Cooking For A Family With Food Allergies Is Beyond Exhausting

by Meredith Ethington
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The struggles of cooking for a family of five are legit for every parent. No mom likes feeling like a line cook. No parent loves feeding picky toddlers. But the struggles I feel cooking for my family are similar to crossing a large ocean, in a canoe, with my family of five on board, with only one paddle, no poop bucket, and no muzzle to silence the whiny children.

It might seem like a slight over-dramatization of my pain, but let me assure you that my struggle is not just pure run-of-the-mill mom ranting. (Although I do that too from time to time.) My pain stems from years of cooking for little people with food allergies, big people with food intolerances, elimination diets while breastfeeding three kids, and annoying toddlers who will eat casseroles, but not plain pasta because it has green flecks in it (otherwise known as basil).

My kids are my heart and soul, but since becoming a mother, food has just seemed like a huge challenge.

Our history is complicated. My two boys suffered during the baby and toddler years with extreme food intolerances to weird stuff normal babies are supposed to be able to eat like rice and oats. They had a condition called Food-Protein Induced Enterocolitis Syndrome (it’s OK, google it. I’ll wait) otherwise known as FPIES. While they have outgrown it, at the time, I stopped eating beef, my husband hates chicken, and I became gluten-intolerant. And recently, my youngest was diagnosed as lactose intolerant.

I know. It’s freaking exhausting.

You might have a picky toddler, but I have a whole slew of pickiness happening over here.

I realize cereal is an actual option for dinner, and we do utilize that option, but I also can’t bring myself to just give up the idea of a family meal. I cook dinner almost every night, I meal plan, I grocery shop every Monday, and I feel like I perform miracles just to feed the five people in my house. I feel like it’s my job as a mom to make sure my kids grow up having a healthy relationship with food.

I’m responsible for everyone’s picky palette and sensitive tummy, and it might be killing me to try to make three meals a day that not only make everyone happy, but that everyone can actually eat too.

Despite the amazingly long list of allergen-free recipes that abound on Pinterest, I’m too tired to grind my own wheat or make my own mayonnaise. There are many nights when one family member can’t eat what I’ve made for dinner, and it leaves me feeling defeated since I don’t really want to cook the first dinner, much less a second one. But when you have a kid with food issues, you don’t have the luxury of saying, “Well, they just have to eat what I put in front of them.” And “go ahead and starve” seems like bad parenting when you know they are already deprived of a lot of foods most kids get to eat.

So I make them a sandwich or make myself a salad (again), and we keep on surviving day to day. I’m not sure how we do it, or I should say, I’m not sure how I do it.

I find myself dreaming of living on a deserted island where no one asks me to cook a meal and I eat pineapple and berries all day. There is no gagging or fourth meal happening immediately after dinner, and everyone just sits down and eats.

It seems like an easy request, right? Just eat. Just eat it! Spoon to mouth. It’s not hard.

Instead, there are the typical negotiations and plea-bargaining that happen in most families with small kids, and then on top of that, the special requests. So we pick out things we can’t eat from the meal or have a sandwich later. I want my family to be happy, healthy, and satisfied. It just seems like it takes an act of Congress to make it happen every night. It’s a struggle I fight and stress over every day.

I find myself explaining my gluten-free diet in public situations and apologizing for myself or a family member by saying things like, “Don’t worry about us,” or “We’re super annoying. We’ll just eat when we get home,” or “It’s okay. We brought our own.” It’s not our fault that we ended up this way, and it’s certainly not the worst problem a family could have, but it’s exhausting to live it day in and day out.

The weight of cooking a dairy-free, gluten-free, chicken-and-beef-free, kid-friendly meal every night is making me consider hiring a personal chef — except I can’t afford one because gluten-free flour and dairy-free ice cream cost a fortune.

There is no simple answer, and this is just what we do to survive. I pack meals to take with us when we’re unsure of what food will be there, and I make backup meals for the people who can’t eat the meal the other family members want, and I try not to overspend in places like Whole Foods where there is a heavenly aisle or 20 of allergen-free foods.

One day, I will be cooking for just two again. I just hope that when that happens, I’ll look back fondly on this time in our lives and smile with satisfaction that no one is begging me for gluten-free, dairy-free, meat-free, green-fleck-free food anymore. And I’ll just enjoy eating a cold bowl of cereal for dinner without having to remind someone to use a napkin.