By Amanda Orlando
If you’re reading this, then you probably know what it’s like for your family to receive a food allergy diagnosis. Whether it’s assigned to your precious little baby, an older child, or even yourself as an adult, it’s a tough pill to swallow.
Food allergy can be overwhelming and a big adjustment for families who are used to eating freely. Although your allergist may tell you to avoid the allergens, start reading labels, etc., it’s not uncommon to still feel uncertain and lost as soon as you leave the office. Do I have to read the labels on things I’ve been buying forever? Is ‘may contain’ really a risk? Do I need to contact every food company, or can I just go by the label? Your first visit to the grocery store will likely be much lengthier and more complicated than ever before.
One of the biggest adjustments is understanding that the way you shop, cook, and eat is going to change. I like to think of it as a change for the better. For one, you’ll be cooking and baking (from scratch) a lot more.
Every family has their own way of managing allergens in the home. Some families choose to remove the allergen completely, meaning every item in their home is safe for the allergic person. Other families choose to allow some allergens in, but in a very controlled way. For example, keeping them in a segregated area of the pantry and fridge, and ensuring thorough hand washing and surface wiping after consumption. There is no right or wrong way to do it, it just depends on what works best for your family. This is why I always say that an ‘allergy safe home’ means something different to everyone.
Establishing your comfort level for keeping or excluding allergens from your home will help you once you hit the grocery store. For example, knowing which foods you will continue buying, which ones you’ll stop, and which ones you will need to find substitutes for. If your family suddenly has to avoid peanuts, nuts, wheat, dairy, egg, or soy, shopping in the center aisles may suddenly pose a big challenge. Reading twenty labels on products you used to buy (and realizing they are all unsafe now) is a surefire way to dampen your sense of optimism. My advice here is to stop shopping in those aisles as much as possible. Opt for the “natural foods” aisle instead, where you’re more likely to find products from food companies who are dedicated to transparency and allergy safety.
Spending most of your time in the outer aisles also means you’ll find fresh, whole foods. Refocus your attention on fruit, vegetables, meats, and whole grains — the basics. Taking charge of every ingredient put into your body is an effective way to manage allergy safety. Returning to simplicity will also remind you how incredible fresh, quality ingredients can be. Get excited about abundant produce, and try to include a variety of colours, textures, and flavours in each meal. Be creative with your choice of ingredients, track what’s in season, and add flavour with plenty of fresh herbs.
Retraining your family for an allergy-safe diet takes time. Be patient with yourself and with your loved ones, especially if they are used to eating a certain way. Bring your kids into the kitchen and to the grocery store, and get everyone involved in the process. Together, you can get excited about fresh, whole ingredients, and eating without feeling limited.
In my new cookbook, Everyone’s Welcome, I share an abundance of simple, whole food recipes. Each recipe in the book is free from peanuts, nuts, dairy, soy, egg, and shellfish, and many are also free from wheat, coconut, and fish. You will also find resources and tips for everyday life, such as how to prepare and sanitize your kitchen, allergen pseudonyms and substitutes, and essays about my own experiences managing my allergies in social situations.
Are you participating in the Top Ten Challenge? As a Challenge Ambassador, these recipes will help me get through my goal of avoiding all top ten allergens for 1 day. I hope you find the book to be a valuable resource in your food allergy advocacy, especially if you’re participating in the Challenge!
Amanda Orlando is the author and photographer of Everyone’s Welcome, and Allergen-Free Desserts cookbooks. She shares recipes and articles about living with food allergies on her blog, Everyday Allergen-Free. She lives in Toronto.