Alexandra Kales was 4 when she had a life-threatening reaction to peanut butter. That day was life altering for the whole family, says her mom Jenny Kales of La Grange Park. "Everything you do now is changed, with regard to anything involving food."
For families who have children with dietary restrictions, such as a gluten intolerance or food allergies, a simple trip to the grocery store can take hours as parents are forced to read every label. But in response to the growing number of children who require a specialized diet, more restaurants, bakeries and specialty grocery stores are cropping up to fill the need.
"In 2004 (when Alexandra was diagnosed), there wasn't anything like this, but now parents have a few more options than I had early on," says Kales, who as author of nut-freemom.blogspot.com shares information with other parents about options for their children.
Peter DeRousee also has children with life-threatening allergies and Celiac disease, so he knows firsthand what families are looking for when they head to his store, Free From Market, which opened last year and specializes in everything to do with allergies. "What's different (about this store) is that there are eight common allergens responsible for most allergies, so there are little icons on all the foods indicating the allergen, and we keep a database of every item in the store and every ingredient in it," DeRousse explains. "So we can go on the computer and figure out what products will work, or people can cruise the aisles and check the icons." To make things even easier, the store's products are also available online with the same information, so parents can have the food shipped to them.
Gluten-free Grocery in Westchester is another relative newcomer to this specialized market, and in spite of the tough economy, the store's business has been booming the past two years as parents seek out safe foods for their children. "A lot of the products we carry didn't even exist five years ago, so it's gotten to be a much better world for people with allergies," says store owner Cindy Erwin.
The store stocks more than 900 products, including kid favorites such as macaroni and cheese (some with dairy-free options) and chicken nuggets. "Of course, every item is gluten-free, but many are also free of additional allergens," says Erwin. This store also has a coding system on products with tags that let parents know what's in the products they're buying.
Not all restaurants are off-limits any more either. Café Twist in Lincoln Park sells everything from sandwiches to gourmet pretzels, while still keeping the restaurant 100 percent nut-free. Or head to Swirlz Cupcakes, where kids on a gluten-free diet can enjoy several different flavors of specially made cupcakes.
Uno Chicago Grill in Schaumburg and Gurnee Mills has an extensive gluten-free menu, including kid-favorite individual pizzas. "We actually have nutritional kiosks in every one of our restaurants, where they can touch any menu item and it will list all the ingredients, and it's available on our website as well," says Kenny Richards, vice president of operations.
The best way to manage life with kids who can't eat everything other kids can is by focusing on the positive, Kales says. "People get hung up on, they can't go to the ice cream parlor, they won't have a good childhood. But if you do the fun things they can do, really they're going to be fine. You shouldn't worry so much about what they can't have."
Liz DeCarlo is the senior editor at Chicago Parent.
See more of Liz's stories here.