You spend some, you save some

Ever since finding out that our baby has food allergies, as a breastfeeding mom, I have been working to cut out his allergens from my diet as well as cooking allergen-free family meals. It’s quite the educational experience for me as I delve into the world of cooking without dairy, eggs, nuts, soy, and wheat.

You spend some.

Using allergen-free gluten-free wheat alternatives is adding up in costs. We have a variety of flours in bags of approximately 700g, with each bag costing between $6-8. The grains are all grown in Canada and non-GMO, and mostly importantly, they’re safe for our toddler. Our most commonly used flours seem to be brown rice flour, oat flour and tapioca starch. The latter may seem odd but we found an awesome waffle recipe that happens to use quite a bit of tapioca starch. Anyways, you compare the cumulative cost of the flours with buying a bag of all-purpose wheat flour…let’s not bother calculating the difference.

You save some.

February is half a month away but you wouldn’t have known it walking down the aisles of any food-selling store in early January. There was so much heart-shaped, pink or red-coloured sweets adorning the shelves that you would think that Valentine’s Day was just a few days away. I used to wander the aisle of commercial chocolates, looking at all of the options, maybe buying a box of this or that on the odd occasion, but even if I was window shopping that aisle on most days, I’d still spend time there. This year, at Halloween, Christmas, Valentine’s Day…I just blast right through the seasonal section of the store because I know that hardly any of the options are allergy-friendly.

This isn’t just true of the seasonal chocolates. Most of the candy in the store that I would ever want to buy either has milk, modified milk ingredients, peanuts or other tree nuts, or egg. One day at work, I was feeling munchy but after having eaten all of the snacks I had brought from home, I wandered downstairs in our office building to the little convenience store. I wanted to buy a small snack. Sometimes I wonder why I even bother but not surprisingly, every single item I picked up had one of our allergens (usually more). I can only imagine how tough it can be for people with multiple allergies. It can be challenging finding safe foods on a whim.

My new take on vegan and gluten-free

Ever since finding out that our baby has food allergies, as a breastfeeding mom, I have been working to cut out his allergens from my diet as well as cooking allergen-free family meals. It’s quite the educational experience for me as I delve into the world of cooking without dairy, eggs, nuts, soy, and wheat.

A year ago, if you told me you followed a vegan or gluten-free diet, I probably wouldn’t have wanted to have you over for dinner. I just wouldn’t have known how to prepare a meal for you because those words were huge psychological barriers.

Whenever we prepare food for our friends, I ask if there are any dietary restrictions. This has been a habit for me for many years. Usually, the answer was no dietary restrictions (phew). Occasionally, there was an allergy to nuts, an aversion to beef, or a religious restriction on pork. One type of food restriction, I could handle.

Now that I have spent almost half a year working on cooking and baking without a number of categories of ingredients, I feel as though I can be a much more welcoming host. My pantry includes a host of gluten-free, top 8 allergen-free products: tapioca and potato starches, brown and white rice flours, oat flour (gluten-free of course), sorghum flour, xanthan gum and egg replacer. I’ve become more familiar with the brands that I can buy from: Only Oats for oat products, EnerG for xanthan gum and egg replacer, and Purest for baking ingredients. Unfortunately, brands like Bob’s Red Mill, which is a super popular and widely available gluten-free option, have precautionary labelling for cross contamination with some of our allergens, making those a non-option for us. It isn’t enough to be gluten-free because it needs to be allergen-free for us as well. And yes, I have been that person, sitting on the floor in the natural foods stores/aisles, phone in hand, researching the companies that produce the products in my hand to see if they are allergen-free. It’s a time-consuming process.

I should note that we aren’t avoiding gluten because of celiac disease in our household. We’ve noticed a few welts and itchiness/redness develop after our toddler consumed wheat products (all homemade so we suspect it’s wheat and not anything else), so we’re taking a wheat hiatus. You’d think that would mean just avoiding flour but it turns out that things like oats are usually contaminated with wheat and that wheat can be masked in many products under many names. It’s actually easier just to avoid gluten because if a product is gluten-free, then it is definitely wheat-free.

