Birthdays and Food: When you have allergies

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“I’m sorry, but I can’t come.”

The general consensus is that December 25th is  the worst date for a child to have as his or her birthday.  I disagree.

Adults have sympathy for children who have to share their limelight with Jesus. While it’s true that the child’s birthday and Christmas present will most likely be rolled into one, the adults in his or her life usually try in some way to make the birthday special to compensate for having to share their special day.  And because the birthday is a traditionally celebrated family holiday, the child is usually surrounded by relatives, wishing him or her a “Happy Birthday!” in addition to “Merry Christmas!”

The worst dates to have as a birthday are January 1st and around Memorial Day weekend.  No one is available at either of these times to celebrate a child’s birthday.  After the craziness of the holidays, most folks are looking for a quiet respite on January 1st, and Memorial Day weekend is traditionally the start of summer and when folks are opening up summer places or having family gatherings.

I know because my brother and I have those birthdays, and time after time our birthday parties were cancelled because the responses were “So sorry, but we have . . . already scheduled for that day.”

My parents were great about compensating, though, and we had the family tradition of going to a movie (which was a treat for us) and having pizza and ice cream cake (also a treat) on our birthdays instead.

As a child, though, whenever I was at someone else’s birthday party, I felt a little left out, because I was like that bridesmaid adage – always celebrating another child’s birthday, but never knowing the thrill of having my own birthday party celebration.

When you’re a child with food allergies, you can feel the same way.  It’s awkward to be the person who can’t eat the birthday cake and ice cream with everyone else.

So what can parents do to help their children?

1.  Take initiative on your child’s behalf:  If the party is hosted by a relative, ask them if they’d like your help with the birthday cake.  My relatives are always willing to let me bake an allergy friendly cake, because it’s one less thing for them to do for the party!  If the party is given by a friend, ask if they’d mind if you baked some cupcakes to add to the cake choice.  I’ve never had a friend say, “No.”  And if the party is being hosted by someone you really don’t know, simply explain to them that your child has severe allergies and ask if they’re fine with you contributing some allergy friendly “ice cream” to the celebration.  Once again, I have never had anyone refuse my request or not understand.

2.  Educate people:  I realized early on that most people simply are not aware of the types of food allergies children can have, and once they know, they are quite happy to do what they can to help a child feel included.  Early on, as we were invited to other people’s homes, I would talk with them about my children’s food allergies and how difficult it can be at parties, and it wasn’t long before the invitations began to change.  Included on them most often now is a little question about whether anyone has any food allergies that the host should be aware of, and when my children arrive at these parties, the host has made sure to provide food for all the food restricted children.

3.  Start a new trend:  The highlight of birthday parties always seems to be the cake, but it doesn’t have to be.  Because of my own history, I’ve always tried to make my children’s birthday parties memorable, but we’ve always hosted parties where the children are busy creating their own pizzas (allergy friendly, of course!) or making crafts or doing a science experiment or playing creative games.  And what I’ve found is that the children don’t really have an interest in the cake and ice cream part anymore.  And what’s happened is that some of my friends have begun to do the same thing.  So now, more often than not, even though cake and ice cream are served, once the “Happy Birthday!” has been sung, the children haven’t even stuck around to eat the cake but have gone back to the fun!

4.  Be prepared:  Sometimes “it’s just what it is”, and your child needs to be prepared for that reality.  If it seems like he or she will be the odd man out, unable to partake of the food at the festivities.  In that case, I simply make a special cupcake that I send with my child in a container, so he or she can enjoy eating with the rest of the children.  Have your child help you make and decorate the “special” cupcake, and he or she will most likely be even more thrilled with his or her cupcake than what is being served — or at least my children were always boasting about the cupcakes they got to make themselves!

5.  Talk with your child positively:  It’s easy to feel upset ourselves that our children are being “left out”, so we need to remember to share with our children all of the reasons to be happy about attending another child’s party.  Good feelings are contagious, and they’ll pick up on our positive attitude.

6.  Educate your child:  Children are bright.  They understand a lot at even a young age.  Make sure your children understands why they can’t eat foods at parties, and help them to think about their food allergies as just another part of what makes them the special people that they are.  My children don’t see their food allergies as handicaps.  They actually view it as an opportunity for mommy to continue to work on revamping even more recipes for them to taste test!

