When my son Dimitri was just over six months old, I fed him a cow’s-milk-based formula for the first time. Immediately, his entire body turned bright red. Heart racing, and panic setting in, I tried keeping my cool while phoning the midwife. He wasn’t coughing, his breathing was fine, and a description of his symptoms led her to conclude that he had an allergic reaction to cow’s milk. My husband and I consider ourselves lucky: many with food allergies have life-threatening reactions; our son got off with (albeit quite severe) red, itchy eczema.
Almost four years later I can look back at that incident and see just how little I knew and how far I’ve come in handling my son's many food allergies. Unfortunately, it is not confined to cow’s milk. Over the next year we found out, painfully slowly, that his allergies extended to all dairy, eggs, multiple fish, including most shellfish, peanuts, sesame and other seeds, and many legumes. So what does he eat? The answer is lots.
One of the first things to realise is that when it comes to food allergies, you have to read every label of every food to be eaten. Plain tea biscuits that contain skimmed milk, pasta that contains eggs, sauces with a bit of hidden cheese – these are just some of the items that mean you must never take anything as a given. In restaurants, bakeries and other places that serve food we have learned to be very vocal, constantly asking if such-and-such a dish contains any dairy or egg products. If the staff or chef can’t answer, just don’t order it.
The best way to deal with food allergies is not to eat food with labels; instead cook from scratch using fresh, seasonal ingredients. Having had to put a magnifying glass up to anything my son eats has taught me a lot about food in general, and I have to say that, from my many hours in the kitchen, our family as a whole has become much more healthy.
That’s not to say cooking for food allergies itself is easy, as I am on a constant mission to ensure my son gets enough calcium, vitamin D, protein and all the other challenges that a dairy- and egg-free diet throws up.
A book that helped out a lot when I was just starting out is the Food Allergy Survival Guide: Delicious recipes and complete nutrition by Vesanto Melina, Jo Stepaniak and Dina Aronson (Book Publishing Company, £14.99). It goes into great detail about what food sensitivities are, includes nutrition-planning and lots of recipes for ‘normal’ things children like, such as banana bread and pumpkin spice bread, without using dairy and egg products.
Next up was discovering Lucinda Bruce-Gardyne’s How to Cook for Food Allergies: A step-by-step guide to preparing delicious food, simply, from scratch (Rodale, £12.99). It includes a chapter on ‘Eating a balanced diet on a restricted diet’, and has lots and lots of great recipes. I have Lucinda to thank for introducing my son to dairy-free lasagna. Yes, it does take a good full morning to make – including the dairy-free béchamel sauce – but my son gobbles it up. Lucinda is a professional chef whose three sons between them cannot eat dairy, eggs, gluten or potato, leading led her to experiment with a range of dishes that she then tried out on her husband and sons.
Our daily read (dairy-free)
Another source of inspiration for creating meals without using dairy and eggs are vegan cookbooks. I hope I don’t offend anyone by using the term ‘meat-eating vegan’, as that aptly describes the dietary restrictions on my son. Again – without offending anyone, I hope – a great way to add some protein to vegan recipes is by adding chicken or meat. Great books include Vegan with a Vengeance: Over 150 delicious, cheap, animal-free recipes (£9.99) by Isa Chandra Moskowitz, a quirkily irreverent book that aims to ‘wean you from the corporate teat while at the same time saving you money and encouraging you to support local growers’. Our favourites include roasted butternut squash soup, carrot-raisin muffins, and courgettes stuffed with olive, tomato and millet.
There is also How it all Vegan! Irresistible recipes for an animal-free diet (£9.99) by Tanya Barnard and Sarah Kramer, and Vegetable Heaven: Sensational seasonal vegetarian recipes (£12.99) by Catherine Mason. All of these, as well as the excellent Everyday Dairy-Free Cookbook (£12.99) by Miller Rogers and Emily White, are published by Grub Street Publishers, founded in 1992 by Anne Dolamore and John Davies, who make a point of publishing books that address allergies and children’s diets.
Matilda Lee is the Ecologist’s Consumer Affairs Editor
A treasure trove of foods and cooking ingredients for allergy sufferers. Special dietary choices range from gluten-free, dairy-free, egg-free, yeast-free, wheat-free,
vegan, vegetarian and more.
German company that produces a broad range of natural vitamin and mineral supplements. and more.
Available from Goodness Direct
Provides products for allergies of all kinds, including laundry balls, non-toxic paint, cosmetics and cleaning products.
UK medical charity that deals with allergies. Its website contains information and allergy factsheets.
Calcium: curly kale, okra, spring greens,watercress, parsley, red kidney beans, figs, apricots. Try Rice Dream’s rice milk with
added calcium, oat milk or almond milk.
Grains: include amaranth, brown rice, cornmeal, oatmeal, quinoa.
Omega-3: provides relief for eczema or other skin conditions, and a good general dietary supplement; ground flaxseeds and
flaxseed, hempseed or canola oil.
Binding or raising agents (to use in place of eggs): alternatives
include apple purée, mashed banana and a mixture of arrowroot
powder and tapioca blended with wheat flour.
For ethical and sustainable suppliers of Food and Drink goods and services check out the Ecologist Green Directory here