Handling Holidays: Strategies for Surviving Food Stress

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The Holidays.

In our home, the holidays can sometimes have a lot in common with schizophrenia. With two of our three children on the autism spectrum, there’s a disconnect between the fantasy of holiday love and cheer and the reality of life with it’s unexpected and unanticipated twists and turns.

When life’s reality prevents us from doing the “tradition” which must always be done every single year, our autistic children, like the schizophrenic, will declare that everyone and everything is against them.  Then, like the schizophrenic, they’re incapable of managing their emotions and relating to the real world, so they withdraw,

As a result, holidays aren’t always fun in our home.  The stress and pressure for everything to be “perfect” is that much more, and the effort it takes to help our children learn how to live in reality and be more flexible can drain all my husband’s and my energy and reserves.

So, imagine adding to this the fact that you also can’t eat any of the lovely traditional dishes that the majority of your family and friends will be serving for holiday dinner.  Suddenly you’re not only concerned with keeping your family life constant, but you’re depressed because you know you’ll only be eating turkey at Thanksgiving because you’re going to be served green bean casserole, mashed potatoes, and pecan pie at Thanksgiving when you can’t have wheat, dairy, nuts or sugar. (True experience one year!)

For those of us who need to watch what we eat, whether for dietary or allergy reasons, there are ways to still enjoy the holidays, but it takes some initiative on our parts.

1.  You can host:  If you invite folks to your place, you can simply incorporate what other family members want to bring into a menu of your own choosing. Then you’ll have a combination of the foods you make which you can eat and the traditional dishes the rest of the family still like to enjoy.

2.  You can contribute:  If you know there are certain dishes which everyone wants like a green bean casserole, you can offer to bring a revamped version so you can enjoy it as well as the others.  If folks are nervous about you messing up their favorite dish, you can offer to bring a similar dish so folks can have a little bit of both.

3.   You can  inquire:  If a family member or friend is hosting, ask them how they are going to cook a particular dish and whether they might be able to do it a tad bit differently this year.  Can they roast the butternut squash with olive oil instead of butter?  Would they be willing to purchase a dairy free “ice cream” for that apple pie?

4.  You can teach:  What I’ve encountered most is that folks are very willing to help me be able to eat at a holiday dinner, but they simply don’t know how to go about doing it.  So, I’ve learned to answer their questions with particular tips. If they want to replace ricotta cheese in a recipe, I tell them how to use silken tofu.  If they think that making a gluten free apple pie might be too difficult for them, I suggest a gluten free apple crisp.  If they don’t know where to purchase a certain type of flour, I tell them.  If you’re prepared to provide the necessary information, people are usually happy to accommodate your needs.

5.  You can learn:  The other situation I’ve experienced is that many folks with newly acquired dietary restrictions or food allergies don’t know for themselves how to revamp traditional holidays dishes which accommodates their needs and which the non-food issue people will actually like.  In these cases, you can learn how to cook to meet the needs.  In the posts following this, I will focus on certain traditional holiday foods to show folks how to create healthier, allergen friendly versions.

With the colder weather setting in, we’ve been enjoying hearty soups more, so below is one of my daughters’ favorite crockpot soup.

Crockpot Split Pea Soup


2 lbs of dried split peas (I buy two 16 oz bags)

1 red pepper

1 zucchini

1 squash

12 oz bag of broccoli slaw*

1/2 cup chopped onions (I just use frozen chopped onions)

16 oz diced ham pieces**

1 tbsp minced garlic

1 tsp black pepper

1 tsp dried thyme leaves

12 cups fat free reduced sodium chicken or vegetable broth

2 bay leaves

Cooking Instructions:

1.  Put the split peas into a large bowl and fill the bowl with water, enough to cover the split peas.  Running your fingers over and around the split peas to loosen any white coverings still on the split peas.  (They’ll float to the top of the water, making it easy for you to pick them out.)  Drain the peas and sort through to pick out any stones that might be residing within the group of split peas.  Put the picked over split peas into a 6 quart slow cooker/crockpot.

