Tag Archives: Janice H.

Summer Squirrel: My Allergen-Friendly Winter Meal Preparations

This past summer I went into full-blown squirrel mode to combat my allergies. It feels like my normal life gets put on hiatus for a month or two, while I suddenly frantically start storing food in preparation for winter. Of course, it’s not always necessary… but it sure does make my life SO much nicer in the winter. There are some seasonal fruits and vegetables that are simply inaccessible to me (or outrageously expensive) in the winter. For example, if I buy corn in season, it can be as little as 25₵/cup. But in the winter, my only safe source is about $2/cup. Gooseberries are a great example of something that I can only find in the summer- and often only if I pick my own. Preparing food in advance also gives me access to homemade “processed” food, which then allows me to expand my diet because then I’m not always eating the same food in the same ways.

This explains why I become rather squirrelly every summer! I want to take advantage of summer sales so that my food budget doesn’t skyrocket in the winter, and there’s something incredibly satisfying about having safe food stashed away. Not to mention growing my own safe food! Just in case you want to follow in my footsteps… here’s what I did (Or, in some cases, what I should have done).

Step 1: Planning– In January I laid out a rough plan of what I wanted to prepare, and how I wanted to prepare it. I should have also had a plan of how much I wanted to prepare… but this year was a bit of an experiment in pressure canning so I just tried things out.

Step 2: Planting– This year I planted a full 8’x4’ garden with allergen-friendly veggies that I could easily grow to produce a big harvest. I also intentionally re-planted many of them when they were seedlings so that they weren’t too close together, which was quite successful. Next year I’d like to sprout them before I plant the seeds, so that I can avoid re-positioning the seedlings.

Step 3: Buying– Some of the best sales I found were rather spontaneous decisions, like the moment I found chicken on sale for $7 instead of my usual $24. I bought 12 on the spot, and proceeded to use the rest of my shopping trip as impromptu teaching opportunities to explain to everyone who asked or looked at me strangely that allergies can be really expensive at times!

Step 4: Going to farms– Most of my other large purchases were made when I went straight to the farms where the food was grown. I did a bit of price comparison by calling around, and then ordered ahead and was able to get 50 cobs of corn for $25.

Step 5: Preservation– There are three main ways that I preserved my food this past summer- freezing, canning, and dehydrating. I was very happy to be able to purchase and clean a used pressure canner as well as a dehydrator, and then bought a vacuum sealer on sale from Costco to help with storing both dry and frozen foods. If you’re doing research into how to preserve foods, there’s lots of great resources out there. The one I found myself using the most was the USDA Complete Guide to Home Canning from the NCHFP.

Step 6: Sanity– I was able to get my fabulous friends to help me cook, but it was last minute. I should have planned for more help in the really busy weeks, taken some time off work and cooked my regular meals in advance. I also should have planned a trip to a restaurant, as a reward at the end!

At the end of the summer, as frost (and snow) has already started to cover the ground in my area- there’s good news: my squirreling was successful! Now to catch up with the rest of my life… 😀

– Janice H.

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Tips for Travelling with Food Allergies

Before you Travel

Planning for the worst might seem stressful, but that’s how astronauts survive travelling out of this world. If you have allergies, it makes sense to plan out your contingencies when you travel outside of your home. Here are some pre-travel tips:

  • Know where the closest medical care is available, what it will be, what it will cost, and how to arrange to get there.
  • If travelling alone, find out how you would call for help.

When travelling with others, teach them what to do in case of a reaction. Food Allergy Canada has fabulous free online courses available at www.allergyaware.ca.

  • Get Travel Insurance. Travel Insurance is not only helpful for medical care in other countries, but also helps in case there are unforeseen reasons you need to cancel or change your flights.
  • Learn as much of the local language as possible, especially the terms associated with allergies so that you can recognize what your allergens are called, and explain yourself when you are having a reaction and need help. Hellolingo.com is one free language sharing site, and Duolingo is a great language learning app for your smartphone.
  • Make a small business card with your name, picture, and allergens in English and the translations to the local language. I also put pictures on mine when I was travelling where the literacy rate was not particularly high.
  • Plan what medications you would bring with you, by speaking with your allergist and your travel doctor if going overseas.
  • Plan where you can find safe food/snacks, and call ahead to hotels and restaurants about their food allergy accommodations if possible.
  • If you need to bring your own safe food, be sure to check customs regulations about what you can bring, and how much, to avoid your safe food being confiscated.
  • If you can, book a hotel room with a kitchen, and find out where local groceries can be purchased.

