First full year post-apocalypse. How have we done? Let’s chat.
I know that we haven’t been online for a year, but the original genesis for this blog was a discussion Denise and I had sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas of 2011. I was really unhappy with the allergy diagnosis. I felt like I did not know what to eat, and even though I’d been through this when I stopped eating dairy, this seemed worse. I’d helped Denise some when she went dairy-free, and now she was able to help me some with this transition, as she figured out her allergies before I figured out mine. We decided to test a few recipe ideas on friends at a party in January 2012, and started working towards that deadline. Our first success was the recipe we’ll be sharing next week, so please stay tuned — we’re very proud.
I have a notebook from the early planning, listing all my allergens, all the things I needed to replace in my pantry, and the multi-page results of the afternoon discussion Denise and I had where we laid out everything we wanted to learn to make allergen-free. That list is now a spreadsheet we share, and eventually it sparked this blog. So far, I’ve found the testing and writing and sharing to be great motivators — not only to try recipes, but to innovate and plan and eat well. I love it. I thought that we could share some of our thoughts on the year and the lessons we’ve learned, as well as some of the products we now regularly rely on. Hopefully you’ll find this helpful, whether you’re new to the allergen-free lifestyle or just still exploring.
The first lesson, from me, is that there is an arc to coping with a diagnosis of food allergies, whether they be severe or moderate. From talking to others, this is true for other people who must modify their diets for health reasons (e.g. diabetics), with the notable exception that the “bargaining” stage is a little more dangerous (i.e. it could kill you). Anger, disbelief, trying to “game” the new rules, bouts of acceptance, bouts of despair, and an eventual understanding and acceptance of a new way of eating. This is, apparently, quite normal, but I wish I’d known in advance, so I didn’t feel I was failing so miserably with my attitude adjustment. It is HARD. It gets easier. It gets easier because you learn how to do it. You do stop having fits of rage reading packages in the grocery store, I promise.
As a reminder, my allergens are as follows: dairy, egg, soy, gluten, peanuts, hazelnuts, and pineapple.
From my list, entitled “MUST FIND,” here’s what I found:
- Crackers: by far, my favorite are the Crunchmaster Sea Salt Multi-grain Crackers. These do contain flax, but no other major allergen — thanks to Angie for bringing these to a knit night! Not all of their varieties are safe for me, but this one is great. If you have multiple allergens, crackers are not easy — many GF varieties contain either eggs or dairy or both.
- Pretzels: Snyders of Hanover Gluten-free Pretzel Sticks and Glutino pretzels contain soy lecithin, but no other allergens. I can handle the soy lecithin in small doses, so I only eat a few at a time.
- Pasta: Schar pasta (I’ve only had the penne), Quinoa pasta (here, only had the macaroni), and Trader Joe’s corn pastas are all good. The corn pasta makes horrible leftovers, but it’s great when it’s freshly cooked. I was originally advised to try brown rice pastas, and I cannot say that I recommend any of them at all.
- Bread: Hands down, the best gluten-free, dairy-free, egg-free, pineapple juice-free bread I’ve gotten in the past year is from Deland Bakery, and their millet potato bread is my go-to bread these days. Some of Schar’s baked products are completely allergen-free and pretty good (if they don’t come frozen, freeze everything you don’t use after you open the package; trust me). If you’re in New England, you might find some of Abigail’s Bakery’s Millet bread products — the loaf is good, but I didn’t love the other versions. For make-your-own breadcrumbs, I use Food For Life White Rice Bread as well as the tail end of anything I try and don’t really love for toast.
- Miso: South River’s Chickpea Miso is both soy and gluten-free. It’s not as smooth or as strong as other miso products I’ve used in the past, but it definitely fills what would be a large hole in my pantry otherwise.
- Margarine: this one was easy — the only good dairy-free margarine I’d found was Earth Balance. Earth Balance makes a soy-free version. This was the quickest fix on my list.
- Mayo: Again, Earth Balance to the rescue with Mindful Mayo. See our review of it here.
