Ah, summertime: the lazy days full of sunshine, spontaneity, and scoops of ice cream—unless you’re a food allergy mom like me.
When school winds down and heat ratchets up, I start to sweat in more ways than one. Camp is complicated. Swimming pools are suspicious. Vacations are vexing. Parties are problematic. And don’t get me started on ice cream cones. With all our allergies around here, ice cream is virtually impossible. For families like mine managing life-threatening food allergies, summer is anything but carefree.
Food.is.everywhere, so allergens are everywhere too. Allergy families have to say no to so many “normal” things just to keep our kids safe. We end up missing out on time-honored traditions of summers gone by, like eating funnel cakes at the fair or sharing s’mores around a campfire. We modify things, of course, but we wish we didn’t have to. Our kids feel like they’re missing out on all the fun. Shoot–we do too, if we’re honest. It’s hard, and it hurts.
But—I’ve learned the secret to making summer every bit as awesome starts with me. Instead of letting summer get me down, I set up C.A.M.P. first and nurture a joyful heart there. Here’s how I do it (and how you can do it too):
Cultivate New Traditions
Make peace with your can’t, then get creative with your can. Make an event out of everything! Invite friends over for snow cones to celebrate the last day of school. Organize an epic water balloon fight. Let your kids stay up late catching lightning bugs in painted glass jars (and ask your neighbors to join you). Treat the neighborhood to patriotic popsicles on the 4th of July. Churn a batch of ice cream at home on national ice cream day and let your kids build their own safe sundaes. Repeatedly do what works with a happy heart, and over time summer won’t be the same without your traditions.
Address Your Own Assumptions
What silent assumptions do you make about what your allergy family can and can’t do? Before making plans (or passing up opportunities), ask yourself how you subconsciously expect others to meet your unique needs. Do you avoid certain situations because you don’t think they will be allergy friendly? Are you surprised and offended by signs that say, “no outside food”? What do you wish your kids could do, but aren’t really sure if it’s safe for them?
Don’t assume your family can do everything, but don’t assume they can’t do anything, either. Ask yourself what assumptions you make about how others will (or won’t) adjust to accommodate allergies, then adjust your own expectations accordingly. Ask questions, make reasonable requests. You’ll be surprised how often people are willing to help. And remember: focus on the fun, not just on the food.
Missing out on summer activities is a bummer, for sure—but when you’re upset about it, your kids will be upset about it too. Instead of dwelling on disappointment, get outside and make the most of what you can do, then do it with an upbeat attitude. Be gracious as you go. Say thank you when people make accommodations for you. Remember the good things you have and take time to really enjoy them. When you model contentment, your kids learn to be happy with what they have, too.
When you can’t join the fun elsewhere, invite the party to your place. Make your house a place to show off how awesome allergy life can be. Ask others about their allergies: make it a normal part of your invitation process and others will start doing that, too. Open your doors wide; grill hotdogs at home; pass around popsicles; build a fire pit and roast marshmallows; show a movie under the stars. Be generous with what you have and welcome others to come along for the ride. Your warmth and welcome will motivate others to make their home a safe spot for you, too.
When the heat is on, it’s hard to stay cool–especially when food allergies force us to miss out on some of the best parts of summer. But when we choose joy and set up C.A.M.P. right where we are, summer really is sweet again. New traditions keep us calm enough to take advantage of lazy, loose schedules and make the most of what we have. Adjusting our expectations empowers our minds and protects our hearts. Creating our own brand of fun creates a grateful spirit in us—and inviting others along for the ride makes everything more enjoyable for everyone.
No, food allergy life still is not easy, and making summer safe and memorable takes a lot of intentional effort. But the work is absolutely worth it.
Cool weather finally showed up on our doorstep and no one was as delighted to greet it as I was. Trading shorts and salads for sweaters and soup pots is the best part of the year, in my book.
Cold weather always makes me hungry. I don’t know why, exactly, but I blame soup. Soup does more than fuel my body; it warms my bones. Once I start slurping, I almost can’t stop. It’s a matter of cold weather survival around here.
Chunky sweaters are part of the deal of Midwestern life, of course, but if I had to pick between hearty soups or trendy fall fashion? Soup would win every time. Cozying up with a bowl of it while dressed in leggings and an oversized sweatshirt does the trick too.
If I had to choose a favorite soup (and thank God I do not have to do so), Hamburger Soup might be my pick. It tastes like home to me. My mom made it all the time when I was young. She still does, I think. Don’t most moms have a version they serve on the regular? Gluten free, allergy life didn’t throw a kink in this familiar recipe, and I’m so thankful for that because it’s a dinner that connects our family table to the one I sat at when I was a child. We didn’t have food restrictions in our house when I was growing up, and yet I can’t recall a day when my mom’s version of this was served with a swirl of cream before serving. Simplicity makes this soup a star. Ground beef, onions, carrots and celery, and potatoes are almost all you need.
Well ok, you need beef broth too. And tomato sauce and Worcestershire sauce too, but this soup forgives you if you’ve got to leave them out. It’s flexible and fast and filling. If you’re cold and hungry and soup sounds ideal? Cook up buns for biscuits and stir up a pot of Hamburger soup. It’s not fancy, and that’s why I love it. I can cozy up with a bowl of it in under 40 minutes.
Casseroles are like McDonald’s: they get a bad wrap, but secretly everyone loves them.
Well okay, I don’t love McDonald’s–anymore. But gracious me, how I adored their french fries until I learned gluten’s evil reach extends to even them. French fries don’t need wheat to be wonderful.
