A Poisoned Cupcake: The Truth About Having Children with Food Allergies

Our town holiday parade was a few nights ago. It is a fun way the community kicks off the holiday season. Businesses on main street stay open late as folks enjoy visiting with one another and window shopping. The parade floats throw candy to the kids sitting on the sidewalks while parents sip on coffee and hot chocolate. It is a wonderful evening, and a beautiful picture of small town America.

As my family made our way into one of the stores, my son discovered a snack table set up with treats for stoppers by. Piping hot cider and popcorn were two of the things offered, and I didn’t think twice as his little hand reached for a pre-portioned cup. He was just about to take a bite of a tortilla rollup when I quickly pushed it out of his hand. We hadn’t asked! I was going to let my son eat something without knowing what was in it. I had been so caught up in the festivities that I didn’t think to ask if the snacks contained nuts.

I apologized to the kind woman on the other side of the table for my rudeness and explained that I have two small children with severe nut allergies. She gasped. “The popcorn has nuts!” I looked down to see that the cup I was holding had peanuts in it. I hadn’t even seen them mixed in with the popcorn. It was a mistake that could have easily been deadly. We were lucky. The night could have had a very different ending.

I remember the first time that I heard of a school that banned nut products from being brought into the building. I thought it was just another way that parents were overreacting. I thought it was ridiculous. The way that those parents would make the lives of everyone else difficult because their child had an issue was just sad.

I am so ashamed of my thinking.

I had no idea of the deadliness of food allergies, and I had no idea of the lengths that a parent would go to protect their child.

When I had children of my own, I tried to approach the peanut butter issue safely. I knew that you weren’t supposed to give peanut butter to children under the age of one (Now I think they recommend 2.) I had no previous problems with my son, and when my daughter turned one, I carefully introduced peanut butter. Just a small dab on a piece of bread and I watched her like a hawk for an hour.

She had an allergic reaction, but I didn’t know it. I thought it had to look like choking or rashes, but for my sweet girl, it looked like a few red bumps around her mouth. I missed it.

So, I gave it to her again. This time, after she tried it, she seemed tired and fussy, but it was lunch time, and she was due for a nap. I put her in her bed and missed her second reaction. She woke up with swollen eyes as if she had been crying for an hour. I didn’t know that allergic reactions look like that also.

The third time I gave her peanut butter, I spread it across a piece of bread and tore it into tiny pieces on her high chair. Anywhere it touched her skin she got a red welt. Her lips and her face swelled immediately, and her nose began to run. This time, I caught it. I gave her a large dose of Benadryl and called the pediatrician. I didn’t know how lucky we were that the Benadryl was all she needed.

I know now.

Did you know that mild food allergies can progress to anaphylaxis suddenly? Even those who have only had a mild reaction in the past can out of nowhere have a reaction that closes their airways and suffocates them in a matter of minutes?

I didn’t.

I quickly learned as much information as I could about food allergies. I learned how to avoid foods with nuts. I learned early warning signs. I researched treatments. I learned what to do in an emergency.

I learned that you can do everything right in a food allergy emergency and it still not be enough. If you remember, a family in New York tragically taught us this when their daughter mistakenly ate a dessert with a peanut butter icing. She spit out the food, her parents gave her Benadryl and three shots of epinephrine (adrenaline) designed to stop the reaction, but none of it worked. She slipped from this life while her parents watched helplessly. They had done everything right.

I had no comprehension of how dramatically food allergies effect everything. We do not buy anything from the grocery store before checking the back label. We do not eat at a restaurant for the fear of cross contamination if we do not have our shots with us.

We don’t just avoid simple nuts and peanut butter. If you turn over a package you will see an allergy warning on the bottom of nearly all products. It might read “Contains” “May contain traces of” or “Processed in the same facility as” and then a list of the major food allergens included in the product. If nuts are anywhere on those lists, we do not buy it.

Can I illustrate something for those of you who have no former experience with food allergies? It’s horrible. It really is a horrific example, but I want you to grasp the gravity of those with this diagnosis.

Imagine you bake a dozen beautiful cupcakes. You put in your eggs and flour and sugar. You continue down your ingredient list, but at the end, you add in a little bit of rat poison. You bake them, decorate them, and set them on a table in front of children.

That is what I see when I walk through the grocery store.

I don’t see peanut butter. I don’t see a package that says “may contain nuts.” I see an open box of poison with a scoop in it. I read, “May contain poison.” “Processed on the same equipment as poison.” Poisoned candy, poisoned snacks, poisoned desserts.

