Tag Archives: ready meals

Every little helps

This week marks the start of the 2018 Free From Food Awards (#FFFA18) and another stint of judging, something that has become a real highlight of my year, especially as it brings a highlight to an otherwise grey and somewhat miserable month following the excitements of Christmas. Ever since the list of fellow judges reached my inbox, I’ve been looking forward to the day itself as I will be a judging a new category to me with a group of fantastic bloggers and friends that I’ve got to know over the last few years and I’ve no doubt it’ll be a day filled with laughter and chatter and good-natured banter.

However, with the FFFA just around the corner, I’ve realised that I owe an apology to a fellow judge from last year’s awards, who gave G in particular a great opportunity after we met and who I never got round to thanking via my blog. Mike and I were fortunate to meet Nicki, a Brand manager from Tesco, who was keen to send some samples of the then new range of Freefrom chilled meals that Tesco were about to launch. A cool box of meals arrived with us and G, Mike and I all enjoyed trying and tasting the variety available to anyone looking for a gluten-, dairy- and egg-free ready meal. They weren’t all to G’s taste, but it was wonderful to see the selection she was able to choose from for dinner.

From traditional Chicken Hotpot with stuffing and Beef casserole with dumplings – both of which G loved – to the more exotic flavours of Katsu Chicken curry and Green Thai Chicken curry – which became firm favourites with Mike and me – there really is something for everyone. G is not always the bravest when it comes to trying new dishes and some of these really did push her taste buds to their absolute limit, but I was impressed, for the most part, with the quality of the meals as well as their flavours. The biggest disappointment was the two Italian dishes: Chicken, Bacon and Mushroom pasta and Pulled Beef and Red Wine Ragu with Spaghetti, neither of which survived being frozen and then recooked at a later date. Both the pasta and the sauces became watery and were, in our opinion, frankly inedible by the time they reached the table. It was disappointing as pasta is usually a favourite in our household, but having had surprising successes with some of the other meals, my overall review would definitely be positive about this new range. As much as I love to cook from scratch, and usually do, the opportunity to be able to keep a few firm favourites in the freezer for those unexpected times when being able to throw something into either the oven or microwave is much-needed is absolutely invaluable to me as a working Mum and I’m grateful to Tesco for creating these dishes.

Just the other day, I was reminded once again of just how far the supermarkets have come with their allergy-friendly offerings since our freefrom journey started, when I spotted this fantastic array of dairy-free choices in the fridges of our local Tesco. It was an absolute delight to be able to take my time exploring all that was there to see what treats I could find for G to enjoy at the end of her meals. These are exciting times for those of us in the allergy community as more and more shops, cafes and restaurants strive to improve and increase what they offer to those on restricted diets and I’m delighted to be a part of it.

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#FFFA17 – Biscuits, cakes and breads

You might have noticed that I’ve taken a small break from blogging over the last couple of weeks and if you follow me on Twitter, you’ll know that Mike and I have spent some time away in New York as an early birthday celebration. There is so much to share from our week away, but you’ll have to wait patiently for those posts to come as I still have lots to tell you about the rest of our time at this year’s FreeFrom Food Awards. As well as the wonderful “Meaty and Fishy Ready Meals” category, we were lucky enough to judge a further 4 categories too and those revealed some more great freefrom options for those with allergies to choose from.

The Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday morning sessions were spent tasting some fantastic teatime treats and allergy-friendly breads. Just as I experienced last year, the teatime treats offered a good selection of biscuits and cakes, and whereas last year there was a huge number of biscotti to taste, this year was all about shortbread. Now I absolutely love shortbread, it is my favourite Christmas dessert, especially when enjoyed with lashings of rich brandy butter and I was excited to taste the freefrom options that were entered in the awards. img_13741Unfortunately, as great as some of them were, none was both gluten- and dairy-free, which is always a disappointment when I’m looking for something new to add to G’s diet. By the time we reached the end of the shortbread and other similar cookies, I have to confess I was looking for something refreshingly different and new.

