Food Appreciation: Starbucks

If you were in your local Starbucks a couple weeks ago, and there was a vaguely woman-shaped parka (it was -30 Celsius OUTSIDE), sweating and squinting at food products, sometimes cursing, and snapping photos…it was me. Well, it might have been me. Maybe it’s a thing kids do these days…I’m pretty out of touch.

You see, I’m on a mission for readily available snacks on the go. Fun snacks. As I’ve mentioned before, our current options for snacking expeditions are limited, so I’m trying to be proactive.

At this point, we’ve got our daughter convinced that an alternative grocery store down the street is a “destination” for treats.  Fortunately, right now, she is way more into chips than sweets, but we walk by a couple restaurants, a bakery, a café, a gourmet chocolate shop, and a gelato place on the way. I’m not sure how long the novelty of going to a grocery store that smells like incense and fermented food products will hold up.  Her poor older brother, who is not allergic to anything, looks longingly at all the places we pass and tries to be subtle (as only a 5-year-old can) about when we can take just him out for a real treat. He’s a sport about it and doesn’t want his sister to feel bad, but he knows he’s missing out.

We also, at some point, would love to travel with our kids. We’ve never even braved an overnight in a hotel. As it stands, to do so would involve planning and schlepping all our daughter’s meals for each day, along with all the snacks. Other than a grocery store (which IS a possible solution), or a few places that prep fries in a dedicated fryer (see Food Appreciation: New York Fries), we don’t have any reliable places to grab food, especially in unfamiliar territory. It’s doable, but it doesn’t feel like it would be fun.

So, I’m looking for a big chain, that’s widespread, with consistent product offerings and practices. I started with the biggies, but McDonald’s is waffling and taking steps backwards in allergy practices. Everything in there is covered in dairy or egg anyway, so it’s not an option for us, but in terms of supporting those who are only allergic to peanuts, Mick Dick’s has really kicked them in the shins lately.

Others, like Swiss Chalet/Harvey’s have some general policies and lots of information available. They even have some specific products that could technically be consumed by someone with my daughter’s allergy set, but individual franchises aren’t necessarily obligated to follow anything, and we’ve literally been laughed at when asking (after driving 20 minutes out of our way based on website info) about cross-contamination, so in practice, it means nothing.

I did however, have a glimmer of hope at Starbucks the other night.  I was, admittedly, solo and scarfing down a very non allergy friendly pretzel dunked in caramel and chocolate, but I took the opportunity to survey their prepackaged selection of goods. I was not overwhelmed with what I found, but I wasn’t necessarily disappointed either.

As noted above, I was lurking around the shelves at a Starbucks in a bookstore, squinting at packaging with poorly contrasted label lettering, in dim coffee shop light. As a general point, prepackaged food is a good place to start. The ingredients are listed and there’s less risk of cross-contamination through handling. If the place that sells cake pops for my son and caffeine for me, ALSO sells snacks the little one can pick out and enjoy, I’ll count that as a win.

Here, are my findings:

Smoothies and Juice – They’ve got a good selection. Because I’m a pretentious yuppie parent, my kids still think juice is a treat.  The smoothies are helpful. (But I forgot to take a picture. It was really hot in there.)

Beef Jerky – Not sure how easy a sell this is to a preschooler, but despite her largely vegan needs, she’s a carnivore at heart. Could do. Maybe I’ll tell her it’s bacon.

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Beef Jerky

Apple Chips – I thought these would be good. They aren’t. I don’t know how they screwed them up, but…Ugh. Neither kid would keep them in their mouths, let alone chew and swallow them.

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Apple Chips

Kale Chips – I don’t care how many times Pinterest tells me Kale chips can be “soooo good.” These ones tasted like socks. Most other brands also taste pretty bad.  And I really WANT to like them.

Marmite-flavoured Popcorn – I’m willing to try these, but haven’t yet. I enjoyed the toast version of this in my backpacking days though, they should be pretty savory, and salt IS my daughter’s favourite, so there’s potential here.

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Popcorn – Marmite Flavour

Sweet Potato Chips – This works. Plain chips of most kinds usually do.  Not exciting, but they exist, which is good to know.

