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Married: With Food Allergies
When we got married, we had several meetings with the minister. At the end of one, I remember the minister turning to my husband and solemnly suggesting that he bring home dinner on rough days. Chinese take out, pizza, smoothies...we talked about options in his comfortable seating area, discussing healthy eating balanced with fast food and relieving kitchen duty; since at the time I knew pizza did not like me as much as I liked it, and rather than relief I felt a sense of dread when it came through the door.
But I didn't have identified allergies. So I looked forward to those little white boxes, the sense of being taken care of that it brought. I dreamed of days when the kids would be excited about Daddy on Dinner Duty. It wasn't that big of a deal; but there was an image in my mind. The normal American household. Dinner in a bag. Even in vintage sitcoms, take out dinner is another way to say "Surprise! I love you and I'm thinking of you."
Everything changed when food allergies came on the scene. Well before I was diagnosed with food allergies, I began to develop an uneasy relationship with food. I'd eat. Sometimes the meal would bite back with a vengeance. Sometimes I'd feel unsettled, uncomfortable and cranky. And sometimes I'd be fine. Because of the unique nature of my allergies, the food connection was difficult to make. Instead, food became the stuff that kept me alive, rather than a social experience. A romantic night out was more likely to end at the end of a meal than it was to just begin. It was challenging for my husband. He wanted to share a night out, including a meal, with his wife. I wanted to enjoy his company. The two seemed mutually exclusive for awhile. We could enjoy spending time together...or we could eat. We couldn't enjoy eating out. I'm lucky that he stuck by me, and was supportive as I went from doctor to doctor, looking for answers. Whether he agreed with the few that thought it might just be stress or knew that there was a lot more to it is still murky. But he didn't give up.
Allergies Appear, and Interfere
We were two kids into our marriage before food allergy was identified as the predominant cause for my recurring, debilitating symptoms. Eventually, Celiac Disease was diagnosed as well. As I slowly recovered, the idea of eating out began coming up. It was presumed that, with food allergies identified and a firm diagnosis in place, I could now simply go out to eat. Enjoy a meal prepared by someone else by vigilantly avoiding the offending foods.
This was when it occurred to me that the last positive memory I had of eating out had occurred so long ago that I associated restaurants in general with pain. Take out meals? My husband tried a few times. "There is absolutely no corn in there!" he'd insist, "Yes, I asked." Reassured, I'd set the table, light a candle and sit down with him. And invariably, I'd double over halfway through the meal.
Obviously, it wasn't the stress of eating out that was causing my symptoms. And I wanted so badly for the food to be safe, I was trying to ignore the itching, the hot flashes, the nausea. "I'm okay," I'd force a smile. And go to bed, with a heating pad. "I think it's the flu."
So much for a romantic evening. Luckily, my husband figured out that I only developed the stomach flu when he brought home take out or I ate a special treat. Not when I made special meals for him, or when he actually cooked something simple for me. Otherwise, he might have taken it personally.
I've heard from others that my experiences are not unique. When someone with food allergies begins dating, it's hard. They have to open up their most vulnerable state immediately. Eating is supposed to be an easy way to break the ice, to share an afternoon or evening. It's low pressure because everyone has to eat. You're only stuck with someone whose company is unpleasant until the check comes. You can drag the meal out by ordering dessert, or asking for a refill of coffee if you're having fun. Unless, of course, you have to remain vigilant. No danger foods for you, no kissing if they ingested a danger food. Airborne particles of food keep you on your toes.
It seems challenging. The grass seems greener on the other side, when you go into diagnosis with a supportive partner by your side. Someone who's already gone through the initial coffee date, the first dinner date. Someone who knows your favorite dish, how you take your coffee and whether you'll want fries with that or salad. The diagnosis of a food allergy doesn't just turn your life upside down, it affects them in a major way. It challenges your relationship, too.
If You Love Me, Don't Feed Me
The first few months after diagnosis with a food allergy are daunting. For me, the allergy was corn. The first few weeks I was in shock. The first few months were challenging to say the least. It took at least a year for me to get a good handle on what, exactly, this allergy meant for my life and my family. And my husband was stuck following me on the ride.
He wouldn't want me to share this, but if not for him and the mistakes we made along the way, I wouldn't know for certain just how severe my intolerance to corn derivatives actually is. After all, the one person you can trust to make dinner should be the one who's been sharing your bed for the past several years, right? The one who got you through childbirth, without drugs? The one who's seen you at your worst and still loves you?
Yeah. That guy. He's managed to 'poison' me more than once. I won't pretend I didn't mind. I've gotten pretty upset. I may even have stomped my foot. (Hey, I was hungry. And sick. And facing the fact that I was going to be missing some fun over the next several days.) But I learned. I learned that spices were a problem. I learned that cross contamination from wooden spoons was real. I learned that I wasn't being silly when I thought that certain eggs were a problem. And I discovered all these things when I put him in charge and left the room.
