Tag Archives: Food and Drink

Learning to Accept my Allergies as an Adult

Some of my earliest memories are of sitting at the Tim Horton’s coffee shop with my parents, enjoying a peach juice and a sprinkle donut. Or an iced tea and a bagel. Or my personal favourite: a milk and an oat cake. Whatever the occasion, our trips always involved a delicious, warm, baked good– one made with wheat, of course.

Whenever I had an important decision to make, my parents would, and still do, take me out for coffee. From applying for University, accepting my first job offer, and now planning my wedding, all of my most meaningful life decisions have been made over a cup of coffee and a treat.  But all that got a little more complicated recently.

I was diagnosed with a severe wheat allergy at the age of 30 after an anaphylactic reaction sent me to the hospital during a wintry run. After living with this allergy for three years, and having a second allergic reaction just a few weeks ago, I have been forced to redefine my identity and my relationship with food. What does it mean when I can’t eat the same food as my family and friends around the dinner table? How does it feel when I have to refuse a piece of cake at a birthday party or a treat at work for the hundredth time?

To be honest, it’s hard and I am still learning to accept that this allergy is something I will have for the rest of my life. Adjusting to a severe allergy as an adult isn’t easy. After my first reaction three years ago, I thought maybe it was just a fluke, despite my allergy tests showing a strong reaction to wheat. After my second reaction just a few weeks ago, a result of being served a contaminated dish while eating out, my allergy is literally all I think about.

I don’t often mention the ways that having an allergy has changed my life, beyond just having to say no to foods containing wheat. It’s changed the way I am able to enjoy food with my family at home, out in social settings with my friends, and most of all, the way we cook at home. To be honest, I can’t remember the last family function we had where I was able to just eat the same thing as everyone else. Coming from a large, traditional Italian family, most of our staples like pasta, pizza, paninis and most desserts are foods that I’ve either had to modify, or just stop eating. Wheat-free pasta is fairly simple to find, but a wheat-free cannoli is something I’ve yet to enjoy.

Recently, I attended my sister’s wedding and her gorgeous, three-tier banana chocolate chip wedding cake with fondant icing (my favourite) was completely off-limits for me, and to be honest, it made me a little sad. Not to mention the cheese tortellini with mushroom cream sauce and all the appetizers. Her venue was incredibly accommodating and made me a completely wheat-free meal, that was delicious by the way, but that didn’t stop me from feeling a bit left out or disappointed that I couldn’t enjoy everything that was on her beautifully curated menu.

With my own wedding coming up, it makes me kind of sad to think that I will have to have a “special meal” different from what my guests are eating. While I know that serving the Italian staples are a must, I just hope that whichever venue we choose will do their best to create similar dishes for me that don’t make me feel left out of my own big day. More on wedding planning with an allergy coming up in my next blog!

I know that accepting my allergy, and making safe food choices, even if that means feeling left out sometimes, is something that I have to accept. I also know that many restaurants and bakeries are targeted towards wheat-free living and even offer full menus that are completely wheat-free. Luckily, I live in Toronto where places like this are never too far. These days, our weekend trips to Tim Horton’s have been replaced by a stop at our favourite gluten-free bakery around the corner from our condo. While they don’t serve old-fashioned glazed donuts, they do make a mean lemon poppy seed muffin.

-Jenna

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University/College Top 3 Tips Series: Eating on Campus

Regardless of whether you are living on campus or off campus while away at university or college, a lot of your time will be spent on campus. Whether its picking up a snack between classes or grabbing dinner with friends, it is important to know where you are safe to eat on campus.

  1. Navigate the cafeterias

Something to spend your first couple of weeks doing is to get to know what your different food options are on campus. Most schools will have a few main cafeterias along with maybe a restaurant, snack areas or chain food suppliers. Spend some of your time getting to know where your food options are and what each of them serve. This will help you to determine where you can eat safely and what places have the types of food you like.

