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.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Easy as Pie

by Kelley Lindberg

I spent all day yesterday in the kitchen. It’s harvest time, so that means my counters are overflowing with tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, and raspberries from my own garden, and peaches from a neighbor’s. So I spent the day making salsa, making spaghetti sauce to freeze for low-effort dinners this winter, and grating zucchini to freeze for making zucchini bread and throwing into soups and casseroles.

Then I tackled a couple of Peach Melba pies. I made my pie crust from scratch, and once again puzzled over the expression “easy as pie.”

Who made that up? A sadistic cook wishing to lure people into expensive cooking classes?

Okay, so I admit that there are only 4 ingredients in a pie crust, and one of them is water. It doesn’t look that hard on paper. (Much of life can be summed up that way, can’t it?) But since I only make pies from scratch about once a year, I always manage to forget that the execution takes a lot more effort and finesse than you’d think.

It’s not complicated – cut 3/4 cup of shortening into 2 cups of flour and 1 tsp of salt, make a well in the center of the crumbly mixture, add 4 T of ice water, and mix.

See? Deceptively easy. But this is my grandmother’s recipe, and there’s always a catch. “Don’t over-handle it” she says. I know that if you handle the crust too much, it will stop being flaky and start being chewy. So I try to minimize my handling, whatever that means. Then I roll it out on a floured piece of wax paper. Again, not so easy. The dough has an annoying tendency to stick to my non-stick rolling pin. Then it wants to either stick to the wax paper or not stick to the wax paper, depending on what I want it to do at that particular moment. And it’s just the right texture to tear instead of stretch as I lay it into the pan.


Oh well. Eventually I got it into the pan and trimmed the edges. Then came the peaches. I peeled and cut up about 3 cups of peaches for each pie, which seemed to take forever, then added a cup of raspberries to each batch. Added in some sugar, a touch of salt, and a touch of flour to thicken it. Then I made more pie crust for the top layers – it didn’t get easier with practice, but finally I had the two pies intact and in the oven.

I used a cookbook to tell me how long to cook the pies. But since we’re at high altitude, it always takes longer to bake things, so it becomes a guessing game, rather than a science. I guessed wrong. Not bad, but enough so that the bottom crust wasn’t quite done when I cut into it after dinner.

Oh well. The good news is that it actually tasted pretty good. And spending the day in the kitchen gives me a kind of strange, domestic sense of accomplishment, putting me in tune with generations of female ancestors who spent every day there, instead of just a few days in the fall.

I spend most of my time making baked goods from scratch these days because it’s the easiest way to avoid food allergens. But I do appreciate when I can use commercial short-cuts, like Pillsbury’s pie crusts. But I have to admit, it just doesn’t taste quite as good as Grandmother’s pie crust. Even if it was more work.

My grandmother knew what she was doing.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Is Your Cookware Food-Allergy Safe?

by Kelley Lindberg

Okay, so you’ve cleared your pantry of the foods your newly diagnosed family member is allergic to. You’ve found some new recipes and discovered your new favorite brands of safe cookies.

Now it’s time to look in your pots and pans cabinet.


Yep, it’s true. Some of your cookware may not be safe to use for your food-allergic loved one.

For the most part, your regular pots and pans and baking dishes – the stainless steel or non-stick ones and the glass dishes – are probably safe. As long as the surface is non-porous and can be thoroughly cleaned, it should be okay.

Stoneware, however, needs a closer look. If your stoneware is fully glazed (and the glaze isn’t cracked), then the food probably washes off just fine and it’s probably okay to use. But if your stoneware’s cooking surface is rough and unpainted (that pizza stone or that Pampered Chef casserole dish), then that rough surface absorbs the oils from any food cooked in it. That’s what gives the stoneware that nice non-stick finish the more you use it, but it also means the stoneware has probably absorbed unsafe food allergen proteins. So you shouldn’t use it for preparing food that will be eaten by a food-allergic person.

The same goes for that Dutch oven you take camping. If you’ve made Aunt Rita’s cheesy biscuits in it in the past, don’t make dinner in it this weekend for your milk-allergic son.

