My little boy (let’s call him Master F) is dairy allergic. He only recently turned 1, so we’ve only been living with his allergy for 6 months (he was 6 months old when we introduced him to solid food), but during this time we’ve learned a lot about what it’s like to live and travel with a child who is dairy allergic. I am not an expert on dairy allergies, or any other allergy for that matter and this is just my personal experience of dealing with a food allergy, which is especially difficult as we reside in a country where English is not the first language of many of the inhabitants.
So what does his dairy allergy mean? An allergy, as opposed to an intolerance, means that for the meantime he can’t have any dairy WHATSOEVER in his diet. The difference between an intolerance and allergy is summed up quite well here. I’m in no way meaning to belittle an intolerance, as I can imagine living with this could be equally as difficult, however, it’s just not as life threatening as some allergies can be. Fortunately, the majority of young toddlers who have a dairy allergy do outgrow it by the time they are 3 so we have our fingers crossed we fall into this statistic.
Having a dairy allergy of course rules out many obvious foods – milk, butter, yoghurt, cheese, ice cream. It also rules out EVERY other product that may contain an ounce of dairy. I don’t think you realise just how present dairy is in our food products until you have a child with a dairy allergy and you have to scour every single food label.
How does Master F’s allergy impact us on a day to day basis? Not being able to have any dairy means finding suitable recipes and snacks for Master F so that he can have a healthy balanced diet. This is definitely possible considering millions of vegans do it on a daily basis. We used baby-led weaning as a method to introduce solid foods to both of our kids, you can learn more about it here . The basic premise is from 6 months onwards you integrate your baby into your eating habits. Your baby only ever feeds itself and generally eats what the rest the family eats and you never have to puree! As a result of the dairy allergy, we as a family have had to change our eating habits somewhat so that Master F can share in our meals. It can sometimes be difficult as we also have a 2 year old who would exist on dairy alone if given half the chance. Cutting dairy from her diet entirely is not an option we’d be allowed to consider. So somewhere in here we’ve had to find a balance.
When you’re at home it’s very easy to control what your kids eat. Because you buy all the produce yourself, you know exactly what goes into making each meal. It’s when you venture out into the big wide world, either just eating out or when you’re travelling, that problems can arise. These are the golden rules that I apply to try to ensure that dairy doesn’t sneak its way into Master F’s food:
- If I can’t read the ingredients list on a product label, then he doesn’t get to eat the product. Quite often I find products that don’t have an English translation on the label when we’re travelling, or even at home in Dubai. So I simply don’t use them to feed Master F.
- Wherever possible I cook from scratch (therefore I know exactly what is going into the dish). If we’re heading out, often I will bring Master F’s meals along with us, it saves having to inconvenience hosts and worrying about suitable menu choices. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of foods that you can eat that don’t contain dairy. In fact a fresh food market is probably the best place to start. Fruit, vegetables, meat, seafood, eggs, bread, nuts, coconut milk (I could go on and on) – all of these things are absolutely fine for the dairy allergic. So if you’re travelling and have access to a market and your accommodation has a kitchen then you’re somewhat set. And if you bring along a few re-usable containers you can pack the meals and snacks for an entire day. If it’s hot you may need to also have some ice-packs so the food does not spoil. I find the best icepacks are frozen juice boxes, and it means at the end of the afternoon you have a nice cold drink as well (and you don’t need to lug the weight around all afternoon after the food has been eaten either).
- I’ve now generally got a very good feeling as to what may or may not contain dairy. But if someone else has cooked the food, you just never know and you always have to ask the question. The city I live in, Dubai, is an amazing multi-cultural city and in many instances English is not the first language of many of the people who live and work here. So often I’m faced with trying to explain a dairy allergy. If I ask the question at a restaurant ‘Does this have dairy’ and the person I’m talking with doesn’t understand the question or there seems to be some ambiguity in the answer, I then ask to speak with the chef. If there is still some ambiguity after this – then Master F doesn’t have it. I’ve found that the question ‘Does this have dairy?’ by itself can be confusing, and often dairy is only associated with milk, so sometimes the question needs to be expanded to ‘does this contain butter, cheese, yoghurt, cream , etc.?’ Most hotels, if you make them aware that you have an allergy, will do their utmost to accommodate you. Nevertheless I still ask ‘that’ question before each meal is served – does this contain any dairy?
- Other people, in particular other kids (in particular our 2 year old) may accidentally feed him something with dairy in it. So I try to be as vigilant as I possibly can and keep a sharp eye on the situation. Unfortunately, accidents can happen but so far we have been lucky with no serious side effect.
- I’m still breastfeeding Master F, so haven’t had to bother with finding a dairy-free milk formula, which makes life as a mum much easier. If you do rely on a dairy-free formula to feed your baby then you need to take enough with you for the duration of any trip unless you are 100% certain that it can be purchased at your location.
- You should always carry any necessary medication with you, whether that be an epipen, anti-histamine or whatever else your doctor has recommended.
Having a child with a dairy allergy has taught me a great deal about food in a very short time frame, the main message being that there are a lot of alternatives to dairy. I think I can now whip up a great vegan meal anytime. Also, although dairy features prominently in Western cuisine, in many parts of the world, such as Asia, it’s not a dietary staple. We’re off to Thailand next month and I must say it’s the perfect destination for the dairy allergic. Not so, unfortunately, if you have a peanut allergy!