Now I feel that I have an obligation to share the practical, actionable things I could do to make tolerable the previously-unthinkable diet my daughter had to endure during the summer and early fall of 2010. As I say that, I am assaulted in my mind by the knowledge that right this moment, mothers are at their stoves faced with the dilemna of how to make a meal out of rice, bananas, and apples — not because they didn’t make it to the store or because they’re low on money, but because those are the only foods their child is able to eat without serious illness. Eosinophilic esophagitis can — and sometimes does — rob families of the very basic ingredients of any normal meal.
I write this knowing that to call it hard is to make it relative to a normal diet — and in that case, it really was hard. In relation to a diet with even more restrictions, it was easy. Relative to the fat-free diet Sammi would need to follow four years later, it was also easy. In the moment, however, for us, and for other families managing it after an unrestricted diet, it was daunting. We were given a packet of information from the gastroenterology practice that assumed, for one thing, that we ate meat, which we did not and which Sammi’s doctor did not want us to begin doing, lest we contaminate the experiment of this elimination diet entirely. So we started with the foods she could eat, and quickly learned which of the newly forbidden foods (dairy, egg, soy, nuts, and wheat) we could substitute with analogous items on her “yes” list.
One day, tired of using recipes to make the ingredients I would use in other recipes (imagine a precise blend of flours to make a gluten-free flour blend, or the chemistry experiments I did to make something that would approximate a matzo ball), I threw a handful of finger foods on a platter in the living room and told my kids that it was lunch. Hearts of palm, baby corn, olives, cubed soy-free nut-free gluten-free vegan cheese, dried plaintain, and rice crackers. It bought me an hour before I had to start conjuring dinner out of vegetables and rice, again.
And it was hard.
It was never not-hard.
I didn’t want to write a recipe blog, but it was exceedingly difficult finding recipes that worked without fish, dairy, egg, soy, nuts, and wheat — a diet also known as the “six food elimination diet” because it also forbids fish/shellfish (something we didn’t have to test, since she’d never eaten either of those foods). The best things we discovered during that time were soups and rice & bean dishes, and also the Easy Whole Grain Flatbread (using any flour — we liked it with chickpea flour) by Mark Bittman. You can also find some links to products we could use on my Food That Helped page. We were not thrilled about adding junk foods with artificial flavors and colors to Sammi’s diet, but there was so little we could give her that qualified as a treat — and precious little that didn’t make her feel freakish among her new friends in kindergarten. If a packet of Betty Crocker Fruit Snacks would help, we bought them.
If you have come across this page because your child is on a restricted diet, the steps you need to take to determine whether a packaged product is safe for him/her are:
- Check the ingredients. Read them at least twice, checking for derivatives of the off-limits food, too.
- Check below the ingredients for a statement about shared equipment and/or facilities with your off-limits item. Sammi was allowed to eat products made in the same facility with her forbidden foods, but not products made on shared equipment with those forbidden foods. Find out what your doctor recommends.
- If there is no “shared equipment/shared facility” listing on your product, or if what your child is restricting is not one of the top-eight allergens (wheat, dairy, egg, soy, peanuts, tree nuts, shellfish, regular fish), call the manufacturer. Most food/beverage companies now have a customer service person dedicated to allergy issues. You need to ask about the production facilities and the content of their “natural flavors” if they list any in their ingredients.
It is an exhausting experience. I got quicker at identifying foods we could use, and I came up with a handful of reasonable meals during that time, but it was nearly a full-time job. The most important meal that we created, with much trial and error, was a replacement for Sammi’s favorite food: macaroni and cheese.
It wasn’t the same, but it was close.
Six-food-elimination-diet people: hang in there.
Macaroni & Cheese, Sort Of
1 lb Tinkyada brand gluten-free noodles
3 cups Pacific brand oat milk
1 small onion, minced
1/2 tsp pepper 1/2 tsp dried thyme
1 bay leaf
4 tbsp Soy-Free Earth Balance margarine
3 tbsp brown rice flour
3 cups Daiya brand shredded cheddar cheese (or two packages Daiya cheddar “wedge”)
Cook the pasta until just before it’s done. Drain quickly. Work fast.
While it’s cooking, melt the soy-free earth balance in a saucepan. Add the brown rice flour and mix well, then slowly add the milk and onions, whisking all the time. Add the bay leaf. Cook until thickened a little — maybe five minutes. Remove the bay leaf. Add the cheese, stirring until melted.
Add the cooked, drained pasta to the cheese sauce in the saucepan and mix together. Pour into a lightly-greased casserole dish and broil for 2-4 minutes, until the top is browned.