The following, however, were absolutely amazing and whilst not all of them were gluten- and dairy-free, there was a good variety of treats that would be a great freefrom offering for any special occasion or teatime. The first came from Sponge Cakes Ltd, who make mail order gluten-free cakes. We were lucky enough to try both the Victoria sponge and the Apple crumble sponge and my run-away favourite was the apple crumble one. Both had a great texture, looked tempting and tasted delicious with the only downside being that they were just gluten-free and so not suitable for G. img_13721However, since returning from our trip, a quick perusal of their website has shown that they do in fact make a gluten- and dairy-free cake as well, which we may well have to try at some point in the future.

My next favourite was a delicious treacle tart from Mummy Bakes, which was impressively gluten-, dairy- and egg-free. Sadly I failed to snap a shot of this treat during the afternoon, probably because I was waxing lyrical about the taste of the tart itself. I am not usually a treacle tart fan; in fact, I usually steer clear of this sweet treat as just being too sweet for me to enjoy. However, there was an amazing lemon flavour that cut perfectly through the treacle and balanced it so that it had just the right sweetness for an indulgent pudding.

img_13751The next product scored highly with me because it was delightfully simple in its ingredients and looks like being an addition we can introduce to M. When we visited the Allergy and Free From Show in the summer, I discovered some delicious chocolate and rice crispbreads from Le Pain des Fleurs, which sadly just missed the mark because M is unable to have cocoa. Safe snacks are always hard to find, so I was thrilled to see another crispbread from this company entered into the awards. The coconut rice crispbread may not have been a favourite with everyone, but the prospect of finding another snack for M was truly exciting for me. It seems somewhat ironic that last year I stumbled across the amazing Borough 22 doughnuts, which the owner, Ryan, has kindly adapted to be 100% safe for M, during the Teatime category and this year the coconut crispbreads seem to have ticked the box again. We will need to trial them as M is currently only able to tolerate coconut oil and not cream or milk, but I’m hoping that the low percentage of coconut in them (just 15%), will make them a viable option for my young foodie.

img_13771As for the breads on Wednesday morning, there were some great products and it was fantastic to see several entries from the big supermarkets as well as the more specialised brands we’ve come to known. The Bfree pitta breads were great and impressively had the perfect pocket to cram with your filling of choice, and I also loved the Tesco petit pain rolls and sandwich thins, either of which would be ideal for G’s lunchbox. However, my absolute favourite was the impressive Tesco Ancient Grain Cob, which looked amazing and tasted just as good. In my opinion it would be difficult to distinguish this bread as gluten- and dairy-free when compared to its “normal” counterparts and I’ll be looking out for a loaf in my local store to buy for G to try.

Back to the Judging table

Today Mike and I have enjoyed what feels like a rare day off together. We’re away from work, away from home and away from the constant complexities of parenting 2 children with an interesting selection of food allergies between them. Instead, we have been privileged to spend the day in London as part of the judging panel for the Free From Food Awards 2017 (#FFFA17). You may remember that last year saw my debut in this exciting role and, thanks to the generosity of my Mum in providing some invaluable childcare and the need for a “normal” person in the selected groups of tasters, Mike was able to join me in the experience. It was last year’s involvement that kicked of an exciting year of opportunities for us all: from discovering our very own set of superheroes including the wonderful Ryan of Borough 22 to attending the Awards ceremony with a broken leg; not forgetting the introduction of GalaxyGazer and Marvin to their own readership and my involvement with the Free From Eating Out Awards 2016 – gosh, what a busy year it has been!

