Paper or plastic is the least of my worries when I shop for groceries. And the truth is, I couldn’t care less about the type of bag my groceries go into. My son has food allergies: he is allergic to milk, eggs, peanuts, and tree nuts. Although some families choose to keep an allergen free household, some families do not. I fall into the latter category. My son is six. He understands his allergies, he knows what he must avoid, he remembers the feeling of being stuck with the Epi Pen to combat past allergic reactions, so he doesn’t touch the foods that he is allergic to. But there is nutrition to be gained from milk, from eggs, from nuts: calcium and protein, healthy fats. Plus, they just taste good. So I buy those foods for my husband and I to eat even though I admit that I cannot hear the “Got Milk?” campaign without repeating it in my head this way: Got Milk Allergy? And as I shop for milk and eggs and nuts I think of those items as “poison”.
And so grocery shopping involves more than list making and running out to the store to pick up a few items. It involves label reading and gut instinct checks and decision making. It involves space planning and stage management, even traffic management skills, and it involves, of course answering the question “Paper or plastic?”
When you have a food allergy you do not eat ANYTHING unless you can read the ingredient label on it. And because manufacturers can and do change ingredients often and without warning, you have to read the label each and every time you purchase something to eat. Since I am the parent, and since my son is six and just learning to read, that job falls on me. At the store this means I pull an item from the shelf and read the ingredient label and look for any allergen warning statements before putting the item in my cart. Bought pop tarts last week and need more? Well, you’ll have to read the label again before you buy them. Even if it’s the same flavor? Yes, even if it’s the same flavor.
Sometimes it’s not as simple as just reading the label. An item may appear safe, the ingredients may all be fine, but then you notice that the same company makes a different flavor of the same item, and that different flavor contains one of your child’s allergens. Consider something like biscuit mix or spaghetti sauce or cereal, as these items often come in different varieties. The company that makes biscuit mix, and the company that makes spaghetti sauce also sell similar versions containing cheese. How confident do I feel on any given shopping trip that the two products weren’t run on the same production lines? The label doesn’t have to tell me about that. And even when I know what the company line is, because I talk to them often enough about their products, still, seeing the two products side by side on the grocery store shelf sometimes gives me pause. So I check my gut instinct. If I feel funny about buying something on any given day, I listen to my gut and put the item back on the shelf. Maybe this week I’ll make biscuits from scratch.
Since my husband and I drink milk and eat things like cheese and ice cream and eggs, when I buy those items, I have to be a space planner as I fill my grocery cart. I pay attention to where I am setting the “poison”, the foods that my son is allergic to. In my mind I worry about them. At home I have a system to keep the poison away from the safe food, but in the grocery cart, they all mingle. It makes me nervous. There is a chance, even though it’s probably remote, that the milk might leak on the bag of bread. And the plastic bag sometimes has snags in it. What if a tiny speck of milk protein got on the bag in just the right spot, along a seam where there is a tiny hole, almost too small to see? And what if I make my son a sandwich and he reacts from the milk protein that leaked from gallon of milk onto the bread bag, and in through that tiny hole? How awful would I feel then? And so I am careful to separate the poison from the safe foods as much as I can.
And later, when putting the food onto the conveyor belt at the cash register, I am the stage director and traffic cop. I load the groceries carefully, being sure to keep the poison separate, ever watchful as the cashier reaches over items to grab something that might better fit into the bag she is loading. I move food back toward me on the conveyor belt, pulling back the milk, pulling back the ice cream, pushing forward the ground beef and the apples. Bag the dishwasher detergent, the bathroom cleaner, bag the apples with it, the potatoes, I don’t care. If chemicals spills all over the fruit I’ll wash it off. But by God, keep the milk away from the bread, the eggs away from the grapes.
When I get home I read the labels again as I put the groceries away. I write on the boxes and cans and bottles to indicate if they are safe or not safe for my son. When I am tired, or when I have bought something new that my son has never eaten before, I hand it to my husband for him to read the label, a second set of eyes. A second opinion. A safety net.
Once more when I get ready to make something. I check the label once more, just to be sure. Remember I’ve already read the label at the store, and I read it again and marked the food when I put it away, but still, I cannot help it. What if I missed something? And so now it’s three times, like somebody with OCD. But you can’t be too careful when your child has food allergies. So read the label each and every time, and do that three times. Keep the allergen containing foods away from the safe foods. Mark them with a black sharpie, or stickers, red for things that aren’t safe, green for things that are.
And don’t worry about paper or plastic. That’s the least of your worries.