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The "I Can't Afford to Eat Allergy Free!" Guide to Eating Allergen Free
When you're diagnosed with a food allergy or intolerance (Such as Celiac Disease), your world turns upside down and sideways. Food, after all, is supposed to bring comfort. It's the foundation of health, and happy social occasions. Food is essential. How can it bite back?
It does. Sometimes, food intolerances can be managed by minimizing the offending ingredient, like in lactose intolerance. And sometimes, all traces of a food must be eliminated to avoid anaphylaxis. And sometimes, you simply need to avoid an ingredient in order to feel healthy and continue to be healthy, like in Celiac Disease.
Regardless of what you are avoiding, or why, most people begin the food allergy journey by looking at it as "I can't". They start shopping for foods that are labeled allergen friendly. And then they get to the check out counter, get their first shopping bill...and it's not a pretty picture. If you're shopping for allergy friendly convenience foods, your grocery budget could easily double or quadruple. Allergen free cookies, crackers and snack bars can cost twice as much (or more) as their traditional counterparts, and most packages contain fewer servings. It's enough to give a food allergy family a heart attack.
Some people can grit their teeth and bear the extra cost. After all, everyone has to eat, right? Others look at the budget and decide that they simply will have to suffer uncomfortable symptoms, as long as they aren't life threatening, in deference to the constraints of practicality. There is only so much money coming in. Rent needs to be paid, cars need to be filled, shoes need to be purchased and tummies must be filled. Something, somewhere, has to give. When the gluten free crackers are just too much to bear, saltines find their way into the cart.
"I'm on a budget!" these people cry, "I can't afford to eat allergy free!" They point to labels listing dairy, nuts, soy, gluten or corn and break down in sobs. "How can I afford the safe alternatives?"
I'm on a budget too. I get it. My budget is tight. I hold my breath when balancing the checkbook. Money doesn't grow on trees, and the prices on everything seem to go up with each breath we take. I can't afford to buy 3 loaves of gluten free bread each week for sandwiches, or several $7 boxes of expensive cookies per month to snack on. But my budget also doesn't have room for unnecessary emergency room visits, or extra doctors bills, or a variety of symptom reducing medications. My budget doesn't have space for hiring a stand in when I'm too sick to function; or for any of the missed money making opportunities or other consequences of food related reactions.
And neither my family nor my body will put up with simple starvation or a rice and water diet. What's a food allergy family to do?
Back to Basics
If your new grocery shopping plan is to look for allergen friendly labels, your budget and diet are both doomed. Not only are allergen friendly packaged foods economically challenging; they're full of carbs, sugar and other undesirables. If you're like most Americans, your diet is full of branded meals. There are boxes of noodles and dried spices to be mixed with butter, milk and meat filling your cupboard, sugary fruit flavored pastries rounding out breakfasts and granola bars falling out of your gym bag. To replace these with allergy friendly substitutes would cost a fortune.
I know, I know, I know. Those are the things that are on sale. You can buy them in bulk, during those stock up sale days, and then add double coupons. But, what are you really getting? Empty calories and a tummy ache. Add in the cost of the additions, the vegetables that round out a meal, the snacks that make up for the not-so-filling entree and the antacids that ease any following discomfort, and you didn't save much.
Packaged foods generally have a lot of ingredients that are potential allergens. Most people with food intolerances find that the real problem they have in eating safely is in eating packaged food safely. Cucumbers don't come in packages marked "Gluten free and Vegan!". That doesn't mean that they're grown inside a bag of flour and watered with milk. It just means that as a naturally gluten free food, no one has thought to slap a gluten free label on the produce.
When you start rethinking your allergy friendly dining, go back to the basics. Start at the beginning. You need well rounded meals including protein, grains and produce. Some source of calcium (No, it does not need to be milk) is important, too. It's the same sort of advice when you want to lose weight or eat heart healthy meals. Go back to the basics, eat whole foods. (No, I don't mean the grocery store. I'm talking about food that looks very much like it did originally. Foods that are in their original form, or close to it. Eat ingredients.)
Make a list of foods that are naturally allergen free. (did you remember potato chips? Because unless you're allergic to potatoes, there may be a version that's safe for you.) Fruits, veggies, meats...forget how you normally prepare them; are they allergen free without the toppings?
Now, look critically at your list. You can break it down into pieces. Stuff that's naturally safe for you. These items can be bought when the price is right, regardless of brand name. Stuff that can be naturally safe. Use the internet and a local food allergy resource group to help you identify brands that clearly label your allergen, if it's not on the top 8 list. The final group are favorite foods that need some tweaking. Don't worry. You'll get there.
