Illustration by Carmen Szeto
Written by Indrani Maitra
Middle and high school are uncharted territory for all- even more when you are teenager with food allergies! Birthday parties suddenly switch from Jump Zones to dinner outings, school celebrations carefully scripted on the classroom calendar turn into classmates randomly bringing in Dunkin’ Donuts for their dog’s half birthday (I’m very serious!), and parent’s emails are flooded with a slew of bar and bat mitzvahs invites as we all turn 13. Perhaps the most drastic change compared to elementary school is that field trips become week long trips and school extracurriculars involve out of town tournaments. I soon realized my mother, who had managed my allergies all my life, could no longer shield me from being excluded due to my food allergies the way she had in elementary school. I had to become a lot more proactive.
I learnt in baby steps, and over time I have developed strategies to participate in all that middle school has to offer.
I maintain a Google Calendar where I put in all social events and school activities and create reminders so that I could plan ahead of time. I learnt to research menus with my mom and call the restaurants ahead of time to check for safe options. (I definitely recommend calling restaurants before reaching there as you can get the information much more easily without the frenzy of everyone else distracting you, and the chef will know who you are ahead of time).
My parents encouraged me to order my own food when we ate out and emphasize how it needed to be free of eggs, dairy, and tree nuts. Requesting allergen alerts are key! With some Googling, I have compiled a spreadsheet of allergy friendly items that I can eat at restaurant chains we often stop at during school trips. This was actually rather easy because most restaurant chains now have online top 8 allergen menus. Yay, progress! For school trips, I work
with my mom and my school coordinator to get a list of places where we might eat and make a detailed day to day, meal by meal, plan of what I will be eating (This, I must admit requires a lot of mom help).
Most importantly, it’s become second nature to pack my EpiPen and Benadryl in my bag whenever I go out.
Download the Google Calendar app so it can send you reminders to bring it! My parents are still involved making sure that I am safe but I increasingly feel more in charge.
I have changed as a person in the process. I had always been shy and introverted, reluctant to speak up in public situations, nudging my little brother to ask questions on my behalf. I would initially mumble a sequence of incomprehensible words when ordering food in a restaurant but over the past two years, slowly but surely, I have mustered up the courage to speak up. I have become a much more assertive and a bolder person. Who knew? Now, I can call the waiter when something looks suspect on my dish without grimacing with embarrassment. I speak up in class when we were choosing an eating place for a class trip without being scared that I might be ridiculed for my food allergies. I have realized most people are kind and happy to help if you ask for it. With my dad’s encouragement, I began writing Yelp reviews of allergy-friendly places that we discovered in our family travels, and this summer, I opened up a Twitter account for sharing recipes, interesting articles related to food allergy, and in general to connect with the food allergy community.
It makes me happy to think that perhaps even one family with a kid with food allergies might get to know of a safe place to eat while traveling using my reviews or a fledgling cook will discover a cool new ingredient from a twitter recipe.
I will not say food allergies have become easy but increasingly, I have realized my food allergies are something to be embraced, not to be embarrassed of. There are still hard moments when a friend brings in particularly delicious looking cupcakes or when a well-meaning parent exclaims their blatant pity. So, to end on a kind of cliché but motivational note: no matter how irritating things get, we can not only survive but thrive with food allergies, because we can make the most of stuff! We’re Allergy Superhero’s, am I right?!
Indrani Maitra is a teen with food allergies to eggs, dairy and tree nuts. She hopes to tackle her allergies head on by learning to be more organized, staying informed, and eating safe! Her hobbies include watching Masterchef, creating unsuccessful seeds in Minecraft Pocket Edition, and relishing everything with Harry Potter. Actually, the latter is more of an essential life requirement, and she's very happy to challenge you to a trivia quiz. She also loves trying out allergen free recipes at home and exploring new foods outside (always with her EpiPen:)). She has eaten her way through quite a few of the U.S. states (20 to be exact!) and been to India a grand total of 8 times. Indrani is looking forward to connecting with the FA community and sharing her experiences, one recipe, one adventure at a time, via her twitter handle @allergyism_101 and tumblr page.