Our day started off a little later img_13641than normal with the “Meaty and Fishy Ready Meals” category. I enjoyed some of the new products that I discovered when judging this round last year, though was disappointed to find it difficult to find some of my favourites once the Awards were over. I was looking forward to seeing what new products I would uncover this year, especially seeking out anything suitable for G. Much as I enjoy cooking and usually prepare all our meals from scratch, I love finding those quick alternatives that will make busy evenings just the tiny bit easier. There were some great foods on offer, including a delicious gluten-free quiche from Asda, some highly contentious coronation chicken sausages and a great selection of microwave-able meals. To my delight, I came across 3 dishes that I thought were absolutely amazing and would be more than happy to buy for G. The first were the most delicious Sweet Quebec sausages from Slightly Different Foods. All foods are initially judged blind so that our opinions are not unduly influenced by any preconceived ideas img_13671about any of the suppliers or manufacturers of these products. I was thrilled to discover after the tasting who had made these sausages as we had stumbled across this company at last year’s Allergy and FreeFrom Show and our lengthy and enthusiastic conversation with owners, Sonia and Steve, evidently encouraged them to submit an entry to this year’s Awards. The sausages contain that classic Canadian combination of bacon and maple syrup and are bursting with flavour. I have no doubt that G will absolutely love them and the simplicity of the ingredients makes them a great choice for many with food allergies.

Next was a fantastic Chicken Tikka Masala with rice, which was unexpectedly manufactured by Pure, better known for their range of dairy-free alternatives to normal margarine. I had absolutely no idea that they made other free-from foods and this curry was beautifully fresh with a great selection of vegetables and even some quinoa included in its list of ingredients. Finally was my run-away favourite, a beef casserole with dumplings from Tesco, which is gluten-, dairy- and egg-free. The meat was tender, the gravy rich and the dumplings a surprise bonus on an already superb ready meal. I’m not convinced that G would choose either of these 2 options for an evening meal, but I would be more than happy to serve her both.

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Inside the Free From Food Awards 2016

I’m writing tonight’s post in the peace and quiet of the hotel room in North London that has been my home for the last 2 days. It feels a little surreal to be away from my sound proof bubble at home, where I desperately try to ignore the perpetual chaos of family life that swirls around me and I can’t quite get used to being able to write completely uninterrupted by demands for food or drink or the need to referee between any 2 of the other 3 members of my household. It’s no exaggeration to say I’ve been counting down to these days away for months and have had to work incredibly hard to not spill the beans about my involvement with this year’s Free From Food Awards, #FFFA16. I feel incredibly honoured to be included on the judging panel and have enjoyed every moment of this experience.

fffaFor those of you who are not in the know, the #FFFA are the brainchild of Michelle Berriedale-Johnson and were launched in 2008 to celebrate excellence and encourage innovation within the free from food industry. Each year a group of judges from across the allergy and free from community are invited to taste a variety of new free from products and rate them on quality, usefulness, innovation and nutritional value. The foods are all tasted “blind” in the first instance, with names and packaging removed so that the products really are assessed on their own individual merits. Then follows an active discussion as each individual judge is asked to help reach a group consensus on the category winner and which other products deserve to be shortlisted, commended or given a highly commended award. Given the judges have a variety of backgrounds from free from food professionals to health professionals and from allergy sufferers to allergy bloggers as well as the occasional “normal” person to compare each item to their non-allergy counterpart, you really do get a rounded point of view about what makes the highest quality free from product. Believe me when I say that any manufacturer who wins a category is producing something that has impressed across the board.

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This is what judging confectionery looked like!

I was keen to judge the Breakfast and Tea-time categories as I felt these were areas where it would be amazing to find some new foods to tempt G and was delighted to be included not just on those panels, but on those for Confectionery and Meaty & fishy ready meals too. The ready meals was a real added bonus for me as, whilst I cook from scratch 95% of the time, the option to have some good gluten- and dairy-free meals stowed in my freezer for those occasions when a quick meal is needed for G was incredibly attractive. The number of entries was overwhelming to a #FFFA16 newbie and I was extremely grateful to Ruth at What Allergy who had advised me to skip breakfast that first morning to ensure I had space for all the foods I’d be trying. With 36 breakfast products, 22 confectionery items, 32 meaty & fishy ready meals and 26 tea-time treats to taste over around 12 hours, no wonder I left London feeling extremely well fed.