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Sweet Potato Chips – Plain

Flavoured Potato Chips – What?!?! YES! Flavours without whey powder?!?!! Hallelujah! Still…it’s chips…but it’s not PLAIN chips. Whoot!

And of course, being Starbucks and all, the obvious offering here is coffee. Rich, bitter, delicious, invigorating, but generally frowned upon in the hands of a preschooler. I need the boost, she already rocks and rolls all night and parties every day.

In conclusion, while I’m not excited about the options, and a meal is definitely out of the question, in a pinch, Starbucks might just work. I’d much rather support the amazing local, home spun cafes in my area (and any area really), but a family’s gotta do what a family’s gotta do.  I’ll take the kids for a walk this weekend and see how the experience goes. If nothing else, next time we’re stuck en route and the snacks run out, or maybe someday if we’re travelling, well, pretty much anywhere in the developed world, Starbucks will be there with…something.

 

Small victories.

Tonight some friends were visiting from out of town with their kids and everyone was meeting at a local dive bar that daylights as a family friendly restaurant. It’s a place we generally avoid, but we’re trying hard to navigate social situations with food.  It’s becoming a bad habit to avoid them.

So, I picked big brother up from afterschool care, popped in at home to pack little sister’s Yumbox and grab colouring books, and walked over to the restaurant, anticipating meltdowns, or reactions, or confrontations with servers.

But…it all just worked. The kids coloured and little sister ate her food. Grownups talked loudly over the kids and drank mediocre beer.  It was all very civilized.  There was a moment of tension when big brother’s food arrived and sis wanted some chicken fingers and fries, but she accepted the explanation that they would make her sick pretty graciously.

It was a good night, a nice night, and one we no longer take for granted.  Thanks universe!

Sesame Seeds of Doubt

There’s a local-ish gourmet burger chain we go. They have a smattering of locations within an hour’s drive, but there’s one location in particular where we’ve eaten a handful of times as a family. We’re not there weekly or anything, but as noted in previous posts, our stomping grounds are limited and we are pretty damn cautious, so going somewhere a few times a year is a big deal.

I can’t remember how I found out they could accommodate my daughter’s food snaffoos. I think we’d heard that some places have dedicated fryers to accommodate gluten free consumer demand and I called to check. My daughter, like many kids, will happily eat fries as a meal. (Note: If you’re going to judge me as a parent for that, you can go away now.)

When I called, I found out that their burgers are all beef, no binders, and that there was also a gluten free, vegan bun. The angels sang and trumpets played and we took the whole family in, without an extra packed meal.

We followed our standard allergy family dining out protocol:

  1. Call ahead, talk to the manager, and confirm the options (if there are any). Be SUUUUUUUPER friendly.
  2. Let them know when you’ll be coming. Go early so they won’t be rushed or distracted with the order while prepping, and give them time to prep an area or clean stuff off for you. (Theoretically…gotta put a little faith in the fact that you’ve just told them your two year old could die and that they don’t want that.) Be SUUUUUUUPER friendly.
  3. When you arrive, ask again for the manager and let them know that you called ahead. Confirm the allergy list with them and let them know you appreciate any extra effort their staff makes to accommodate your needs. Show them your beautiful daughter (Do this only if she’s in a good mood and adorable. If she’s hangry and being a turd, send your partner with her to the bathroom until you’re seated.).  Be SUUUUUUUUUPER friendly.
  4. Thoroughly wipe down the table and chairs where your allergic kid will be sitting with three separate wipes. Accept the “What’s up with that?” looks from other customers and the “I was visibly cleaning that as you approached.” look from the server, with a shrug and a smile. Make a lame “it’s not you it’s us” joke if anyone is in ear shot or in danger of eye strain from rolling them so hard.
  5. When your server arrives re-list the allergies. Show them your beautiful daughter (who is now sweetly colouring and singing itsy-bitsy spider after your partner has slipped her a graham cracker to soften the hangriness). I also carry the list on a pocket sized piece of paper, along with all the terrible things that can happen, and the emergency procedure to follow if they do. Give this to the staff. I know they could write this down, but it makes me feel better knowing that I’m not relying on someone else’s attention span or handwriting. I also feel the consequences and the emergency procedure being printed, but not spoken (more than once) really hammer the point, in a deliciously passive aggressive kind of way.  Again, be SUUUUUUUPER friendly.
  6. When ordering, ask again about everything your kid is going to eat. Ask if the server would mind double checking with the cooking staff about any food being prepared, and to double check the ingredients on anything that’s premade. Continue to be SUUUUUUUPER friendly.
  7. When the food arrives, smile, look apologetic, and say “I’ve just gotta ask again…” and make sure your allergic kid is getting what they’re supposed to be getting.
  8. If all goes well, leave a good tip at the end of the meal. Ask to speak to the manager and let them know that the server was great, that the food was appreciated, and that the extra effort didn’t go unnoticed. Of course, wrap it up by being SUUUUUUPER friendly.  My feeling on this is that we want more places to be willing to accommodate and we want more people to not be dicks about it.  Make them want you back.