When you travel by car:

  • Bring what you need if you can! In my car have a little emergency stove, water, a camping pot, towels and soap, and dehydrated meals at all times so that I can safely make meals anywhere. I also found a portable kettle, which allows me to use any ceramic mug to boil water. It takes a long time, though…
  • Be aware of how far you’ll be from medical care, and whether there are any areas you’re driving through without cell phone coverage. Consider not eating while you are outside of cell phone coverage areas, or as an alternative, find out where the closest emergency pay phones will be, just in case.

When you travel by bus/train/plane/boat:

  • Bring your own food with you, and lots of wipes. The wipes won’t necessarily remove allergens, but at least you’ll know your eating area is disinfected.
  • Ask when booking for early boarding, so that you can wipe down your seat. Some companies will create an allergy-free buffer zone for you, while others will not. Ask in advance to avoid conflict.
  • Often hot water is available on trains & airplanes, so you can bring dehydrated or freeze dried meals on board and make them easily. Sandwiches work well for your outbound journey and you might think about bringing canned food for the way home. Check customs regulations before you make your meal plan; many countries have restrictions on fresh fruits and vegetables, meat and dairy products.
  • If you’re heading on a cruise, call the company beforehand and ask about medical care and food accommodations on board the ship. Some companies are really good at accommodating food allergies.

When you travel in the wilderness:

  • If you have allergies, it’s probably best if you don’t travel alone. At the very least, have someone who knows your route plan and have regular check-ins so that they know where you are and whether you’re safe.
  • Bring some form of emergency beacon, satellite phone, GPS or all three, so that if you should have a reaction, you can get help.
  • Bring lots of auto-injectors. Call the local health authorities in advance to find out what they recommend in terms of what you should bring.

Finding safe food in other countries:

  • Labelling laws differ between countries! Look out for what regulations are in place.
  • Many products change recipes from country to country, so READ THE LABEL EVERY TIME. For example, a popular soda brand tastes different internationally & a UK version of a popular energy drink in Canada contains apple juice.
  • It might be safest to cook food from scratch, rather than buying pre-packaged food or eating at a restaurant.

Don’t give up!

Even with multiple severe food allergies, it is possible to travel. Hopefully these tips will help you to get out there, and explore the world!

Happy Travelling,

-Janice

Travelling to Africa with Food Allergies

Africa is an incredible continent, one which I have had the pleasure to visit several times now. I first went to South Africa in 2004, and then visited Angola in 2009 via Namibia. In 2010, my parents moved to Angola, so I decided to go back for a surprise visit in 2014. It was a pretty epic adventure, not only because I wanted to keep my very social parents out of the loop… but also because it was to be my first international trip with new severe food allergies. It seemed impossible at first, travelling at all, and especially with the added element of surprise. I wasn’t even sure my parents would be home, since they travel frequently…

But looking back, the look on my father’s face was WELL worth it. The planning, getting a visa, calling airlines… all the logistics worked out. So how did I pull it off? Well, here are my tips for travelling to Africa:

1. Bring Emergency Food!
If you’re travelling in a more developed/stable country, like South Africa, Namibia, Egypt, or Morocco… chances are that the local grocery stores will have some food you can make from scratch. You might even find specialty allergy safe food, but be sure to call the company: Each country has different labelling laws so the definition of “gluten free” (for example) might change from place to place.

If you’re more likely shopping at the local market, bring your specialty food with you from your home country. I found it very helpful to have dehydrated/ freeze dried meals with me, but I had to leave a bunch at home when I realized that dairy and meat are completely forbidden to travel through the UK. Those were particularly useful on board aircraft, and when I was camping, but that’s a story for another time.

2. Allergy Card
Many of us with allergies know how helpful it is to carry a card with your allergens that you can hand out at restaurants. I designed mine to be a double-sided business card with both English and Portuguese (the main language in Angola). I also added pictures in order to try and minimize misunderstandings, and to prevent a lack of literacy from being a problem.