Even better I found some great new-to-us foods that I thought G might like to try and these are my top picks from each category:

  • IMG_0089Breakfast: Nutribix – a great alternative to the well-known breakfast brand, Weetabix. These were MEWS-free, taste delicious and would definitely provide a hearty, healthy and filling breakfast. I particularly liked that they were so reminiscent of their wheat-filled counterpart, a cereal that G had loved when she was tiny in the days before we knew she needed to be gluten-free.
  • IMG_0093Confectionery: Eskal Chocolate Wafer Rolls – I have to be honest and say there was a whole host of amazing chocolates for this category, which left me in some of a chocolate-induced haze by the time we got to the end of the judging session. However, these wafer rolls were the stand-out product for me as they were light whilst still being indulgent, deliciously tasty and would make a great accompaniment to a bowl of ice-cream for that extra-special twist. The only downside is that they currently contain soya, especially as they are amazingly gluten-, dairy- and egg-free.
  • Meaty & Fishy Ready Meals: I can’t begin to tell you how impressed I was with the vast range of free from ready meals that we got to taste and, to my delight, this category produced 2 top picks for me. The first is one that G will love and that would have ticked so many boxes for M pre going elemental. Tesco is adding a gluten-, dairy-, egg- and soya-free scampi to their own brand Free from range, which I’m sure will prove to be a huge success with many allergy families.IMG_0094[1] I’m so excited for it to hit our shelves in the next couple of months and can’t wait for G to try it. My other choice is something I know G won’t want to try, but it ticked so many boxes for me as it was tasty, free from and could be prepared in the microwave in less than 5 minutes, truly the quintessential ready meal. Better Than Rice Chicken Massaman Curry introduced konnyaku rice to me, which has a completely different texture to normal rice and I’m looking forward to trying it out with M. He might not be able to eat the rest of the dish, but with such a limited diet, this new rice will bring an interesting twist to mealtimes.
  • Teatime: By the time my fellow judges and I reached this final category in my judging timetable, I was definitely suffering from a little food fatigue. As M calculated for me when I got home, I had tried over 100 different free from offerings in my 2 days away and had enjoyed a good many of them. doughThe teatime category was again filled with a delicious array of biscuits and cakes, but there was one product that for me stood head and shoulders above the rest: the amazing Borough 22 doughnuts. These were impressively gluten-, dairy-, egg- and soya-free and also vegan, but most definitely not flavour-free and were the biggest hit of my #FFFA16 experience. I know that doughnuts are one of those indulgences that so many allergy sufferers really miss and these will more than ably fill a definite gap in the market. Not only did I get to savour them, but even better, the #FFFA16 team offered me the remaining 6 doughnuts to take home for G and my girl has been delighted to receive this treat.

My thanks go to Michelle, Cressida and the rest of the team at the #FFFA16 for their welcome and commitment to encouraging development in the free from community. I loved every moment of my time as a judge and have met some great individuals who work in different aspects of the allergy world and were a lot of fun to work/eat/disagree with over the 2 days. The shortlist of contenders for the final awards will be published on February 10th and the winners announced at the awards ceremony in April. I can’t wait to see who won in each category and share some more of these innovative products with you.