My recipe arsenal is also growing. When I’m searching for recipes on the internet or in cookbooks, I use certain key words now: vegan, gluten-free, allergen-free. For baking, I find it easiest to search for vegan recipes because I know they will not include butter, milk, or eggs. From there, I can try to substitute my own home-mixed gluten-free flour for the conventional flour the recipe calls for. The only issue with vegan recipes is that they call for nuts. With savoury cooking, I start my search specifically looking for allergen-free recipes and I am so appreciative of the many blogs that I’ve come across, as well as allergicliving.com. I want meal recipes that I can just follow without having to experiment too much with ingredient substitutions. Sometimes I search for vegan recipes to find bean, vegetable or quinoa-based recipes that don’t call for dairy or eggs. I try to make a new dish at least once a week so that we continue to increase the variety of dishes we can eat.

A year ago, if you told me you followed a vegan or gluten-free diet, I probably wouldn’t have wanted to have you over for dinner. A lot can change in one year.

Allergen-free toddler (family) meal planning

Ever since finding out that our baby has food allergies, as a breastfeeding mom, I have been working to cut out his allergens from my diet as well as cooking allergen-free family meals. It’s quite the educational experience for me as I delve into the world of cooking without dairy, eggs, nuts, soy, and wheat.

Okay, first things first. Our baby is now a bona fide toddler. I can’t believe it but he is looking more and more like a little person, walking around and expressing his desires ever more clearly. We spend a lot of our at-home time in the kitchen: prepping, cooking, baking, cleaning, hanging out. One of the cool things that our toddler loves to do is stand on his wooden learning tower, which brings him up to counter height, and watch us chop, cook, or clean. He’s also been working on his skill of placing items into other objects, so we help him apply that skill all around the house. In the kitchen, this means that he can pick up chopped items and place them in a pot for cooking or into a bowl for mixing (roasted veggies). He loves helping out!

He’s also picking up on many more details about the world around him and this means that I am trying to only cook food that everyone in the family can enjoy. He notices what is on everyone’s plate and I think he learns a lot about eating food by observing us parents eat, so I’d like to have the same foods on each plate. This can be a challenge because (a) we used to eat a largely Asian diet with soy sauce, dashi, miso, and many other Asian seasonings and (b) we like to eat a variety of dishes. Our running list of foods to avoid is dairy, eggs, nuts, avocado, soy and wheat. We also have yet to try shellfish and a lot of seasonings. Luckily, our list of available proteins includes all animal and fish meats, as well as sunflower seeds…but some days I feel like we eat the same things all the time. We consulted with a dietician very recently just to learn whether or not our food offerings for our toddler were meeting his health and nutritional needs. Much to our pleasure, we were doing a pretty good job. Not surprisingly, with a diet free of dairy, the weak area of his diet was calcium.

His meals look something like this:

Breakfast

  • Oatmeal with prune or gluten-free banana waffles/pancakes
  • Selection of fruits
  • Hemp milk

Lunch/Dinner

  • A protein (beef, chicken, turkey, pork, fish) – sautéed, baked, steamed; OR
  • Beef or vegetarian chili with a variety of beans; OR
  • Vegetarian or turkey/chicken/beef stock with vegetables; OR
  • Tomato sauce with or without meatballs.
  • Rice, brown rice pasta, or quinoa
  • Sautéed, steamed, roasted or raw vegetables
  • Hemp milk

Snacks

  • Baked good using flour alternatives or rice cakes with sunbather
  • Fruit or vegetables
  • Breastmilk

Of course, there are additional variants on these meal options but this is a general idea of what we offer our toddler at the moment. By extension, this is what we eat as well. We cook everything from scratch now and I swear, we spend so much of our time either planning for, preparing or cooking food. Each week we meal plan to ensure that we get a good variety of food on our plates and to save us from having to hem and haw over what to eat during the week when both of us parents are working. We no longer have the option of just getting take out food from a restaurant as our toddler can’t eat that food.

We’ve recently begun introducing herbs (homegrown and dried). Unfortunately, we only dried thyme and oregano this year, so the remainder of herb introductions will have to be store-bought. I’ve contacted a number of major companies who package dried herbs and so far, they all have a possibility for cross-contamination in their manufacturing facilities with all of our allergens but do claim to follow good manufacturing practices. Some days it feels like the level of scrutiny that I put into our meals is overwhelming and borderline paranoia, but without questioning every preparation method and every single ingredient, I can’t feel safe giving our toddler the food. We’re firm believers in food being an enjoyable experience, as both of us parents love food, and we’re trying hard to instil that in our toddler despite the food allergies.