He didn't want to poison me. He tries very hard not to. He's been put into awkward situations, like the time he was on the phone with his mom and said we were on our way over as soon as we finished eating. And then I started vomiting. He eventually left me curled up on the floor to go get the kids. I don't remember what it was he'd put in the eggs, but I do remember looking up and saying "You put WHAT in the eggs?" and the look in his eyes when he realized that whatever it was wasn't actually safe for me.
You can imagine the challenge this places on a relationship. After all, food shouldn't hurt. So the unallergic partner has to deal with feelings of guilt (Yes, yes, we all know it isn't their fault. But those feelings remain so I'm citing them) as well as the helplessness of watching their loved one suffer. The allergic partner, of course, is dealing with the discomfort of an allergic reaction. But they are also dealing with trust issues. Food is essential for life. It's the foundation of survival. Food, water and shelter. The basics of life, spouses provide for each other and support one another by ensuring that those primordial needs are met.
And then one accidentally compromises the food and sends that trust out the door.
It's a challenge. But not an insurmountable one. In the beginning, we found it was much easier, and much safer, if he stuck to preparing food for the kids. They liked it better full of spices and flavor, and he didn't have to worry about hurting me. We still sometimes joke that he loves me to much to share his lunch.
Compromise and Trust
You can't have a good marriage without both compromise and trust. Both of which are greatly challenged when you throw food allergies into the mix.
When one spouse develops a food allergy after the relationship is established, it's important for the non-allergic spouse to be supportive. In our case, my husband waited until I had developed a foundation of safe foods and cookware. Then he began to ask questions aimed at educating himself on safe food for me.
It's been 8 years on this journey, and he still asks a lot of questions. As the one with an allergy, I don't expect him to keep all the answers in his head. I'm in charge of the shopping, and most of the cooking. He holds up his end of the bargain by being extra supportive in clean up and dish duty. But he also has learned how to feed me when I'm sick. He can make broth (with onions and carrots), he can roast a chicken if I have a safe for me one available. Essential in our compromise kitchen is labels and safe food zones. He knows which spices are safe for me, we only buy safe pasta. Directions for making rice are posted where he can find them.
It's rare that I catch him making a mistake. But when I do, he usually catches himself before I call his attention to it.
Life Beyond Food
Although many couples keep their relationship alive by going out to eat, we don't have that luxury. Eating out is just too stressful to be anywhere near enjoyable when you have certain allergies or are new to the food allergy journey. But that doesn't mean that we don't have a good relationship, or that we don't get out of the house. We've discovered that there are plenty of food free dates available.
- Hiking: Okay, okay. So it makes you hot and sweaty. It also brings you to gorgeous mountain vistas, lovely hidden glenns and sometimes a breathtaking glimpse of wild animals. We don't do career hikes, or backpacking or any serious hiking. But we do enjoy the local nature preserves. And since our kids are less than thrilled with this new obsession, we tend to enjoy them alone.
- Treasure Hunts: There are several treasure hunt hobbies out there. , Geocaching and LetterboxingWaymarking are some of the most popular. Treasure hunting will not make you rich in the monetary sense. But it's still a lot of fun; and a great incentive to go out and explore new places (even if there's nothing in it for your mouth.)
- Pool Halls and Bowling Alleys: Although many of these establishments also sell food, you can call ahead and decide how safe it sounds for your own unique allergen. If you focus on the game, you don't have to worry about looking awkward when you aren't eating.
- Classes and crafts: You might want to hit the local craft store together and learn a new craft, or hone your skills. Or you might take a new class and learn a foreign language, or how to dance. These options may be a little spendier than hiking or even going out to eat, but they're still a good way to connect. And a lot more practical than a single meal.
- Museums: Stuffy artwork may not be your thing, but there are a variety of museums out there to meet every passion. There are museums dedicated to art, history, aviation and even toys. Look up what's available locally and stop by. Even if the exhibits end up being a bore, you can discuss how much you disliked them.
- Walking tours: Many cities are full of history right under the resident's noses. Check wtih your local chamber of commerce or city website and see what's available. Pretend you're a tourist. You'd be amazed at what you can discover. Often there are self hosted walking tour guides available, so you can take the tour at your leisure.
I'm sure there are plenty of food free, allergen friendly activities out there. These are just a few that we've come up with and enjoyed. The main thing to remember when food allergies threaten your marital bliss is that there's more to life than food. You still need to find ways to connect, even if you make every meal from scratch. Learn to cook safe meals, learn to bake safe desserts, and find ways to connect beyond the dinner table. Maybe, just maybe, those 'beyond the dinner table' interests will strengthen your marriage. They'll at least give you something to talk about besides the kids and what kind of cuisine you're in the mood for.