in Life Skills: Food Labels

Recently I've been reflecting back on how different life is now than it was when Raya was a baby or toddler. The "On This Day" feature of Facebook is somewhat of a mixed blessing. On one hand, it reminds me how quickly my babies (none of whom are babies anymore) are growing up. At the same time, it gives me an opportunity to remember more poignantly the way things used to be. I really can't do justice to some of the struggles of her earlier years other than to say it was hard in every facet of motherhood. Today, it reminded me that there was a whole year of Raya's infancy during which she ate and drank virtually nothing by mouth, and relied solely on nutrition and hydration through her feeding tube. It is still hard to wrap the mind around the idea of a child that young being so averse to taking in anything by mouth that they would choose not to, but having seen her experience so much vomiting and relentless episodes of violent retching, I could hardly blame her. It was uncharted territory for us as parents, so we relied on the guidance of therapists and doctors and did the best we could to support her through that time of her life and encourage whatever positive interaction with food that we could.

Fast forward to the present, and we have seen her do such a turnaround! She is interested in food and is no longer afraid of eating. She actually LIKES eating. She still has her reservations about going outside of the foods she's comfortable with, but she has a great therapist who helps her stretch her comfort zone and we have seen her expand the list of foods she's interested in so much over the past year. We are doing our best to take advantage of all the improvements she has made, and one of the ways we're doing that is by working on some life skills around food.

Life Skill #1: Reading nutrition labels for food allergies
Raya has several food allergies, which has always been one of the difficult things about finding more foods she can eat. Some of her reactions are delayed, so we may not know for a day or two that the food didn't agree with her. Other reactions are potentially life-threatening. Regardless of the potential reaction, it's not good for her to eat things she's allergic to. She's getting to an age where it's important for her to start learning to watch out for herself. Now that she can read, she needs to learn what to look for and where to find it, so I decided it was time for a lesson in food labels.

I had heard that a new health food store had opened up near us recently so I took her with me to check it out. I sometimes have good luck finding things she can eat at stores like that so it's fun to check every once in a while and see what new things I can find for her. Since she is allergic to wheat AND rice, it's tricky to find things that are free of both. We found the aisle with all the baking mixes in it and I taught her to look for the word "Ingredients" and then read through the list and look for wheat, rice, and milk. I actually felt bad for her because the reality is pretty harsh. Eeeeeeeerythaang that's gluten free has rice in it.
We did luck out though and found a pizza crust mix and a cinnamon roll mix that were mostly just tapioca flour with a couple seasonings. Thank heavens she's not allergic to eggs because that sort of thing just turns out better with real eggs than with egg replacer.

I also realized while we were there that she had never actually eaten Daiya cheese. I bought some once and she was so uninterested that it never made it out of the package and died a frosty death in the freezer. She thought the Daiya "cheddar style shreds" looked good so we bought some to go along with the pizza crust mix, and so that she could put cheese on her tacos and make nachos. She is pretty much always excited about everything and nothing, but oh my word was she ever excited. She bounced along through the whole store asking me if she could try everything. An hour or so and $25 later, we had some fun new things for her to try.

That night, we made pizza. I don't think I even took any pictures because things got busy once we got home, but for being a non-dairy, gluten free, rice free pizza, it turned out pretty good. She and the other dairy-allergic child in the house both tried it. It would be a little bit of a stretch to say that Raya liked it, but she didn't dislike it. She ate 7-10 bites (nibbles, whatever) and then she was too sleepy to keep eating and had kind of had enough. Sensory-wise, it was a pretty intense thing for her. She had not eaten pizza since she was 2 or 3, and she didn't really eat much of it that time. The crust was very chewy and she's really not used to that kind of texture, much less a chewy crust with sauce, ham, and "cheese" on it. She did really well though and I was proud of her for trying it and for taking that many bites.

I think it was the next day that I made the cinnamon roll mix. It worked surprisingly well and they were totally edible! She really liked them. The instructions were to bake them in a mini muffin tin, so they're small, and that's a good thing for her. She took one to school for lunch and ate almost the whole thing.

She also tried a couple new flavors of the brand of non-dairy yogurt she likes and we bought some non-dairy kefir. I was not a fan but I found one kid who would drink it so it won't go to waste. We also got some plantain chips for Raya to try. She did try one but was not impressed and I haven't gotten her to try another one.

The next thing she needs to learn is what alternative names her allergens might go by so she doesn't miss something on a label, like what the different names of all the tree nuts are. We had to teach her big brother that too, and it's something we're still working on. Nut allergies are scary, and that's why we feel that it is so important to arm them with the knowledge they need to protect themselves.

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