The same is true for casserole. I know I’m not the only one with childhood memories of noodles and meat tucked into a sumptuous sauce, layered thick with gooey cheese and baked until golden and glorious, right? Casserole was pretty much my favorite, but now gluten is ornery and unwelcome at my table. Ditto for dairy, so clearly, casserole complicates my kitchen. I bet it complicates yours, too.
Allergy life handed us a whole bunch of adversity. Shoot, it’s just plain bananas sometimes, but I have learned to leverage the crazy and bake banana bread. In other words, I’m good at making the best of bad situations, but casserole creates a crummy conundrum. No matter how you slice it, alternative ingredients just don’t swap out the same way in savory dishes.
Even so, when cooler weather compels me to click on the oven and cook something cozy, casserole calls my name. I usually argue with the voice, saying things like “Dairy free cheese is disgusting” and “Gluten free noodles get gummy.” Casserole patiently nods its understanding, then nudges me to try again anyway, saying “I’m problematic, but possible.”
Over the years I have tried to prove my beloved food friend right. Try after disappointing try simply confirmed my opinion until I realized this: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is just plain crazy. Daiya does not–will not— taste like dairy Mozzarella no matter how much I wish it did.
That’s the problem: I’m expecting my taste buds to adjust to something I just plain don’t like. Many alternatives are frankly unpalatable. Others are acceptable, but some really are inspired. Sorting out the bad from the good is an exercise in patience and fortitude.
Once upon a time Mia asked me to make lasagna for dinner. Rarely one to deny a request for comfort food, I hesitated, and it surprised her. I mean, lasagna is all about the cheese. The marriage of ricotta and mozzarella is a match made in comfort food heaven, so I panicked. But something switched that night and instead of asking How can I make that? , I asked myself How will I make that? Saying yes to her simple request taught me to re-imagine casserole instead of trying to recreate it.
Does gluten have to be involved at all? Does dairy? The simple answer is, of course, no. A casserole is really just “food cooked and served in a casserole [dish]” (According to Merriam-Webster, that is), which essentially means anything goes.
So I looked my girl in the eye and said “Let’s do it!” and we rolled out sheets of homemade cassava flour noodles and stirred together a filling of garlic-studded meat and spinach, and layered them together with a simple marinara sauce. Then in a fit of inspiration, I got out a can of black olives. As I sliced them, Mia asked if she could put them on by herself. I laughed as I watched her arrange them into a smiley face.
I can’t redefine casserole, but I can re-imagine it. Food allergy life taught me that. My kids don’t know the difference between a lasagna covered with cheese and one simply slathered with sauce. All they see is lasagna served with a smile. Isn’t that the point? Food doesn’t have to be fancy or familiar to feed my family well. If it’s served with a smile, it’s enough.
Yes, it means letting go of what I know. But it frees my heart from stress and burnout and gives me the gift of saying yes.
Casserole isn’t comfort food because it’s layered with cream or cheese: it’s comfort food because it’s home food, made with all kinds of creativity and love. Experimenting with alternative ingredients yields all sorts of casseroles with character, and cultivated a cuisine unique to our table and taste buds. We top them with olives or thinly sliced tomatoes, seasoned rice-crumbs or crushed potato chips or savory streusel or even gluten free crispy french-fried onions, and then cheer when it comes out crispy and golden. We even argue over who gets the corner piece.
I’m sure the same will be true for you, too, because casserole is a framework, an idea, a canvas for a culinary masterpiece.
This Bacon Ranch Chicken Casserole is top 14 allergen free proof that comfort food of my childhood is possible after all.
It’s not comfort food the way your Grandma would have made it, unless of course your Grandma was cooking for gluten free, dairy free folks, but my family thinks it’s every bit as comforting — and way better than McDonald’s.
It’s no secret food is my love language. Food speaks to me louder than almost anything. I gave myself a bad time about this for years. “What’s wrong with you?” I’d ask, shaming myself for the embarrassing amount of time I caught myself dreaming about food.
Cooking went from comforting to cruel when gluten turned against me, and I shamed myself again for grieving the loss of something so trivial. It’s just food, Rach. Get over it, I’d say. But I couldn’t just get over it, and if you are reading this today I imagine you couldn’t just get over it either when your food life flipped upside down.
Here’s what I learned: it’s 100% totally fine to be upset when we lose things we love. Grief is part of the healing process. To deny ourselves the time and space to feel the emotions that come along with loss robs us of the opportunity to make peace with what we have left. I was sad I lost gluten. Sad again when I lost peanuts and pine nuts and pea protein and cashews, then pistachios and eggs and dairy and sunflower seeds and egg and shrimp. Things went from hard to harder until life felt miserably unfair, and I shouted at the heavens asking, “Are you kidding me?”
Deciding these foods were off-limits was easy; making peace with their absence was hard. Some eventually came back (hallelujah and hello eggs!), but I felt funny about mourning the loss of all the others. Keeping them away kept our bodies safer, but my heart was still broken. I got angry that my love for food and comfort in the kitchen didn’t prepare me for any of this.
I woke up one day wondering if my sadness would seep into the kids’ skin, irreversibly embittering their hearts toward the goodness and beauty of the gift God gave us in food. I don’t wonder about that anymore: those kids love food like I do–perhaps more so, in some ways. Emery says he wants to open an allergy friendly restaurant where anyone can find something safe to eat, and Mia wants to develop allergy friendly recipes and share them on a cooking show of her own. The kitchen became their favorite place to spend time because food speaks to their hearts too.