But this poison is not where it belongs. It is not up high in a locked cabinet. It’s not with the bleach and harsh chemicals. It is in food. It is in delicious cookies and cupcakes. It is in restaurants, in lunch boxes, and in cafeterias.

It is terrifying. I had no idea the terrifying truth of having a child with a food allergy until both of my children were diagnosed. Some parents worry that their children will climb too high on a jungle gym and fall. I am afraid of something my children might eat.

My peace of mind was completely shaken when my son went to preschool this year. In early August, he had a severe reaction to cashew butter. I rushed him to the emergency room where the steroids and epinephrine were able to stop his reaction. He was diagnosed with a nut allergy just weeks before beginning school. At home, I had been able to monitor everything we had in our pantry. We kept a nut free environment. But at school? The teachers allow children to bring treats on their birthdays.

My heart drops every time I see that there is a birthday on the schedule. Not just because I am sad that he is missing out on something, but because I think, “What if he gets curious and eats it? What if it looks so yummy that he thinks that a little taste will be okay? What if he grabs the wrong juice cup and drinks after a kid who ate a peanut butter cookie? The proteins stay in the saliva for up to 5 hours! What if … what if… what if…”

Suddenly those parents who got nuts banned from school property didn’t seem like whackos. They are heroes! They have protected their children. They have not only created peace of mind for the parents of every student with a food allergy at that school, they have potentially saved lives.

This isn’t just my family. It’s not even just a few families. Nearly 15 million people in America face potentially deadly food allergies, and that number includes 1 in every 13 children. Researchers suggest that since 1997, food allergies among children in our nation have risen 50%. You read that right.

They doubled.

Our instance a few nights ago is one of many close calls that we might face. But if I write all of this to change just one mind, to show just one person how something so simple could be so fatal, it is all worth it.

So, from one momma to another, from one aunt to another, from one friend, one woman, one desperate advocate to another… please consider the seriousness of food allergies. Never offer a child food of any kind unless speaking with their parent first. If you are publicly offering foods with nuts, please include a small sign. If your child is eating peanut butter at the park, please wipe down their hands before allowing them to play on the equipment. Because even if food allergies do not directly impact you family, you can share this message and play a part in saving lives and bringing awareness to others.

This momma sure appreciates it.


  • Cassie says:

    This is a great thing for me to find! My nephew has a peanut allergy. He’s 2 now and I think they found out about 6 months ago. He’d had peanut butter before and no one noticed any reaction. Until one night he broke out and acted like he couldn’t catch his breath. My sister-in-law rushed him to the ER and they thankfully got it under control. Since then there has been battle after battle for them. Certain members of the family don’t understand the seriousness in this situation and will feed him things without asking first. Or the one that really will get me is his parents will tell him no to something (usually for a good reason!) and someone will feed it to him anyway because “it’s just a little cake, what’s it going to hurt?”…This post was a great one for me to stumble across!!

  • Jennifer says:

    WOW, what an article to read this month.

    Over the last few days, I have been dealing with a situation at my child’s daycare that left me shaken, and angry, and feeling guilty.

    As a little background info, my husband and his mother have a severe allergy to tree nuts (peanuts are fine). We didn’t want to give my 7 year old a nuts until a pediatrician did tests for us and confirmed that he was not allergic. My two year old daughter had never had a nut yet, as I was too nervous that she wouldn’t be able to tell me if she “felt funny”.

    She started a new daycare 4 months agon (in a home) and upon registration I advised her caregiver that she was not to be given nuts, at all, and I explained the situation.

    My husband picked my daughter up from daycare this week and was told that she had been eating nuts for “a while” and loved them. This to me was irresponsible and unforgiveable, as she had no right to make a potentially life threatening decision for my child, not to mention the danger to my husband if she kissed her daddy after having eaten a handful of cashews. I actually described it to her as “you gave my child a potential poison”.

    I immediately pulled my daughter from this daycare and re-registered her in a licensed facility with more strict rules regarding attention to allergies.

    I know some of my friends think I’m crazy, but I saw my husband go into anaphylactic shock and the fear that this incident could have hurt my daughter or my husband was unforgiveable.

    I know I did the right thing for my child, but I was feeling guilty for being so hard on the childcare worker. Reading this post and had made me realize that people without severe allergies just don’t understand the fear that goes with it.

    Thank you for understsanding.

  • Tania says:

    Thank you so much for your posts! I have been so encouraged and uplifted by them since I discovered your blog (through “This is where Mama Was”) several months ago. My daughter has a wheat allergy (thankfully not a life-threatening one), and since her diagnosis three years ago, her teachers have kindly allowed me to store gluten-free cupcakes in the teacher’s lounge freezer that they defrost for her whenever there’s a class celebration. We also participate in the Teal Pumpkin project, which alerts trick-or-treaters that we hand out allergy-friendly candy.

