Category Archives: food allergies

Food matters

It is not coincidental that, as my family has developed increasingly complicated food issues, I have taken more responsibility for preparing our food.  There must be some sort of intricate equation I could use to figure out how to balance Lilah’s possible honey allergy with Benjamin’s difficulty with refined sugar, my distrust of manufactured sugar substitutes, J’s embrace of fad diets, and Zachary’s refusal to eat any vegetable not disguised as a carbohydrate.  I am pretty sure the equation would include agave and walking backwards in a circle three times around a bubbling cauldron.

No, I will not make a separate portion for Lilah without nuts, eggs, garlic, onions, olive oil, or honey.  No, I will not prepare a different meal for Zachary.  No, I will not bake muffins Benjamin cannot eat.  I am not a short-order cook.  We need to be able to eat as a family.  So, I make a spinach soup short on flavor because I leave out the really good stuff – all of which Lilah is allergic to.  And I plop a loaf of bread on the table in hopes Zachary will eat that, despite the concern that the little bit of honey in it might pose a problem for little girl.

Food.  Oh, my God, food.  Food matters so fucking much.  That’s why my stepmother was so effective.  She knew how much food matters and she used it to control us.  It wasn’t the beatings or the belittling.  It was the rotten food and the starvation and the vomit-eating that destroyed us.  She denied us the very basic nurturing that food provides because she knew that food matters.

Food matters because a huge portion of our ecological footprint comes from the way we get, prepare, and consume our food.  Think about what you have eaten today.  How many pesticides went into the soil and waterways to grow it?  How many artificial chemicals and odors were manufactured?  How far did it travel to get to you?  And how much packaging did it require?

Food matters because it can build strong bodies and minds or it can rot people from the inside out.  Why are there so many more cancers and attention deficit disorders and spectrum disorders?  I don’t know, but I’ll bet a lot of it can be traced to food.  Why does my Benjamin sport skin the texture of newly whipped butter?  Because that kid puts a whole lot of good stuff into his body.  He is walking testimony of the benefits of antioxidants.

Food matters because we are nurturing our children with it.  Real food, grown from real plants matters.  Meats from animals who themselves ate good things.  I will not just throw something together because food matters.  It is not a waste of time to spend hours each day thinking about food and preparing food.  It is the business of life.

Do I wish I had a family without allergies or pickiness?  Sure.  But think about most traditional cultures.  If there are not food-shortage problems, several different foods are usually incorporated into every meal.  Because not everyone likes every kind of food, and if there are choices in the meal, people can pick and choose.  Baking my own bread has certainly eased my relationship with Zachary.  If the only thing he chooses from the family meal is the bread, at least it is freshly baked and packed with nutrition.  And if Benjamin is in the mood only for the cheese the night we make bean burritos, so be it.

There is a meal on the table.   Because food matters.

Saucy

God bless my third child, because that girl will eat anything.  Well, almost anything.  When the time came to switch from breast milk to whole milk, she spit that crap right out.  Only when we started putting skim milk in her cup did she agree to drink the stuff.  A girl has to watch her figure.

Other than whole milk and ice cream, however, Lilah will eat whatever is put in front of her.  Lentils, eggplant, spinach, chicken… you name it, she eats it.  Unlike Benjamin, who gorges himself on giant fistfuls of victuals like a cross between a caveman and Henry VIII, Lilah is a lady with table manners.  She deliberately picks up one morsel at a time, content to spend forty-five minutes on a twelve-course meal.  To be completely honest, all her delicate manners do nothing to prevent her from getting soup in her ears and cheese on her head.

I have earned this baby.  Feeding Zachary has the potential to become a full-time obsession, what with his constantly shifting sensitivities to textures and smells.  One day he cannot handle skin on his fruit, the next day he eats only the skin.  This week he likes grapes, next week he’ll declare them disgusting.  Every food has to be vetted for offensive odors or sauces that might inadvertently slip onto the plate.  After five years of this shit, I deserve a kid who doesn’t make me think too hard about what I feed her, damn it.

Lilah almost turned out to be the one.

Unfortunately, it turns out that everything she eats makes her break out into hives.  It started with squashes, but quickly grew.  Eggs.  Lentils.  Beans.  Chicken.  Tofu.  Pizza.  Pasta.  At every meal, she would happily dip into the creamed spinach soup or paint herself black with beans.  And by the end, her face was covered in hives.

We decided to test her for food allergies.  Maybe it was tomatoes, beans, and dairy that gave her the eczema.  Or perhaps she was sensitive to meat proteins.  Maybe it was gluten, whatever the fuck that is.  The doctor and I discussed some possibilities, and she ticked off the choices on her little referral form.  It wasn’t until I got the thing home that I realized there was one common denominator in all the foods Lilah was eating.  I called the doctor and had her add one more item to the list for the blood screening.