These Chocolate Sticky Buns called their name before they called mine. And instead of hearing an enemy to fear, they heard a question to answer: “Mom!” the Goobies called from the other room where they were watching an episode of Cook’s Country. “How can we make those?” they asked, pointing to a pan of pastries smothered in dark, decadent chocolate sauce. “Easy,” I said, confident that by now I could manage to pull off a gluten free / dairy free version of the original. Their eyes lit up and they started the episode all over again, this time Mia writing down every ingredient, every tool, every step in the process before asking, “When can we try?”
Saturday was the designated day I never saw coming. Eight years ago, rolling dough out with my daughter was a dream I couldn’t see coming true. Watching it rise, rolling it out then rolling it back up again was as far-fetched an idea as walking on the moon. But it happened.
I berated me for loving food too much at first, then I beat myself up for not knowing enough about it later. Little did I know both those things would help me define a kitchen culture that celebrates safe food and embraces trial and error as the most essential tool in my arsenal. Although sadness still ebbs and flows in all of us, celebration and adventure are foundations upon which we stand when we give new things a try.
And I’m so grateful to be here, because this is the place we heard chocolate sticky buns calling.
“Those who feel free to eat anything must not look down on those who don’t. And those who don’t eat certain foods must not condemn those who do, for God has accepted them.”
Romans 14:3 (NLT)
“Mommy–when I get big and outgrow my allergies, I want to have Goldfish because they are yummy.”
The Goobies sat eating breakfast while I packed lunchboxes before school. Bags of Goldfish sat on the counter. Emery watched me tuck them into his sisters’ lunches, just like every day. His comment didn’t surprise me: I can’t blame him for wanting to eat them someday too. He thinks all the other kids eat them all the time, and he feels left out.
“You know, I hardly ever ate Goldfish crackers when I was a kid. I didn’t really like them much” I tell him casually, hoping to downplay the appeal of the common childhood snack.
None of the Goobies believed me even though every word was true.
“Let’s make our own dairy free version today!” I said, trying to redirect Emery’s attention.
“We can do that?” Emery asked, puzzled. Intrigued.
I know why: the four of us have been together constantly from the moment we left California–that’s a month and a half without much of a break. Moving to a new state compounded the normal stresses of summer, and here we are two weeks away from school starting and the day can’t get here fast enough because (confession): I’m a wreck.
Maybe reading these stories were too hard on my tender heart still recovering from the trauma of feeling like we almost lost Emery a few weeks ago. Granted, the Epi Pen did its job and Emery is perfectly healthy in the aftermath of that ordeal, but in those tense moments when his floppy, swollen body failed to respond to us, panic saw an opportunity to slip right in, convincing me to live in a constant state of fear.
I know I am not alone in this fight against fear: 5.9 million children in the US have food allergies, so clearly millions of other moms face that same fight every day, and let me tell you: fear is a vexing foe indeed. You know its true, because dads deal with it too. And grandparents and aunts and uncles and friends and teachers–goodness, the teachers. 5.9 million kids translates to one in 13 kids, which means roughly two kids in every classroom across America brings a food allergy to school with them every day. Moms like me have to stare fear down and tell it to go away even as we watch our kids walk out of our sight and into the care of others.
Fear whispers, You really think they’ll be safe out there? If you can’t even keep your own kids safe, how can you possibly trust anyone else will? I want to keep the kids at home forever and cook everything from scratch and magically all the food allergy threats disappear in the illusion of a homemade utopia that just plain doesn’t exist. Instead, the best I know to do is this: take an honest look at what we do to keep our own food allergy kids safe and figure out what we can do better. And goodness, we can do better.
Remember how we banned peanuts from our house after Mia’s diagnosis? Somehow Emery’s allergies haven’t carried the same weight around here, not even in the aftermath of administering the Epi Pen or the subsequent trips to the ER. I’m not really sure why, other than peanuts are easier to avoid, and we don’t miss them nearly as much. Dairy is far trickier (especially since cheese is the one food that Mia will eagerly eat) because unlike peanuts, it is a ubiquitous pantry standby. Plus, we miss it when it’s gone. We eat cheese and drink milk and top our tacos with sour cream while a little boy with a severe allergy to the stuff watches, all while assuring him he doesn’t want any dumb old sour cream because it would make him sick– which I imagine is nothing short of confusing to a not-quite-three year old boy with a deep sense of justice.
To be clear, we are not lackadaisical about Emery’s dairy allergy. We learned how to swap out dairy ingredients for non-dairy alternatives; we make meals that are dairy free; we keep dairy ingredients out of Emery’s reach; and we have rules about when and where the girls are allowed to enjoy dairy products; and we make sure foods are free from all-the-allergies on big days like Christmas (like Katz donuts for breakfast!)–but perhaps we are not as strict as we ought to be. We do not let peanuts or sunflower seeds or gluten into our kitchen (except for a few gluten-full cracker varieties for the Goobies), but we continue to allow milk products into our home despite the glaring fact that Emery has suffered allergic reactions and been rushed to the ER three times because of ingesting dairy (first milk; next whey; and then cheese). He’s been poked with the Epi Pen twice; spent days upon days hyped up and completely unlike himself as a result of steroids that ward of rebound reactions, pumped full of Benadryl countless times for additional minor incidents, and been subjected to disappointment every single day, watching his sisters eat cheese and begging to have some for himself only to be denied time and time again.
The obvious answer is ban all dairy from our home. Why is it so hard to do that? We tell Mia peanuts could cost her her life and our actions (rules, procedures, preparedness) show her we mean business. As a result, peanuts are not allowed in our home, period. But what about dairy? Love makes us say, “Sorry buddy, you can’t have sour cream on your taco because it will make you very sick,” but those words don’t mean anything to a preschooler who shouts “No fair!” and pouts.