2.  Using a food processor, chop up the red pepper, zucchini, squash, and broccoli slaw into tiny pieces and add them to the split peas.

3.  Add the onions, ham pieces, garlic, black pepper and thyme.  Mix well.

4.  Pour in the broth and stir carefully.  Your Crockpot will be filled almost to the top.

5.  Stick the two bay leaves into the center of the soup, and cook on high for 8 hours.  (Note:  During the cooking, the spices will rise to the top.  Some time during the 8 hours, after the halfway mark, stir the soup and recover to resume cooking.)

6.  When you’re ready to serve, remove the bay leaves and stir the soup well, smashing the peas a bit with your spoon.  (Note:  My children love to put some reduced fat shredded cheddar cheese into this soup.) 

*  If you can’t find the broccoli slaw, simply chop up a carrot or two and half a cup of broccoli.

** My grocery store sells packaged really finely diced ham pieces.  If you can’t find something similar, simply use some leftover turkey ham from a previous meal, just make sure to dice it into small pieces so the flavor will incorporate into the soup.  If you’re vegan, you can simply omit the meat altogether.  To get a similar flavor, though, when you serve the split pea soup, put a spoonful of diced, cooked, smoked tofu or veggie burger into the bowl of soup.


Easy Does It: Cooking with a Crockpot

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“What’s for dinner?”

The yellow school bus had pulled up less than a minute ago, and my youngest had bounded into the car, dumped his backpack onto the car floor, and buckled his seat belt before asking the question he asked every weekday at the same time.

Before I could answer, he cast a hopeful look at me and threw out another one word question, “Pizza?”  Then, he giggled, because he was already anticipating the answer which I gave most every day to this ritualistic exchange.

“Noooo, no pizza today, little pizza monster.”

If my son had his way, we’d have pizza every single night for dinner.  And in some ways, it would make my life simpler if we did just eat the same meal every day.

“What’s for dinner?” is arguably one of the most frequently asked questions of a mom.  And for many moms at the witching hour, it’s one that can cause considerable stress.  Families today are pulled in so many directions, and getting supper onto the table for a family meal can be a daunting prospect, let alone trying to make it a healthy meal that also takes into account every person’s food allergies.

Crockpots or slow-cookers

If you’re like me, though, you do want to make family dinners a priority, and if you do, I’d like to encourage you to think about using a crockpot.

If you don’t know what a crockpot or slow-cooker is, it’s simply a pot in a warming element that cooks your food slowly over time.  Today, there are many varieties, but the most used are the 4 quart and 6 quart sizes.  They usually have a knob which you can turn to a low, high or keep warm setting.  Some are programmable, though, and others have the settings by hours, usually 4, 6,or 8 which are the most used times on a crockpot.

You can purchase them for reasonable prices these days at any store, but you can also acquire them for very little money at second-hand stores like Savers or the Salvation Army or online at sites like Craig’s list .  Whatever you spend, it will be one of the best investments you’ve ever made.

Advantages of a crockpot

I actually own four in different sizes, because you can cook just about anything in a crockpot – meats, stews, soups, vegetables, beans, cakes, puddings, fruits, quiches, etc….

The advantage of doing so is that you won’t be cooking during the most difficult time of your day.  You simply put everything into your crockpot first thing in the morning, and the food is ready when you and your family are ready to eat at the end of the day.  Also, because the crockpot can keep things warm, for those days when you simply can’t eat as a family, the food can stay warm in the crockpot for as long as you need so each person can eat when it suits their schedule.  (I actually have a meal in one of my slow-cookers right now as I write:  Thin and Trim chicken sausage mixed with zucchini, eggplant, summer squash, peppers, carrots, tomatoes, onions, and herbs.  Doesn’t that sound delicious?  And this evening when we’re rushing in from all the children’s after school activities, it’ll be ready for us to eat!) 

In addition, crockpots are wonderful for those summer months when you want something warm but don’t want to make the house warm by using the oven.  As well, for those times when you need to cook a lot (think Thanksgiving!) and your oven is full, you can use crockpots to cook your side dishes at the same time as whatever is in your oven.