  1. Talk to the staff

The hospitality staff at your school will be the best people to help you eat safely on campus. They are the ones who know all about how food allergens are managed on campus and how you can best go about eating safely. Talk to the people who actually work in the cafeterias – usually the chefs and food preparation staff will have no problem talking to you and discussing what foods are safe for you to eat. If ingredients are not posted, the staff should be able to show you ingredient lists so you can know exactly what you are eating.

  1. Be adventurous

I found that growing up with food allergies led to me being a very plain eater. I rarely tried foods that were outside of my comfort zone as I had been so used to eating a restricted diet. When going away to school, I decided it was a good time to try some new foods – as long as I knew they were safe. After speaking to the hospitality staff and chefs at the cafeterias, I found that there were lots of new things that I could try that they could ensure me were allergen safe. This was a great way to try new foods in a safe environment. Just always make sure you have talked to staff, double checked ingredients, have an auto-injector nearby (just in case), and have informed those eating with you that you are trying something new.

Eating on campus will become a staple while you are away at school so it is important to know your options and know how to eat safely! If you have any other tips when eating on campus, I’d love to hear about it in a comment below!

University/College Top 3 Tips Series: First Week of School

You’ve made it! The decision has been made, your bags have been packed and now it is your first week of school! The first week of school is usually an orientation week where you get to take part in lots of fun activities and get familiar with the layout of campus. Here are my top 3 tips for getting through your first week of school with your food allergies!

  1. Talk with your roommate(s) and your floor mates

In your first week, it is important to try and make those who you will be living with aware of your food allergies. If you have a roommate and haven’t communicated with them beforehand it is important to let them know about your allergies and work out what you are comfortable with in terms of managing your allergies in your room and common areas. It is also a good idea to talk to other people who live on your floor as well so they are aware and cognizant of your allergies.

  1. Go to the grocery store

Your first week can be overwhelming and very busy. Having limitations on what you can eat and not being familiar with the cafeterias and food options on campus means it is always a good idea to have your own food and snacks on hand. Make a quick trip to a nearby grocery store during your first week so that you always have safe foods on hand and you won’t get hungry!

  1. Get involved

Usually classes haven’t started during your first week and it is just a time to have fun and meet new people. There are also usually lots of club fairs and promotions of different activities for new students. Take this time to get to know what kind of ways you can get involved on campus whether it’s through sports, clubs, activist groups, etc. There might even be opportunities to work with hospitality services or start your own club – like one for students with food allergies!

Hopefully some of these tips will help you get through your first week of school safely and with lots of fun! If you have any other tips for the first week of school with a food allergy, I’d love to hear about it in a comment below!

– Lindsay S.

Be a Superhero! Cooking and Baking Without Allergens

Ever wanted to be a superhero? Recently, the heroes in my life include doctors, nurses, paramedics… and anyone willing to attempt to make food for me. It takes courage, contemplating cooking for someone with food allergies! First you have to clean EVERYTHING, and then you have to find the ingredients… and then you have to find a recipe. Usually, the recipe is where most people give up, and go and look for the store-bought replacement. Today, I wanted to give you a little inspiration in order to conquer allergens in recipes where you’re working from scratch. It’s usually cheaper, and gives you more flexibility. Be careful to stick to the trusted brands, though, and always double check food ingredients!

Step 1) Simplicity: Spices, herbs, flavourings, nuts, glazes and frostings are optional. If you can’t eat it, leave it out!

Step 2) Is the ingredient adding moisture to the recipe? Just substitute something wet… Depending on what you’re avoiding, eggs, fruit or vegetable purée, or sour cream can all add sticky moisture. Pure liquids like milk can be replaced with water, broth, or any of the dairy-free milks out there.

Step 3) Think about the chemistry! Is the recipe using an acid and a base to rise? If so, consider substituting either the acid or the base. You might have to adjust the amount of liquid to compensate. Baking powder is a combination of an acid and base, plus starch, but if you’re avoiding sulphites you may need to cut it out due to the cream of tartar.

