A summer like no other, but still filled to bursting with sunshine, laughter and huge amounts of safe ice-cream!
This week has been a focus for raising awareness for 2 causes close to our hearts: National Eosinophil Awareness Week (NEAW) and Mental Health Awareness Week (MHAW). It somehow feels apt that these two go hand-in-hand this week as we have so often experienced first-hand how closely linked life with EGID is with the mental health well-being of all in our family. This year that is even more important as so many of us are struggling with the changes that the coronavirus lockdown has brought with it and none more so than the young people in our household.
National Eosinophil Awareness Week: We have been very active in raising awareness about eosinophilic diseases for a number of years, but decided to start taking a step back from that last year. Eosinophilic Colitis (EC) was the initial diagnosis that we received for M all those years ago from his consultant at GOSH, but in recent times, the diagnosis criteria for this condition have faltered and existing diagnoses have been actively questioned by many within the medical community. These days conditions such as mast cell activation syndrome (MCAS) have been bandied about in relation to M, but ultimately the root cause of his health problems still remains a mystery to us all. As I’ve said so many times, having a name to put to his health issues has helped us all, even when very little is known about it, and I continue to use both his original diagnosis of EC and the newer one of MCAS when filling in paperwork or talking about M with other people.
Despite our own uncertainty about whether EGID is the correct diagnosis for M or not, I will always continue to encourage and support the fundraising and awareness-raising efforts of organisations seeking to research and understand this family of conditions more. Lockdown maybe stopping us doing anything active to raise awareness this week as we have in the past, but it’s good to be able to do my bit even from within the constraints of my own home.
Mental Health Awareness Week: Mental health well-being has been a buzz word in our household for a number of years and never has that been more important than now as we see the impact of 9 weeks in lockdown on us all. I’m a happy introvert, who enjoys spending time in my own company and so, in many ways, lockdown life is suiting me quite well. Regular contact with my work colleagues through Zoom and conference calls, webinars and online catch-ups with other friends is keeping me in touch with the outside world, which is especially important at a time when my T1D is keeping me at home.
However, I see a greater effect on Mike and the children and I think a lot of that is due to the changes to their daily routines. I am still working 9-5 every weekday, albeit from home and more often 8-7, but the 3 of them are going through a very different experience to me. Mike was furloughed from his job as a chartered surveyor on 1 April and for someone who is very used to being out and about as he values or surveys properties every day, the restriction of staying at home has been difficult. He is also much more of a social bug than I am, so not having daily face-to-face time with anyone other than the children and me has also taken its toll. However, that being said, the online capability to chat to family and friends across the world is something he has definitely embraced, even taking part in his regular whiskey-tasting evening via Zoom the other night!
As for the children, well G and M are almost a perfect reflection of Mike and me. G is comfortable entertaining herself and being in her own company, whereas M thrives on spending time with his peers as well as being constantly active and mentally challenged by them. Both have found lockdown difficult and we have worked, and continue to work, hard together to find the best outlet for their emotions as well as effective ways to meet their social needs. Chatting on WhatsApp or connecting via the PS4 has been a good solution and both are also having tutoring sessions via Zoom or MS Teams every week. This connection with people from outside of the family has been key to giving them something that is a very faint semblance of what they’re used to experiencing daily. Keeping them in a routine has also been important as Mike and I are very conscious that their return to school in September, after the best part of 6 months home-schooling, will exhaust them physically, mentally and emotionally from the minute they step through the school doors, if not before.
The buzzword for MHAW has been Kindness and considering what random acts of kindness you can do for others has been much encouraged. However, I think it’s key to remember that, whilst showing kindness to others in all situations is important, so is showing kindness to ourselves. We truly are living through extraordinary times and we shouldn’t feel guilty if we are not coping as well as we perhaps believe we should. Be that by taking some time to do something we love to do as an individual – bubble bath anyone? – or spending time relaxing with our family or even reaching out to a friend because we just need to talk, being kind to ourselves will improve our own well-being, which is something we all need right now.
At the end of April, we enjoyed a great evening joining in the virtual awards ceremony for the FreeFrom Food Awards 2020 (#FFFA20). It’s always great fun to go to the evening as not only do I finally get to share with the rest of the family the gold winners from the categories I’ve judged, but it’s also a fantastic opportunity to discover some of the other great products that might prove to be safe for M and something new we can introduce to his food repertoire.
This year was no exception, despite lockdown meaning that the Awards could only be held via Zoom and there were a couple of products I made note of to search out as soon as the celebrations were done. Thanks to the power of shopping on the internet, at least one of these new discoveries has already arrived with us, gone through quarantine and been used. Winning a gold in the innovation category, the Gluten free Wholegrain bread mix by The Box Bakery fascinated us all. The idea that we (by which I of course actually mean G and M) could whip up a safe loaf with nothing more than the box, the oven and some water obviously meant that it was something that had to be tried as soon as I could get my hands on it.
