Monday, September 27, 2010

Relearning to Cook with Food Allergies

by Kelley Lindberg

One of the first questions everyone asks when first told they or their children have food allergies is:

“What on earth are we going to eat now?”

We look in our pantries and our fridges and we panic. Half the stuff we bought on our last grocery trip turns out to contain the ingredients that have been making us or our kids sick. We toss out boxes of crackers and cookies, seasoned rice and pasta pouches, pre-cooked skillet meals, frozen Italian and Chinese meals, and cake mixes. We stand there in our now nearly empty kitchen and try to think what to make for dinner. We’re thinking raw carrots and a jar of applesauce.

Our next trip to the grocery store is agonizing. It takes 4 hours. We read every label on every package, and we despair. There it is – that warning label we’ve just been taught to look for, and it’s on everything: “Contains milk (or soy, or nuts, or wheat, or egg, or…)” We fight back tears in the grocery aisle because our routine is suddenly all shot to ragged bits, lying on the floor at our feet. Everything we relied on is now considered “dangerous.” Everything we used to throw on the stove at the last minute when the kids are fighting, we’re exhausted, and everyone is hungry is now off-limits.

It’s scary. It’s frustrating. It’s maddening. It’s overwhelming.

“What on earth are we going to eat now?”

Over the next week or two, we try to pull ourselves together. We search the internet. We ask friends. We go back to the store and try again. And finally, we begin to piece together new routines. New recipes. New foods to prepare.

And we relearn how to cook.

That’s the tricky part. Let’s be honest. We live in a society where cooking has become optional. Before you found out about your family’s food allergies, when was the last time you made a cake from scratch? The last time you made stir-fry that didn’t pour out of a frozen bag? The last time you cracked open that great cookbook you were so excited to get that one birthday? The last time you made a sack lunch for your kids?

The thing is, prepackaged food has gotten surprisingly good over the last decade or so. The frozen lasagna ain’t bad. The frozen Chicken Cordon Blue is downright tasty. Meats come pre-marinaded and ready for the grill. Frozen veggies come with their own cream sauce. Those frozen lunches are fast and easy.

And we love to eat out. Depending on the poll you read, Americans eat out an average of 2 to 5 times a week. And according to the USDA’s Economic Research Service, about half of Americans’ food budget every month is spent on food away from home (up from a third in the 1970s).

So it’s not surprising that most of us have sort of forgotten how to cook. I mean sure, we can throw hamburger meat in a pan and toss in some taco seasoning – I call that cooking, don’t you? But you can only make tacos so many times a week before someone starts to whine.

What we discover when we develop food allergies is that we can, indeed, cook again. We relearn how to grill, roast, and stir-fry meat with seasonings out of our spice cabinet instead of out of an envelope. We steam veggies and discover that a little balsamic vinegar is just as tasty as all those cream sauces. We drag our crock-pot out of the cabinet and it becomes our new best friend when we toss in some meat, some veggies, and some apple juice or water or safe chicken broth.

And eventually, we have new routines. We can go to the grocery store without melting down. We hang out in the fresh produce aisle and at the meat counter instead of in the frozen food section. We crush potato chips or safe crackers to coat our chicken breasts instead of buying chicken nuggets. And we realize that cooking isn’t as hard as we remembered it, in most cases. And, as a bonus, it’s often healthier, tastier, and cheaper. It’s a pain to relearn at first, sometimes, and it often takes a little longer, but after a while, it finally becomes second nature to us. Even the pies I made last week that took so long tasted better than the frozen ones, and it’s not like I make them all the time, so an occasional big-effort cooking day isn’t so bad. Most dinners I make are fast and easy, in comparison.

So when we’re looking for silver linings to the black clouds that life scoots across our skies, maybe this is ours. In a world of fast-food, super-sized, mega-calorie excess, those of us with food allergies in our families have an edge.

We’ve relearned how to cook.


Susan G. said...

We've just been diagnosed and have been going through this..thanks so much for pointing out the silver lining and providing hope on a difficult day!

Kelley J. P. Lindberg said...

Oh Susan, I'm so glad you stopped by. It is such a hard adjustment at first -- but it really does get easier to manage with time. If you're in Utah, visit for local events (the no-food Halloween party is coming up!), or join the UFAN email forum for conversations with other food allergy folks. We're here to help!

Heather @ Alis Grave Nil said...

Great post! My husband has 42 known food allergies and we're still discovering more as the days go by. It's completely changed how we cook and eat in the past few years. Do you have a list on your blog of the allergies your family is working around? Love your blog.

Kelley J. P. Lindberg said...

Heather -- 42 known food allergies? My heart goes out to you and your husband. It's wonderful he has such a caring wife who will help him find new ways to eat. In my house, my son is allergic to peanuts, tree nuts, and lupin (a flour used in Europe). I'm allergic to barley, avocados, brewer's yeast, and aluminum. My son's best friend is allergic to nuts, peanuts, milk, egg, seafood, raw tomatoes, raw peaches, and sesame seeds, so we are used to cooking for his diet, too. Everywhere I go, I find people with food allergies. It's something that affects us all in one way or another! Thanks so much for stopping by!