It’s time for a reprieve.
After six weeks of experimenting with a gluten and casein-free diet for L., we’re in the “rechallenge” phase. Gradually and carefully, J. and I are adding wheat products and dairy products back into his meals, and with the help of his teachers and school staff, we’re keeping a close eye on the results. Depending on how he reacts, this reprieve will either be temporary (I hope not); or permanent (we’d all prefer that, frankly). We’re a few days into this new phase now, and so far, so good — but I’m not going to stop holding my breath anytime soon.
As with anything else in life, I think it’s important for me to reflect on the past six weeks and try to look at them through the lens of self-education. What did I learn? How might it help me/us in the future? Was it worth it, even if we find that L. never needed to go on this diet in the first place?
As a food blogger…yes, it was worth it. I have to make a very ugly confession, which is that sometimes in life, I have been almost cavalier about other people’s experiences with food-allergic children. In my early twenties, I worked with someone whose three children were all allergic to wheat, dairy, shellfish, nuts, and strawberries. I remember feeling…blank about that discovery. He explained to me that his family had never gone out to eat, not once, not anywhere. I was still…blank. I mean, I’m sure I made all the right noises and gestures and got through the conversation without making some gigantic and irreversible social gaffe (I can assume this based on the fact that he still spoke to me after that day), but it just didn’t register with me, beyond a fleeting thought that it sounded kind of miserable. Shameful, I know, but I was barely an adult. I just didn’t have any perspective.
Certainly the last decade or so has improved me in many ways (I hope, I hope), but the food allergy thing probably only went from a “dimly sympathetic” rating on the empathy scale to “moderately concerned.” It never inched towards “alarmed and engaged.” Not until the universe handed me my comeuppance in the form of a GF/CF diet.
So, yeah, as far as food allergies and special diets are concerned, I’m now an engaged citizen of the world. I’ve lived the life of a food allergy parent, fully and vividly, for a month and a half, and I’ve learned a few things about this GF/CF lifestyle. Mainly:
1. Going GF/CF is mentally tiring. Not exhausting, for me, but tiring and consuming. Which means that for anyone less comfortable around food, it must be DRAINING. Everything had to be reconsidered. After five years of lunch-packing and meal planning for this family, I was on more of an auto-pilot setting than I think I realized — until I was forced to abandon a number of the formerly “safe” staples and find substitutions that would work for L. AND his nut-free school.
2. Going GF/CF can be incredibly expensive at first. I’m certain it doesn’t have to be prohibitive if it becomes a lifelong dietary prescription. But it IS more expensive, even if you try to avoid all the fancy packaged products that are out there and just stick to real food. For one thing, if you plan at all to bake ANYTHING to replace an old gluten-filled favorite, the flours and gums and so forth that are frequently required are hideously pricey compared to good old whole-wheat flour. For another, the whole food products that you end up choosing to fill the void — vegetables, fruits, and proteins — are among the most expensive in the grocery store, per serving. And that’s any grocery store, organic or non-organic.
3. GF/CF doesn’t automatically feel healthier. I wondered when we started this diet if it was going to seem somehow healthier or more “pure.” I figured that with all the discussion out there in the world about the evils of grains and how beneficial many people find a wheat-free diet to be, I might feel more virtuous on six weeks of a wheat and dairy detox, so to speak. It turns out that — for me, at least — GF/CF didn’t feel any better or more special. In fact, I struggled with many things that didn’t match up with my ideals. Gluten-free flour blends tend to be loaded up with starches and gums that don’t seem particularly beneficial, in many cases (when was the last time somebody touted the health benefits of tapioca starch or xanthan gum?); baking with whole-grain alternatives like millet and buckwheat is possible, but not easy, and certainly not cheap. Potatoes, never something I intended to make a major staple of our diets, started showing up altogether too frequently for my comfort. Dairy substitutes were a bit easier, but it’s definitely a new learning curve to read the labels on almond milk or coconut milk beverages and try to avoid a minefield of sweeteners and emulsifiers.
4. But it’s not impossible, and it can be almost (ALMOST) fun. Somewhere on the other side of “ridiculously trying” emerged a freedom with cooking that was born of my need to keep us all from culinary boredom. It turns out that cheesesteak hash, chicken nuggets crusted with a special crumb blend comprised mainly of popcorn, and meatballs bound with finely ground pure oats were good enough experiments in the gluten-free world to possibly keep in our rotation permanently.
5. And we found some new foods and new resolve. Quinoa is now one of L.’s absolute favorites, having had to stand in for his beloved cous cous during the diet. J. has encouraged me to switch permanently to the brown rice pasta we tried on the GF plan, insisting that it tastes just as good as the wheat stuff and tends to go a bit lighter on the stomach. Almond milk found a place in our lives. And we’ve determined that, regardless of the outcome of this rechallenge to L.’s system, we will likely want to continue being somewhat vigilant about the VOLUME of wheat and dairy we consume.
Sometimes — okay, OFTEN — I think it takes a real crisis to shake us out of the comfortable nooks in life and make us rethink our perspectives. Going GF/CF, forcibly, made me confront how much we as a family rely on the crutch of grains (whole grains, yes, but still…) to provide us with easy calories. Don’t misunderstand me; I’m happy to be able to break out the flour bin again and relax a little. But I’m also happy that I got the opportunity to make myself think a bit more creatively and produce recipes like this one, which made a beautiful quick dessert for our Mother’s Day picnic…and got L. to try something containing raspberries for the first time in his life. (He liked it, too.)
GF/CF Raspberry Crumble Bars
2 1/2 cups raspberries, fresh or frozen
juice of 1/2 a lemon
2 tablespoons sugar (I used organic unbleached sugar)
1 tablespoon cornstarch
2 cups rolled oats (if you truly need this to be gluten-free, make sure they’re certified pure oats)
1 1/2 cups sliced almonds, divided
1/2 tsp. salt
4 tablespoons sugar (again, I used organic unbleached)
1/2 cup clarified butter OR coconut oil, melted
Preheat your oven to 375 degrees. Lightly grease an 8×8 inch square baking pan.
In a medium saucepan, combine all the ingredients for the filling (raspberries through cornstarch). Cook over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, until the raspberries are completely broken down and the filling has started to thicken to the consistency of runny jam. Remove from the heat and set aside.
In a blender or food processor, combine the oats with 1 cup of the almonds and pulse until everything is finely ground. In a medium bowl, combine the ground oats and almonds with the salt, 4 tablespoons of sugar, and the melted butter or oil, mixing until the crumbs are sandy and hold together when lightly squeezed.
Press 2/3 of the crust mixture into the bottom and slightly up the sides of the prepared baking dish. Pour the raspberry filling over the bottom crust and sprinkle with the remaining 1/2 cup of sliced almonds. Crumble the remaining crust mixture over the top. Bake at 375 degrees for 20-25 minutes, until just golden brown. Allow the bars to cool completely before cutting (or, if like us, you can’t wait, be prepared to eat them with a spoon).