3. Travel Insurance
If you’re going to Africa… buy travel insurance. Even before I had severe allergies, having travel insurance saved me thousands of dollars in change fees when the airlines changed the locations of my flights. But with severe allergies, travel insurance gave me peace of mind that I would have medical coverage while overseas, should an emergency take place. Medical care can be limited in Africa, and more severe cases are referred out of country, so having a plan to pay for those emergency transportations is key!

One of my favourite food-related moments was in Luanda, on the way home. My father came with me so as to maximize spending time with me, and we spent a few lovely nights being treated like royalty by one of his friends, Etienne. Etienne took us to some fabulous restaurants (where my allergy card came in handy), and then put us up in his guest house, complete with a private chef! It happened that she (the chef) had family members with allergies, so it was such a high note to end my trip there! She was able to accommodate all of my allergies, and her personal attention was very much appreciated.

Pride of Lions

All in all, the trip was a huge success, and while I have developed even more allergens since then, I have already started planning my next trip. It might not be until 2020… but I’m determined to make it happen! Have you ever travelled to Africa with a food allergy? Let me know your experience by commenting below!

-Janice H.

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

In a Perfect Food Allergy World…

In a perfect world people that grow, harvest, package, process, and cook food would be completely open and honest about their ingredients. They would know which products were produced where, and with a touch of a button, people with food allergies would easily be able to look up which products were potentially cross-contaminated.

For those inexperienced to the world of food allergies, you might think we’ve already arrived in that perfect world. Here in Canada, labelling laws require that companies clearly indicate the presence of priority allergens in their ingredient list. In 2012, new laws came into effect to try and make those lists easier to read- for example, if a milk derivative such as casein was used in a product, the manufacturer had to start listing “milk” in their lists.

However, we still have a long way to go. For those at-risk for anaphylaxis, one of the most concerning loopholes is the lack of mandatory cross-contamination declarations. Most companies have some sort of protocols in place for thoroughly washing equipment between products, but it’s often automated and isn’t guaranteed. Some ingredients can easily spread through air, for example powders like wheat flours. Cooking oils can create fine mist, and sulphites can be added as a gas to help prevent spices from clumping. Once theses airborne particles settle, they could easily cross-contaminate other products made simultaneously in the same factory. This can happen in people’s homes, too, cross-contaminating a kitchen over time in the same way that dust leaves a fine powder on everything. Surprisingly, however, the requirement to declare possible sources of cross-contamination for priority allergens is completely optional for companies. This is one of the nightmares for those with severe allergies, since it means you have to call each company individually and find out if they have chosen to mention that they use your allergen in the same factory or not.

It gets harder if your allergen is not a “priority allergen.” Let’s not forget that people can be allergic to any food! In Canada, the priority allergens are determined by the top 10 most common food allergens. That said, just because other food allergies are rare doesn’t mean they can’t cause severe reactions. Let me be the example here: my most serious allergic reactions have been caused by cherries and black pepper! There are situations when companies aren’t required to list those as an ingredient, let alone mention the risk of cross-contamination. As a result, my absolute favourite products and companies are those that take the time to list every single ingredient on the label, instead of hiding ingredients in vague statements such as “flavours” or “spices.” Some statements are misleading, too- “artificial flavours” is listed when there is any combination of flavours where most of the flavours are synthetically derived. They can still mix in the natural extracts, however, which was a frequent source of hives for me before I realized what was happening. Now, as a rule I simply don’t buy or use anything pre-packaged unless I’ve contacted the company. Whether that’s food, toothpaste, or even shampoo- if there’s a chance I might swallow it by accident, I need to know that none of my many allergens are present!

So then how do we deal with making labels more helpful for consumers with food allergies, while not overwhelming the packaging with the text of the ingredients? Some products that handle labelling well use the following techniques:

  • Less text because of fewer ingredients. You also have the added advantage of higher quality products if there are fewer additives. Plus there’s the entertainment factor- I turn into a crazed fan girl screaming with delight when I find products with only one ingredient listed.
  • Folded lists of ingredients hidden behind stickers. These are very common in the hygiene industry, where there are simply too many ingredients to list them all in a readable sized font. At least they’re all attached to the product, though!
  • Complete ingredient lists in plain language. It’s like a breath of fresh air when companies actually list every ingredient. I recognize that companies may want to be able to keep certain things proprietary, but honestly- the competition could theoretically decode most of the ingredients with lab testing… and the average consumer is more interested in the convenience of not having to make it themselves!
  • Special Quick Response (QR) Codes with links to online ingredient information. This is usually in addition to the ingredient lists, but adds extra information vital to the allergic consumer like a detailed chart about cross-contamination risks.
  • Contact information on the package, and staff who know product ingredients. I am 100% more likely to buy a product on the spot if I can reach someone knowledgeable while I’m at the store. I am also highly appreciative of companies who respond to my emailed queries with thorough answers.

