So I’ve been noticing ads on bus stops everywhere at the moment suggesting we ‘open something real’ with pictures of various biscuits spilling out of packets. I must say I’ve been wondering what about these biscuits is particularly ‘real’- I mean I don’t doubt they exist, so they aren’t fake I guess, but in the generally accepted definition of ‘real food’ these days- those biscuits generally wouldn’t cut it.
‘Real food’ is generally taken to mean whole, single ingredient food. It is mostly unprocessed, free of chemical additives and rich in nutrients (Healthline October 2016). Which would generally mean fruit and vegetables, meat, seeds and nuts, dairy- all the good stuff we’ve been told for years to eat more of, only now it’s dressed up as ‘real’.
So what does that have to do with allergies?
I think that when you are first diagnosed with allergies, particularly multiple food allergies, you are in survival mode. You have to overnight change the way you read labels. You go from maybe looking at fat grams or sugar content (if anything) to scouring labels for particular allergens. You are so grateful to find something ‘safe’ that you often don’t think about all the processes that might have been applied to the food, or all the unintelligible ingredients on the back of the packet.
The sense of deprivation and restriction can be pretty strong if you have to cut out dairy, egg, wheat (and nuts and soy etc) so I often found myself thinking ‘Caleb’s missing out on so much, what harm can xyz do?’ Or when we were in the depths of almost complete food refusal, I didn’t care what he ate, as long it was something. And that was entirely fine- it was where we were at and we were doing the best we could in an incredibly difficult situation.
It wasn’t until we got a little space and settled into a bit of a rhythm that I suddenly realised that quite often allergy safe snacks sound like science experiments rather than food.
I think that is a quite natural progression for many allergy parents- we become so adept at label reading and so conscious of food that the next step is to start questioning not just ingredients for allergen safety but looking at processes and preservatives and additives and consciously looking at how we can simplify something that has become so complicated.
I was lucky- I like cooking, and I already had some pretty good habits in place- and unlike when Annabelle was first diagnosed with MSPI there are so many options available when you know what you are looking for.
The way we eat as a family has changed a lot over the last year- it is so much simpler these days, pared back, and much more conscious. And without the experience of food allergy, I don’t know that I would have had the motivation to learn so much about food and nutrition- by cutting out nearly all processed food I’ve suddenly found the kids eat more- in terms of variety and quantity. It’s almost like their taste buds needed a re-set and now they can actually enjoy vegetables and homemade snacks and meals.
I remember reading Kim Payne’s Simplicity Parenting a while ago- it’s one of those books that stayed with me- I love his philosophy of finding gentler rhythms to life. Paring back, unplugging, decluttering- the conscious ‘less is more’ approach really resonates with me. In his book, Payne spends a whole chapter on meals/food. At the time I had only just started thinking about food- I hadn’t really made any changes, but he mentioned simplifying food, removing packaged food, going back to basics and re-setting tastes. He reminds parents that kids do really well with knowing what’s coming- even to the point of having ‘pasta night, soup night, stirfry night’ etc so there is a predictability around food.
I tend to resist such tight scheduling, but I absolutely get the kids involved in the discussion of what we will be eating during the week when I do the meal plan/shopping list and our dinner time is regular, all sit around the table and ‘make polite conversation’ (our first ever preschool teacher gave us that line and I love it!)
The other benefit to this approach of simple food, predictable rhythms was highlighted for me in ‘Raising your spirited child’ by Mary Kurckinka. She mentioned that dinner time was this source of massive anticipation for many kids and it can be devastating to be hit with something unexpected- starting mealtimes on the back foot make all the other good stuff you are doing (share platters, ‘division of responsibility’ etc) so much harder.
I think a lot of things are in our favour in terms of why life seems to be settling into a better rhythm- the kids are older, we (usually!) get to sleep through the night, we have not had any severe allergic reactions after our initial diagnosis. But I really do think that ‘real’ (or whole) food has a large part in that. And so I’m going to keep exploring and experimenting (the kitchen kind, not the science lab kind!) and sharing- I hope you’ll come along for the ride.