Raw chocolate is free of our allergens

Ever since finding out that our baby has food allergies, as a breastfeeding mom, I have been working to cut out his allergens from my diet as well as cooking allergen-free family meals. It’s quite the educational experience for me as I delve into the world of cooking without dairy, eggs, nuts, soy, and wheat.

I just wanted to update my post about allergen-free chocolates. After casually browsing the chocolate bar sections at numerous health food stores, I think I’ve realized that raw chocolate bars seem to be free of dairy, eggs, and soy, and there are several nut-free lines too…so I’ve paid the $6-$8 a bar to try a few raw bars. Giddie YoYo from my previous post is actually a raw bar and I really enjoy their line of products, not to mention that they are nut-free. Some of the other ones that I’ve tried have been okay but nothing spectacular (as in, I’m not averse to them but I also wouldn’t go out of my way to buy their brands again). I definitely have my days of missing that sweet commercial chocolate, particularly at key holiday times where my favourite commercial dairy- and nut-laden chocolates are ubiquitous, but I’m still happy to explore the less-processed raw chocolates. I suppose a side benefit is that the lower temperature processing of raw bars combined with the simple list of ingredients is actually more healthful….

If my toddler doesn’t outgrow his dairy allergy and he isn’t allergic to cacao, then raw chocolates just may be his best option, aside from Enjoy Life products.

Mirror, Mirror: 2014

I feel that as I get older, time seems to pass ever so quickly. Could it be that today is the last day of 2014? Many of my reflections for this past year are related to my new role as parent, which shouldn’t be surprising I suppose as I spent much of the past year as a stay-at-home mother.

What disappointed me?

One of my core mantras is to treat others as I would like to be treated. In some moments over the past year, I haven’t been true to this mantra with my partner. I may have been exhausted from caring for a cranky clingy baby all day, I may have wondered why he couldn’t just read my mind instead of asking me questions. These aren’t excuses for not being a good partner but it led me to not be the person that I wanted to be in some moments. It’s disappointing when my own behaviour is at the root of the issue.

I also wish I had taken more advantage of my maternity leave and enjoyed more activities that I can’t do when I’m working 40 waking hours of the week. Some days I felt too lazy, other days I just didn’t feel like doing things, and other days I felt like not having access to a car was enough of a barrier to get to places to do things.

What surprised me?

As I learned to care for a wee person, the changes in myself are what surprised me the most. I adapted to going with the flow instead of living strictly by the clock. I seemed to survive fine with much less continuous sleep than I ever thought I could survive on. My ability to react to changing emotions and situations by the minute. In the end, I think I was also surprised by just how much I would treasure spending time with my child. And somewhat related, I was pleasantly surprised and extremely grateful for just how utterly supportive my partner would be through our first year of parenthood. Without his encouraging words and supportive gestures, I likely would have given up trying to breastfeed in those early pain-filled weeks postpartum.

What did I fail at?

As a mom, my failures are not necessarily in things that I have truly failed at but more so in what I may have missed in real time and would do differently if I could turn back time. For me, I wish I had treated our baby’s eczema properly much earlier than I did because I will never stop wondering if his broken skin contributed to his food allergies. I do not have eczema and did not know that that was what my baby had or what to do about it until it was pretty bad. Looking back at photos, I feel terrible and can only imagine what he was feeling at the height of it.

What did I do well at?

I kept expectations in check and took things in stride. I tried to keep a level head in stressful situations so that hopefully my child would not get too stressed (positive energy begets positive energy): from immunizations to allergic reactions to transitioning to daycare. Overall, I think I adapted fairly well from being an employee to a stay-at-home-mother back to an employee. The needs of the “employers” were quite different in the two cases and it required a grand shift in lifestyle and attitude. Obviously, I was well supported by everyone around me and success is always due, in part, to the network of people surrounding you.

There were some minutes, hours, days in 2013 when I felt so frustrated, mostly if my baby was fighting his nap and all I needed to maintain my sanity was for him to take even a short catnap. There were many more moments this past year when I wish I could almost stop time, just to enjoy the moment for longer. I feel blessed that I had a year together at home with my child but I also feel that he will grow a lot as a child in daycare. I look forward to what the next year will bring!

Soyless tofu?

Short anecdote for today: We had a follow-up appointment with our paediatric allergist and mentioned that it seemed our child may be a wee bit sensitive to tofu. The skin prick test hadn’t indicated a reaction to soy but he had gotten a bit itchy around his face on a few occasions when we’d offered him tofu.