1 John 3:18 tells me words are not enough, and that action infuses words with meaning. Without action, words are empty. Clearing out the kitchen of offending foods and eating dairy free in front of the boy would be far more loving than eating the stuff in front of him. Plus, choosing to forego the stuff will help Emery understand the severity of his allergy and assure him of the security of our love (wouldn’t it?) Keeping the sour cream off the table and out of our home communicates love far more than simply saying “No sour cream for you, bud” as we dollop the stuff on our own tortillas.
I can make my peace with foregoing sour cream on taco night, and I imagine you and the girls could do the same. It’s the cheese that poses the biggest problem around here. What on God’s good earth would Mia eat if we cease to allow dairy in the house? Then again, what awful fate might Emery suffer if we continue to keep it around?
The good news is this: in the nearly three years since Emery first started showing signs of his allergy, we have built an arsenal of delicious dairy free alternatives that help us make everyone around our table happy. This is a big deal because while dairy free products are not hard to find, finding delicious ones is far more difficult. What I love lately, though, are dairy free alternatives that actually make the Goobies cheer–all three of them.
For example, the So Delicious brand is my hero because, true to its name, their products are actually really yummy. The Goobies cheer when you announce there’s ice cream for dessert, which happens on a fairly regular basis around here. (We do our best to keep these kids feeling normal, and darn it if a scoop of chocolate coconut milk ice cream helps them feel like regular kids? So be it.) Ditto for their take on non-dairy whipped topping CocoWhip, a treat that redeemed the idea of non-dairy whipped topping in my book because not only is it truly non-dairy (Cool Whip is not non-dairy!), it is also made of better ingredients than its dairy-laden competitor. Also, Emery is pretty smitten with their lunch box size Chocolate Coconut milk boxes, which he’s lovingly dubbed monkey juice. Everyone around here likes it, actually–a triple win!
Maybe the biggest win in our quest toward a more dairy free household is Follow Your Heart vegan cheese, which gives creamy dreamy comfort food a chance to grace our table again. Before we discovered it, Grandma Teague’s famous Golden Potatoes were relegated to memories of Christmas past, but I’m happy to report Grandma’s Golden Potatoes are back. Even better than the shreds, though, are the American cheese slices that make Daiya brand vegan cheese taste as bad as Mia insists it is (and honestly, we don’t disagree). Follow Your Heart slices make grilled cheese sandwiches that fool even our toughest critic in our house. The sheds and slices both melt fantastically over a pan of hot gluten free elbow noodles too, making a fast and inexpensive (and yummy!) dairy free mac & “cheese” that makes me believe miracles can happen. (I just toss in a handful of cheddar style shreds or a few torn pieces of the American style slices into a hot pan of drained gluten free noodles along with a tablespoon or so of our favorite dairy free butter alternative Earth Balance Buttery Spread and a splash of plain rice milk and stir until smooth.)
Food speaks to the soul, so let’s use words and actions, both. Together they can nourish the body, soothe the spirit and make our kids us feel loved. Serving safe foods that taste delicious is the one of the most loving things I can think to do for our food allergy family. I am thankful for these few dairy free foods that help convince us all that sacrifices don’t have to leave us feeling unsatisfied or left out.
“Our God gives you everything you need, makes you everything you’re to be.“
2 Thessalonians 1:2 (MSG)
Mia is giving us fits lately. The stubborn little thing digs her heels in deep, stance stable and set, screaming “just try to get me to move.” It doesn’t work. She knows what she wants, and she doesn’t let up. It’s aggravating.
This is especially true at mealtime, when that kid flat out refuses to eat what she is given, insisting the only thing she will eat is macaroni and cheese and strawberries so if we would just get it through our heads that if we relented and gave her what she wanted, she would stop making a fuss at the dinner table. But we are the grown ups, so we hold our ground too and we give her the choice to eat what is provided or not at all. Let’s be clear: we are not giving her liver and onions for dinner, or whole roasted trout with lima beans. We are serving things like chili and tortilla chips; grilled chicken and rice; or hamburgers, for crying out loud. Normal, approachable food that other kids cheer for. But no matter: she will not yield to the things we provide. She does this because more often than not, she just plain does not like our choices for her.
An example: bananas and strawberries. I have lost track how many times this girl has cried over them. I have cried happy tears over an impossibly sweet strawberry in the middle of summer too, but tears over bananas? The ubiquitous childhood snack heralded for its palatability among children? (Yes. So many tears.) The only way Mia dares put them in her mouth is if chocolate has rendered the banana completely unrecognizable (as in chocolate chip banana muffins). No matter how we try to spin them, the cost of eating a banana rarely tends to be worth the act of chewing and swallowing it. She does not enjoy bananas, so she does not see the point in eating them. But strawberries are an entirely different story. She would willingly eat strawberries with every meal every day of every week of every month of every year. When strawberries are the seasonal star, we let herself eat them to her hearts’ content because we buy them by the crateful every week. But in the dead of winter when strawberries are not in season, we cannot serve them often, if at all.
And so, fights. Tears. Begrudging obedience. In the process, we remind her about her choice in all this: she gets to decide whether to eat what is given to her or not (“Listen: we won’t always give you what you want, but we will always give you what you need. What you need is good food to fill your tummy. Tonight, it’s meatloaf, so we suggest you eat a few bites of it because you’ll be hungry if you don’t.”) Whether she leaves the table with a full stomach or not is her choice–not ours. We are off the hook because we provided the good food she needs to stay healthy and strong. We hope she will choose to fill her belly with the things we have provided, but we cannot make her swallow that darn meatloaf any more than we can make sweet strawberries flourish in the dead of winter. We can beg, bargain, cajole or get plain mad, but why bother? We have given her what she needs. The rest is up to her.