This may seem a little elaborate if you’re not in this mess on a day-to-day basis, but going out is an event for our kids and it’s worth the effort. Quality of life, don’t shut me in type-thing.

The catch, of course, is when it doesn’t work.  Or even worse, when you think it worked, but maybe it didn’t.

Let’s go back to the burger place. The first time we went, we were extra cautious and the experience was pretty new for our daughter. She was a little overwhelmed by the people, the bustle, and the thematic accents in the décor.  She mostly ate fries and a bit of the ketchup soaked burger. All was well.  The next time, she ate more of the burger, but who knows how much food actually gets INTO a two-year-old compared to what gets splattered AROUND a two year old.

The third time she ate most of the burger and all seemed to go well. Unfortunately, a few hours later she complained that her back hurt (daughter-speak for the sharp itchiness of a reaction as it pops up on her torso). She was fussy and fidgety and farting up a storm. Hives appeared. We dosed her up with antihistamine and things cleared up. We checked on her throughout the night to make sure nothing else flared up.

We went step-by-step through the meal in our heads. Did we touch her fries with our cheese-burger-y hands? Did her brother’s chocolate milk somehow splash across the table? We’d been so careful, but there’s always something you miss.

We chalked it up to good old cross-contamination and accepted that we weren’t going to get a definitive answer.  Everything should have been clear, but it hadn’t and we took the blame.

This weekend, we returned to the restaurant, followed the procedure, and placed an order with the usual apologies (I know we shouldn’t have to, but we do it anyway) and requests to double check.  This time, unlike the others, the server walked back over to us with a binder and showed us an ingredient list.

Duh duh dun!

Turns out, the gluten free buns are dairy free, but include egg. Not vegan. Not cool.  We’d gotten both super lucky and super unlucky the first few times we’d eaten there.  Lucky that our daughter hadn’t eaten more of the bun, lucky that her reaction was mild, but  unlucky that the server and staff we’d spoken with hadn’t check this binder, which was clearly laid out and intended to answer exactly this kind of question.

Playing devil’s advocate, it is possible that the ingredients had changed, that the binder didn’t exist last time (maybe they’d updated procedures), or that something else had gone awry.  I’ve worked in food service, I get it.

We thanked our server whole-heartedly for doing the extra checks and ordered the burger without the bun and fries for our daughter. The meal went well, everyone was happy and no hives appeared before bed time.

There was, however, barfing at 2am. Lots and lots of vomit.

And THIS is the hard part.

It is highly unlikely that my daughter’s impression of Linda Blair had anything to do with the dinner that she’d eaten, other than the fact that it came back up for a second showing.  There are bugs and flu and all manner of gastro-intestinal horror going around daycare and school.  My partner had been sick just days before. She did not have hives, or swelling, or any other symptom to indicate that it was a reaction.  However, she also did not have a fever, or aches, or diarrhea, or any other symptom to indicate that it was a virus. Whatever it was, it came and went, and she was starving and only a little groggy from the sleep disruption, within hours of it occurring. No antihistamines or epinephrine needed. (Thankfully!)