  • Anne Love says:

    Great article Sarah! Well said, and great reminders. I’ve had similar thoughts about people who wear too much perfume for those with asthma….

  • Tonia says:

    Just wondering if you have any idea why food allergies have become so prevalent? Why the recent dramatic increase?

  • Sara says:

    Great post! Great analogy. We are nut/peanut/egg free in our house.

    Just a reminder that for many families this is the issue for other very common ingredients too! Sensitivity to allergies beyond nuts/peanuts should be encouraged as well. Our daughter is anaphylactic for egg. Many schools have banned nuts/peanuts, but I have yet to hear of schools that have banned egg, dairy, etc. So just a reminder that for many families, those products are equally terrifying and dangerous. Not just nuts or peanuts. I think when we try to raise awareness about allergies, we should be careful to raise awareness about ALL dangerous food allergies.


  • Afton says:

    Thank you for this post. I can sympathize with your situation, as my son is allergic to bot peanuts and tree nuts. I hadn’t realized before talking with the allergist that tree nuts, like pecans, can be as deadly as peanuts. I am fortunate that my son’s first, and only reaction, to peanut butter resulted in a tell-tale, red swelling of his entire belly area. His allergy was evident. Following that incident we have had testing that confirmed our suspicions. While church groups school, and friends have been very understanding, some family members routinely offer my son food that may be unsafe without asking. They make assumptions about foods not having nuts if they aren’t visible, or suggest that I allow them to taste the food to make sure it’s safe. They have suggested to others that my son will only suffer a rash if he eats nuts, even though they have been told otherwise. Even though they are close family members, I am not willing to jeopardize my son’s life by allowing them to babysit. If only they would understand that my child is unlikely to grieve the loss of a potentially dangerous dessert, but their refusal to believe my concerns are valid could kill him.

  • Val S says:

    I would like to add, if your child is eating ANYTHING, clean their hands before you let them play, and do not let them spread their crumbs all over everything, even outside. Someone can be allergic to absolutely anything. My kids are allergic to corn, do you know how many things corn is in? We also have Celiac disease, which means that a tiny crumb from your bread sets off an auto-immune reaction in us, sometimes from just touching, not even ingesting. For my son, this means stomach aches, seizures, severe itchy eczema, and regression to toddler-hood (he is almost 9. For my daughter, this means horrible pain EVERYWHERE, the inability to eat for days, and night terrors. For me, it affects my stomach, my knees, and my ability to think clearly, and see clearly. I can become basically like someone drunk driving, and I WONT KNOW IT, plus other less discussable bodily functions do not function right.
    So, before you think, “I’m outside, the squirrels or ants will take care of it.” Think about that next person who walks by, sits down, or plays there. The top 8 allergens are wheat, peanuts, soy, dairy, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, and eggs, but remember, no matter what it is, someone somewhere is allergic to it.

  • Kayte says:

    I was really glad to come across this article! I’m the one in my family with several food allergies, nuts being the most severe and it’s really hard to get people to understand how severe it is, that if they eat something then touch something without washing their hands I could have a severe reaction. People seen to care less about helping me stay safe and it’s really sad that people don’t care unless it affects them. Maybe someday, working together we can all raise awareness and hopefully more people will see how severe the affects of this disease really are.

  • Jennifer says:

    Please remember that is is not just nuts. Don’t allow your kids to eat on any play structure and teach them to wipe (or better wash) their hands when they finish eating. That smudge of chocolate or drip of ice cream is enough to trigger my daughter’s dairy allergy. A good friend of mine rushed her daughter to the hospital in organ failure because someone allowed their child to finish that last handful of crackers on the slide and they dropped one.

  • Emelyn says:

    I relate completely.. My 4 children all have food allergies. Sometimes I feel like a bit of a broken record or a bit of a food nazi for being so vigilant but I have to. I have no choice. My kids are getting older and the older they get they get to a point where they know what to read for, look for ask about. I still remind, remind, remind them too though. While we do go to school functions and community functions, we bring snacks and meals from home for our kids. It gets to be such a chore a lot of times but we have to. I have noticed that all social functions revolve around food and that stresses me out because I have to stay alert. I do the best I can but it is hard. Hang in there!

