Amanda Orlando wears many hats. She is a cookbook author and photographer, a blogger, an adult living with food allergy and most recently an online retailer. We recently had the opportunity to interview Amanda to learn about her food allergy journey, her many accomplishments at the young age of 28, and what inspired her to create her allergy-friendly online store.
Amanda’s food allergy journey began when she was a baby. Her parents knew there was something wrong because she was covered in terrible eczema and had issues feeding. Fortunately, an allergy diagnosis was quickly confirmed and they were able to feed her a safe formula. She is allergic to peanuts, nuts, dairy, legumes, and soy. The rest of her family also has food allergies to manage. Her older brother developed allergies to peanut, tree nuts, and shellfish when he was 2 years old and her mom had adult onset allergies (peanut and tree nut). “Having food allergies has always been a part of my family’s life; it influences how we eat, vacation, and socialize. It’s just the norm for us!”
While her family learned how to cope with the various food allergies, Amanda’s journey did have some bumps in the road. “The biggest challenge for me growing up was feeling like I didn’t fit in at school. It’s crazy how social events – all of them – revolve around food! My parents always took care to pack me a safe snack, a piece of birthday cake, etc. but I knew I had to do things differently than the other kids who were able to eat and enjoy freely.”
Now that she’s an adult, she appreciates that these experiences build character and confidently states “My allergies were just one more thing that made me unique. I learned the hard way that trying to hide that side of myself throughout high school and university was not the way to go about it. Finally embracing who I am, and that food allergies are part of that, has been a big relief.”
Her allergies, in fact, inspired Amanda to write a couple of allergy-friendly cookbooks and start a blog, Everyday Allergen-Free. She started the blog after having an allergic reaction in January 2015. “This was my first anaphylactic reaction as an adult. It completely caught me off guard and knocked me on my butt. I had terrible anxiety and PTSD afterwards and it negatively impacted my mental and physical health. I decided to write about it to help others like me.”
The blog covers a variety of subjects such as Amanda’s personal stories about living with food allergies as a teen and adult. “My goal with Everyday Allergen-Free is to inspire confidence. I hope that other people with food allergies will read it and feel empowered.” Some are stories from high school or university, others are about current experiences, and some are thought pieces about the emotional/social side of food allergies. Her most popular topics are anxiety and PTSD, travel, and dating. “I absolutely love to cook so I share tons of recipes, too! I often have guest writers from the community as well,” Amanda adds about the blog.
Earlier this year, Amanda launched an online store to make shopping for allergy-friendly products easier for Canadians. “When I was in university I had access to so many safe brands in Toronto, but after talking to other young adults I realized that finding allergy-friendly products is an issue for many,” she explains. She got the idea to create an allergy-safe care package that parents could send to their kids while away at school but as she was exploring the idea she realized “I wasn’t satisfied with the online shopping experience for allergen-free products and I found it hard to discover new brands.” That’s when the lightbulb went on for Amanda and she created Handled With Care, an allergy-friendly e-shop.
“At Handled With Care, we sell care packages as well as a whole variety of allergy-friendly food, skincare, and cosmetics. Come for the brands you love and discover something new, too,” she quips.
When asked who her e-shop is aimed at Amanda explains, “Since food allergies affect people of all ages I think the shop is for everyone, but my focus is on kids and young adults with food allergies and their families. We have lots of bundles for pantry stock-ups, value packs, and safe care packages for kids away at school.”
The product selection on Handled With Care is curated very carefully by Amanda. She has very strict criteria about the brands she lists. Not only is each product free from different allergens or gluten, the brand must be food allergy-conscious, the food manufacturer must be able to provide her with complete ingredient listings, and information about cross-contamination. “If they can’t provide that information, then they don’t make the cut. Many of the companies have dedicated allergen-free facilities and take pride in being allergy-friendly, trusted brands,” Amanda clarifies. “On top of that, the product has to be enjoyable! If it doesn’t please my taste testers or skincare testers, I’m not interested in carrying it.”
Handled With Care also supports different charities and contributes to funding food allergy research and education by donating a portion of its sales. Food Allergy Canada is one such recipient until the end of the year. “My focus right now is on local charities that support the allergy community. Food Allergy Canada is such an important organization and has provided me personally with a lot of education and information, and I appreciate their advocacy efforts to improve labelling regulations. Educating yourself and others about food allergy is so necessary, I don’t think you can ever know too much. And the more people outside of the food allergy community who learn about it [the seriousness of food allergies], the stronger we will be. Food Allergy Canada is making our country safer for Canadians living with food allergies.”
When asked what advice she has for kids with food allergies, Amanda offers these words of wisdom, “There are times when having food allergies is going to make your life difficult, this is a fact. Sometimes it’s logistical, sometimes it’s being bullied or feeling excluded, but never let it crush your confidence. Your allergies are a part of you, but they don’t define you. Make the best of it, don’t be shy about it or try to hide who you are. Own it, embrace it, talk about it. And prioritize friends who really care about you and your well-being.”
For parents of young children, it can be hard to imagine teaching them to manage on their own and embrace their allergies as Amanda has. Her advice to parents? “Equip your kids with as much knowledge as possible about how to manage their allergies independently. Eventually the burden of allergy management will be theirs, and although it will likely be stressful either way, it’s easier if it’s a gradual transition than an abrupt change. Get your kids involved in cooking from an early age, teach them to read labels, let them help communicate with servers. Anything you can do to make them feel confident in managing their food allergy on their own.”
Amanda leaves us with these final thoughts: “Connecting with others living with food allergies was so important for me! At times I felt very alone, or I didn’t know how to cope, or I didn’t know if my feelings of anxiety and worry were “normal”. Talking about my allergies with other people made me realize that I was part of a community and that I had a big support system outside of my friends and family. Sometimes weird little situations will arise because of my allergies, and it’s nice to have someone to talk to who understands and just gets it.”
Thank you, Amanda, for being a role model to those living with food allergy!