Bases:

  • Baking Soda aka Sodium Bicarbonate
  • Baker’s Ammonia aka Ammonium Carbonate (smells bad in moisture-rich recipes, NOT to be confused with poisonous household ammonia!!!)
  • Pearl Ash aka Potassium Carbonate (very bitter, so use it only in spiced recipes like gingerbread)
  • Potassium Bicarbonate (1:1 for baking soda)

Acids: The amount of pH will affect how much you’ll need to react with your base.

  • Vinegar (White, Rice, Apple Cider, Wine, etc)
  • Citrus Juice, or Citric Acid
  • Buttermilk or Sour Milk
  • Yogurt
  • Molasses
  • Golden Syrup (aka Treacle)
  • Cream of Tartar

You could also add the leavening power of CO2 in other ways, too, including using yeast, carbonated water (or straight soda pop), whipped egg whites (if not allergic), whipped chickpea water (Take a can of chickpeas, remove chickpeas. Use like egg whites!), or chilled and whipped agar and water.

Step 4) What is making this recipe stick together? You might try using something else that’s sticky instead. Eggs can do this, but so can water + starch, pectin, gelatin, agar, ground flax, ground chia, puréed fruit or vegetables, rice, bread crumbs, or quick oats.

Step 5) Is there flour in the recipe? I used to use this recipe for all purpose GF flour: 1 cup corn starch, 1 cup potato starch, 1 cup rice flour, ½ cup tapioca starch, ½ cup corn flour, 4 tsp xantham gum (less if you’re making breads). You can usually play around with a mix of flours and starches to mimic the gluten found in wheat flour:

  • Rice (Very grainy texture. Use a blend of different types of rice, or soak it)
  • Oat
  • Quinoa
  • Almond, or other ground nut flours
  • Chickpea, or other bean flours
  • Seed flours, like ground chia or millet
  • Arrowroot
  • Corn
  • Potato
  • Soy
  • Coconut
  • Tapioca (starch)

Step 6) Is this recipe using an emulsifier? These blend things that would not normally mix, like oil and vinegar. Eggs do this, but so will some ground seeds like flax or chia!

Step 7) Is the ingredient being used for texture, taste, or colour? You might try substituting something else that has that texture or taste. Seeds work as replacements for peanuts or tree nuts. Sesame or peanut oil can be replaced with vegetable oil instead. Vegetables and fruits with similar textures can be substituted for each other- for example, carrot cake with sweet potato is pretty awesome! Soybeans can also be replaced with chickpeas or other beans. Cheese can be mimicked by adding nutritional yeast, or extra salt, or even the stickiness of starch. Shellfish could be replaced with finfish like salmon (if not allergic to finfish, course), or you could change the whole recipe and make it with poultry. For natural colours, Egg, Tumeric, Paprika, Mustard, and Saffron will make yellows or oranges. Red Cabbage, Beets, Hibiscus, and Blueberries will either make blue or green, and Yellow Onion Skins will make things orange/red, or brown. Experiment by using your favourite tea as a way to help colour your recipes.

So… Get into your kitchen! Substitute EVERYTHING! Fight the food allergies and become a cooking SUPERHERO!

– Janice

Cooking with Food Allergies

Creativity is my superpower. I grew up with an abundance of imagination, a keen desire for knowledge, and a deep seated love of all things colourful and bright. My passion for crafting occasionally borders on addiction… But cooking was my kryptonite. For many years I refused to deviate an inch from recipes. Adding recipes to my repertoire usually involved forgetting a key ingredient, mixing up the amounts, or burning those mini muffins until they resembled hockey pucks. Sigh……

It turns out the solution to unlocking my creative potential in the kitchen was developing a ridiculously long list of food allergies. The more I stayed with a few ingredients, the more I learned the basics, and the more I gained the confidence to make the attempt. Most of the time, those attempts worked. When they didn’t, they were usually still good enough to eat. Maybe I was just too stubborn and determined to waste the failures!

