If your family is anything like mine, that question usually comes just as you’re struggling through the door: with house keys in one hand, car key gripped firmly between your teeth, handbag on one arm, cello on your back, mobile phone pressed to your ear as you attempt to talk to the dietitian/consultant/other healthcare provider, who’s asking if now is a good time to talk and you can’t say no as you’ve been trying to contact them urgently for at least the last 3 days and who knows when they might call again; plus the school bag(s)/shopping bag(s)/extraneous bag(s)* (*delete as appropriate) you’ve picked up along the way are weighing down your other side and threatening to upset the delicate balance you’ve perfected in your struggle to cover the 100 yards or less from your car to the house. Meanwhile, your curious offspring are waltzing in behind you, or possibly squeezing past you, through the already impossibly small and too-narrow-to-negotiate-safely doorway, bearing no more than a half-empty water bottle and their coat, worn superhero style to leave their hands free to carry absolutely nothing else at all. And just as you think you’ve achieved it and managed to get everything safely inside, they open their mouth and ask that unavoidably fraught dinner-question and the peace shatters and your world tumbles down around your ears. Does any of that sound familiar or is it just my household?
For M at the moment, my answer is fairly standard, although he adds his own unique twist by asking if dinner will be “chicken with rice and cucumber” or perhaps “rice and chicken with a side of cucumber”? For a while, when he was still 100% elemental, he would even ask if he could have “air-sticks” – “like bread sticks you see, but without the bread” – showing that the ability to laugh his way through this experience is his greatest strength in beating this disease. I have become a self-confessed expert in cooking with 3 principle ingredients – rice, chicken and cucumber – and the bonus extras of herbs, rapeseed oil and sugar. Rice has been broadened to include its derivatives and the inclusion of rice milk, rice cream and rice pops (as long as they’re gluten-free) has added to my ever-increasing repertoire of 3-ingredient recipes.
In the past few weeks, as well as my fall-back favourites of roast or grilled chicken with plain boiled rice, I have also perfected deep-fried savoury rice balls, chicken nuggets, chicken and cucumber curry, fried rice, chicken stir-fry, rice-flour sugar cookies and rice pudding. My Mum has also made M a chicken breast stuffed with rice and cucumber, courtesy of the inspiration and some nifty hints suggested by our hairdresser and which was an instant hit with our young diner. It’s surprising just how many different recipes you can create with just a few ingredients and there’s even a few more that I’m hoping to try out in the coming weeks. What started out as a daunting challenge to entice M’s appetite and encourage him to once again eat whilst navigating the tricky world of identifying his food allergies, has become yet another success story in our household.
My victory with such a limited range of ingredients has been all the sweeter given the recent UK news story of the letter sent to the Daily Telegraph newspaper by over 100 top chefs and restauranteurs condemning recent EU legislation requiring restaurants to provide information about which of the top 14 allergens the dishes on their menus contain. It was never a requirement that they did not cook with these ingredients, but rather that they should be able to inform diners of what the food prepared contains, with the knowledge and pride in their ingredients that I would expect from any talented chef. Whilst widely welcomed by those of us in the allergy-world as a step towards helping us make informed decisions about eating out, these chefs warned that such requirements would harm “…the spontaneity, creativity and innovation restaurants and others in the industry have enjoyed up until now.”
Like so many others in my situation, I wrote a response on the Telegraph website, pointing out that this legislation will help me to protect my children and give them experiences that will ensure their continued health and enjoyment, I do not deny that it’s up to me (and they as they grow older) to ask about allergens, but there’s no point asking these questions if the restaurants, waiting staff or chefs cannot provide the information needed and the lack of understanding about cross-contamination risks is sadly common across the food industry.
Our experience last summer in Disney proved that this type of requirement does not need to be restrictive as excellent allergen information was readily available and nearly everywhere we ate produced meals for G and M that rivalled those being served to any other customer there with a “normal” diet. The chefs were knowledgable, came to our table to discuss their allergy needs and made the effort to find out what my challenging duo would like to eat – excellent service all done with a smile.