The allergist asked us if the tofu had soy.

I looked quizzically at my partner. My eyes asked him, Did he just ask us if tofu had soy? When my partner cracked a smile, it confirmed that I hadn’t heard wrong. I told the allergist that yes, the tofu had soy.

The allergist told us that he hadn’t reacted to soy but that maybe we can try it without the soy.

Tofu. Without soy. Tofu, without soy? I remained dumbfounded for the rest of the day and chuckle whenever I think of that conversation.

Allergen-free chocolate

Ever since finding out that our baby has food allergies, as a breastfeeding mom, I have been working to cut out his allergens from my diet. It’s quite the educational experience for me as I delve into the world of cooking without dairy, eggs, and nuts.

Ah, chocolate. That brown square that melts like velvet in my mouth. Oh but so many of the chocolates lining the shelves at stores contain milk and if not milk, they may contain or be cross contaminated with a variety of nuts. At my local health food store, I asked for a chocolate bar that does not contain milk. The lady pointed out a few good choices. I further clarified that I needed a chocolate bar that has never made contact with nuts. I was given one bar out of their entire display of chocolate bars!

When I think ahead to the Halloweens, Christmases, Easters, and Valentines of my kids’ life, I’m saddened to think that he won’t be able to readily partake in the chocolatey goodness that so many others easily enjoy. That Lindt advent calendar just isn’t in our future *tear*. It’s not just the holidays that will be difficult but facing the sheer abundance of milk/nut chocolate bars that line shelves at the grocery store, gas station, restaurants, vending machines, practically everywhere (I swear I notice it more now that I can’t eat it).

However, there is hope and that hope exists in allergen-free chocolates. Unfortunately, they are challenging to locate and the selection of flavours isn’t the greatest, particularly in my city (ie. not in the United States). Still, they are hidden gems! So far, my finds are:

  • Giddy Yoyo (free of dairy/nuts/soy). An Orangeville, Ontario company!
  • Hummingbird Chocolate (free of dairy/gluten) has no nuts in their bars. An Ottawa, Ontario company!
  • Enjoy Life! chocolate bars, chips and chunks (free of the common allergens). An American company that produces many products that are all free of the common allergens.

It’s super exciting when I find an allergen-free chocolate and I’m hoping to discover many more in the months to come!

Ubiquity of milk ingredients

Ever since finding out that our baby has food allergies, as a breastfeeding mom, I have been working to cut out his allergens from my diet. It’s quite the educational experience for me as I delve into the world of cooking without dairy, eggs, and nuts.

I read labels when I shop. What are the ingredients? Where is it from? What is the nutritional information? However, I’m realizing that I hadn’t been reading labels on every single food product that I was purchasing.

My go-to chip is the Kettle brand chip and during one of my recent grocery shopping trips, I absent mindedly picked up a bag of sweet onion-flavoured chips…and yes, I had a chip craving one day and went to grab a handful of these chips, only to read the label at that point (did I mention I had an immediate craving!) and find milk ingredients! Reluctantly, I put the bag back in the pantry, unopened.

The more I scrutinize food products, the more I realize just how ubiquitous milk ingredients are. There are the obvious dairy products: the cheeses, yogurts, and ice creams. Then, there are the somewhat obvious milk-y products: many popular chocolates, sherbets, cheesy crackers, etc. But the chips!?

Luckily, products now have a clear statement when they contain any of the top food allergens (soy, milk, wheat, fish, shellfish, peanuts, tree nuts, egg, sulphites, mustard) – see Health Canada’s page outlining 2012 changes to allergen labelling requirements – and many have precautionary statements laying out possibility of inadvertent contamination with common allergens. Had I read the label on the chip bag, I would’ve easily seen “milk ingredients” among the list of ingredients but I didn’t realize that seasonings are another possible source of milk.

Milk. It’s in so much of the packaged foods that we consume and to an extent that I am only now realizing.

Straight dairy alternatives…so far

Ever since finding out that our baby has food allergies, as a breastfeeding mom, I have been working to cut out his allergens from my diet. It’s quite the educational experience for me as I delve into the world of cooking without dairy, eggs, and nuts.