The first thing I learned about cooking was simplification. I’ve become addicted to 18th century cooking shows, and it has dawned on me that our ancestors ate a lot more simply than we do. With new undiagnosed allergies, the safest thing to eat involved the least number of ingredients. Did you know that you can just roast meat plain? It was really quite a shock for me to discover how many recipes actually fare pretty well without spices. Gingerbread without ginger, for example? It’s different, yes. But it’s still surprisingly close to the original, and makes a pretty good cookie!

Then I learned to plan ahead. I started cooking at night, after my housemates had gone to bed… cleaning thoroughly and then cooking a two week supply of meals and freezing them. For trips, I borrowed a dehydrator and made a whole bunch of shelf-stable meals. This summer I’ll be using my new pressure canner to free up my freezer space… It feels occasionally like planning for the zombie apocalypse. But it helps! The other day I had a 2 hour meeting that went 4 hours late… and I might have eaten my friends if I’d not had a quick and easy meal ready and waiting in my car!

Finally I learned to change it up. I may not be able to change my ingredients, but I can change the way I cook them! For example, I like to change the colour of my vegetables as often as possible. Did you know that carrots aren’t all orange, and that tomatoes aren’t all red? Most vegetables have a wide range of colours, and each colour tastes a bit different. My favourite is the purple sweet potato, though it does make an odd-looking soup! Next I like to change the shape of my food. Sometimes I’ll use cookie cutters, or cake pops… for shaping vegetables and meat. Maybe I’m a little crazy, but I like my “four-star” hamburgers! Then I’ll change the texture by varying whether things are raw, boiled, baked, fried, roasted or cooked sous-vide. Who knew raw beet greens are really good tasting? Roasted kiwi over a campfire? Almost better than marshmallows! Plus the longer you cook things, the better they taste. My brother swears by cooking sous-vide (vacuum sealed bag, boiled for over 24 hrs)… and I gotta say Easter dinner was pretty amazing as a result!

Do you have any other tips for cooking? I’d love to hear from you with a comment below!

Happy Cooking!

– Janice

The Best and Worst of Food Service

Everyone with an allergy knows the feeling of uncertainty. You’re halfway through a big bite of your meal when you hear someone say, “are you sure…”

Even writing about it I feel that tightness in the pit of my stomach. The tell-tale calling card of anxiety. No matter how experienced I’ve become with managing my food allergies, I still make mistakes, and those mistakes are scary.

I always try to remember that I’m not perfect when someone else is the one making the mistake. I try not to blame servers at restaurants, they’re usually very helpful. I’ve noticed one single thing that I appreciate more than any other when it comes to servers. But first a quick story.

In the middle of a meal at a banquet the server abruptly took my plate away, without explanation.

My friends at the table were confused but I knew what was happening. I had just eaten peanuts. I’m allergic to peanuts and I’ve had anaphylactic reactions in the past. Just like that I’m starting to freak out.

The server returned a moment later looking flustered and politely asking me to come to the manager’s office.

“What’s going on?”

“Just come with me.”

I’m losing it. This is the end. I’m taking a mental inventory of my symptoms. Nothing yet, but how long will it take? When will it start?

I walk into the office and I’m shocked to find it full of people.

As I sit down I’m bombarded with questions from a red faced and angry manager:

“How do you feel?
Tell us if you’re feeling bad!
You can’t sue me, you have to tell me!
How do you feel?”

This interrogation lasted ten minutes. The only response I gave was a simple,

“What did I eat?”

She never answered. For ten minutes she lectured me about lawsuits but refused to tell me what, if anything, I had eaten.

Finally a server in the corner told me that they were worried about contamination of my meal by pine nuts. I’m not even allergic to pine nuts. But they never asked me and were reluctant to answer my questions. I was fine, but my night was ruined and I’ve never been back to that restaurant.

The one thing I appreciate most in servers is direct honesty. Tell me what I’m dealing with and let me make my own decision.

Whenever you hide something from me, we risk a very serious situation.

How about another story? This one is the best experience I’ve had at a restaurant.

A big group of us went out for lunch. In the restaurant I calmly explained my food allergy to the server. His response is among the best I’ve ever had. He suggested I look through the menu and see if anything caught my eye, in the meantime he would talk to the kitchen manager and ensure that he could tell me EXACTLY what I could and could not order.

