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The Importance of Teaching Your Allergenic Child to Cook

In the last few articles in this series on raising children who have food allergies I have addressed the psycho-emotional aspects of living with allergies, when and how to teach your child to administer their own Epi-Pen, how to manage sibling dynamics when one child has food allergies and the other doesn’t and how to develop confidence and independence in your allergic child.

When you are living with food allergies, learning to cook delicious food that is safe for you to eat is fundamental to both independence and confidence so, this week I want to talk about teaching your child basic nutrition principles, pantry building, and shopping.  Making cooking and shopping fun is the first step towards getting your child in touch with their inner chef and children as young as five years old can start to have an interest. To help pique their interest begin having them help in the kitchen. Kids love to mix, stir and pour ingredients in a bowl.

Basic Nutrition Principles

For kids, it’s best to keep the nutritional principles as simple as possible. With my children, I focus on teaching them the three basic food groups; protein, carbohydrates and fats and have them pick one from each category for a healthy, balanced meal. The trickiest of these groups for anyone with food allergies tend to be proteins: nuts, soy, eggs and dairy, although rich in protein, are common allergens so I suggest you focus on simple animal meats which, for most children, are lower on the allergic scale. For example I will ask my boys what kind of protein they want for dinner and offer them a choice of, say, beef or chicken. For their carbohydrate I will ask them if they want carrots, broccoli or salad. The fat will generally come in the form of oil on the vegetables or in the salad dressing.

Teaching your kids to have three meals and 1 or 2 snacks throughout the day is a good starting point although, kids can have different styles of eating – some are grazers while others prefer to have larger meals and fewer snacks. I make sure to offer snacks strategically to prevent low blood sugar and the cranky child that comes with that.

Side note: I teach my children (and all my patients regardless of whether they have food allergies) to always have protein with breakfast to stabilize their blood sugar and give them good energy throughout the day.  It is important for them to understand what sugar does to their body by first making them hyper and then sending them into a crash afterwards.

Pantry Building

An important part of learning to cook is buying the right ingredients so, when you decide it’s time to start teaching your child to cook, start by filling your pantry with hypoallergenic ingredients and teach them how to buy key ingredients that will be necessary for them to cook with.. Below is a list of the core ingredients in any pantry and some alternatives:

Many allergic children have nut allergens so keeping all nut oils out of the house is important however, the good news is that there are many other oils to choose from. Different oils burn at different temperatures so it is important to know what temperature this is for the oils you use in your cooking and it is useful to have both high heat and low heat oils to hand. Olive oil for example, is a low heat oil which is why is will smoke at higher temperatures. Canola, sunflower and coconut oils are all high heat oils and can be used for frying and sautéing however, coconut oil has a strong flavor that will fit perfectly with some foods but not with others, it’s all a matter of personal taste – some people like to fry their eggs in coconut oil but I, on the other hand, don’t like the flavor of coconut eggs so I use a spray of one of the other high heat oils.

Butter spread
If your child is allergic to dairy you will want to have an alternative “butter spread” – there are a few options out there:  I’m a fan of the brand Earth Balance as I find it fits well into recipes that call for butter. The brand you pick will be based on your child’s individual allergens.

When you go to the alternative flour section of the supermarket you will be amazed how many different types of flour there are.  Rice, buckwheat, potato and chickpea are some of the most common flours used as an alternative to wheat; you will need to play with different flours and brands to find which flour works best for your favorite recipes. Some companies even make preblended mixes for cakes, cookies, pancakes and waffles; if working with non-wheat flours is new to you, you might want to start with these blends to begin to see what the flavor and texture is like. Once you have more experience and confidence, you will probably find it more economical to make your own blends in the long-term.

There are many alternatives to cow’s milk on the market nowadays – soy, rice, almond, coconut, hemp, cashew and oat milk are the most common. Soy can have a strong flavor; rice milk is more watery in texture while coconut is generally the thickest.  I find the plain unsweetened coconut milk is great for making mashed potatoes and soups that call for a creamier milk without the coconut taste.  . The best way to try them out is to start with the small juice-box size container to determine which one your child likes the best – almond milk, for those who can have it, is often the easiest milk alternative to transition to.

There are alternatives available if your child is allergic to chicken eggs. Duck eggs are a possible substitute for some but, for really sensitive children they can too similar to chicken eggs. If this is the case for your child, don’t despair! There are several other, non-egg replacements you can use instead such as a potato starch based egg replacement, applesauce or ground flax seed. As with alternative flours, experiment to find which egg replacement works best with your favorite recipes.

Peanut Butter
Many schools don’t allow peanut butter sandwiches because of the problems they can cause for children with a peanut allergy. Seed butter alternatives like sesame seed (tahini) and sunflower seed butter are great replacements for peanut and almond butter and are also a good source of protein. Sunflower seed butter in particular is a tasty substitute in a classic peanut butter and jelly.

Grocery Shopping

Nowadays grocery shopping can be done not only in the supermarket but online as well with many of the home delivery websites. In this tech-savvy generation, many of our children will learn to buy a lot of their food online.

Wherever or however you shop, you need to teach your budding chef how to make a shopping list- this will help them lay the groundwork for meal planning. Have them write down the ingredients they will need to make their favorite meal, train them to recognize which brands carry products that are safe for them to eat so they know what to look out for – this will, of course, become easier the better their reading skills get.

If you frequent your local supermarket, your children will become familiar with the layout which will mean they’ll soon be able to find their favorite ingredients and brands quickly.

Online shopping can be easier because websites will remember previously-ordered products and you can even set up auto-delivery for frequently used products as well. This makes healthy and safe shopper faster and more convenient.

Cooking Classes

For many children, being in a cooking class where wheat, dairy, nuts and eggs are used can be extremely dangerous. Some children are so allergic that their reactions can be triggered by touching or even by breathing in airborne particles of an allergen.

There are plenty of children’s cooking classes out there but, in my community, I haven’t found any that are allergy-safe. Because of this, I am currently developing a cooking class for children who have food allergies. In my class, children can learn to build their pantry, read recipes, and learn the foundations of cooking. Keep a look out for a list of future cooking classes.

Closing Thoughts

During this series of articles on raising children with deadly food allergies I have tried to address some of the more complex issues facing parents of children with severe food allergies. We want our children to not be hindered by their allergens; we want them to be healthy, safe, well-adjusted children who grow into happy, confident adults.

Learning to cook and be adventurous with food and flavors is important for all kids but for those who are living with food allergens it is essential. The skills to control their diets and cook safe, healthy and tasty foods are vital to not only their health, but to their confidence and independence as well.

As a parent of an allergic child and a physician, I try to think about both the physical and the psycho-emotional aspects of living with allergies and address any possible obstacles that need to be overcome.

To receive a free printable tip sheet on how to prevent and respond to allergic reactions that you can stick to your fridge, subscribe to my mailing list . By doing so, you will also make sure you receive all future blog posts direct to your inbox.

If you would like support with managing your child’s food allergies, you might be interested in my special comprehensive program. I have a practice in Issaquah, Washington and appointments can be conducted either in my office or, for those who don’t live in the area, by phone or Skype.

Join me next time for the last article in this series when I will share some allergy-safe recipes for the holidays.

Dr. Maura Scanlan

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