I have been spending time with the Israelites, digging in to their story of rescue and redemption, finding myself knee deep in the wilderness just like they were. The manna situation reminds me very much of our struggle with Mia because no one really wanted the manna, a perfect, delicious, plentiful food they could count on to keep them well fed and comfy. It was superior to all the other food they ever ate in Egypt (I mean, this stuff was heavenly, right?), and yet they complained about it, even resented it perhaps. I wonder how many times they ate it with hearts begrudging the hand that fed it to them and wishing they could have something else, anything else. I bet they wondered why God did not seem to care they were craving the foods they really loved, the foods they missed from their old way of life. I imagine they toyed with the thought that if God really loved them as much as He said He did, He would give them the things they wanted most instead of forcing them to subsist on something they clearly did not prefer. But their ideas for what was best for themselves did not line up with God’s ideas of what was best for them.
So it is with us.
I gave Mia a banana on her dinner plate the other night, and she took one look at the the handful of slices piled up next to her peas and exclaimed, “You know I don’t like bananas. Why would you put them on my plate?” I know bananas have potassium and magnesium and fiber, and I know the dessert she will be ask for after dinner does not have any of those things, and those nutrients are important to keep her healthy and strong. I know strawberries are expensive in the middle of winter and spending $5 every day on a measly pack of lack luster mid-winter strawberries is simply not going to happen. I know I have a jar of her beloved chocolate powder in the cupboard that I just have not put on the table yet, and I know I am going to sprinkle some of that powder on her bananas so that she will eat a few bites, at least. I know things about the food on her dinner plate she that does not know, but I also know things about her dinner plate she just could not know on her own.
And ooof, if that is not the conclusion I have been drawing day after day in this long haul of a season that has left me broken in so many ways. My ideas for my own life clearly are not the same as God’s ideas for my best life. That thought is deep and marred by the fear that if my ideas for my life are good ones, and if God’s ideas are different than my own really, really good ones, I am tempted to believe that God’s ideas are not good. I identify with those grumbling Israelites: manna is monotonous and where’s the milk and honey you promised and why do we have to stay out here in the wilderness for so long anyway? I signed up for the Promised Land, and this is not it. Your plans must not be as good as I thought.
And like those grumbling Israelites, I keep complaining about the things I find filling up my proverbial plate, all while insisting God simply remove them and replace them with the things I want instead. I don’t want a sick, dysfunctional digestive system. I don’t want a life long battle with chronic conditions; I don’t want to take pills everyday; I don’t want to have surgery; I don’t want to have kids with food allergies; I don’t want to live in fear of gluten or peanuts or milk or any of the other allergens that cause serious problems in our household. I want a healthy body, and I want our kids to have healthy bodies too, and it doesn’t seem like an unreasonable request, either. I want to like what is on my plate, and I just plain don’t. And in the middle of it, I am convinced God is telling me the same thing we tell Mia every day: I won’t always give you what you want, but I will always give you what you need.
Last week, I went to bed hungry, so to speak, sulking and angry because I was just so over what is filling my proverbial plate these days. Finally, finally, after months of feeling crazy, my GI doctor discovered I have biliary dyskinesia, which basically means my gall bladder is not working. Since I don’t have gall stones, I have been presenting with a mysterious symptoms that no one understands. Test after test after test insisted nothing was wrong with me, which clearly I knew wasn’t true. Either the doctors were terrible at their job or this phantom pain was a psychological invention, not a physical reality. But a HIDA scan showed the truth: my gall bladder wasn’t functioning correctly and out it must come. I had never been so happy to hear bad news.
Two days after surgery I was fretting over the level of pain I did not expect. Unrealistic expectations of a quick and easy recovery made my post-op pain feel like a death sentence. In the middle of it, I flung myself out of bed to help you find the emergency medicine bag; you were flustered and rushed, and the gravity of the situation forced me to move faster than perhaps my still-recovering body should have moved. But when Emery laid in your arms, swollen and floppy, eyes closed and unresponsive, I forgot about my own pain and flew to find the Epi Pen and administered it without reservation, even though I knew the sudden poke would hurt Emery. The fact that he would not enjoy the sudden sting of that shot paled in comparison to the reality that worse things would happen if I chose his comfort over what was best for him. His tears were a necessary problem to have in a grave situation like that. The tears told us he was alive. The tears, perhaps, even saved his life. I put something on his plate he didn’t want: pain. But I know things he doesn’t know. I won’t always give him what he wants, but I will always give him what he needs.
I don’t want this reality, this life marred by pain and sickness and a body wracked with stuff that gets in the way of normal life. I’m mad that my own plate is brimming with disease, discomfort, and dietary restrictions that have left me sick and lost and confused and isolated. I’m frustrated that food allergies fill our kids’ plates, and I’m confused as to why God would think they’re a good idea when He knows how much we hate them. It’s bananas.
I don’t know why God is filling my plate with things I rally against, but I am not going to bed hungry tonight. Instead, I am choosing to believe the possibility that these things I loathe are making me into who I am, nourishing me in their own unique (unsavory) ways. I trust God knows things about all this I don’t know–couldn’t know. I don’t believe He’s unkind. I don’t believe He’s unjust. I don’t believe He’s singled us out to be on the receiving end of his wrath or ill-will. I believe the opposite, even though I’m eating bananas. And while I wish he would always give me what I want, I am thankful He will always, always, give me what I need.
