Cooking for Food Allergies, Vegans, Vegetarians and Other Specific Food Eaters

Is this scenario familiar to you? You go out to a restaurant with a bunch of friends and one of them spends half an hour with the waiter trying to work out what they can eat before you finally go:"Damn it! Why are you so fussy?!". Sorry, I'm one of those people! My diet is like a finely tuned  orchestra of food balancing and when I get it wrong I'm stuck in A&E hooked up to a morphine drip hallucinating rainbows. It's not pretty.

Lets face it, most people you meet will have foods they do and don't eat but for some of us it is really important. Whether it's a deathly intolerance to nuts or a commitment to not eating dead things, if you're going to feed friends and family with a Specific Food Preference (SFP) you need to pay attention or you run the risk of offending their beliefs - or landing them in hospital.

What if I just left out the meat, milk, flour and eggs? We could have tomatoes for tea!
 So here's a survival guide for feeding SFP eaters:

Get them to spell out exactly what they do eat. My vegan Buddhist Nun friend obviously doesn't eat meat or animal products like honey but it never occurred to me the she didn't eat onions or garlic either - according to her beliefs they overstimulate the blood and are considered a no go for some strict Buddhists. 

If you can, get your friend of family member to e-mail you a list of what's okay and what's defiantly not. It doesn't need to be a wikipedia of food but enough for you to make a meal from!

If you have to cook what they don't eat use a separate chopping board, knife and part of the bench - I nearly became an orphan when I cut a slice of bread for dad using the same knife I'd just chopped peanuts with. Remember this goes for frypans, grills, BBQs and pots too - don't fry or boil something they can't eat and then cook their meal in the same oil/water. Some friends I know have a vegetarian kitchen and a separate meteosaur kitchen to keep everyone in the household happy. 

Keep an emergency stash of OK foods. This might mean a packet of dairy-free, wheat free cookies just in case or a bag of instant rice or wheat-free noodles. It doesn't have to be a great selection but if you have something you don't run the risk of asking them to stay for dinner and then going: "Uuuuh, I've actually got nothing to feed you with..."

One of the best ways to make an SFP-friendly meal is to ask them for a recipe, make it and then add a few side dishes of your food - like a vegan rice salad and a green salad with a few chicken nibbles or a wedge of brie on the side.

Try to serve food as deconstructed as possible like making pizza bases (gluten, dairy or animal product free depending on the preference) and putting every single topping in its own dish so they can chose what they want. This also works for nachos, tacos, burritos, salads and even pasta. When I make pasta for my vego mates I cook up a little bowl of bacon and serve it separately for my meteosaur husband.

Read the labels on store bought food. To my annoyance only ONE brand of nachos in NZ is actually wheat free despite the fact they're made from corn - wtf? So many companies are lazy and put allergy labels on all their foods just to cover their asses like putting a peanut warning on every single block of chocolate. Though it did crack me up to look at a Peanut Slab and see a "Warning: Contains Peanuts" label on it - I should hope so!

Sauces and salad dressings can be a big trap. Many contain sneaky doses of wheat, soy and honey as a sweetener so they don't work for many people. I was surprised to discover when I worked at Subway that only 2 of the sauces were vegan friendly - not great if you have a choice between tomato sauce and mint sauce for your salad! Soy sauce obviously contains soy but did you know many of them contain wheat too which can put a dampener on your plans to make gluten-free sushi.

If you can't find out from your friend/family member which brands they normally buy consider making your own or head straight to a wholefoods store where the staff might be able to help you find something that doesn't have 400 ingredients that are all numbers. 

Be vigilant.  It's easy to have a doh! moment when you've spent hours sourcing peanut-free food in the supermarket and then to absent-mindedly splash some peanut oil into the frypan when you start the stir fry!

Going out for tea? Ring in advance. My mum will usually ring in advance and ask if the restaurant can do her a couple plain boiled potatoes and a steak. It saves her having to ask for every ingredient in the meals when she arrives and holding up other hungry diners. One Indian Restaurant refused to serve her a plain bowl of rice (it was the only thing on the menu she could eat!) at a work do so she had to miss the party. Another time we booked at a Mexican Restaurant we'd rung in advance with the usual request and the staff bought out a HUGE plate with her steak n spuds and 15 little bowls on it, each with a condiment they thought she could have but kept separate in case she couldn't eat it - other diners looked at her dinner and were like: "Where's that on my menu? It looks so good!"

Don't be lazy! I know cooking is boring at times and cooking for someone with a restricted diet can be a real challenge but throwing a bowl of plain boiled potatoes on the table and tucking into a bacon double cheese burger is just plain mean. The added challenge of ingredient restricting can bring out your creative side and who knows? You might come up with a new recipe like I did when I invented Holly Slice for my friend Holly, who can't eat soy, wheat or dairy and was craving a mega chocolate hit. The secret is not to make it when my parents are visiting or we have to break out an epi pen - meh, you can't win 'em all!

Holly Slice Recipe

For more entertaining tips try my Platter Guide and Platter Ideas

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