When your child is first diagnosed with a food allergy, it can be daunting and even downright scary. However, with some education and a little experimentation in the kitchen, you can feed your entire family a balanced, delicious diet without constantly making special meals & feeling like a short order cook — I promise!
There are a few basic habits you’ll need to get into to make this a whole lot easier. Here are my top tips for meal planning when you have allergies in the family:
- The first step is to identify simple, whole food combinations that are safe and balanced that you can use to quickly prepare small meals & snacks for your allergic child. The more processed food you rely on, the more likely you are to inadvertently bring an allergen into your home. Labels and ingredient lists can be confusing and misleading. Sticking to whole, one-ingredient foods provides you with much more control over your child’s food. Make a list of healthy, allergen-free snacks that include a fruit or veggie, some protein and a bit of healthy fat, when possible, and post it in your kitchen where you can readily refer to it. For example: “almond butter & sliced apples”, “carrots and hummus”, “hard-boiled egg and grapes”, “pre-cooked diced chicken, raw veggies and rice crackers”. You’ll find this is a godsend after you initially get your child’s allergy diagnosis and are scrambling to find safe foods. You can also use these pairings to supplement at meal times in the beginning, until you’ve got the main meal planning down to a science.
- The next step is to find some basic substitute ingredients for your child’s allergen that you can start to use in baking and cooking. The internet is a great resource for this, just google “alternative ingredient for [X allergen]”, and you will find a number of reliable substitutes. For example, sunflower seed butter or tahini (a sunflower seed paste) can replace peanut or other nut butters in just about any recipe, ground flax seed and water can replace an egg in baking, and almond milk can pretty much always replace cow’s milk in baking and cooking. I recommend you start a binder to collect & organize information on substitutions and “safe” family-friendly recipes. Plastic page-protectors can go a long way to keeping the binder spill-proof & readable!
- Next, go through your family’s favourite recipes to determine which of those can be easily modified, with a couple of minor ingredient changes, to meet your child’s allergy restriction(s). Print off these recipes, note the required modifications, and add them to your binder. I like to keep my family recipes grouped by meal, i.e. “Breakfast”, “Lunch”, “Dinner”, “Healthy Snacks”& “Treats”, for ease of reference.
- If there are certain recipes you can’t easily modify, search for allergen-free versions of them online. There are loads of websites and cookbooks out there dedicated to living healthily with dietary restrictions that can provide you with great recipes, tips and support from other parents. You’ll be amazed at what you will find! Try new recipes when you have extra time (it’s not a great idea to leave testing to a busy, rushed weeknight!) and add these to your binder if they taste great and are well-received.
- Once you’ve spent a little time getting organized, you can start meal planning. Get or make a template (see: simple-balance.ca/shop/family-meal-planner/ for my free downloadable Family Meal Planner) and set aside some time to put a plan together. Follow my Meal Planning 101 tips, below, using the recipes and snack ideas you’ve collected, and prepare to feel significantly less stressed about your family’s food!
Meal Planning 101
- Look at your family calendar and note any activities or events that will make it difficult to cook certain meals or for certain family members to eat with the rest of the family. Record these on your meal planner.
- Go through your “safe” recipes binder, and choose some simple meals to try on the days you will have time to cook from scratch. Add these to your planner.
- Don’t waste: Check your freezer and pantry: Do you have any meals that need to be used? Incorporate them into this week’s plan!
- Don’t re-invent the wheel at every meal. At least half of your dinner options should be recipes you’ve tried before with success.
- On days where you know you will be rushed, either pencil in a “healthy fast food” option (like gluten-free pasta with jarred spaghetti sauce and beans, or scrambled eggs, fruit and rice cakes) or choose a recipe you can make in advance and freeze, making a note on the planner that you need to take it out to defrost that morning.
- Fill in breakfasts and lunches, making use of leftovers from dinners the night before, and note anywhere you think you might need to double up on a recipe to provide enough for the next day or evening.
- Include a list of allergen-free snacks for the week, including fruits and veggies.
- Go through your meal plan once it’s complete and make a detailed grocery list of everything you need.
- Go shopping and get everything you need on Friday or Saturday. (You’ll need to get very good at reading labels to avoid allergens).
- Schedule a morning, afternoon or evening on the weekend to make whatever you need/want to prepare in advance of your week.
- Remember to check the meal plan every evening to make sure you know what’s coming up the next day.
- Be flexible. Stuff happens. Always have the fixings for a couple of healthy “safe” fast food options in the pantry just in case it does.
For family-friendly recipe ideas (including loads of gluten and dairy-free recipes) and more tips, check out my blog at www.simple-balance.ca/blog/