As I’ve become an adult, I’ve begun my own tradition of throwing myself a birthday brunch the week before Memorial Day weekend.  I invite local friends and give myself the gift of some time off from the hectic busyness of life with three children. To make my cakes special, I use the following frosting which is enough to frost a three layer cake.  It’s very tasty and not extremely sweet which is the way I like it.  It’s a slightly revamped version of a couple of frosting recipes you can find at http://www.elanaspantry.com

Chocolate Frosting

Ingredients:

2 cups Enjoy Life allergen free mini chocolate chips

2/3 cup safflower oil

2 tablespoons Agave

1 tablespoon gluten free vanilla

Cooking Instructions:

1. Put all ingredients into a microwave safe measuring cup and stir.

2.  Microwave for one minute, and quickly and vigorously stir until the chocolate chips are completely melted and the mixture is starting to be a little thick.

3.  Scrape the chocolate mixture into your mixing bowl (a metal bowl is best), and put into the freezer for about 15 minutes.  (You want the mixture to be hardening almost the whole way through with only the middle being slightly runny still.)

4.  Take out the mixing bowl and with a mixer, mix the frosting on a medium to high speed, occasionally scraping down the sides of the bowl, until the frosting is completely whipped and creamy.  (The mixture taken from the freezer will be a dark brown with a glossy texture.  When it’s been whipped, it’ll be a lighter brown and a thicker, creamier, frosting-like texture.)

5.  Use the frosting to frost cooled cake layers.  Unused frosting will keep in the fridge.

Cross Contamination: Preventing It

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“Don’t kiss a boy with your mouth open.  Boys have germs.”

It was the summer before I was slated to begin my first year at college when my mother decided to have “the talk” with me.   What I was expecting, I really don’t know, but the statements above were not it.

I wisely refrained from telling my mother that I had already violated her late-coming mandate, and only later, with my friends, did I laugh about the “cooties” theory of relationships.  I knew my mother meant well, and having been raised in an entirely different time and culture, she had no way of knowing that my modern American teenage life was unlike her Korean childhood.

Contamination concerns

I realized, as well, that my mother simply wanted to protect me as I left home to begin my “independent” life.  She cared, and I was glad she did.

In the same way, people tend to care about and be protective of family members who have food allergies.  They worry about possible cross-contamination, and since cross-contamination can be a matter of life or death for some folks, it’s definitely worthy of thought and concern. The two concerns most people have are that they might accidentally contaminate food being served or that they think it’s difficult to prevent such a thing from occurring.

Some Tips

My personal tips, though, are:

1.  Don’t stress! Avoiding cross contamination is not difficult.  You just need to be pro-active.

2.  If the allergies in the family are severe, keeping two separate sets of cooking utensils and pots or pans is one way method to use.  Have different styles and colors of each so you can easily identify which ones you use for regular cooking and which ones you use for the allergy cooking.   So, for example when I make eggs for the rest of the family using a little bit of butter (which they prefer), I have a larger egg pan which I use to make their eggs.  On the burner next to theirs I use a smaller pan to make my egg which I usually cook with olive oil.

3.  Another thing you can do either in conjunction with or instead of having two separate utensils and pans for everything is simply to wash things in hot water and soap in between the uses. Whenever I’m cooking for someone with a peanut allergy which happens to be one of the few food allergies no one in our family currently has, I first wash everything I’m going to use for baking or cooking in hot, soapy water and dry them with a clean fresh towel even before I begin cooking. Numerous studies have shown that any contaminating residue from what you’ve cooked before is definitely washed away with a good scrubbing in hot, soapy water.

4. A third method you can utilize is to invest in parchment paper which I use all the time. It’s great because you can line your cookie sheet or insert it in your tube pan or put it on your casserole dish for any cooking or baking and then simply remove it, which keeps the food from contaminating your pans.  During the holidays when I have to bake all sorts of different items — gluten free, egg free, sugar free, nut free, etc… — along with traditional baked goods, the parchment paper comes in very handy as I simply remove and reline with each different goodie I’m baking.