Other things I am glad I have found now:
- Chocolate: Enjoy Life chocolate chips (regular, mini, and baking chunks), Enjoy Life rice milk chocolate bars (crispy and plain — crispy are better), and a lot of Fair Trade certified dark chocolate bars are allergen free, if not specifically certified as such, so beware if cross-contamination is an issue for you. Enjoy Life makes chocolate chips — plus mini and large chunks — and so does Trader Joe’s (these contain soy lecithin — this seems to be okay for me, though I avoid it where I can). For nice chocolate, I’d also recommend checking out Taza. It’s probably not for the nut allergic, as they don’t appear to have separate lines for processing (I did not see an allergen statement on their website), but it’s stone-ground, handmade chocolate that’s dairy free and pretty incredible. Different than anything you’ve had before, I’d guess. My favorite is the cinnamon, closely followed by the guajillo.
- Tuna: Many brands of tuna has soy or gluten in it. I know! Season Brand tuna (they don’t appear to have a website?) is good. Find it in the kosher section.
- Frozen foods: Applegate Farms, turkey burgers (be careful not to overcook these, as they are then pretty bad, and they don’t work on the electric grill. But in a skillet, not cooked dry, these are a go-to easy meal for me) and gluten-free chicken nuggets (they’re chicken nuggets!), and Cascadian Farms spud puppies (aka tater tots).
- Ice cream: not for the coconut-allergic, but by far the best for my allergen list is Luna and Larry’s Coconut Bliss.
- Cereal: There is a gluten-free version of Rice Krispies (I know, they are rice, but the originals contain malt!), Barbara’s Cinnamon Puffins, and many versions of granola are gluten-free (but most contain nuts). Local to central New Hampshire, I’ve found Courser Farm Kitchen — gluten-free vegan granolas, which are fantastic.
The vast majority of what I eat is not packaged or processed or listed above, as I make almost everything from scratch. But having crackers, chips, and pasta on hand, as well as ice cream and a quick frozen dinner if I need one? All these serve to make me feel less deprived, a bit more normal, and less uptight about food, knowing I have something in the house to eat.
What else have I learned this year? Patience, perseverance, and the importance of the “buddy system” in any difficult endeavor. Don’t be afraid to “fail.” If you can eat it, it isn’t a complete failure, even if you dump the rest. Plan ahead — when you can’t grab food to go, you need to be prepared. Keep snacks at work, and if appropriate, in the car. When traveling, always have something you can eat with you and ID the closest grocery store.
For 2013, I’m looking forward to more breakfast discoveries (I hope), and continued recipe development, as well as playing with George (my new mixer) and coming up with some great vegan grilling options for next summer. I’m going to get a handle on this gluten-free baking thing, too. I’m planning to follow up Denise’s personal care posts with some posts on environmentally-friendly and allergen-friendly house cleaning.
Please share your favorite allergen-free products, links, or with us in the comments! Happy 2013, everyone!
Having had the benefit of reading Mary Kate’s take before having to write mine, and reflecting back on this journey, I think the most important part truly has been the “buddy system”. When the dairy allergy became severe enough that I was forced to give it up, I was lucky enough to have Mary Kate in my knitting group having been through the dairy free learning process before. She, in turn, was able to point me to resources and information and websites (such as GoDairyFree.org) where I could find additional information and issues. I had to learn all these new things and get advice from Mary Kate about products she liked and didn’t like, and I finally got in a place where I thought I knew what I was doing. And then I started having reactions again. In March of 2011, I tested positive for the next round of allergens, which meant I had to give up a bunch of the products I had found and liked and baking became much harder, and eating out became harder, and it was unpleasant. But since I had been through it so recently, I didn’t have to go through as much of the emotional adjustment process, other than some minor temper tantrums at the grocery store. It seemed to be just more on the same continuum. But I wasn’t really finding the solutions I wanted to some of the problems, because it was just food, and I didn’t really want make time to do it. I had a lot of other things to do, because I tend to be this somewhat Type A crazy person with a million things going on at any given time. I should just be able to eat whatever without any work right? (Talk about denial.) So I kept eating some of the solutions I had found, but I felt restricted, restrained and bored.
When Mary Kate received her second diagnosis of problem ingredients, I knew her frustration with having to start all over again. Since I hadn’t solved a lot of the foods that I still wanted to be able to eat, we had three allergies in common (dairy, egg and hazelnut), and we hadn’t been able to find a lot of books or information on food we wanted to eat (most of the books out there seemed geared toward kiddos), it made sense that we team up. As Mary Kate stated above, doing a cookbook seemed like a natural place to start, since we were both in a writing group together as well. But we both kind of need deadlines, so the blog was born as a way to actually make us do what we had planned to do.