“We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance. And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation. And this hope will not lead to disappointment.”
Now that October is wrapping up, all sorts of traditions are lining themselves up in a row, like dominoes, and this week will knock the first one over and set in motion a series of events that will swirl through the final two months of the year and plunge us into the new year. What’s waiting for us at the end of it all is a big heaping pile of exhaustion. As tired as I am already (and it’s not even November!), our much-anticipated New Year’s Day tradition of starting a Harry Potter movie marathon is beckoning me. Call me a nerd, but this is one of my favorite traditions of the whole year: a time to put the Goobies to bed and veg out in front of the tv without having to set up or attend a single party for the first two weeks of the year. This time around, as I look forward to the promise of those two relaxing weeks, I can’t help but think about two very specific lines from the series, lines that resonate with me in a new way: “Eat this. It helps. It really, really helps” and “All was well.”
The first is spoken in the early days of Harry’s adolescence by Professor Lupin, an older, wiser man who saves Harry’s life before they have properly been introduced. When an unforeseen force singles Harry out and forces its will upon him by sucking out hope and love and any semblance of normalcy, Professor Lupin steps in to fend off the attacker. When the danger is over, he offers Harry a piece of chocolate, telling him “Eat this. It helps. It really, really helps.” (Is it any wonder why this line speaks to me?) The second line is “All was well,” the famous last line of the 7th book that assures readers the Boy Who Lived actually continues to do so–happily, even.
I totally 100% believe Professor Lupin’s words that chocolate helps. Every time I take a bite of it I sigh a prayer of thanksgiving for its power to soothe. I am convinced God smiled as he dreamed up chocolate, and that He had a smirk on his face as he slipped the cacao bean into creation like a hidden treasure waiting to be found. The same is true in our house: the stuff is stashed in nearly every room. It’s in the medicine basket, high up on the pantry shelf, deep in the freezer and wedged between bottles of wine. Half eaten bars are strewn on my nightstand and tucked deep under piles of books; wrappers are wadded up on the counter and full bars are piled precariously on top of the checkbook. It’s on my mind and on the shopping list and in my plan for how to spend the evening. Chocolate helps, you see, so I keep it in arm’s reach at all times. I know ultimately it’s God who helps, of course, but for me, chocolate provides a way to taste the goodness of who God is. It slows me down, helps me breathe, and reminds me to appreciate the sweet things in life, not be bogged down by the bitter things.
This is what happened a few short weeks ago when I took Mia to the allergist’s office for her follow up scratch test to see whether she had outgrown her peanut and pine nut allergies or not. That brave little girl walked in a little nervous about whether or not the scratches actually hurt or not, but calm and certain she would walk out of the office that day rewarded with good news. As I watched her back erupt in those telltale firey red splotches, I panicked. Disappointment welled up from within me and silent tears came as I wondered how a little girl with resolute faith that she had been healed would swallow this bitter pill. I felt powerless to defend her against this adversary, but somehow all I could think of was what Professor Lupin says about chocolate.
The doctor is the one who broke the news to our girl. He started with the good news that her allergy to pine nuts was gone, but quickly followed that up with the not-so-good news that she was still very much allergic to peanuts. He commended her for being so diligent in avoiding them, talked about upcoming desensitization therapies, and urged her to be brave and add almonds to her diet because they would help her body gain strength against her peanut allergy. In short, he offered her the hope that I couldn’t. But her sidelong glance betrayed her uncertainty about eating almonds at all, as if she was silently asking me if this guy was for real. “How will almonds help my body gain strength against peanuts?” her glower seemed to whisper. I smiled, rubbed her back, and told her, “I don’t know, but maybe we ought to try?”
Mia has been scared to let any sort of nut into her system. I can’t blame her: the last time she had an allergic reaction it was to cashew butter that had been contaminated with peanuts. The jar did say “May contain peanuts,” but I hadn’t seen it until it was too late. Oops is an understatement. That’s the day we learned to take the ingredient note that says “May contain peanuts” very seriously. (“May contain” now means “definitely contains,” as far as we’re concerned.) The poor little thing broke out in hives and her face started to swell, and as I cried and prayed, she apologized, saying “I sorry I had ‘lergic ‘action, Mommy.” It wasn’t her fault at all–it was mine, completely. I hadn’t read the label correctly, and she was paying the price for my mistake. From then on, that poor girl has lived with an unnecessary fear of nuts, and every time she freaks out about it I feel bad that I did that to her.
But here was the allergist–her trusted doctor whom she knew to be an expert on allergies–encouraging her to eat those dreaded tree nuts, perhaps starting by swirling almond milk in smoothies or pouring it over her morning bowl of cereal. Mia was dubious at first (insisting she hates the taste of almond milk), but she took the doctor’s orders seriously and we brainstormed other ways she might enjoy eating almonds as we drove away from the his office that day. “What about chocolate covered almonds?” I asked.
Mia’s eyes lit up and she gasped, “Ooh, yeah! Good idea, Mama!”
And so, we set about making chocolate covered almonds at home. I have bags and bags of chocolate chips at the ready almost always, and almonds are a pantry staple too. Melting those chocolate chips down and spooning it over a pile of almonds for our girl was healing, in its own way. Those little candies finally convinced Mia that almonds aren’t something to be feared anymore, that they are a safe food for her and that missing out on pre-packaged, peanut-contaminated treats aren’t such a big deal when stuff like this lingers on the kitchen counter. As she happily ate them, I finally breathed a sigh of relief, believing all would be well.
