I had to chuckle while making my kids’ their favorite lunch. They love grilled cheese sandwiches and let’s be honest, who doesn’t? Grilled cheese, made properly, is toasted ambrosia that spans across any generational or cultural barrier. The sandwiches I was making on the day in question were made with gluten free bread and filled with dairy free soy cheese. Luckily we live in an age of quality food substitutes that taste pretty decent but the irony of it all didn’t escape me; living with food allergies calls for many adaptations to diet and lifestyle.
My oldest wasn’t diagnosed with a gluten intolerance until age 5 or 6. She sometimes complained of having a tummy ache but the dots didn’t get connected until her twin sisters came along. From the time they started eating solid food peaking at about age one, the twins regularly developed beet red rashes on their bottoms. My memory is hazy about how we came to diagnose their specific allergies because, well – toddler twins. But after doing research, talking with other parents and visiting our family physician, we ended up seeing an applied kinesiologist. For those who don’t know, applied kinesiology tests one’s reaction to different foods by having them hold samples and then testing their muscle resistance by pulling their arm. If there is a reaction, the body will reveal it through lessened muscular resistance. It sounds like voodoo, and there are plenty of skeptics against it but whatever sorcery is involved, it was a life saver and gave me a road map for how to feed my children without their butts bursting into flames after every meal.
For a while it felt like there was very little I could feed my children. They reacted to gluten, dairy, citrus, berries, certain nuts and pork. Seriously, who is allergic to pork? Luckily over time, my kids naturally grew past many of these sensitivities. As we adapted, I learned that I would have to be mindful of ingredients but there were many options available. I never particularly loved cooking, it felt like a burden and poor use of time but because of my family’s restrictions I began making more things from scratch. Early experiments yielded mixed results but as I became more comfortable with coconut or soy milk, rice flour, soy cheese and millet cereal, the better the menu became. Most remarkably I discovered that I actually enjoyed cooking and I sought out new recipes and tried new meals. I am fortunate to have children who make good guinea pigs and will try anything. Even if they gag about how horrible something was last time it was served, they always take a small taste to see if their opinion has shifted at all and their feedback is instrumental in tweaking things to be more palatable. This is a blessing when feeding three young mouths with three different ideas of what is tasty.
In the Tween world, food allergies can be awkward to navigate. What feelings do our allergic kids have when their best friend has a mouthwatering birthday cake with mounds of frosting in the shape of their favorite Star Wars character on it but they know that the wheat lurking just below Jabba will cause a great disturbance in the force? It’s hard to be left out or misunderstood. How many times will your kids be invited to a sleep over where Dominoes delivers a cheesy, wheat filled death pie to the door? Or everyone has peanut butter sandwiches for lunch? It’s not easy early on to smooth out ruffled emotions or feelings of exclusion but with a few adaptations, over time kids can own their food allergies and go into social situations prepared.
A simple phone call to the host is the first step in damage control. Find out what will be served and what potential allergens are involved. Many times parents are sensitive to guests with allergies and will provide options to accommodate them. If not, simply request to bring your own food. For birthday parties, we stop at the co-op beforehand and my kids pick out a gluten free cupcake or pastry. In our dairy free days, we would grab some sorbet or rice dream in lieu of ice cream. The first time or two my kids were self-conscious of having a different dessert than everyone else but now it has become the norm and they look forward to having their own choice to bring. For lunches or dinners I’ve packed a meal for my kids to bring. If I know the host is ordering pizza, I will make my kids their own to bring. With frozen gluten free crusts, making pizza is a fun project that we enjoy doing as a family. Another option is to have a gluten free pizza ordered to the party.
As time goes by, kids will hopefully feel less stigmatized by their dietary limitations. Peer groups grow together and accommodating each other becomes the norm rather than the exception. When my kids go to their friend’s homes, the family already knows our dietary restrictions and most times has food available for them.
Food allergies can be stressful and intimidating at first. The idea of no longer stocking pecan ripple ice cream can be upsetting but when one freezer door closes, another opens. Navigating a new diet gives us the opportunity to be more mindful about our food; to check our ingredients, understand where they come from and use them in new recipes. I equate feeding my kids with loving them; mine deserve the best food that I can give them.