Chocolate Chip Bars

Ingredients:

2 1/4 cup whole wheat flour or 2 cups Authentic Foods gluten free blend

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 tsp cinnamon

1/2 tsp salt

1/2 cup soy free Earth Balance “butter”

3/4 cup Agave

2 eggs, at room temperature

1 teaspoon vanilla

3 cups Enjoy Life allergen free mini chocolate chips

Baking Instructions:

1.  Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

2. Line a 11 x 17 x 1 inch cookie sheet with parchment paper slightly larger than the pan, so the ends hang off.

3.  Mix the flour, baking soda, cinnamon and salt together.  Set aside.

4.  In a mixer, cream the butter until smooth.

5.  Slowly pour the Agave into the butter with the mixer mixing on low speed until the Agave is completely incorporated into the butter.

6.  Add the eggs, one at a time, mixing well in between each addition.

7.  Add the vanilla.

8.  Slowly add the flour mixture, about 1/2 cup at a time, mixing on low until all the flour is incorporated.

9.  Add the chocolate chips.

10.  Carefully spread the batter into the pan, using a rubber spatula to make sure the batter is evenly spread throughout the entire pan.

11.  Bake for about 20 minutes until the batter is golden and puffed.

12.  Cool in the pan on a wire rack.  (This stores well by simply covering it tightly with plastic wrap or foil.)

Sugar-Coated: Substituting for Sugar

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“Zer,zer, zer, erk, I’m out of gas.”

My son stopped directly in front of me, his arms extended, a big smile on his face. This was my cue to give him a big hug – the “gas” he needed to continue with his playing.  At eight, though, he actually requires very little “gas” to make him go.  His energy is unbounded, and I very often wish I could bottle it and put it aside for those days when my own energy levels are low.

Unfortunately for many of us, long days and too much on our plates lend themselves too easily to being sapped of our “get up and go” just when we need it the most.  And it’s in those moments when we’re most likely to reach for that five letter word – sugar.  Most of us know enough these days to avoid the Snickers bar for our “quick pick me up”, but the abundance of “healthy” power bars on the market belies just how bad even those are for you.

The dangers of sugar

My husband is a history teacher, and he tells me that the new colonists were quick to realize the benefits of growing the four most addictive crops at the time:  tobacco, sugar, coffee, and chocolate.   When we think about refined sugar, we think about its taste and the quick burst of energy it provides us.  We don’t often think about the fact that sugar,  in many ways, is a poison that our bodies react to unfavorably.  It provides nothing our bodies need, and in fact, it depletes our bodies of necessary nutrients as our bodies work to eliminate the refined sugar from our systems.  Studies link refined sugar to the rise in diabetes, the increase in heart attacks, and even to thyroid problems.

What sugar does

In baked goods, though, sugar is priceless.  It controls the temperature of our ingredients for timely baking; it causes fermentation so our desserts can rise properly; it helps with the “browning” necessary for tasty baked goods; it absorbs liquid to keep our cakes moist; and it even breaks up gluten to yield those tender, flaky desserts we crave.  To think of replacing sugar with something else can seem almost like a sin to many people, and I know folks who won’t even try a dessert made without sugar, because they’re convinced  the dessert simply can’t be as good.

I can tell you, though, that cooking without sugar is not as difficult as it seems, and the desserts are definitely worth trying.

Replacing sugar with fruit

There are many, many different substitutes on the market which people can try, but I confess that I prefer to use one of three options:  Ripe, sweet fruit or vegetables; Agave; and Truvia (Stevia).  Whenever possible, it really is best to simply use fruit.  With fruit, you can get all of the nutrients and fiber that your body needs, along with the sweetness derived naturally.  When baking, simply replace half of the sugar called for with a fruit puree of your choice.  Milder purees like applesauce work well in just about anything.  Pureed bananas, peaches, mangos, prunes, pumpkin, figs, etc… work well in recipes which require stronger or similar flavors.

Replacing sugar with Agave or Honey or Truvia

If you want to eliminate the sugar altogether from a recipe, though, I like to use Agave or Honey or Truvia.  Don’t be fooled, though – simply because they’re less refined than sugar does not make them absolutely better.  What they do have going for them, though, is that you can use substantially less of them than sugar, reducing how much “sugar” you’re putting into your body.  For most recipes replacing the total amount of sugar with half the quantity of Agave or Honey or Truvia is a good place to begin.  For many recipes, you may even find that you can reduce by even more, depending on how sweet your sweet tooth is.