I had specific things on our wish lists that I needed to find decent solutions for as well. (As a reminder, my allergens are as follows: dairy, egg, almonds, coconut, hazelnuts, crab, clam, scallops, and flax seed.)
- A decent egg replacement for box mixes: Again, I can be lazy about food. Since I can have wheat, and since Duncan Hines makes a variety of cake and brownie mixes that don’t have egg or milk, I wanted to find a egg replacement that worked and that I liked. I tried Ener-G, applesauce, blueberry apple sauce, tofu, and flax seed (before I figured out that I was allergic to it based on the resulting reaction), without finding any of them acceptable. But then I found chia seed. (Cue heavenly choir). It works for Duncan Hines brownie mix, and is best in the 8 x 8 inch pan. I haven’t tried it in cake mixes yet, but I’ll let you know how it goes.
- Mayo: Earth Balance Mindful Mayo, I concur with Mary Kate that it was a godsend. See the link for our review above. Also, try mixing in some Sriracha. Yum.
- Chocolate: I agree with Mary Kate’s take above. However, if you don’t have a soy issue, I can often use Ghiradelli’s Semi-Sweet chips. I have to watch the ingredients because sometimes they use coconut instead of soy lecithin, and I can’t have coconut. It’s a lesson to continue to watch labels even after you think a product is safe. They change formulations all the time based on the prices of ingredients.
- Coffee Creamer – For me, I don’t have a lot of options. I don’t like soy milk or creamer (I’ll drink diet pepsi at 6:00 A.M. for the caffeine rather than touch soy, and I generally won’t use it baked goods either, I can still taste it), and most of the other options contain either almond, hazelnut, or coconut, all on my no-no list. I found a recipe for homemade cashew milk that does the trick for me nicely, so I make up a batch, freeze it in ice cube trays and just thaw what I need in the microwave when I need it.
There were quite a few items that were in my old “normal” diet that I still wanted, that we were able to come up with versions that I’m pretty happy about. Most have been posted to the blog and some are still coming up on the schedule. (We have an editorial schedule, and blog meetings, I kid you not.) The ones we’ve posted that were “must finds for me” are:
- Apple Cranberry Crisp
- Ranch Dip/Dressing Using Earth Balance Mindful Mayo or Ranch Dip Using a Cashew Base
- Easy Buffalo Wings (Two Versions, One Gluten Free)
The other interesting journey for me this year is limiting the cleaning and personal care products I use with coconut derivatives in them. Although it aggravates me that I have to spend some time making these products, honestly, it’s so much cheaper than buying commercial laundry detergent, shampoo, and lotions. And it really doesn’t take that much time. You can check out what we’ve posted so far here. A recipe for laundry detergent and other cleaning products will be posted in the coming weeks/months.
Looking ahead there’s still a lot on my list of things I want to be able to eat again. There are things that I’ve been working on, but they aren’t ready for prime time yet, and things that when I looked at our infamous spreadsheet to write this post, I had forgotten about and really need to get working on. Things I hope to solve in the next year include some Indian curries and kormas, a recipe for ice cream that’s dairy, soy and coconut free (I don’t like the Rice Dream and I can sort of tolerate soy ice cream, but want better), Alfredo sauce, Vodka sauce, mac & cheese, and pizza cheese (I can’t have Daiya because of the coconut oil, although it was the best cheese replacement I’d tried before finding out about the coconut allergy).
Besides Mary Kate’s thoughts on patience, perseverance, the buddy system and not being afraid to fail, I’d like to add another thing I’ve learned this year. Just because they have a commercial product on the market, doesn’t mean you can’t make your own very easily and much more cheaply, and it doesn’t mean that the commercial product works better or tastes better. Experiment, experiment, and don’t settle if you don’t like something. Keep trying. I’ve also learned how many of us there are out there, dealing with the same issues, and trying to share our knowledge. I hope we’re making a contribution and in the words of Red Green, “Remember, I’m pulling for ya. We’re all in this together!” And since we are all in this together, feel free to share your favorite allergen-free products, links, or recipes with us 🙂
Have a happy and productive 2013 everyone!
Final bonus link — need an allergen-free, good fortune soup for the New Year? Veggie Venture has you covered, and as a bonus, it’s vegan.