Some of the amazing free from cakes

 

There are no strangers…

“There are no strangers, only friends you haven’t yet met”

W.B.Yeats

Like most people, I have collected a variety of friends over the last 30+ years, picking them up as I’ve ventured down the various paths my life has taken me. Those friends I’m still in touch with these days span the years: from those I met in the playground and classroom during my first decade to those I survived my angst-ridden teen years with; from the few that are still hanging around following university and my accountancy training to finally that group of “Mummy” friends made since we first found out we were expecting G. In the last 5 years, my friendship group has grown massively as I’ve added to the mix those who are travelling alongside us in our current journey; the fellow EGID Mums and GOSH parents we’ve been privileged to get to know in some of the most challenging of times. These are individuals who really understand the daily struggles and ongoing battles that we survive and are always there to lend a shoulder to cry on or offer words of encouragement or advice when no-one else can. What makes these friends so special is that, in many cases, I’ve never actually met them face-to-face, thanks to the rise of the internet and social media, and yet they are unquestionably available whenever they are most needed.friendship-childhood-1024x769

During M’s recent GOSH admission, we received some amazing demonstrations of support and love from my friends, more than I could ever have expected, and which ensured I never felt on my own. Almost every day I received a message via text or e-mail or FB asking how things were going, sharing news from home and sending love, thoughts and prayers to both M and me. Sometimes those messages would become a conversation and sometimes they simply stood on their own as a reminder that other people were thinking of us. Cards and presents were sent to cheer us both and M’s class wrote their own messages to him, keeping him in touch with all that was happening in school.

We were lucky to receive visits from a couple of good friends: one who we met through FABED and the other from a Mum I met on Rainforest ward during our 2014 stay. These visits really brightened up the long days in hospital and I hope our visitors understand just how much their time meant to us both. Much to M’s disappointment, a couple of other planned visits didn’t happen due to our inability to leave the ward due to Klean-prep, last-minute appointment cancellations and at least one epic failure by me and the other Mum to successfully liaise where we were and when; but most importantly, the thought was there. We also got to meet 2 of shhh-gin-and-tonic-in-disguise-mug-p2968-4246_imagethose “virtual” friends from on-line support groups, who during the length of our admission were also admitted to GOSH. The ability to finally put faces to names, with a reasonably comprehensive background knowledge already in place and be able to spend time chatting, laughing, drinking tea and commiserating was priceless.

One of my highlights was the opportunity to reconnect with an old FABED friend and fellow blogger, Annie, one afternoon. Her son, R, had been at GOSH for tests that week, but had been staying at the patient hotel with his Dad. On this afternoon, they had been sent up to Rainforest ward for a final meeting before going back home and were given the bed across from M. Whilst Annie, her husband and I chatted away, catching up on news from the last 9 months, M and R renewed a previously fleeting friendship and spent time talking, constructing vehicles, discussing bearded dragons, watching TV and generally just spent time chilling out together.

The most truly astounding show of support came from another Mum that I’ve never met in real life and definitely wouldn’t know if I bumped into her on the street. She is based in London and has a friend who works as one of the visiting art teachers at the GOSH hospital school. Upon hearing that M was confined to the hospital buildings and that I had little time to get out and enjoy much more than quick foods for my meals, she thoughtfully prepared some home-cooked meals that she tailored for my dietary preferences, packaged securely for storage in the ward kitchen and sent in with her friend. These meals could be easily heated in the microwave and were a real treat after days of utterly uninspiring sandwiches and ready meals. As well as this bag of goodies for me including some much appreciated fresh fruit and biscuits, she also tucked in board games and some hand-made get well cards for M.Picture2

And it wasn’t just the support in hospital that made the difference: there were people keeping the home fires burning on my behalf too. Both schools kept in touch, asking for updates, talking to G to find out how she was coping with it all and keeping me informed of arrangements for the end of that term and the start of the next. Their Stagecoach principal e-mailed through a suggested directing project linked to the new term’s theme, which would provide some much-needed distraction whilst he was confined to his bed and sent text messages to ask how things were progressing, when we were coming home and wishing us a peaceful Christmas. Finally, thanks to the Mum of G’s best friend, N, Mike could keep those work commitments that he simply couldn’t rearrange as she kindly opened her house to G both before and after school to ensure she was looked after and cared for at all times too.