In almost no time at all, the boxes arrived at our house and with VE day celebrations looming, it seemed to be the perfect opportunity to get M started on his first loaf of bread, especially during lockdown. I left him to it, with some minimal supervision from Mike, and the end result was absolutely brilliant. It really was as easy as it…well…as it says on the box. He measured and added the water, gave it a good shake and popped it into the oven. The final loaf needed a few minutes more than was recommended, but it was worth the wait. Both M and G were delighted with the loaf and it’s nice to be able to add another safe bread to M’s diet. The flavour, texture and ease of baking all scored highly in M’s books and he was especially delighted by the crust. He also much preferred it fresh from the oven, but was happy to finish it off in sandwiches the following day.
M’s marks: 9.5 (he deducted the half point as it wasn’t as good once it was “cold”!)
One of the many things that have changed hugely during lockdown for everyone has been the process of buying food and this has been particularly challenging for those families living with food allergies. In the initial rush to panic buy the bare essentials – loo roll, pasta and flour to name but a few – those individuals who needed to buy freefrom foods found their usually more plentiful supplies being depleted by others who chose to buy allergy-friendly when their “normal” stocks ran out.
Thanks to my hoarding tendencies and the regular “big” shop that I do twice a month, we had enough safe milk, bread, flour and pasta to keep us going for several weeks and initially had no problems in buying more rice milk as that seemed to be the one dairy-free milk alternative that no-one else wanted. However, for a family who goes through around 40 litres of rice milk a month, the restrictions introduced where we could only buy 3 of any product proved to be a little more challenging in keeping our cupboards full. G and M have been brilliant at switching to drinking water, or occasionally squash, during the day, rather than the huge quantities of milk that they both prefer, which has certainly helped to eke out the supplies we have had at home.
Its been a case of not only trying to find the food you need and can eat, but also how you actually do your regular food shop. This has been especially true for our household as my T1D places me squarely on the clinically vulnerable list and as such, the advice has been clear that I should be staying at home. Fortunately for us, we already do a lot of our food shopping online, using our local food co-operative for our fresh fruit, veg and meat as well as Sainsburys and Ocado for our store cupboard essentials and, most importantly, the more specialised foods we need to keep G and M healthy and safe when they eat. The increased need for home delivery caused huge problems for many people at the start of the coronavirus crisis, but as we all settled into our new sense of normal, supermarkets and other food suppliers rose to the challenge of how to help more people in any way that they could and found a solution by introducing a variety of food boxes.
Now this will come as no surprise to anyone in the allergy community, but it took a little longer for these same organisations to realise that there was a whole group they were forgetting to cater for and now there’s a reasonable mix of freefrom boxes available too, though they do predominantly focus on the gluten-free market as far as I can see. We have ordered 3 different food boxes over the last few weeks and I thought I’d share our experience and opinion of each in turn:
Morrisons Food box (starting from £35) – one of the first food boxes to become available as far as I am aware and as the weeks have gone on, they have expanded their offering beyond the basic meat or vegetarian essentials boxes they started with. I ordered a meat essentials box, which arrived promptly and was well-packaged, including ice packs to keep the fresh produce chilled until I had time to put the food away. Our box contained, as it said, the essentials needed to keep us eating well: milk, bread, pitta breads, pasta, butter, cheese, meats, fruit, vegetables,tinned goods and the much-need pack of loo rolls were all included in it. Whilst it wasn’t the solution we needed in terms of safe foods for the children, it kept Mike and I going for another week at least and supplemented well what we already had in the house.
Marks and Spencer Food box (starting from £15) – with Easter coming so quickly after the start of lockdown, my Mum had managed to buy dairy- and soya-free chocolate for G and M, but apologised to me that she hadn’t had time to buy an Easter egg for me or Mike. Instead, she sent us a Marks & Spencer Fruit box and what a wonderful treat it was when it arrived. Again, it was a well-packaged delivery and contained a great variety of fruits to satisfy all tastes within the family. Whilst we order what I would term as our basic fruits every week (apples, bananas, oranges), the box also contained some more exotic fruits which, to put it simply, brightened my day. We received a plentiful supply of those regular fruits, which are always needed as we’re living with a 14 year old who lives for his regular smoothies and has a growing appetite at the moment, but I enjoyed the fresh mango and pineapple as part of my breakfast or lunch for a few days too.