I grew up drinking a lot of milk. I’ve heard many a complaint from friends that skim milk just tastes like water but that is exactly why I loved it: water with calcium. Oh so refreshing! I would have it with my breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Then, in my twenties, I started to suspect that I was a little bit lactose intolerant and decided to stop drinking milk. However, I could not stop did not want to stop eating dairy products such as ice cream (craziness to cut that out!), yogurt and cheese. I love these things, after all.

Fast forward to today, where I have a stronger reason to cut dairy out of my life: my baby is allergic to it. Pause. My baby is allergic to dairy. Scary.

Liquid milk was fairly easy to phase out of my life. Ice cream, yogurt, and cheese, not so much. In times of weakness I could foresee myself caving to having just that one lick of ice cream or yogurt or a cube of cheese. Therefore, I put myself on a search for feasible alternatives, not with the mindset that these new options would have to taste like their dairy counterparts (that would be a good way to set myself up for disaster) but that could offer me a real tasty alternative. After all, why would or should I need something to taste just like dairy-cheese or dairy-yogurt when it’s not made from dairy?? It’s like trying to find a brown rice that tastes just like a white rice: they’re just not the same!

So far, I’ve tried:

  • Luna & Larry’s Coconut Bliss ice cream: absolutely delicious. I’ve never been a fan of coconut but I really enjoy this ice cream and *gasp* I actually find it much more satisfying than dairy ice creams. It’s creamy and comes in a variety of delicious flavours.
  • Good Karma Rice Divine ice cream: reminds me of the flavour of Japanese mochi ice cream (which I love)…but has a gritty mouth feel that I did not enjoy.
  • So Delicious yogurt: cultured coconut milk. More palatable than a soy yogurt that I tried.
  • Soy yogurt (forgot the brand): had one spoonful and did not want to eat any more. Not the right product for me.

I haven’t ventured into the world of non-dairy cheese yet, but am pretty happy to have found a solid ice cream. A few teaspoons full a day keeps me pretty happy!

Being thrown into the world of food allergies

I love food, so when it came to introducing solid foods to our baby, I was quite excited to be able to share something that I loved with a person who I loved. We exclusively breastfed for six months and decided to let baby lead the weaning process as he started to explore foods other than breast milk. We would provide a selection of appropriate food items for him to choose from, and he would use his hands and all other senses to “eat” the food that he chose to “eat”. We didn’t start with rice cereal, as is so typical in our society. Instead, we gave him steamed broccoli florets, a bell pepper, an apple slice, and a strip of steak. The key with this approach is for the caregiver to provide a well-balanced assortment of foods and the eater to control if and how much they “eat”.

It was going fine until our baby experienced some fairly significant reactions to food. The look in his eyes as he scratched at his neck and face is something that I will not soon forget. After that first adverse reaction, we saw our family doctor and he referred us to a paediatric allergist. In the meantime, we avoided the foods that triggered that reaction but continued to offer other foods.

Meanwhile, while we waited to be seen by the allergist, another particularly strong reaction led us to the emergency room, where some Benadryl and the passage of time eventually calmed the reaction; I felt so thankful and grateful that the reaction didn’t continue to worsen. This ER visit led us to equip ourselves with an epinephrine auto-injector. Just having to fill the prescription for it illuminated the gravity of the situation. Heaven forbid we ever have to use it, but better to have it in our possession than be sorry.

Skin prick tests are not the most conclusive in determining whether or not a baby has an allergy but at our first allergy appointment, we had it done for numerous common allergens. The test indicated that he was positive for peanuts, nuts, dairy, and egg. Based on our history, we were also directed to avoid wheat until another test could be completed in a few months.

With neither parent having any known food allergies, we were thrown into a new world. That’s a bit of hyperbole…it’s more like we started to see our world with new glasses. Questions floating through my head included:

  • what can he eat?
  • how will we eat out?
  • how do we best equip ourselves in the situation?

A blessing and a curse, because I’m breastfeeding, I was also instructed to avoid all allergens to which my baby may react to. The curse: Our allergist mentioned that trace amounts of dairy and egg would be allowable for me (no nuts whatsoever) but if my ingesting these products was affecting my kid, I decided that I should try to eliminate them from my diet too. The blessing: Taking dairy, egg, and nuts out of my diet would give me the best perspective in what could end up being the life of my baby. I would be forcing myself to question what I’m eating, how that food was processed, and (I’d get a head start on determining) how to prepare foods without those allergens.