The first time you realise that you have a child with food allergies or intolerances can feel like a double-edged sword.
On the one hand, months, if not years of intrusive health issues could be about to disappear. The relief! Changes to a child’s health after removing foods they were intolerant to can be almost immediate.
On the other hand, they still have to eat, three times a day and, if you’re cutting out a major food group, such as dairy or gluten, that can feel very stressful.
Once you’ve clarified whether your child has an allergy to certain foods (a rapid and severe reaction such as breathing problems) or an intolerance (a delayed reaction such as diarrheoa that can nevertheless have a big impact such as failure to grow adequately), you need to get thinking about what they CAN eat.
Here are some useful ideas to get you through the first couple of weeks after a diagnosis.
1. Use crowd brain
Many, many families deal with food intolerance every day. They know how difficult it can be to have a child with food allergies and are usually only too glad to help with their specialist knowledge. Put a shout-out on Facebook or Twitter and see if your tribe or someone related to it can help with advice, recipes, good ideas for substitute products or on-line resources,
2. Relax nutritional standards
Your child isn’t going to die of scurvy if they don’t get a balanced diet for a week or two. Just fill their belly with something they CAN eat and tell yourself you’ll find your groove soon. Current advice is to give all under 5s a vitamin supplement like Abidec anyway so maybe pump in some vits to cover your bases. My two adore Floradix Fruity Formula (who, by the way, are not paying me to say this!). Although pricey, it was almost like a magical elixir at times when they were under par. Of course, check any supplements for allergens too!
3. Relax about eating together
You may be that you usually serve your whole family the same food. (Me too). Those days will likely return BUT, for now, be kind to yourself. It may be you cook two meals sometimes for a few weeks while you work out your new menu.
4. Meal plan or make a list
The days where you could just scavenge in the freezer and come up with a meal for everyone at 5.30 pm may be gone for a little while. If you don’t meal plan, at least consider making a list of family meals which work around your child’s intolerance and make sure you’re stocked up for these for a while. Rice is usually a good start. I couldn’t live without my trusty rice cooker! Perfect rice that stays warm for hours while you get on with everything else? Yes, please! I also look for “hero ingredients” – items that are versatile, need little prep and keep for a while in the fridge or cupboard. On my list would be tinned tuna, tinned mackerel, Swedish meatballs, eggs, tinned tomatoes and frozen veg and fruit. I check I have the all the time.
5. Find a dietician or info on replacing nutrients
If you are removing something like dairy, especially from a small child’s diet, you really need to think about replacing the nutrients which were being gained from that food (in dairy’s case, calcium). A dietician is a good start. Even if you can’t see an NHS dietician quickly, they might be able to e-mail you some information sheets on replacement foods or foods which are high in calcium, say. This will help you devise a healthy new diet for your child. Focus on including foods which replace the missing nutrients. Great sources of calcium, for instance, are chickpeas and sesame, so we main-lined hummus for a while. Tinned fish was also a life-saver.
6. On-line shop
Staring at nutritional labels while your toddler sits n the trolley is a recipe for disaster. On-line shopping will allow you to check nutrition labels really well. Building up a list of favourites on the site will also help. Try the awesome www.mysupermarket.co.uk to compare prices and availability of free-from goods between supermarkets. And don’t forget other on-line suppliers like Holland and Barret and Amazon for specialist ingredients. But also….
7. Go for a browse on your own
See if you can call in a favour to organise some childcare while you spend an hour just finding out what’s actually available at your local supermarket. On-line shopping only works if you know what’s available and it may spark some ideas about what you can feed your crew now your diet has changed.
8. When out and about, use your chutzpa
Most cafes and restaurants are well set up to inform you on the ingredients in their food. They’re usually concerned about getting sued!. I once realised that there was nothing my son could snack on in Costa and he was really hungry. I simply explained the situation to the staff who had already given me a booklet with the allergens list for every item they sold (nice work, Costa!) and asked if it was OK to give him a rice cake I’d brought with me. It was fine.
If ordering a meal, make very sure they understand what you are trying to exclude and how serious the reaction could be. If approached with courtesy, most food sources are extremely accommodating and will even make suggestions about how dishes could be adapted.
9. Think sideways e.g. kosher, vegan
To find a wide-range of recipes and ideas, it may help to reframe your child’s exclusion. So, for instance, if you cut out dairy and eggs, vegan recipes are great for desserts and baking or for replacing dairy in main meals. Kosher recipes are useful for dairy-free kiddos as dairy is never mixed with meat. Try recipes for kosher lasagne, for instance.
10. Find some great recipe sources
Apart from this blog, which will have increasing numbers of my tried and tested allergen-free recipes, there are two sources I’ve used a lot.
The first I love is Allrecipes.co.uk which is very easy to search and provides recipes by home cooks. If you don’t mind using American recipes (and it has a function that will convert them to metric anyway), the American site, Allrecipes.com, actually has an even better search function called “Advanced search” which allows you to filter out recipes with particular ingredients.
I’ve already mentioned the site for Pure margerine in my post about baking without eggs but it includes lots of dairy-free meal ideas too. Pure has a soy-free margerine too for those of us who are avoiding soy too.
11. Be kind to yourself
Adapting your cooking is a BIG job and can be very stressful. It may be you need to drop some other commitments for a while and slow anything down that can be slowed. Providing nourishing food for our families is a huge job at the best of times. Don’t try to be a superhero. Being a parent is tough even without handling food intolerances. Be gracious with yourself as you tackle this new phase. It does get easier! Even as an obsessive recipe collector and tester, I found excluding 3 foods really, really hard on top of looking after two children.
So, here’s to happier little tummies, bodies and lives. Oh, and cooks.
If you’ve been on this journey yourself, what advice would you add? And which resources did you find helpful?