Doves Farm Gluten-free Food box (£25) – this was an unexpected find, but a much welcome one. Surprisingly, I hadn’t seen anything mentioned about it through my usual allergy community social media platforms, but rather spotted it as a photo and post by an old friend on their FB feed. Discovering a box that not only catered amazingly for the gluten-free needs of our household, but also included 3 bags of safe flour was amazing and I couldn’t wait for this one to arrive on our doorstep. Add in the pancake batter mix, boxes of cereal and 8 delicious cereal bars that are safe for both children, there really was nothing to complain about. It was also great to find a new safe snack for M and I will definitely be looking to buy the apricot freee oat bars again.
It feels a little odd to be reviewing products at the moment, but lockdown hasn’t stopped us finding and trying new things and I wanted to share this review from a few weeks ago. It’s been 4 years since I tentatively ventured into the world of M-friendly pastry, concentrating my efforts on using the small handful of safe ingredients that were open to him at that time to create croissants and apple turnovers. They weren’t the roaring success that I would have liked them to be, but given I’d never turned my hand to even “normal” pastry before, I honestly felt they weren’t bad for a first attempt. I always meant to give it another go, but somehow it was never quite the right time and, other than fleeting thoughts in the middle of the night, the idea to try and achieve the perfect M-friendly pastry with a new and improved recipe never once really crossed my mind.
So, my latest discovery of the Jus-rol gluten-free puff pastry on the pre-lockdown fridge shelves of our local supermarket opened up a new and exciting realm of baking in our household. As well as being gluten-free, this prepared pastry is also dairy-, soya- and egg-free, which makes it a safe option for both children. The blend of different flours and vegetable fibres also meant that it fitted in perfectly with the most recent food trials agreed with M’s consultant, who suggested we try expanding M’s repertoire slowly by introducing regular gluten-free pasta, rather than the rice pasta we usually buy. The reason for this was preparation for M’s much hoped-for and long-planned school trip to Sorrento, supposedly happening this June, but cancelled due to COVID-19. It means that M won’t be able to travel this year, but our plan is to persevere with the trial with a hope that he will get to Italy as some point in the future, be that with school or with us.
Mike took on the first challenge of cooking with the puff pastry and made some bacon and cheese pastry parcels for tea. Sadly, and somewhat typically, being my husband and children, there was no thought to provide any photographic evidence of how they turned out, but given the fact that they all disappeared before I returned home from choir, they appear to have been a roaring success. With that in mind, next it was my turn and I decided to see how well the pastry would lend itself to a sweet, rather than savoury offering. Thanks to a plethora of apples and pears in the fridge, plus the fact that I know even G will happily eat a sweet fruity treat containing both of those ingredients, apple – and pear – turnovers seemed the obvious choice.
Quick and easy to cut, prepare and bake, I can’t rave enough just how easy this puff pastry is to use. It took me hardly any time at all to prep the turnovers for the oven and 20 or so minutes later they were ready. I left them to cool on the counter and managed to steer both G and M away from them long enough to sit down and eat their main courses before diving into dessert. There’s no question that the Jus-rol gluten-free puff pastry has been a big success in the 7Y2D household for both sweet and savoury dishes. Even better, the ease of use means that both children would be able to prepare pastry dishes of their choice with only very minimal supervision needed from me.
Somehow we find ourselves at the end of yet another week in lockdown and, as I continue to listen to the daily government briefings, it’s hard to imagine when lockdown will start to ease and what that might even begin to look like. Nor do we really know when things can begin to return to even some semblance of what we now consider as life before coronavirus. Here at 7Y2D HQ we continue to try to follow a routine each day with G and M, who start with a morning of school, stop for lunch and then spend the afternoon outside or doing other activities such as playing board games or practising dance routines. Being stuck at home for 6 weeks has started to take its toll a little on everyone, so this last week has seen us joining in some virtual events that reflect activities that we would do normally do in our everyday lives.
First, was last weekend’s 2.6 challenge – a charity initiative to replace the annual London Marathon. Now, I’m not going to pretend we have, or ever have had, any aspirations to take part in the marathon itself, but we are avid fundraisers and this challenge was a great opportunity to get both children flexing their brain cells to think up something new to do. Our charity of choice was, of course, the fantastic Over The Wall, focus of our fundraising for several years now following G and M’s experience at their camps. The 2020 camps have had to be cancelled due to coronavirus, but they are seeking to #savethemagic and launch “Camp in the Cloud” for all camp applicants instead.
From last year’s indoor skydiving to G’s dramatic hair cut a few years ago, we’ve tried our hand at a lot, so it took some serious consideration for both children to dream up a new challenge. G quite quickly settled on 262 sit-ups (well a marathon is 26.2 miles after all) and eventually M chose to attempt 262 seconds in plank. Neither managed their challenge in one sitting, but they did it and should feel rightly proud that, even during a pandemic, they have found an alternative way to support a charity that has supported, and continues to support, them.
