When the gastroenterology consultant told us, after a hospital admission, that we needed to exclude all dairy, eggs, gluten, soy and fish from our daughter's diet I must admit I just wept. Big, snotty, ugly crying. We'd already started to cut out dairy and soy while weaning, but had found that hard enough. In that moment I couldn't think of a single food in the world I could feed her! Looking back, how ridiculous that was.
Cooking without the major allergens is relatively easy, but only if you know how (and have the right ingredients to hand)! It's taken me over a year and a half of trial and error to 'master' the basics of cooking with alternatives, and also to learn that sometimes it's better not to try and replicate your favourite foods without some of the key elements!
Things I've tried and failed at (spectacularly) include: yorkshire puddings, custard and macaroni cheese.
Things I've mastered: pancakes, cupcakes, biscuits, bread and pizza dough.
Hopefully a few of the below tips might help if you're thinking of cutting out one or more of the main allergens (although you should only do this under the advice of a doctor).
Things you're going to need to get started:
A great set of scales. Electronic are best, as gluten free cooking especially is all about accuracy.
A tablet/laptop. This has been a lifesaver for me! If I'm cooking a 'traditional' recipe I'm always googling alternatives and often work from blog recipes or online recipe sites.
A set of measuring 'cups' and spoons. Many of the free from recipes I use are American and use the cup system of measurement.
Time and patience. Learning new ways of cooking takes time. I've learned to try and enjoy the process (and failures!) and develop 'hacks' to help me speed things up (like freezing biscuit mixture and pizza bases). I used to nail a weekly shop in 30 minutes but as soon as I had to read every label, it took me literally hours. I still take my time as, even if I've bought a product before, ingredients can change and be different in different formats. For example, Stork in a bar is free from dairy but in a tub has buttermilk!
A great store cupboard. When I first started I didn't have any of the key store cupboard items that I now use most days, and they're often not available in smaller convenience supermarkets. I keep loads of types of gf flours, seeds, nuts, dried fruits, syrups, xanthum gum, baking powder and bicarb by the bucket load, vinegar, tinned chickpeas and bananas (always bananas!).
An open mind. Not everything can be free-fromed! I've changed the way our whole family eats so that we can all eat together, but it's taken time to get into a new rhythm - stick with it!
Money! There's no denying that eating free from can be costly. A gf loaf can easily set you back £3 and last week I paid £4 for some gf breadsticks. But, if you can develop your store cupboard, there's no reason not to work free from into your family budget.
Allergy UK's allergy alerts service. Sign up here and they'll inform you of key ingredients changes or cross-contamination alerts.
My go-to websites for good free from recipes:
My go-to stores/restaurants for the best free from foods:
Asda (North Farm Industrial estate and online) has a good free from selection including convenience foods such as birthday cakes and bread. Their plain and self-raising flour are also good and reasonably priced and they also have good store cupboard gf cake mixes for 'emergencies'! I find their sandwich bread the best on the high street for 'normal' white-bread sarnies and is a snip at £1.50.
Sainsbury's (Large Broadwater store and also both convenience stores) have free-from selections. The large store has a great selection of flours and bakery goods.
Marks and Spencer have a brilliant free from range including cakes, bread, butter and chocolates.
Botanica in Rusthall has a great selection of alternative foods.
Chegworth farm shop in the Pantiles has a great variety of foods.
The Organic Health Food shop on the old High Street is jam-packed full of free-from goodies and has a good range of chilled things like alternative 'cheeses'.
Holland and Barrett is good for 'cheese', 'milk', ice creams, nuts and seeds and out-and-about snacks.
Wagamama. All hail the Waga. They take allergies seriously- a manager takes the order and the chef delivers the plate. They have always accommodated and adapted a meal for us to be completely free from. Can't praise them enough.
Zizzis offer a gluten free and dairy free pizza - the Holy Grail! We have had a few hiccups with quality but the principle is good and it's nice to all eat out together.
Pizza Cuchina and Rustica Pizza both now offer gf bases in their roving vans, with 24 hours notice needed.
A huge 44% of UK adults now have at least one allergy and 48% of those have more than one allergy (MIntel, 2010). So, it's nice to know we're not alone in our allergy journey and the major supermarkets are catching on to the need for free-from food. I won't lie, some days I'd give anything to grab a sandwich from Tesco Metro rather than lugging a suitcase of food around everywhere we go, but most days I feel on top of it and proud of how far we've come from that blubbering mess in Evelina hospital.