In 2010, when my daughter Sammi was diagnosed with eosinophilic esophagitis (a misdiagnosis, it turns out, but that’s another story), I suddenly had to learn to cook without dairy, eggs, soy, nuts, and wheat. The restrictions were part of something called the “six food elimination diet,” a way to tease out if any of those major allergens (plus fish, which we’d never eaten before so didn’t need to eliminate) might be making her sick. To describe this as a lifestyle change is not so different from describing the stay-at-home orders of our current pandemic as “taking some time for myself.” It was a smackdown.
I felt like I had a handle on dinner, initially. I could do some things with beans and rice and gluten free pasta that seemed manageable. What really messed me up was breakfast. At the time, Sammi was about to turn five years old. Living, as we did, with a grown man whose favorite breakfast was highly processed simple carbohydrates flavored with chocolate or artificial colors, doused in soy milk, meant that most of the time, the ample supply of cereal was our go-to breakfast, especially for Sammi and her then-eight-year-old sister, Ronni. The first week of the diet, I spent a dejected half-hour in the “natural foods” section of the grocery store, returning with some very beige cereals that made both kids groan.
Eventually, we settled on a few things that worked for Sammi in the morning, not without a lot of trial and error. In the years that have followed — long past the end of the six food elimination diet — I’ve come to realize that a lot of what she and I both like for breakfast is still either safe for that diet’s restrictions or pretty darn close. Every summer, as reminders show up in my Facebook memories of what it was like to plunge face-first into cooking for that diet, I realize that it changed my palate, my cooking style, and my approach to feeding my family. Not all of it was bad. Some of it has made us — dare I say? — a little healthier. I thought I’d share a few accidentally safe breakfasts for the six food elimination diet here for anyone who’s searching for what the heck they’re going to eat in the strange new culinary world in which they find themselves.
Everything below is totally safe to eat for breakfast on the Six Food Elimination Diet (SFED), and also totally delicious food I would (and do) choose to eat even though I am not following that diet.
Oat Bran Hot Cereal
Who knew that something called oat bran could be delicious? I expected it to taste like sand, but the first morning that I measured out a serving of oat bran into a pot with oat milk, I realized immediately that it was just like cream of wheat. Sure, the grain itself was different, but wow – add some brown sugar or maple syrup and a little Earth Balance soy-free margarine, and this was wonderful. For almost the entire autumn, this was Sammi’s go-to breakfast. For an adult, I’d probably double the serving size and add some berries or bananas on top, but five-year-olds are purists.
This was a non-starter for my kid, since she hated oatmeal, but I’ve been eating it for breakfast for years and just recently realized how easy it is to make safe for almost any medically-restrictive diet. If gluten is a real issue for you, you’ll need to buy gluten-free oats (though oats are gluten free on their own, a lot of them are grown so close to wheat fields that they can be dangerous for people allergic to/sensitive to gluten, so you can buy varieties that are grown in isolation). If you make them with rice milk, oat milk, hemp milk, seed milk, or water, they’re fine for the full SFED. I’ve made them with the following mix-ins:
- Sunflower or soynut butter and berries OR raisins
- Brown sugar, soy-free earth balance, and frozen mango or peaches
- Sunflower or soynut butter, melted Enjoy Life chocolate chips (just toss them in when the oatmeal is hot and they’ll melt), and dried cherries
- Any of the above, plus flax meal
This was a new one for me that I discovered long after Sammi was done with the SFED, but it’s become our go-to breakfast for mornings when we need to wake up and run right out the door. I make this the night before, and it feels like a treat. There are a million recipes out there if you do a search for “overnight oats” — the key is to swap out their suggestions for milk and yogurt to safe versions for your diet. Here’s one that would work for the SFED, adapted from this one at Wholefully.com.
- 1/3 cup plain oat milk yogurt or coconut milk yogurt – any safe brand is fine
- 1/2 cup (heaping) rolled oats
- 2/3 cup unsweetened oat milk, flax milk, or hemp milk (rice milk is too thin for this recipe)
- 1 tablespoon ground flax meal
- 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
- Pinch of salt
- 0–2 tablespoons honey or maple syrup
- 1/2 ripe banana, chopped or mashed
- 2 tablespoons Enjoy Life chocolate chips
- Stir together all ingredients in a medium-sized mixing bowl. Spoon into a jar with a tight-fitting lid.
- Close and refrigerate for at least 4 hours, but preferably overnight before eating.
Surely, some nutritionist or friend of yours has already suggested this. Finding protein sources to put in smoothies, though, was hard for us. Most of them had either soy or dairy, so we struggled. Years later, I discovered that Arbonne (yes, that Arbonne, the makeup and skincare MLM stuff your neighbor is always trying to get you to buy from her) sells a really delicious protein powder that is totally safe for the six food elimination diet. It’s expensive, but it lasts a long time. This, plus some of your safe milk of choice, plus perhaps a coconut or oat milk yogurt, makes your morning smoothie far more filling than just bananas and berries do. I have no recipe – just dump all of the things I want into the two-cup measuring cup that came with my immersion blender.
OK, Fine, COMMERCIAL CEREALS
Eventually, we discovered that several commercially-available breakfast cereals were fine on the six food elimination diet. I was surprised but thrilled; giving my five-year-old sugary cereals was one way to make this whole thing less terrible for her. At the time, all the Post “Pebbles” cereals were safe, as was Lucky Charms (all oat!) and the then-newly-released gluten free version of Rice Krispies. By now, there are probably many more. Be sure to check the labels carefully, and call the company if you’re not sure. We found that rice milk and oat milk were the best milks for cereal – hemp milk had too strong a flavor. Seed milks were not available to us back then, so those may be worth trying, too. I ate the cereal with oat milk right along Sammi and found it to be very tasty and very similar in texture to the soy milk we’d used before.
Beans and Rice
Hear me out. In an unrestricted diet, eggs and toast are a normal breakfast — savory, with protein and grains. On the SFED, you have to be willing to get more creative with both of those nutritional components. For people who don’t want to eat sweets in the morning, the ideas above are not likely to work for you. Your leftovers from dinner, however, might be just the thing. Sammi loved eating a bowl of refried beans with melted Daiya cheese on top for breakfast. It had protein and was warm, offering comfort and long-lasting satiety. You can have rice, too! You could even put your rice in a frying pan with a little bit of vegetable oil and some frozen peas, drizzle a little bit of coconut aminos (a soy-free version of soy sauce) on top, and make fried rice for breakfast, topped with some canned black beans or chickpeas. The combinations are endless, really — add a safe variety of salsa to your rice; some safe hot sauce; nut-free vegan pesto; etc.
The SFED is really hard. REALLY hard. Breakfast was the worst – waking up hungry and having to think so hard about what we were going to eat was frustrating. I hope this list is helpful for those of you who are here desperate for food ideas, and maybe inspirational for anyone looking to either reduce their reliance on cow’s milk or mix it up a little in the morning. I’ve said before that I didn’t want to make this a recipe blog, but the truth is that I wanted to make this useful to people. May you begin your days with a belly full of something that fed your body and your soul.