Tips for Agave or Honey

Here are the tips you need:  Because Agave or Honey is liquid, you need to make sure you’ve balanced your wet to dry ratio.  For baked goods like cakes and breads which use a lot of sugar, two options work best:  Either increase your flour amount by ½ cup or decrease your liquids by ½ cup.  If you’re making something like muffins or pancakes, though, where the sugar amounts are actually quite small, you don’t need to make any adjustments at all.

Tips for Truvia

Working with Truvia is a little bit trickier.  Most folks like to simply use the stevia/sugar blends because you can just substitute a one to one ratio for the full sugar, which reduces how much sugar you’re putting into your baked product.  If you want to completely eliminate the sugar, though, you can use half the amount of Truvia as the sugar called for, but you’ll need to increase your dry ingredients (usually the flour amount) to compensate for the missing sugar.  This isn’t necessarily a straight ratio, though.  Usually, you’ll only need to replace about half of the missing sugar to compensate.

A trick I like to use:  Use identical bowls of the same shape and size, one for your dry ingredients, and one for your wet.  If you’re making cakes or cupcakes, you’ll find that the two amounts will normally match in depth and amount.  If you’re making muffins, cookies, or breads, the dry ingredients will usually be slightly more than the wet.  After you’ve experimented a few times, you’ll become quite adept at “eyeballing” and knowing whether you need to add or subtract from one bowl or the other before mixing them together.

If you’re cooking with Agave or Truvia or Honey, it’s always best to start with a small amount and add as necessary.  For example, my children like their Brussels sprouts to have a little sweetness to them.  Simply adding half a teaspoon of Agave to an herbed olive oil marinade is more than enough to satisfy them.  The mantra to remember is:  Less is best.

Replacing sugar with Coconut Sugar

On the market these days is coconut sugar which has a low glycemic index because it’s from coconuts. What’s nice about coconut sugar, if you’re not allergic to it, is that it works the same as brown sugar in a recipe so you can simply substitute one for one. I often will decrease the amount because I don’t like things overly sweet but you can experiment and see what taste preferences you have.

Chocolate Cranberry Cookies

Ingredients:

10 oz Enjoy Life mini chocolate chips (or another type if you prefer)

1/2 cup Agave

2 cups 100% whole wheat flour or favorite gluten free flour blend

6 tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder

2 tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp coarse salt

1 cup soy free vegan butter, at room temperature (or another type if you want)

1/3 cup Truvia 

4 eggs, at room temperature or egg white equivalent or fruit puree equivalent 

1 tsp vanilla

1 cup chopped Craisins (if you have a food processor, use it to chop the craisins; you can also just add them as is but the cookie will be “chunkier”)

1 cup Enjoy Life mini chocolate chips (or another type if you prefer)

Baking Instructions:

1.  Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Prepare your cookie pans.  (I would use “If You Care” parchment paper, but you can Pam spray or coat the pans with oil or butter.)

2.  Melt the mini chips with the Agave over a pan of simmering water.  (I put a small pan of water on the burner and place a large pan with a handle on top with the chocolate in it.  Works well.)  Set aside.

3.  Combine the flour, cocoa, baking powder, and salt.  Set aside.

4.  Beat the “butter’ until light and fluffy (if you have a mixer, use it).  Slowly add in the Truvia, mixing well an using a rubber spatula to scrape the sides as necessary.  Add the eggs, one at a time (or whites or puree) and blend well.

5.  Slowly add the melted chocolate and vanilla, scraping the sides with a rubber spatula as necessary.

6.  Add the flour mixture, and mix just until the dry ingredients are moist.  Fold in the chocolate chips and craisins.

7.  Drop the cookie dough by 1/4 cupfuls, leaving about 2 inches of space in between.  Bake for about 15 minutes, rotating your cookie sheet halfway through.  The edges will be slightly dry and the tops cracked a little.

8.  Cool for a couple of minutes on the sheet before transferring them to a wire rack to cool completely.