Have you ever read an article outlining the foods you should eat to maintain a healthy diet, only to find that the “healthy” diet doesn’t work with your allergies? Swapping out red meat for more fish isn’t something you can do if you’re allergic to seafood. And, incorporating healthy protein and fats from nuts into your snack routine just isn’t possible if you can’t have nuts! Not to mention, it’s exhausting to try to shop for pre-packaged healthy snacks only to find they contain an allergen or are processed alongside a cross-contaminant; it’s so much easier to reach for that comforting bag of chips you know and love.
Taking “healthy eating” into your own terms
I’m allergic to 35+ foods, primarily healthy diet staples like fish, nuts, leafy greens, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, avocado, flaxseed, and many fruits. But, I’ve learned that eating healthy with food allergies doesn’t have to be difficult, at least once you get the hang of it. All it takes is a few simple cooking tricks and some innovation to prepare the foods you can eat in healthy ways.
The key to cooking with food allergies is learning how to adapt recipes. Not every recipe you find is going to be tailor-made to your diet. Plus, many “allergy-friendly” recipes try to accommodate all top 8 (or 9) allergens. This may not be the best for you if, say, you need the protein from eggs in your nut-and-legume-free dishes, or want to use nut milk as your dairy substitute.
Instead of reading a recipe as an unchangeable rule of law, read it as a general baseline. Swap in foods you can eat for the ones you can’t, paying attention to the techniques outlined and the flavor profiles of the spices. Once you know a general ratio of ingredients — like how many vegetables go in a stew compared to how much liquid — and the basic preparation method — are you cooking on a stovetop or in the oven, at what temperature, and for how long — you can add, remove, or swap ingredients as needed.
Thinking outside the box
Sometimes, though, the foods we’re drawn to or are familiar with are just too far removed from our allergy needs. That’s when you can start thinking outside the cultural box.
In American diets, salads tend to take center stage as the health food of choice. Even if you’re not allergic to leafy greens like I am, salad bars and chain restaurants with build-a-bowl options are stressful and potentially dangerous if you’ve got cross-contact allergies. And preparing your own salad day after day, meal after meal, with the same basic ingredients can get way too repetitive. But salads aren’t the be all and end all of healthy dieting in most other cultures!
Consider what types of cuisine might work better for your allergy needs. Do some research. Try recipes from other parts of the world! In my case, peppers, eggplant, carrots, and squash are some of the primary veggies I can eat, so I experiment with a lot of Latin American, Filipino, Asian, and South Asian dishes. I still have to adapt many of the recipes I find, but it’s fun to draw inspiration from another culture; it makes eating dinner on a Tuesday night feel like attending a world food festival!
Don’t be afraid to bend the rules
Most importantly, don’t be afraid to break some rules. My favorite rule to break is that fruit isn’t really a side dish. For some reason, we believe veggies make a good side and fruit is for a snack or dessert. I’ve found that repeating the same handful of vegetables as a side dish every meal gets tiresome. And eating the few fruits I can have (mostly apples, pears, pineapple, and grapes) as stand-alones is dull. But once I decided to shed these unofficial rules, I realized that roasted apples and pears make a great savory side with some tarragon and ginger drizzled on! Pineapples become a completely new dish when grilled with a dash of cayenne. Adding raisins to a stew or roasted chicken adds a touch of sweetness, especially when boosted by savory-sweet spices like saffron, cinnamon, and coriander.
The bottom line is, it’s okay if your version of healthy eating doesn’t look like the mainstream diet plans. It doesn’t mean you’re trapped into a boring, repetitive diet; in fact, I’ve found that my weekly menus are more varied than my non-allergic peers’, even though I’m more limited in my ingredients.
Another important thing to remember is that cooking is an experiment. When creating new recipes, sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. As long as you learned something from the experience, that’s a win in my book. Just keep trying! Having food allergies forces you to get creative in the kitchen and explore what healthy means for your body! There is no one-size-fits-all, and thank goodness for that!
Want to get started with some healthy allergy-friendly recipes that you can adapt for your own needs? Check out this recipe for Sweet Potato & Eggplant Curry or this recipe for delicious Homemade Granola.