At the end of the day, we don’t live in a perfect world. There are no perfect companies nor process that can make guarantees for all allergens. Someday, ingredient labelling may become obsolete as new technologies are being developed for consumer food allergen detection tests. But until the day when we can all afford our newly invented hand-held tricorders, I’ll be relying on companies with honesty, integrity, and a deep sense of pride in sharing with the world the quality of what they make. Here’s to hoping those companies flourish and multiply!

– Janice H.

Note to Self: Trust Yourself More. Note to Everyone Else: Trust Me Less!

Trust isn’t something that comes easily for those of us with food allergies. Once diagnosed with a severe food allergy, you learn to avoid your allergens at all costs. Ideally, we live with a certain amount of healthy paranoia- because if we’re not paying attention to what we’re eating and what else it has touched… then it’s possible we might accidentally ingest what we don’t intend. Sometimes at parties I feel like Gollum, hovering over the place setting that I just painstakingly re-washed and set with my food… Mine… My precioussssss!

The problem is that while I need that self-doubt around my food… I don’t need it when I’m actually having a serious reaction. One would expect that, having had well over a dozen serious allergic reactions in my adult life thus far, I’d be completely comfortable and confident in knowing what exactly is going on. Yet half the time, I doubt myself. I ignore my symptoms and pretend like nothing’s wrong in spite of feeling absolutely horrid.

I think that tendency to want to ignore my body might very well be encoded into my DNA… My paternal grandmother wrote in her diary that on a day she felt sick, she *only* made three shirts before breakfast. My mom realized a few years back that she was able to ignore her pain so well that it caused nausea. After I broke my back, I started to notice that my colleagues who knew me well would ask me if I was feeling alright about 30 minutes before I noticed the agony I was in. I suppose that has translated into my food allergies as well- I’ll notice that I’m itchy and hot, of course, but I make any excuse to classify that symptom as something normal. I don’t want to admit a reaction to myself until I can’t stop itching, or I start having difficulty breathing, or I find myself camped out in the bathroom. I NEED to learn to trust myself more. I know the signs and symptoms of a reaction. I just need to learn to touch base with myself and have the courage to admit (and accept) what’s going on!

On the flip side… I need you to trust me less. During most of my severe allergic reactions, I’ve been a complete and total idiot. I think it’s actually part of the reaction, but I just stop thinking rationally. This can look like strange behaviours on my part, like not calling for help on the work two-way radio after an asthma attack had me collapsing on the floor… or ignoring the EpiPen® in my waist belt to go and find a different one upstairs before actually following medical advice to administer it. It’s like I’m watching from far away. I know it’s illogical and dangerous behaviour, but I’m not usually able to counteract it.

So when I DO come to you and admit I’m having a reaction, or when you notice I’m behaving very oddly… I need you to doubt me. If I’m curled up in a ball, refusing to answer questions, or just saying “I don’t know” repeatedly when you ask if I’m alright? Those are REALLY good clues that I need your help. Ask clear, yes or no questions, and point out my symptoms to me. If I finally admit in a quiet voice that yes, I think I need to be checked out? That’s your cue to call 9-1-1 and get me checked out! It’s never a convenient time to go to the hospital, so you can expect that I will be hesitant. I might be trying to talk myself out of it even as I struggle to breathe, so take a deep breath. Be courageous. Be ready to help me give myself the auto-injector if I need it. Honestly, it doesn’t hurt and it really does make me feel better almost instantly!

Then again, if I’m rationally able to articulate why I don’t think this is a serious reaction, I’m probably fine, and you won’t need to chase me down the street with an auto-injector! (That’s my brother-in-law’s standard question to help figure out if my reaction is mild or not: “Should I chase you with your EpiPen®?” LOL yikes.)

– Janice H.