And that’s how we came to find that our daughter is allergic to garlic.  Mildly allergic, mind you, but since she was getting it in everything, she was pretty much constantly exposed to an irritant.  Hence the blotchy skin and scaly elbows.

I panicked.  How the hell was I supposed to cook?  I use garlic in pretty much everything.  Short of chocolate chip cookies, there isn’t a dish out there that doesn’t get its best start in life from olive oil, onions, and garlic.  Although I was already cooking most of our food from scratch, I liked to know I had the option of ordering in.  I rarely would, but I need that escape hatch for weeks when everyone had didn’t have swine flu and the oven door fell off.  I defy you to think of a single food one can order in that does not have garlic in it.

Just listen to that escape hatch swing shut.

What I quickly have come to realize, however, is that adding more onions allows me to remove the garlic without any catastrophic effects.  The taste is milder usually, but equally good.  Contrary to popular opinion, pasta sauce made without garlic does not cause your rigatoni to shrivel up into a ball and beg for mercy.  It can be quite good.

So, here’s how I made Lilah’s Garlicless Red Sauce:

6 to 10 tomatoes, deseeded and diced

2 medium sized onions, diced

olive oil

bay leaf

one bunch spinach, washed well and chopped

fresh basil, oregano and parsley (or dried)

salt and pepper

Heat the olive oil in a large pot.  Let me spill a little secret about olive oil: it doesn’t really matter how much you put in.  The onions will cook well no matter what amount you use.  If you really need a measurement, let’s go with two tablespoons, but I won’t tell anyone if you just dump some in.  Cook the onions for about ten minutes until translucent.  Toss in the tomatoes and cook until well stewed, maybe five to ten minutes.

Oh, wait, I forgot to tell you to put in the bay leaf, too.  Cook the bay leaf with the tomatoes.

Then throw in the spinach and the herbs.  Fresh is always better, and you cannot possibly have too much fresh basil.  However, dried also works fine, and in that case stick to a teaspoon or less of each herb.  When the spinach has wilted into the sauce, add salt (sparingly) and lots of pepper.

I didn’t have any cooked white beans, but if I had, I would have tossed those in, too.

Puree it all (except the bay leaf.  For the love of God, take that out).  It’s a little dark for a red sauce, but that spinach packs a nice punch.  I used it for a lasagna last night and the two children who actually eat loved it.  The other one sat on the floor across the room from the offending food and muttered to himself.  Every now and then I caught words like “disgusting” and “horrible.”

To make the lasagna, by the way, cook some noodles.  Put just a little sauce on the bottom of 9x 13 pan.  Put down a layer of noodles.  Ricotta cheese in splotches (or, if your ricotta has gone bad, use cottage cheese).  Lots of grated mozzarella.  Sauce.  Noodles.  Sauce.  Cottage cheese/ricotta.  Mozzarella.  Noodles.  Sauce.  Cottage cheese/ricotta.  Mozzarella.  Noodles.  Sauce.  Mozzarella.  Parmesan cheese.

Serve hot, then after the meal cut up a pear so that the picky one eats something before bed.

The key is to go very, very easy on the sauce each layer.  It is easy to go overboard and then you get a mushy lasagna.  But remember, there is no such thing as too much mozzarella.

Of course, I used to think that about garlic, too.

Food

Lilah, who just rounded a year old, is an elegant eater.  She prefers to dine, picking up one pea at a time, as her older brothers storm through the meal beside her.  Benjamin eats like a caveman and Zachary eats like a compulsive dieter.  Their baby sister eats like a girl who realizes her mother has enough drama without more dinnertime histrionics.

She eats what we give her, selecting from amongst the morsels with measured enthusiasm.  While she prefers beans to chicken, she doesn’t whine or cry if the dinner is not her first choice.  She just eats it.  Then, when she is finished, she looks at me and starts talking as she clears off her placemat.

She is asking for dessert.

I bring in fruit, and she eats that for awhile, too.  Meanwhile, Tweedledum and Tweedledee have left the table twenty minutes ago and are pummeling one another in the living room.  J and I sit at the table, deflated, trying to pretend for a few minutes that Lilah is an only child.

It is a pleasure to feed this little girl, truly it is.  Except.  And here’s the big except.

The hives.

Oh, my god, the hives.  Everything she eats seems to make her break out in hives.  First, it was just all forms of squash.  OK, we can avoid squash.  Then it was eggs.  Fine.  Daddy and Zachary are allergic to eggs – we can handle that.  But then we noticed a few other things seemed to trigger the problem.  Like lentils.  And possibly other beans.  And tomatoes.  And chicken.

Who the fuck is allergic to chicken?