When he returned he took my order and then said:

“Thank you for joining us today. Before I place your order with the kitchen I want to explain our process so that you know we have you covered and can eat your meal in peace. When I place this order, I will announce that this table has a peanut allergy. Every staff member in the kitchen will wash their hands and until your order leaves the kitchen everyone will remain at their stations to avoid any chance of cross contamination. Our manager has assigned one cook to your order. He is working at a clean station that hasn’t been used since it was last cleaned. He’s cleaning it again to be safe. He will clean all your food and re-wash your dishes. When he’s ready to send the meal I will wash my hands and he will hand me the food, it will not touch the service counter at all. Once I pick up your meal I will not touch anything until I place it in from of you. Someone will open the doors for me, everyone will stay out of the way. Nothing will come into contact with your meal AT ALL. If anyone touches it for any reason we’ll start all over again. Is that OK with you?”

I was floored. This server just spent five minutes with me and all I ordered was a $10 lunch special!

That is the ultimate experience for me. I had no doubts, no anxiety, and I would go back in a second.

What I need from the people around me is the truth. I’ll take care of the rest!

– Jason B.

Dining out with Food Allergies – A Step by Step Guide

Those living with food allergies understand that blindly choosing a restaurant (or a dish at any given restaurant) may not be the safest option. But there are a lot of ways of enjoying a restaurant meal while still being cautious. Since allergies are becoming more common, many restaurant managers and servers know the menu like the back of their hand, and are usually quite helpful.

Group of friends enjoying an evening meal with wine at a restaurant.

I have a severe dairy allergy and still enjoy eating out. There is always a bit of anxiety over new places, but I’ve found a few methods that can make things run smoother, and make it easier on everyone.

  1. Sticking to what you know. Yes, it can get a little boring, but I’ve found a few restaurants I really like, and stick to my ‘safe’ dishes on each visit. I also remind myself to check with the manager about my food allergy every visit, even though I go there a lot. Wild food experiences will never really be a part of dining out for me, so I save my crazy ideas for cooking at home.
  2. Check the menu online if possible. Larger chain restaurants usually have an online menu, which really helps those with allergies. I like that I can browse before hand, save time finding my “potential” meals, and think of questions to ask the chef or manager.
  3. Call ahead. Small, independent bistros or restaurants may change their menu frequently. I try to speak with the manager or chef, which can be very helpful. They can provide you with ingredients and offer substitutes. When you arrive, the server will often already know how to help with your questions.
  4. Let your server know right away that you have food allergies and that you will have some questions about the menu. It’s courteous to them and gives a heads up to the kitchen that they may have to make some substitutions. I always attempt to place my order before the rest of the table. That way my order stays unique, and there’s less chance of confusion.
  5. Don’t be shy, or presume the server and kitchen understand. Always state that you need your ENTIRE meal with NO (insert your allergens). If a server isn’t used to allergies, they may not even think about what’s on the salad, if you only asked about the main course. I will often ask about every part of the meal because some things aren’t always listed in the menu. I learned this after ordering my tacos with no dairy, no cheese, and no sour cream only to have the plate show up with refried beans covered in cheddar.
  6. Check your meal very carefully. If you’re unsure about something on the plate, double check. If something is wrong, send it back, or ask for something different. I used to feel a little embarrassed about this, but now I don’t hesitate, and it doesn’t happen that often.
  7. Thank your server/ management. If all goes well let them know you appreciate everything they did. I make it a point to leave positive online reviews whenever I can.
  • If all else fails, and you really don’t feel comfortable ordering anything, just don’t. I’ve had a few experiences where I’ve just enjoyed a cocktail while everyone else eats. While it’s frustrating, it’s not a risk worth taking. Always remember to keep your allergy plan and medication with you at all times, and let people you’re dining with know as well. Hopefully these tips can become a routine to help everyone enjoy dining out and lessen the stress that goes along with it.

– Morgan G.