  • Lynn-Marie says:

    My son was diagnosed with Severe Peanut Allergies at 18 months old. He was given peanut butter on a cracker at daycare – where they assured me that they didn’t serve peanut butter – the allergic child left the school so they changed their mind(why? still can’t answer that one). I happened to be done with work early and went right after he’d had the peanuts – after a rush to er, he was pretty much ok, but my life of care-free eating was done.
    People mean well, but don’t always “get it”. A house rule is – if it’s not in a box that I can read the ingredients off of, then it’s not in my house. A relative – who is highly allergic to bee stings – brought leftover cake from a party to my house – I asked to see the box. The answer – I threw it away – there shouldn’t be any nuts in it. I asked her to put it back in the car – and she got upset. I changed tactics. I said, OK – come on in – by the way I think that there are no bee hives in my house – there shouldn’t be a problem. She said – well you know I can’t come in then. I said – Neither can your cake.

  • christina says:

    I agree! I can’t have shellfish and its in a lot of meds. It is important for me to read and ask and watch everything i come across. I have had a few times that it wasn’t posted or a friend didn’t know what was in the food. Its not easy.

  • Katie says:

    Thank you so much for writing this. I have a very outgoing 2 1/2 year old with nut and peanut allergies (she had a long list initially including soy, sesame seeds, dairy, egg whites, etc. it was rough initially.Thankfully we have been able to slowly add somethings back.) We had to find out the hard way right after her first birthday. Since I have always been blessed to be a stay-at-home-mom, I only had to worry about what I gave her to eat and what I bought at the store. If any food was offered at church functions or office parties, I could ask what was in things for her.
    We were at the park a few weeks ago, never in a million years would I have thought a mom would give my kid food without asking me first, but low and behold, my kid came running back with a mouth full of some type of cereal that looked like Captain Crunch. Knowing that Captain Crunch comes in a peanut butter cereal too, I freaked out. I made her spit it out and tried to clean her mouth as much as I could. I am sure all the other moms thought I was crazy, but unless you have a child with life threatening allergies, it is hard to understand. Thankfully no type of reaction occurred. Thank you Lord!!! That incident renewed my paranoia.
    So thank you for being active and trying to get the word out there about food allergies. Kids just don’t always understand the severity of their own reactions and it is sad they can’t eat all the foods their friends are eating, but I would rather my child feel that sadness than to be dead from an exploration of food.

  • Nicole Ruffo says:

    So well said. Funny to read exactly how I feel from another mom’s words. I just wrote something on my blog today along the same lines. We should be in touch. Change happens fastest when pursued by many :)

  • Our school is supposedly nut free and I know many mums who just dont care. Very very sad. I am sharing this post in The PTA group and on my own page also. Allergy Mums unite! xx

  • Andria says:

    I hear you! Great article. My husband is allergic and I still question why airplanes still serve nut products!

  • Cristina Smith says:

    You mentioned how your son is left out when there is a birthday treat-at our last school a mother of one child with food allergies asked to be notified in advance of these days and sent something for him. She said it was easy to just pack a special treat that day and then they were part of the celebration. Just a thought.

  • Carla Burke says:

    Great article! You are very lucky! Back when my daughter was born in 1999 the standard was not to introduce peanut butter until after the age of 3. I did not know this because I had never heard of peanut allergies. So at 23 months I gave my daughter a little tiny bit of my pb sandwich I was eating and within seconds she went into anaphylactic shock. I didn’t know that’s what it was at time I just knew something was terrible wrong with her and I didn’t even bother to call 911. I took her straight to the nearest emergency room which is when the doctor told me about her peanut allergy and anaphylaxis. She had another anaphylactic, by accident, at age 7. She is 15 now and I worry every single day. But she’s very diligent and careful about everything. It’s still scary for me because I’m not around her all the time now and she is making food decisions without me. Yikes


  • T says:

    The problem is my son is that allergic to milk and soy. There is no milk free table at lunch. And asking every child not to drink milk wouldn’t go over too well. Most basked goods either have milk, soy or both unless made at home which can’t come to school. He ate a tortilla chip once that had milk in it and had a severe reaction. There is no food that is safe, unless I personally read the label. He had a small reaction once because he was at an event where they were serving nachos. While, he had the chips without cheese. The person who was reaching into the bag hadn’t washed their hands after serving cheese. I have learned the hard way, that I always have alternatives for him. He is generally cooperative at 5 with this. Hopefully, he always will be. Allergies stink!

  • Shannon says:

    Thank you for this article. My sons all have severe food allergies, and my oldest who is now 8 is off the charts with his peanut and tree nut allergies. I actually was so scared when he headed off to school that I created a company called OK2BPNUTFREE that makes allergy awareness tags for kids. We use superheroes as a theme because our kids are incredible. They deal with challenges at every meal, snack, and celebration. I know have 3 sons who each have their own set of food allergies. Combined, we deal with 5 of the top 8. Thank you for unsing your blog to educate. I believe we still have a long way to go to educate the public about this disability.

