From my wonderful Guest Blogger Carissa Yfantis-
One of the first words my daughter learned to read was “nut” and not because we had read Guess How Much I Love You? several hundred times (Nutbrown Hare was always a favorite). She is allergic to some tree nuts and it was vital that she could read that word on a food label. Food labels typically state if there are “tree nuts” in the product or if it was manufactured in a facility where they are processed. We knew that as a preschooler, there was little chance she would need to independently decide if she could eat something, but being able to read “nuts” was a first step in teaching her to manage her allergies. (She already knew not to eat anything unless one of us or a teacher said it was safe for her.)
Our daughter had an authentic learning experience reading food labels when she was four years old. It was the first time she found the words “tree nut” on a package of chocolate chip cookies at the grocery store. We had practiced reading the word “nut”, looking at food labels, and finding the allergy statement at the end of the ingredients list, but this was the first time an authentic learning experience had presented itself. When she asked if she could have the cookies, I told her to read the ingredients. She had eaten chocolate chip cookies before, but not the brand she had picked up. She turned the package over, found the ingredients list and, as we had taught her, pointed to each word. I watched her face as she “read” the ingredients and saw the disappointment when she reached the familiar words “tree nuts” in the allergen statement. I gave her high-fives fit for Super Bowl winners and praised her for reading the label so carefully. I reminded her that if she had not read the label and had eaten the cookies, she could have had an allergic reaction. I was beyond proud of her and she was very excited to tell my husband that she “saved herself” at the store. She eventually chose a box of allergy-friendly cookies, so fear not, she did not suffer from lack of sugar consumption that day. That experience taught her how vital it was to read the ingredients even when the picture on it appeared to be something she could eat.
Reading food labels has had an unexpected benefit. Although I always tried to eat healthfully and limit junk food, I don’t recall ever reading an ingredients list until our daughter was diagnosed. It was (and continues to be) a truly eye-opening experience. When you are forced to read every ingredient on everything, you see exactly what is in all those packaged products. It is usually not appetizing in the least. You see the chemicals, the various forms of sugar, the dyes, the preservatives, and the processed ingredients. Reading food labels has been an ongoing authentic experience for me because it has led to a greater awareness of what is in various products. It has caused me to make cleaner, more nutritious food choices. I encourage everyone to start reading food labels. Children, teens, and adults can all learn so much in the minute or two it takes to read the label. You may even decide to make a homemade version of something you were about to buy when you see all the unnecessary ingredients in the packaged version. Cooking at home lends itself to myriad authentic learning experiences.
Having food allergies has provided our daughter many authentic experiences. She now knows that ingredients may have more than one name (for example: casein for milk, sucrose/glucose/fructose for sugar, filbert for hazelnut) and she learned the importance of not cross-contaminating ingredients when cooking or baking. I hope that as she gets older, reading the ingredients will cause her to become more discerning with her food choices. For now, as long as there as there are no tree nuts in something she chooses, there can be radioactive waste in it! Although I would obviously erase all of these experiences to erase her allergies, they provide a small compensation and a little silver lining for anyone who lives with an allergy.