Cooking is hard for any mom, but throw in food allergies and intolerances and all of the associated stress and it feels impossible. When managing food allergies, there are certain skills you need. Read on or listen to the podcast below for more.
A few weeks ago I was chatting with my sweet sister-in-law (and listener) about dealing with food allergies.
She wanted to know, specificaly, if all of the things I teach here on the blog and podcast about meal planning and meal prep were useful and do-able for her (she’s managed a dairy intolerance for several years).
My answer was, of course, an emphatic yes.
I would say that the principles I teach here about kitchen management are even more essential for those of you managing food allergies and intolerances.
Which is why I thought, rather than just answer her privately, I’d create an episode just for you about managing food allergies.
My experience with managing food allergies
First off, let me be clear, I have not dealt with a food allergy on my own, but before you tune me out, let me tell you about the experience I do have with allergies and intolerances.
Before I became a mom I was a food service dietitian in the corporate world (…okay, I was the nutrition manager of a university preschool, but it was my corporate world.)
At that time, my job was to plan and prepare meals and snacks for 100 preschoolers ranging in age from 6 months to 5 years, and with a wide variety of food allergies and intolerances.
In fact, at any given time I was generally dealing with 3-4 different allergies on a daily basis including eggs, dairy, soy, gluten, and nuts. There were also several students who were vegetarian, and some who had multiple allergies or intolerances to juggle.
I’ll tell you what, at times, the stress of trying to make 5 different lunches for a crowd felt like too much to handle, especially coupled with the fear that I might accidentally give a child the wrong thing.
So while I don’t have experience with the grief and emotional side of managing a food allergy (and for that, I’m sorry mommas. It’s a big change to be sure), I DO know what the juggle and struggle of feeding kids well despite their allergy.
…and my time in that preschool kitchen taught me a thing or two that I think you just might find useful.
Let’s press on.
Why cooking with food allergies is so much harder
In my experience as a dietitian, I had many moments where I had to educate patients about a new diet that would be necessary for their health with regard to a wide variety of diagnoses.
One of reasons these diagnoses were so stressful is that we live in a world where we know so little about the food we eat (one of the main reasons I am trying to increase whole foods for everyone).
Because of this, when you are asked to make dietary changes it feels very stressful and food starts to feel like (and might literally be) a poison instead of something that nourishes your body.
…But of course, you still need to eat. So you feel this pull in both directions of needing to eat, but also being afraid that everything you are used to eating is dangerous and harmful.
An interesting observation I had when working with people in the hospital with their food allergies, is that the levels of stress in individuals who cooked often varied drastically from those that relied on convenience foods and fast foods.
This isn’t surprising. The people who cooked often already knew what foods and food items contained the allergen or type of food they were avoiding.
Or if they didn’t, they were confident enough in their skills to know that they could figure out ways to substitute and avoid the allergen.
Those who relied on convenience foods felt overwhelmed and as if there was nothing they could eat when they discovered their favorite foods are generally high in things they were supposed to be avoiding.
It was actually this discovery that motivated me to create this blog and space on the internet about cooking, because learning to cook from scratch truly gives you so much freedom and helps you feel in control when things feel out of control (when dealing with a diagnosis for example!)
The combination of these experiences led me to believe that there are 3 skills that will make managing food allergies more manageable.
Lucky for you, they are the same skills that I talk about all the time on the podcast, but this week we’ll be discussing specifically how to use these 3 skills to manage food allergies.
Let’s dive into those skills.
The 3 skills you need to manage food allergies without burnout
In today’s world, you can honestly get by without a knowledge of cooking. There are loads of convenience foods available making it so you rarely if ever NEED to cook. But not learning the basic skills around cooking would be a mistake (whether you have an allergy or not).
How to cook with food allergies.
- Check out popular substitutions for the foods you are avoiding.
- Experiment (remember, there’s no shame in “failure” it’s a process for everyone)
- Research little known sources of the allergen
- Learn about cross contamination and how to avoid it.
When you have food allergies, it’s all the more important to have a plan. Most of us could grab Wendy’s on the way home and it’s no big deal, but if you find yourself in a situation without a plan you might be easily frustrated (and hungry) trying to find something safe to eat quickly.
One of the big bummers about a food allergy is that suddenly your options become much more limited.
There is also a fear around restaurants because even if an item is allergy-free, you have no way of knowing if the employees are cross-contaminating or taking necessary precautions.
Meal planning is going to be absolutely essential for not getting stuck in the I’m super hungry and there’s nothing I can eat trap.
Let’s talk about meal planning with food allergies. I’ve got two favorite tips that I used all the time in my time as a nutrition manager to make meals that most kids could eat without substitution.
So here’s my best meal planning tips for someone with food allergies.
- Look to other cultures. – The American diet is high in allergens, like we talked about. But many other cultures use dairy much less frequently than we do, as well as gluten. You can always learn to substitute, of course, but sometimes it’s easiest to find a dish that doesn’t require any substitutions at all.
- Make lists of foods/dishes you CAN eat. – Menu planning will likely feel very overwhelming, especially at first, and starting by brainstorming a list will really simplify the process and help you feel empowered by how many things you can actually eat rather than discouraged by the things that you can’t.
One of the biggest ways to make all cooking that comes with managing food allergies do-able and possible is with meal prep.
I think this is the part that my sister-in-law wondered most about, could all of the meal prep advice that I have here work for her to?
…and the answer (after I did a little research) is yes!
Let’s pretend you are allergic to dairy and you want to make a casserole.
This process will be much harder with a food allergy, because you won’t be able to utilize shortcuts and helps along the way (like using condensed soup as a sauce).
But, what if instead of starting by making everything from scratch and then making a casserole, you were able to pull a tupperware of already made cream soup out of your freezer and then assemble your casserole?
In this case, it would be essentially just as easy for you to make a casserole as it is for everyone else.
By meal prepping cream of chicken soup (which you can do in a great big batch so you can make not just one but 5 or 6 casseroles) you put yourself back at “normal” cooking level.
This is 100% the biggest way I was able to manage several different allergies for several different children. I wasn’t able to keep up a kitchen without cross-contamination for 5 different allergens every day. It just wasn’t an option.
But I was able to stock up and make items for each child individually that were carefully labelled and stored away from other allergens in the freezer.
I was then able to only get these items out after we had finished the rest of the meal and sanitized all of the allergens.
This technique can work for you and your kids too.
It will be life-changing as you can suddenly make the same meal for everyone with an appropriate substitute already made.
I hope you can see the power in this.
If you are one of the many Americans who struggles with food allergies, I hope this episode has helped you feel seen and has helped you see some “light at the end of the tunnel” as you consider these strategies to help you manage your allergies.
If you aren’t, good news, these strategies work equally well for all diets, and starting to master them now will come in super handy if you ever do have to deal with a dietary restriction of some kind or another.
By learning skills in cooking, meal planning, and meal prep a managing food allergies will become much less overwheming and might even start to feel manageable.
Next week, we’ve got a super fun topic all about how to meal plan and meal prep for your summer camping trips.
Cooking can be so challenging in the mountains without all of your favorite tools, next week’s episode will allow you to keep all the fun of cooking outside, without the time-consuming prep, I’ll even include a free menu plan you can try for your next camping trip.
I hope you’ll tune in, until next week, happy planning!