  • Heather says:

    I agree with you here about the idea of allergens in food being poison, and that nut free schools offer a wonderful feeling of safety to parents of children with allergies. But that is only for nut allergies!!! I have had many of the same emotions and thoughts since my son was diagnosed with a severe fish allergy earlier this year. Since then, we have discovered that fish can be in some places that people don’t know about – anything with Worcestershire sauce, Caesar dressing, and sometimes gelatin (some gelatin is made from fish – we have to call companies that make marshmallows and yogurt and gummy candies and find out what their gelatin is made from before he can eat it). Many restaurants have mistakenly told us that there is no fish in their restaurant, but then will admit to having Worcestershire or Caesar dressing. It’s perhaps not the same amount of danger that is out there for those with nut allergies, but level of the danger is the same. A severe reaction for us can mean the same thing that a severe peanut reaction can mean.

    I digress a bit. The main reason I am writing is that I feel there are many serious allergies out there, but I see people focusing a lot of the time on nut allergies only. For example, I asked a camp how they handle food allergies, told them we have a fish allergy, and they said their dining facility is nut free. Great for nut allergic kids! But that doesn’t mean anything for my child’s safety. It’s frustrating – it would be nice to have the same kind of support from the allergy community for our non-nut allergy as the folks with nut allergies get. We are in an allergy support group on FB, but there is a huge focus there, too on nut allergies. I also realize that banning all top 8 allergens from schools is not possible, and then what about those kids who are severely allergic to something not in the top 8? What can we do to be supportive of everyone??

    Education and clearer labeling are a start. (Do lunch lines at school have labels that tell students what allergens are in each food item?) More enforcement of not sharing snacks at schools and camps would be good. Having more non-food treats at school for birthdays and holidays, though I would also be ok with teachers checking with parents of food allergic kids to come up with safe treats for some occasions.

    Ultimately, though, it’s a scary, allergen-filled world out there. And eventually our children have to learn to navigate it for themselves.

  • Amy says:

    as a mom of a non-allergy kiddo, I have a different reaction to this. I’m completely sympathetic, but the people who get foods banned from schools are not heroes in my eyes. When my daughter began kindergarten, a fourth grade child in her school had a severe peanut allergy. They did not ban foods, however, if you had anything with nuts, those children were “branded” with a black sharpie “X” on their hands. Instead of getting to go to recess, those children had to wait in line to wash their hands and most of the time they completely missed out on recess. The child with the allergy was able to play the whole time. The child with the allergy did not have to wash, or get branded. There going to be peanut products in the world. They didn’t make kids wash before getting on the bus – what if someone had peanut butter for breakfast? What about the grocery store cart? The neighborhood playground? Movie theater chairs? I felt the school was creating a false sense of safety. The approach is wrong. Rather than try to change their environment by restrictions on others – keep them safe and create a safe environment by restricting them until they know how to headle their allergy (which happens with age, unfortunately). Homeschool. I know that’s not in everyone’s cards, but if my kiddo had a severe life-threatening, possibly deadly, allergy – I’d pull them from public school until they could go without punishing everyone else. Just a thought from the other side. :)

  • Traci says:

    I love this post so much. I’ve been dealing with issues about peanuts and tree nuts with our school’s PTO all year. Today at the annual “Muffins for Moms” event a school employee actually TORE UP the nut-free sign for the NUT FREE doughnuts and MIXED ALL THE DOUGHNUTS TOGETHER because she decided they were “all the same” and didn’t need a “nut-free” sign. They weren’t all the same and there WERE doughnuts with nuts on the frosting. To say that I’m livid would be an understatement.

  • April says:

    To all the Amy’s out there: Most of us know your side of the story, we used to live it too. I LOVE the idea of teaching children to have a social conscience when it comes to handling potentially lethal substances. “Punishing” children for bringing these substances into a public space seems much more appropriate than “punishing” the allergic child for being who they are. Your child has a choice, mine doesn’t. There is a simple solution, leave that poison at home. Don’t begrudge the allergy child one care-free moment in their lives, heaven knows it won’t last. Your solution is to remove the allergy child from society, I find that un-acceptable. Would you say the same for other conditions, how far would you take it?

  • brooke says:

    i feel your pain—my son was simply kissed and wound up in need of 911. but i didn’t call because i didn’t know.

    it’s a tough road to walk—learning how to be an allergy momma!

    here’s my first post called:
    be very afraid of church!

    it’s about how even the nursery at church is a dangerous place—or can be—for kids like ours!



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