And really, all is well. Mia walked into that doctor’s office with the calm assurance that God had already healed her–not just from the peanut allergy, but from the pine nut allergy too. The scratch test was a formality, in her mind–a hoop to jump through before she joined the ranks of the other kids who don’t have to sit at the cafeteria’s allergy table at lunchtime. When the test results were in and peanuts were clearly still a problem, my heart sank. I imagined Mia’s did too. She was so confident in what she hoped for and certain of what she couldn’t see yet. What must it have felt like, I wondered, to not only be disappointed, but to also to have to face her fear of tree nuts head on too? I thought she would walk away disappointed and angry.
But Mia’s hope did not disappoint. In her classic wiser-than-her-years style, she pointed out, “But Mommy, I did get healed. I don’t have my pine nut allergy anymore!” She’s right, of course. She believed she had been healed, and she had been, if not in full, then at least in part. The whole situation buoyed her faith; it didn’t drown it. And sure, she had to face her fear of letting tree nuts back into her diet, but she did so with beautiful courage I wish I had myself. (Well, courage and chocolate, because chocolate helps.) Whatever residual guilt I feel for the fact that she has to live with a peanut allergy is washed away when I see the character she’s developing in the midst of this adversity. Time and again, this girl shows me all is well, and all will be well.
Dark Chocolate Almond Clusters
These clusters are super, duper easy. Three ingredients (or just two, if you only use one kind of almonds.) Sure, you could fuss with them and make them fancier (vanilla extract, a sprinkle of sea salt, a swirl of caramel) but as written they are straightforward enough to make on a whim. I like to melt the chocolate in a saucepan (and don’t bother with tempering it), but you could melt them in the microwave to make things even more simple. If you keep chocolate and almonds on hand almost always (like I do), you could make a batch right now and be done in less than 15 minutes. To make them truly peanut free, choose chocolate chips that are made in a peanut free facility or otherwise certified peanut free (like Enjoy Life or Guittard brands). I use Guittard Extra Dark Chocolate Baking chips, which are made in a peanut free and gluten free facility, and do not contain milk. They are perfect for our food allergy family, but please read labels to make sure they are suitable for yours. (Ditto for the almonds.)
1 cup allergy friendly dark chocolate chunks (such as Enjoy Life)
3/4 cup dry roasted, unsalted slivered almonds
3/4 cup dry roasted, salted whole almonds
First, spread out a large sheet of parchment or wax paper (about 12″ long). Next, measure the almonds into a medium mixing bowl and give them a quick toss. Then, pour the chocolate chips into a small saucepan and melt over medium heat, stirring constantly, until all the chocolate has melted and there aren’t any lumps left. Pour over the almnods immediately and stir until all the almonds have been coated.
Scoop the chocolate covered almonds onto the parchment paper by the tablespoonful (or so), and let cool until set. (If it’s warm in your kitchen, you might want to put the whole batch into the refrigerator until they harden.) Makes about a dozen.
31 Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.” — Mark 6:31 (NIV)
One of my blogging pet peeves is this: a post that starts with a line that goes something like this: “YOU GUYS–I’m SO sorry I haven’t written for, like, ever, but things have been crazy around here–I mean, like, CRAZY. I’ve been so busy I haven’t been able to breathe, let alone update anything here. But whatevs–I’m baa-aack!” What’s with the apology? Do bloggers really think readers need that? We’re all busy: readers and writers alike, because we’re living in a culture that is frenetic. So often busy is a badge we pin on to prove our worth–to ourselves more than to anybody else, I think. But Jesus himself shows us that right there, in the middle of those busy seasons, we need to pull back, take a break, rest. Let’s all give ourselves a little grace, shall we?
In this season, living my actual life has mattered more than writing about it all, and so the words haven’t been presenting themselves to me. Emery started potty training; Addie had a hard time adjusting to new people and surroundings; Mia cried and whined and clung to me after school every day; and I visited the doctor more times in the past few months than probably my whole adulthood combined. Project after home-improvement project began in full force around here we’re praying for direction to determine where our family’s future will be. House hunting started again, and then there was homework and more homework and sisters learning the hard way how to coexist peaceably, and a little boy who is very good at being two years old. And through it all, everyone wanted to eat something other than mixed greens with salmon.
Going through the motions leaves me wrung out though, and while others may paint or sing or play the guitar, I write to recharge. And so, without further ado, here’s my attempt to give myself a break and write a short update on what’s been going on around the Love, Scratch kitchen:
The Autoimmune Protocol (AIP). One word: yikes. Another three: difficult, but doable. Whole30 claims it is not hard to do, and after you completed your own Whole30, you confirmed that it wasn’t hard at all. But guess what? The AIP is hard to do. No, it’s not fighting cancer difficult, it’s not dealing with the death of a loved one difficult, but it is a different sort of difficult. The AIP is far more restrictive than Whole30, so the logistics of doing the shopping and preparing the food made the whole thing time consuming and exhausting. I imagine if I were a single, unattached female with plenty of cash to spare and no one else to think about or care for, the AIP might be easier. I’m not any of those things though, so the AIP made me tired and took away the fun of cooking and eating. But it was doable. The food was yummy, monotonous as it was. Sweet potatoes with coconut oil and sea salt, or mixed greens topped with lean protein and a drizzle of red wine vinegar and olive oil became my go-to meals. What helped was knowing it wasn’t forever–well, that and your resounding cry of “Solidarity, Rach.”