What are the Basics?
Going back to basics means different things to different people. What your basics are will probably depend on your allergy. They also will depend on your experience in the kitchen.
While it may seem intimidating to many Americans facing a food allergy (when there really are no easy back ups), the real basics are farm fresh food and dried legumes. To buy these economically, you can locate your local farmer's market or join a coop. Buy in bulk when you can use things in bulk, or when they will store well. Legumes and grains store well, are economical and generally allergen friendly. They also make a great base for most meals.
Potatoes are another staple that are easy to keep on hand and quickly use as a base for many meals.
Frozen vegetables that do not include an allergen are easy to find, and frequently found on sale. Frozen veggies are a great way to economize, and bring new meaning to the idea of fast food. Tossing frozen veggies and some onions in a skillet with a drizzle of olive or grapeseed oil provides a quick, tasty topping or side to any meal.
Raw meat may be the scariest basic food to handle; but with a good cookbook and the support of a loved one, you can tackle anything. Stick to simple recipes to start with, and invest in a meat thermometer. You can save money by purchasing cheaper cuts of meat and using your slow cooker. Buy larger amounts when they are on sale and put some in the freezer. Choose seasonings you know are safe, rather than buying premarinated cuts. Not only is it cheaper, it's safer from an allergy standpoint. And, of course, find ways to use up your leftovers in second meals (like wraps, sandwiches, or casseroles) so that you aren't throwing away perfectly good food that you'll have to replace with expensive alternates.
When you buy fresh produce, chop it up and store it properly within 48 hours. It's much easier to pull together a meal when your veggies are already prepped and ready to go; and you're more likely to snack on pre-cut veggies or fruits than if you have to peel and scrub them.
Quick and Easy Meal Ideas
We're in a generation of adults who were raised on Ramen and boxed macaroni and cheese. If you don't know where to start, get a good cooking basics cook book (No, not one that tells you what to do with cake mixes or brand named products.) Try out some simple recipes. You can also find a variety of allergen friendly cook books, which will help when it comes to something sweet to finish off your meal, but for everyday cooking you need to get the basics down. A few simple meal ideas follow. They are not gourmet. They are not meant to be rivals to the msg enhanced flavor explosions in a box that you may be used to. They are simply quick, easy, feel good meals that you can have on the table in about the time and effort it takes to whip out the boxes, bags and accoutrements of 'instant' meals; without the allergens.
- Pasta. Pasta takes under 10 minutes to cook. There are gluten free varieties for under $4; you can find wheat based pasta for much less. Careful shopping will find rice pasta for $2 a package. While it's cooking, chop up an onion (Don't have time? Once a week, chop up several.) Add store bought sauce or some frozen veggies. If you're feeling adventurous, chop your own.
- Rice. Rice takes 20 minutes or so to cook, and all you have to do is poke it around a bit to keep from burning. Rinse it thoroughly first. Pair it with veggies, eggs, beans, meat or a combination.
- Potatoes. These are cheap and easy fiber rich vegetables that can be topped with veggies, cheese, meat, or whatever variety of leftovers are sitting in your fridge from last nights meal. Eggs and cheese, if you aren't allergic, go great with roasted potatoes. You can get frozen chunks called home potatoes (or potatoes obrien) or pre shredded hashbrowns to start a variety of allergen friendly dishes. Or you can buy several pounds of raw potatoes and prep them yourself; baked, roasted or mashed.
- Salad. With a few leftovers (Think chicken) you can easily turn bagged lettuce into a dinner salad. Or a lunch salad. The best part is that half the leftovers that go into a salad are the odds and ends that otherwise get thrown away. Which means salads make more bang for your buck. Just find a safe dressing, keep extras in the cupboard when they go on sale, and use it sparingly. For the sake of your wallet as well as your waist.
Allergy friendly dining is overwhelming at first. But once you really start reading labels, you'll be surprised at what you were putting in your body. For many, going allergy free isn't just about giving up a single ingredient found in many old favorites. It's an eye opening experience about food in general. Most people are shocked at what they discover when they start to really delve into the ingrained dietary habits of their peers.
Once you get past the staggering concept of re-engineering your meal planning regime, you'll find that allergy friendly eating, when done on a budget, is actually a lot like healthy eating or dieting. It means making time to chop vegetables, planning ahead to start the crock pot, and (perhaps the scariest concept) losing your back up pizza option. But you'll be healthier for it. Not just because you're eating better all around, but because you're avoiding those allergens you're supposed to avoid anyway. And you'll be more relaxed if you aren't worried about someone (yourself or your kids) having a reaction during a multi allergy mixed meal.