Slow-cooking tips

Some tips for you to know when cooking with a slow-cooker:

1) Don’t stress about it!  You can put together just about anything, and it will come out fine.

2) Whatever you need to cook the longest should be on the bottom.  So foods like potatoes and carrots and other root vegetables which can take longer should be at the bottom if you were to make a meal like pot roast and vegetables.

3) If you like your meat to still moo when it’s done, you don’t want to cook it in a slow-cooker.  Slow-cookers are for when you like your meat to be tender and falling apart when you put your fork to it.

4) Your crockpot should always be at least half full to 3/4 full for it to cook properly.

5) Foods cooked on the low heat setting normally take between 7-9 hours.  If you use the high heat setting, the food usually cooks in half the time as the low heat setting.

6) If you make a single food like meatloaf or a whole chicken, you want to add some liquid like beef or chicken broth to the pot, or these items will be a bit dry.

7) If you’re cooking other foods like a stew or roast and vegetables, you want to limit the amount of liquid you add, because the process of slow-cooking will add liquid to the foods naturally.

8) Never put frozen meat into the crockpot.  They will not cook well.

9) You can, however, put little frozen fruit or veggies into the crockpot like peas or blueberries if you’re making a mixed vegetable or fruit dish.

10) You should always cut off any extra fat from any meat before putting it into the slow-cooker because the fat will just drain into your food.

11) If you want to enhance the flavor of  food you’re cooking, you can brown the meats or sauted your aromatics (garlic, onions, et…) before adding them to your slow-cooker.

12) Boneless chicken breasts only take a few hours, about three to four hours in a crockpot on low, but cuts of meat like  a roast take longer, 8 to 10 hours on low.

13) If you want vegetables to be only lightly cooked, you should check them after two hours.  Most vegetables only dishes will be done in three to four hours.

14) Crockpots are great for beans, because you don’t have to presoak them.  Just wash them and put them into the crockpot with your seasonings, and after 6 to 8 hours, they’ll be done and ready to eat.

15) Don’t be afraid to experiment!  There are so many online blogs and recipe sites, as well as crockpot cookbooks, that you could probably make a different crockpot meal every day of the year and not exhaust the recipes.

Crockpot Enchilada Casserole


1 to 3 tsp chili powder (depends on how hot you like things)
1 cup low salt, fat free chicken broth
6 oz can of tomato paste
1 tsp dried oregano
1 tbsp ground cumin
One 8 oz can no added salt tomato sauce
2 tsp minced garlic
½ tsp black pepper
1 cup salsa

One 15 oz can of no added salt beans (ranchero, kidney, northern beans, black – whatever you like best or have on hand)
2 cups thawed frozen corn
1/2 cup diced red, yellow or green peppers
1/2 cup finely diced zucchini
1/2 cup sliced broccoli

4 chicken breasts (sliced into thin slices or diced into small squares and sauteed just until no longer pink) 

10 corn tortillas
8 oz shredded reduced fat, low sodium cheddar cheese (can be omitted)

Cooking Instructions:

1.  Mix the chili powder, chicken broth, tomato paste, oregano, cumin, tomato sauce, garlic, pepper and salsa together.  Set aside.

2.  Combine the beans, corn, peppers, zucchini, and broccoli.  Set aside.

3. Layer two tortillas on the bottom of the crockpot.*

4.  Follow with ¼ of the chicken slices.

5.  Top with ¼ of the sauce mixture.

6.  Add ¼ of the bean mixture.

7.  Top with 1/5 of the cheese.

8.  Repeat the layering three more times.

9.  Top with the last two tortillas and remaining cheese.

10. Cover the slow-cooker and cook on low for 6 to 8 hours or on high for 3 to 4 hours.

*NOTE: The two tortillas don’t completely fill the crockpot, so we layer the tortillas perpendicular to the layer beneath (i.e. making a cross shape with every two layers).