It’s lunchtime. The cafeteria is crowded and loud. When you’re a parent of an allergic child, the main concern when those lunchboxes fly open is that your kid is safe. But you also want to find a way to keep the meal interesting and ensure your student doesn’t feel deprived. Maybe there’s even a way to give your kid something to be proud of.
And that’s where Keeley McGuire comes in.
Inspired by her daughter, who lives with food allergies, McGuire has upped the lunchbox game, going beyond the sandwich to feature colorful lunches, often in bento-box form, that are equal parts food sculpture and thoughtful dietary combinations. A cute note to let her “Little Miss” to let her know she’s is thinking of her often completes McGuire’s lunch packages.
Since 2011, McGuire has invited people to follow her midday meal missions on her blog and on various social media – where she provides lunchbox inspiration to both parents and kids alike. Packing lunches daily for her 9-year-old daughter provides her with ongoing fodder for her blog, and daily posts on Instagram. “Little Miss” is allergic to peanuts (and avoids tree nuts and gluten), but McGuire’s featured meals try to avoid the top 8 allergens and are gluten-free; she also stays away from food dyes.
In our latest installment of the Allergy Advocates series, Allergic Living salutes Keeley McGuire for taking an everyday parental duty – one that’s made even more challenging for parents dealing with restricted diets – and turning it into something extraordinary.
Senior contributor Claire Gagné recently spoke with McGuire about her blog, the challenge of making lunch fun, and getting past negativity.
Why did you start blogging about making lunches for food allergic kids?
Keeley McGuire: My daughter was diagnosed with allergies at age 1. Then, just before she turned two, she was given an educational autism spectrum disorder diagnosis, and I started her in school full time. All of a sudden I had a kid with food allergies who also had sensory issues and only liked three or four foods. So I was left packing her lunches every day.
First, I started to try to find fun ways to incorporate the things that my daughter did like, using bento box style lunches with things such as vegetable cutouts.
Then I started sharing photos of some of the fun lunches I made for her on my personal Facebook page and friends and family encouraged me to start a blog. I joke that at first I had eight readers who were all family, but I quickly found other parents who were looking for allergy-friendly ideas for school lunches, especially nut-free ideas, either because their child has an allergy or their child went to school in a nut-free classroom.
The focus of many of your recipes and ideas is making food fun for children with allergies. Why does that matter so much?
KM: When my daughter was younger, making a vegetable into a flower made it more likely she would try a new food. Also, I wanted to help my daughter feel included and show her that just because you can’t have some things, you can still eat great food. Even for parents of picky eaters, you can have fun with lunches. It’s just a matter of saying: “This is what you love to eat, so let’s make it fun and enjoyable.”
What have been some of your more popular ideas?
KM: The most popular post on my website has been a roundup of non-sandwich ideas. A lot of kids hate sandwiches, whether because of the texture or being sick of them. It’s also great for people who don’t eat gluten or are allergic to wheat. And really, it was just something fun and different.
Do you have a lot of people who follow you who don’t have allergies?
I do have some, and I love when I get messages or comments from people who have found me because their child is in a nut-free classroom or a nut-free school, or they are an aunt or uncle to a kid with food allergies. People have told me they didn’t know anything about food allergies, but looking for school lunch ideas or recipes through my website helped them learn so much.
There are some naysayers out there, who say allergies are a farce, but I think our story gives a face to it. People who follow my blog get to know my daughter, who I call “Little Miss”. They sympathize with her and share in her stories.
We’re in back-to-school season. What advice do you have for parents sending kids to class for the first time?
KM: I like to focus on the fun side, and I try to convey that you can do something little that still has a big impact on a kid’s day. Stick a sweet note in their lunch box just to let them know, especially if they are being bullied or not having a good day, that everything is OK.
I also like to find cool new products such as water bottles and food containers that make things fun. It changes the focus from what they can’t have to, “Hey, I’ve got some cool stuff.”
Some of your lunches seem quite elaborate. Do you ever get feedback from parents who say: “I can’t do that” or “I don’t have the time”?
KM: For the most part, when people actually look at my website, and read our story, they see that we have allergies and we need to do it. And not all my lunches are ornate – sometimes it’s just a sandwich with some Plentils on the side.
But I did get a comment once where somebody said I was making other moms look bad. I wrote a post about it saying, “We’re on the same team, no one is competing and everyone has their own reasons for what they do. I don’t sew, and I can’t do half of the stuff that’s out there, but this is what I’m good at.”
You get sponsorships through your website. Is your blog a money-making venture?
KM: This isn’t my job – I work full-time in sales and product management. But, the money I bring in pays for things such as my domain fees. I do some sponsored posts with different brands when I’m creating recipes for them and other things like that. The way I see it, if I’m doing something that takes time away from my family, those are some of the perks that make it worthwhile. My daughter gets to try new products, and we go to different allergy expos and gluten-free expos and it makes her day when people come up to her and say “you’re Little Miss!” I just love that, because it makes her feel excited and she’s proud of it.
You have a blog, but you’re also all over social media: Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest. Why does that matter?
KM: I joke that I’m on Pinterest mostly because I’m addicted to it. But in reality, Pinterest is the site I get the most referrals to my blog from. People search for everything on Pinterest.
But being across all the social media platforms is a way to reach different people. People get information in many different ways now, and I’ll have people find me on one platform and follow me on others. There are also some things that I only post on certain platforms – for instance, I post a photo of the lunch I make for my daughter every day on Instagram, but I don’t blog about each one.
Visit www.keeleymcguire.com for links to all of Keeley McGuire’s recipes and lunch inspiration photos, plus links to her social media sites.
2015 Honorees in The Allergy Advocates Series:
Jennifer Jobrack: Meet FARE’s Champion of Stock Epinephrine Laws
Kyle Dine: Musician’s Musical Message: It’s OK To Be Allergic
Lisa Horne: The Ultimate Food Allergy Connector
Tiffany Glass Ferreira: Razor-Sharp Humor Makes the Food Allergy Case
2014 Honorees in The Allergy Advocates Series:
Lisa Rutter: A Force of Good for Food Allergy
Karen Harris: Food Allergy’s Educating Dynamo
Cathy Owens: The Nurse Who Is the Allergic Student’s Protector
Jenny Sprague: Courageous Woman who Unites Allergy Bloggers
Gina Mennett Lee: A Voice of Reason for Food Allergy at School and Daycare
Lianne Mandelbaum: A Force of Nature for Safe Travel with Allergies
Anne Russell: A Nurse Driven to Improve Food Allergy Education