There is no evidence to indicate that my daughter came into contact with anything that would harm her at the restaurant. This time, the server had saved our butts by doing what she was supposed to do. She was thorough and attentive. We took every precaution that we could reasonably take.

But…the seeds of doubt are there.  We do not and cannot know that it wasn’t something she ingested.  Every time she vomits, our automatic assumption is that it’s a reaction.  If she gags while she’s throwing up (she’s really very bad at it and makes horrible noises and faces because it’s just a lot of work), we run for the epi pen and prepare to dial 911. We wake her in the night as we shine our phones on her back and belly and face to make sure there aren’t any hives, and that her lips don’t look swollen.  In practice, we have to assume that vomit is the first sign of something that can get bad pretty fast.

There is always, though remote, a chance that whatever caused her to purge her system, came from dinner. We thought we could be pretty confident with this particular restaurant, but there was a decent screw-up/oversight those first couple times, that we just learned about, that leaves a bad taste. In the words of every parent at some point: I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed.

We are well aware that we’re taking a risk when we’re out. Some allergic families don’t take that risk, but for us, it’s important to try.  The reality is that we have to trust others (to a point) and that from time to time, someone will let us down.  If we don’t try, then people will continue to say “then just don’t go out” and nothing will ever change for families like ours. It is also a reality that there are more and more families like ours out there. Gotta blaze that trail!

What I am pissed about, is that our list of places we can be at ease just got shorter.  We’ll likely go back to the burger place.  We know what to watch for and what to ask for (the binder!).  We have good reason to believe that the service and the food the last time we were there was on point. Due diligence was done and we got what we needed and paid for.

But it’s never going to be the same.

I’m always going to feel a little off and a little suspicious, and every other restaurant is going to have to that much harder to show me I can feel good feeding my kid there.  I’m still going to be SUUUUUUUPER friendly, because I want to reward restaurants and individuals that are even trying to accommodate our needs, but I’m going to dig deep into my nerd-dom to sum things up…

“The seed of doubt was there, and it stayed, and every now and then sent out a little root. It changed everything, to have that seed growing.”  – Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Game

 

Food Appreciation: New York Fries

Food Appreciation is a little feature I’ll be doing from time to time about our adventures and misadventures eating out in the world with food allergies. Nothing endorsed or sponsored here. Just our experiences. 

When your kid is allergic to everything, the little things get big. Even small outings require prep.

Everywhere you go you have to anticipate all possible food scenarios and pack accordingly. We have an extensive collection of boxes, bentos, and baggies stuffed with safe options on our person at any given time. If there is any chance an excursion will overlap with meal time, it’s prepared and packed. Meal time not likely? Still packing a crap-ton of snacks.

However, toddlers can be jerks and every effort and option will be ranked, idiosyncratically, on a scale of “That’s awesome, I will happily consume all the healthy options you have so lovingly prepared.” to “Screw you guys, I’m eating exclusively pickles now.” An unfavourable judgment results in a throwdown that escalates quickly and dramatically.

In general, fit or no, it doesn’t matter. There are no other options.

There aren’t, to be honest, many treats either. Especially at the mall.

Fast food service does not generally inspire faith in food handling practices and even when there are options that are supposed to be friendly, franchises take liberties with company protocol and say “nah…just throw that fish fillet in there…”

With our particular combination of allergies, there is but one shining beacon of indulgence at the mall, and that is…New York Fries! We can eat there. All of us!

Thank you New York Fries for using actual potatoes without some weird dairy coating! Thank you for using sunflower oil instead of peanut!  Thank you for putting nothing in the fryer but those delicious dirty (skin on) fries! I will happily disregard the eye rolling from employees while I confirm this with a well-rehearsed series of questions asked in different ways to make sure everyone in this transaction has their facts straight. (Redundancy is important.)

Thank you for being the one place at the mall I can use as a carrot, to get both kids to cooperate, while I drag them through stores and pin their arms down so they don’t touch anything.

We made our purchases. We didn’t break anything. We all stayed calm. We all sat down and ate a giant bucket of hot crispy fries like a normal family. It was magic.


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