Even so, sometimes it was easier not to eat at all. Toward the end, you munched on your salt and pepper pistachios as I sat silently sipping my sparkling water, turning my nose up at an evening snack of coconut chips because coconut as a food group could disappear, for as much as I cared by the time the first 30 days were over. (I really think I may have killed my taste for coconut and avocado, too–and I’m waiting with bated breath to see if I will ever enjoy them the way I used to.) By the end of those first 30 days, my appreciation for you and your support reached new heights, and you have no idea how much hearing it over and over lifted my spirits and kept me from sneaking bits of dark chocolate into my mouth when your back was turned.
After 30 days, I added restricted foods back in quicker than recommended. It was a desperate time because the stress of other aspects of life swirled and threatened to take me down and I swear if I had to drizzle honey and coconut milk into weak black tea one more time I was going to lose it. I learned I enjoy coffee for its actual flavor and not just the hit of cream and sugar that typically comes along with it, and I use chocolate as a coping mechanism. I also learned I’m 100% ok with that. Neither bothers my system, as it turns out, and they were among the first foods that found their way back into daily life. Since then, I have added eggs and spices and nightshades and nuts and even small amounts of dairy–everything except copious amounts of gluten free grains and legumes, really–and I’m doing great.
I was still in the process of slowly adding things back into my diet when we went to ATT Park to watch Matt Cain pitch his final game in the major leagues, though, so instead of snacking on popcorn or nachos or even a hot dog on a gluten free bun, I opted for peanut M&M’s because somehow those seemed like a better choice. The rare treat tasted fantastic for about a half a second, until the box was empty and I felt yucky. Faint dizziness was my companion for well over week after that. I’m still not sure whether it was the surge of sugar or the peanuts or just sheer coincidence (dizziness can be a symptom of food sensitivity during the reintroduction phase), and really, I may never know. Either way, the experience certainly did not make me eager to snack on the usually off-limits snack any time soon. (Mia-bug, you are not missing out on anything.)
The good that came out of the AIP experiment is this: I can do hard things, even when it comes to food. Also, I have a newfound appreciation for the convenience of a jar of marinara sauce. Mostly, though, I’m thankful to know my digestive troubles really are linked mostly to grain–glutenous ones, mainly (though I’m not completely certain because I have not reintroduced all grains, yet. Rice seems to be ok, but I’ve only really tried very small amounts in things like a sample bite of a new banana oat muffin recipe I’m working on for the Goobies. And about two gluten free Joe-Joe’s. But I digress.) I also realized, again, how fantastic my body feels when I stick to foods that don’t contain grains at all. We tended to cook and eat grain free in our pre-AIP/Whole30 days anyway, and the fact that we didn’t dive into big bowls piled high with gluten free pasta as soon as that month was over tells me we will continue to eat mostly grain free. (I suspect I will seek out the gluten free hot dogs at ATT park and skip the peanut M&M’s from now on, though.)
And so, I’ll keep coming up with grain free foods that feed us well. Gluten free goodies will be part of our lives too, because they can be, thank you Lord–and peanuts will continue to stay far, far away from our kitchen until the day Mia’s prayer for healing is answered the way we all hope it will be. I may write about the recipes, because it recharges me, but I might not get around to it as quickly as I’d like, because I’m allowing myself to rest. But I promise to keep the kitchen humming along in real life, feeding the frenzied brood we call Goobies as best I can. I bet I’ll even enjoy it again in the days and weeks to come.
Shrimp Fried Cauli-Rice
This dish was borne out of a craving for Chinese food well into my AIP adventure. Chinese food is a hard one for my anyway (because soy sauce has gluten in it, which renders Chinese takeout a mere memory, for the most part), but with the additional restrictions of the AIP, Chinese food seemed like a lost cause. Coconut aminos are a good substitute for soy sauce, but its sweetness demands to be offset with an acid–like lime juice. Lime juice and shrimp are match made in heaven anyway, and so this version of shrimp fried cauliflower rice was born (but of course, use chicken instead of shrimp if you’re allergic to shellfish). It’s AIP (when prepared without scrambled eggs or red chili flakes), Paleo, Whole30, gluten free, grain free, dairy free, nut free, you know–all the things–but don’t let that convince you it’s anything but delicious. This one made it to the top ten list of Joey’s most requested dinners fast, and it was the AIP dish I made when I was just plain tired of sweet potatoes and salad.
a couple dollops of refined coconut oil (refined = no coconut flavor)
First, dice the carrots and par-cook them (I put the diced carrots in a microwave safe bowl and cover them with water, then microwave them for about three minutes to soften. This speeds up the whole affair, but feel free to saute them in the oil before tossing in the frozen cauliflower rice.) Drain them when they are tender (not mushy), and set aside.
Next, in whisk together the coconut aminos, lime juice, ginger and sea salt and it set aside as well.
Then, if you’re going to toss scrambled eggs into your finished dish, go ahead and scramble them now in a separate pan. When they’re done, set them aside too.
On to the main event: plunk a couple dollops of coconut oil into a saute pan and warm it up over medium high heat. Toss in the frozen cauliflower rice and toss to coat in oil, then crank up the heat to high. Add the par-cooked carrots, green onions and minced garlic and stir. Next, pour in the sauce and stir and cook and stir and cook–it won’t take long for the sauce to start to coat the veggies and evaporate. Add the shrimp next and stir and cook some more, and finally add the scrambled eggs (if desired) and toss to coat them in sauce too. Top the whole thing with a few more sliced green onions (and red chili flakes, if you like things spicy–and aren’t AIP.)