The conversation usually runs something like this:
“So what is Adam allergic to? Is it dairy?”
Me: “Um, yes, dairy. And also soy, eggs, wheat, nuts, peanuts, chickpeas, sesame, beef, fish, bananas, strawberries. And well, many more, just I can’t always remember them all”
“[bit of a pause] So what on earth can Adam eat?!”
I then often hear about another family the person knows with allergic children who ‘can only’ eat non-wholewheat pasta and white rice.
It’s funny because over 2 years ago when we first heard that Adam was allergic I also felt like our options were so extremely limited because of the number of foods we’d have to avoid. I grew up thinking that all pasta was made with wheat (not even wholewheat) and that the only rice that existed was white. We ate fish almost every day at home and when I became vegetarian in my late teens I ended up eating soy or Quorn products almost daily.
So initially, after Adam’s diagnosis at 9 months, I thought “heck, there’s really nothing we can eat” (because I switched to “Adam’s diet” the same day since I was still breastfeeding him umpteen times a day).
But now, it seems so obvious to me that of course there is such an incredible array of foods that are safe for Adam that it sometimes takes me a while to try and explain that actually, thank God, his diet really is more varied and nutritious than the average kid’s.
First off, if you’ve also just learned about your kid’s allergy, get yourself to a health food store or a massive Waitrose or Sainsburys. Forget about your local average-sized supermarket. You’ll likely find very little and end up wandering the aisles either in tears or very close to crying as you look upon shelf after shelf stacked high with allergen-packed foods. At least a large Waitrose will have a decent sized ‘free from’ section as well as have foods dotted around the ‘normal’ produce that will be safe for your kid, particularly grains/seeds that can be hard to find e.g. quinoa, buckwheat, brown rice pasta. Health food stores are the bees knees for allergy sufferers as they are filled with a much much larger variety of foods even if the actual store is quite small. I’m sure there have been studies into just how unvaried the food in supermarkets really is.
Secondly, you’ll need to avoid looking at the prices. Seriously. Because whole grain foods and more speciality foods are really very expensive. A bag of organic brown rice pasta costs £2.50. A bag of organic wholewheat pasta sells at £1 in the same store. Get what you can on prescription too.
Thirdly, wander the fruit and vegetable sections, in particular, with a really open eye. Don’t just go for the broccoli and carrots you’ve been buying for years but have a real nosey around to find new things you haven’t tried before. Don’t worry about not knowing ‘what to do with them’. Most things can be boiled, stir-fried, baked or roasted. Adam really likes papaya for example which we never used to buy before. He loves okra too which I’d never cooked with before. Also try not to be put off by myths about certain foods e.g. that spinach is gross and must be served all limp and flavourless. There’s loads you can do with spinach and I use it in almost every dish (altho I cheat and use it frozen and then put it in the blender so its incognito in the dish).
Fourthly, accept that you are unlikely to find many recipes that are fully suitable for you. Gone are the days when you saw a Jamie Oliver recipe and just bought the ingredients, followed the instructions and bam, you had a wonderful meal. Now you’ll need to adapt almost every recipe, usually more than once. You’ll soon suss out what substitutes well for what (I’ve used google countless times for things like ‘substituting xyz in a dish’). You’ll need to become adept at experimenting and initially, if you’re anything like me, you’ll create pretty grim concoctions. But as time goes by, you’ll realise there is a lot you can do for flavour for example with just ginger, garlic and coriander. You can grow your own herbs so your child has fun picking them and so you have some flavour enhancers always to hand.
Fifthly and lastly, keep lists! List all the foods that are safe for your child to eat and keep that list to hand. Particularly in the first days its wonderful to know what you can cook with and what you need to pick up from the supermarket without having to read labels over and over again (altho for things that are processed always read the labels even on foods you’ve already bought before). Also list all the dishes that you know your child likes. Initially you might have just one dish you know how to make and which is safe for your child. But over the months and years you will expand your repertoire! Keep a big stash of snacks such as Anisa Buckwheat crispbreads or Organix Date and Apple bars which all kids love.
I’ll leave it for another post to mention some of the staple foods we keep in our storecupboards and fridge as well as some of the really easy recipes that are nutritious and which hopefully you won’t need to adapt.
I hope this post is helpful particularly to those who are in the first year or so of coping with multiple allergies in their family. It took me at least a full year to stop feeling a bit despondent at the number of things we couldn’t buy and instead to start being excited about the wide variety of foods we could buy. What made things worse was excitedly coming across allergy websites which promised ‘free from’ recipes that were actually mostly full of things Adam is allergic to.
Feel free to leave a comment with any other tips you might have or to share your experience of dealing with this issue. Happy food exploring!