A cast iron skillet is in the same boat. If it’s a true cast iron skillet with that beautifully seasoned surface that you’ve spent years building up (the kind where you just wipe it clean or maybe use a quick rinse, but you’d divorce your hubby if he scrubbed it with a Brillo pad), then that great black surface is made of hardened food oils, some of which may still contain allergens.

Be aware of cookware when you go to parties, too. Check with the cook to see if they used a stoneware pan for those yummy-looking pumpkin bars before you indulge in them.

If you do find unsafe cookware in your cupboards, and you’ve wondered why your child keeps getting sick even though you’ve eliminated the allergens from his or her diet, you may have just discovered the culprit.

While you’re at it, check your non-stick pans and skillets. If the non-stick surface is peeling off and you can see the metal beneath it, toss it out. That has nothing to do with allergies, and everything to do with toxic materials leaching into your food. Ick. And think twice about any aluminum pans, too. Aluminum is allegedly being tentatively linked to Alzheimer’s and other illnesses, so you might want to consider avoiding aluminum cooking surfaces and go with stainless steel instead. Just something to think about.

So… sad but true, it’s time to ditch the old stoneware. The good news is: the holidays are coming up! Maybe it’s a good time to ask Santa for some new stoneware or a new Dutch oven – and this time, you can be sure it’s only used to prepare safe foods, and you’ll embark on a long, new, safer life together!

Monday, September 6, 2010

Signs of a Food Allergy Reaction

by Kelley Lindberg

How do you know if someone is having an allergic reaction to a food?

Knowing the most common signs of a reaction can help you identify it correctly. Here are the most common symptoms to look for in a food allergy reaction, according to the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN):
  • A tingling sensation in the mouth
  • Swelling of the tongue and the throat
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Hives
  • Vomiting
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Diarrhea
  • Drop in blood pressure
  • Loss of consciousness
Typically, symptoms appear within minutes of eating the food, but sometimes it can take up to two hours for symptoms to appear.

Don’t expect to see all of those reactions at the same time. Many reactions may only display one or two of those symptoms. If you spend a lot of time with someone who has food allergies (such as a student in your class, a co-worker, or a scout in your troop), ask what their most common symptoms are and watch for those. But beware – allergic symptoms can vary from episode to episode, so try to be familiar with all the symptoms and watch for them.

Parents are usually the best at reading the early signs of a reaction, of course. For example, my son’s friend often gets itchy spots on the back of his neck as the first sign of an allergic reaction. That’s the kind of thing a stranger probably wouldn’t notice, but his mother can see that little tell-tale before anyone else can. But her son’s reaction can rapidly progress to include cramping, a rash near his mouth, welts if there was skin contact, or vomiting. All of these are signs I know to watch for if he’s staying at our house. They’re also signs I watch for in any child, now that I know they are common food allergy symptoms. Even if you don’t know someone well, being familiar with all the signs of an allergic reaction can help you identify what might be happening.

Now that you know what to look for, what do you do if you suspect someone is having a reaction? It’s pretty simple:
  1. Administer the person’s medication immediately. Usually you give them an antihistamine first (Benadryl, Allegra, Zyrtec, Claratin, etc.). If the symptoms get worse, administer the person’s epinephrine injection (EpiPen, Twinject, or Adrenaclick). Don’t worry, The instructions are usually printed right on the injector.
  2. Call 911 or a doctor and tell them you believe the victim is having an allergic reaction to food. Tell them what medicine you gave them.
  3. Get the person to medical help, and stay with them and watch them for 24 hours (even if they’re sent home). As the medication wears off, the reaction can come back, so it’s important to watch them for recurrences.
With some extremely sensitive people, it’s critical to immediately administer epinephrine without waiting to see if an antihistamine works. If the victim tells you to use the epinephrine right away, don’t hesitate.

Remember, I’m not a medical professional, so don’t take this information as medical advice – I’m just giving you some tips. Talk to your own allergist or medical provider for information specific to your own condition. And for more information about food allergies, their symptoms, their treatment, and other aspects, see FAAN’s website, For information on epinephrine injectors, see, or