Jews are no strangers to dietary restrictions. The laws of kashrut govern what we can and cannot eat (pork, shellfish, mixing milk and meat). When food allergies are introduced into an already restricted diet, the task can seem insurmountable.
I know that’s how I felt when my identical twins were diagnosed with food allergies while I was nursing them. They were reacting to allergens in my diet. Knowing the enormous benefits of breastfeeding, I was committed to nursing them and had to radically alter my own diet. While never having food allergies myself, feeding my allergic children has given me expertise by default.
My breastfeeding diet omitted dairy, soy, wheat (and other grains), tree nuts and peanuts. My husband, the optimist, quipped that his chocoholic genes made chocolate an allowable food. My diet consisted of rice, corn, chicken, meat, vegetables, fruit, and chocolate.
Changing my diet had an immediate effect on my babies’ health. They were happier, more comfortable, and their skin was clear and itch free. At the suggestion of their gastroenterologist, I supplemented with a medical formula called Neocate (dairy and soyfree).The twins began to thrive.
Transitioning them to solids was a monumental task. I approached it methodically, but there were still emergency room visits. As any mother of toddlers knows, it is a daunting task to keep tiny morsels out of their grasp (especially with older non- food allergic family members).
An additional challenge of food allergies in our circumstance was navigating Jewish communal and family celebrations. Food is a big part of Jewish culture. We eat to celebrate life cycle events like a bris, kiddush, bar/bat mitzvah, or wedding. We eat to celebrate Shabbat and Holidays. When prepared with love and eaten in moderation, food truly can elevate these milestones in Jewish life.
How could I rise to the challenge of keeping my food allergic children safe while not isolating them from their rich Jewish culture? My mission was to raise happy, well-adjusted children who just happen to have food allergies. They should never feel that their allergies hold them back from anything they want to accomplish. I would not buy them t-shirts that said “Don’t feed me, I’m allergic” or list their allergies on their yarmulkes (these were actually suggestions I received). Instead, they wore medical alert bracelets that would be a more subtle reminder to those around them. They could not eat the birthday cakes that classmates often shared but I always made sure that they had extra special allowable treats for those occasions. In fact, often their peers would remark that they wanted those special treats instead of the birthday cake.
Learning how to navigate simchas and Jewish Holidays, I adapted and created new recipes: eggless challah for Shabbat, wheat-free birthday cakes, eggless latkes for Hanukkah, and nut-free haroset for Pesach.
Once at a Passover meal, a guest remarked how much he enjoyed the food. I thanked him and said “all without breaking an egg or letting a nut in the house”. Given the preponderance of nuts and eggs in Passover cooking (as substitutes for wheat flour and leavening ingredients) the fellow was stunned. Emphatically he proclaimed “you need to write a book.” The idea intrigued me but I wasn’t a gourmet cook or food photographer. Was there something I could offer others with food allergies?
I reflected on how difficult it was for me at first and how much easier the situation had become. Through trial and error I had learned a few tips in the trenches. It was in those trenches that “A Taste of Freedom” (Passover cookbook free of wheat, eggs, nuts, dairy, and fish) was born. It is not the latest gourmet cookbook with gorgeous food photography. It is a simple collection of valuable recipes, tips, resources, and substitutions. I’ve received such heartwarming feedback from people that felt that the cookbook was truly liberating. They could enjoy the holidays with their families knowing their food allergic loved ones had something delicious to eat too.
The journey isn’t over yet, my next project is making the twins’ food allergy friendly bar mitzvah this Fall. The boys are absolutely thriving. They have never felt that their food allergies held them back in any way. “Living with food allergies is manageable” is still my mantra. In fact, I recently launched a website and blog created for the kosher keeping food allergic community, kosherfoodallergies.blogspot.com.The site includes resources for label reading, avoiding specific allergens, feeding allergic children, school/camp food allergy management, interviews with leading allergists,kosher dining tips, and even a kosher food allergy friendly restaurant directory. It is truly a labor of love. Please stop by and let me know about your food allergy journey.