How exactly are we supposed to get protein into a child who has only one tooth but is allergic to everything?  I would prefer to limit her soy exposure, as I don’t want her getting bosoms before she leaves preschool, yet a (hormome-free) t-bone is out of the question.  She doesn’t even have enough teeth for hamburgers.  Plus, of course, I need to be cooking food for the entire family, which means that it has to be something that suits Benjamin’s tastes, Daddy’s peculiarities, and my rather high health standards.  Since Zachary doesn’t actually eat, he gets no vote.

(By the way, don’t even try to suggest things to feed her.  Please trust me when I tell you that I have thought of every possible permutation and there is some problem with every conceivable meal.  Either Benjamin doesn’t like it or J won’t eat it or it makes Lilah’s head spin around and sprout horns.)

We need to figure out to what she is allergic, as baby Zyrtec is currently her third biggest source of calories.  When Zachary got his allergy tests, they poked his back with a series of plastic prongs and then looked for the reaction, a procedure that he is in no hurry to repeat, allow me to add.  They decided he was severely allergic to eggs, which we could have told them.  He has always had a reaction to anything made with eggs unless it involves baking them with lots of grains to absorb whatever proteins make him ill.  There also seems to be a tree nut allergy, which is fine, as I cannot imagine him requesting something like a handful of walnuts or a bowl of toasted almonds.  Thank god there was no reaction to peanuts.

They prescribed an epipen, a nifty little device that his exemplary parents manage to forget to bring with them about 92% of the time.  Fortunately, Zach promptly vomits up all egg products, so we will probably never need the thing.

Lilah, however, seems to be a lot more sensitive and she is still tiny.  She needed blood tests to determine exactly what she can safely consume.  We were able to narrow the possibilities down.  I rarely feed her processed foods, so I know all the ingredients in everything she eats, but it still involved a very long line of little vials they needed to fill.

So, I was assigned the task of holding her down with my body while three technicians sucked seven vials of blood from her arm.  Baby girl did her job, too.  That consisted of screaming with fury as she vainly attempted to get to her right thumb, which was tragically the same arm out of which they were removing a third of her blood.

As soon as the technicians were finished, she stuck that thumb in her mouth and then sat on my lap and whimpered.  Eventually, when I felt strong enough to walk, I took her out to the parking lot and managed to get her to the car without hyperventilating.

As I was strapping her in, a man walked by with his child in a wheelchair.  It was clear this little boy was severely disabled, both physically and mentally.  He and his family face enormous challenges every single day.  What ails that child will not be healed with a few tubes of blood and some Zyrtec.

Lilah’s blood tests haven’t come back yet.  Yesterday, baked beans gave her hives.   I suspect there are a few more epipens in our future.

Nutty

            “What about chickpeas?” I asked her.  “Are they allowed in school?”

            She sighed.  “Well, I don’t know how far the school wants to take the policy.”

            “I’m not asking the school,” I replied.  “I am asking you.  It’s your kid.  The school seems to think chickpeas are fine.”

            “Well, chickpeas are the closest relative of peanuts,” she responded.  “But, he’s not in your children’s class.”

            Our preschool, you see, is nut-free, but the administration seems a bit hazy on the exact parameters of that ban.  Clearly, no peanut butter is allowed, because if Zach went out to play in the yard with some on his fingers, he could leave it behind for another child to touch.  Ready-made anaphalactic shock.  But, when I asked about chickpeas, no one seemed to know the answer.

            My eldest is incredibly picky.  Peanut butter is his largest source of protein.  And not being able to pack it in his lunch is a giant pain in the ass.  Not, however, as much of a pain in the ass as it would be for this other child to end up unconscious or dead.  That would suck even more than my kid doing without peanut butter at lunch.

            So, despite the sensory issues and complicated eating, I support the nut-free policy.  In fact, I think all schools should go nut-free.  These kids cannot go on playdates, they cannot fly on airplanes, they often cannot eat in restaurants.  It seems that maybe the school should be a safe zone.

            To address my son’s need for protein, I have switched breakfast and lunch.  My kids eat peanut butter in the morning, then I pack little Mr. Finicky muffins in his lunch box.  I feed them their breakfast in their pajamas so none gets on their school clothes, then scrub their hands and faces and brush their teeth before taking them to school.  And all the while, we talk about why we must take these precautions.

            Zachary is well aware there is a boy in his school who is allergic to peanut butter, although he is mostly really concerned that the child is allergic to chocolate, which he classifies as a huge tragedy.  He knows that it is everyone’s responsibility to keep this child safe.  And he does not begrudge it.  So, why should I?

            Seems to me this is the perfect opportunity to teach about community responsibility for looking out for one another.

            In the end, we decided spinach with a chickpea base is OK, as long as I tell the teachers to carefully wash hands before the kids are allowed out in the play yard.  Together, we are coming up with the solutions, because I am pretty sure she cannot keep her kid safe all by herself.