Our second virtual event of the week was yet another annual one, this time the awards ceremony for the Free From Food Awards 2020. Usually held in London, instead the fabulous organisers of the awards took to a virtual ceremony, which started with an amazing Zoom “drinks and nibbles” ahead of the main event itself. With over 80 participants at one point, the Zoom breakout rooms proved a great opportunity to network a little and meet some new faces as well as spotting old familiar ones from afar. The awards ceremony is always a glamorous affair and so the whole family decided to dress up for the occasion. Dresses were donned, make-up applied and jewellery was carefully picked out to compliment the outfits. I even convinced myself to put on a pair of heels for the first time in weeks, though I will confess they didn’t last for the entirety of the event!
G and M put to good use some of those cooking skills they’ve been honing over the last 6 weeks and produced an excellent free-from buffet, fit to rival that usually enjoyed after the winners are announced. We didn’t have many of the gold winning items* at home, though I did enjoy the dairy- and soya-free chocolate-dipped strawberries that were beautifully crafted with a little help from Mike and took me back to my confectionery judging in January, what now seems like practically a life-time ago. All in all, has been a good week and the introduction of these new activities added some much-needed variety to what has quickly become everyday.
One of the unexpected advantages of living in lockdown has been seeing G and M start to take on a little more responsibility at home and honing some important lifeskills to see them surviving when they hit adulthood. I started with expecting them to fend for themselves at lunchtime, avoiding too many snack-based choices and including some healthier options to ensure a relatively balanced meal and, after a first week of moans and groans about what they were eating for dinner, sat them down to meal plan their dinners for the following week. They had to work together on agreeing meals that they would both enjoy and, where a compromise couldn’t be reached, settling on something that would be similar, but different. An example of this was the great lasagne vs. macaroni cheese debate, as G dislikes the texture of lasagne, whilst M would choose to eat anything but macaroni cheese. They agreed to disagree and so have one night in the week where they eat their own preferred pasta option.
Whilst planning their menu for the week ahead, G and M also had to take into consideration what staples we had in the house and what would need to be added to our weekly food delivery. We have been using a local food co-operative for well over a decade for our fresh fruit, veg and meats and they have been great at continuing to provide their food delivery service during the coronavirus crisis. The natural next step from meal planning was to get them more involved with cooking dinner as well, building off the cookery lessons they’ve both had at school. They were already well-versed in prepping their own fruit and veg for a meal, but they can both now competently fully make some of the simpler meals as well as working alongside either Mike or me with the more complex ones.
G and M have an undeniable sweet tooth and the last few weeks have been a great opportunity for them to flex their baking muscles too. The interesting thing has been that they have worked both together and independently when it has come to choosing and making their sweet treats. The starting point has almost always been to see what recipes they can find on my blog and then checking if we have the ingredients in the kitchen cupboards. So far, we’ve enjoyed chocolate cookies, shortbread and carrot cake and I can’t wait to see what they whip up next.
The great thing is that G and M are not only learning to cook and bake, but they’re also honing their skills in following a recipe and realising when sometimes it might need to be tweaked slightly to make the perfect dish. They’ve discovered the benefits of menu planning and experienced the frustration of when a key ingredient is missing from the store cupboard and needing to think on their feet to find an alternative. They’ve learnt to really work together, to listen to and respect what the other is saying and, when a compromise can’t be found immediately, to walk away and give each other space. I think that they’ve also discovered that cooking and baking can bring a much-needed therapeutic release from the tensions that we’re all experiencing from living on top of each other in uncertain times and re-centre their sense of emotional and mental well-being.
A few years ago we encountered some problems when G wanted to learn to cook gluten- and dairy-free recipes in her school cookery classes. Her teacher appeared reluctant to help G learn how to adapt the “normal” recipes to suit her dietary needs and even told her that she would have to bake a normal red velvet cake because baking an allergy-friendly one would require too much work. It was not the most auspicious experience we would have with their school and one that would leave me feeling a little jaded about what might happen when it came time for M to start his round of food technology lessons.
Fortunately, M’s Year 7 teacher was willing to work with us when it came to each of the dishes he would be preparing in class and all in all, it was a positive start to M’s life at secondary school. This year M found himself once more in the cycle of food tech classes and all I could hope was that his Year 9 experience would be as good as his Year 7 one. As luck would have it, his teacher this year was keen to make sure that M could learn how to cook safe food for himself just as his classmates do and encouraged M to adapt every recipe to suit his particular dietary requirements, no hesitation and no fear that it would be too difficult to manage.
Having a teacher that not only helped M learn to cook, but who was also interested to find out more about how and why we made the adaptations we do was a huge boost to M’s confidence. Her attention to detail and preparedness to make sure that the cross-contamination risks of sharing a classroom kitchen and work-spaces with other
13 and 14 year-olds were reduced as much as practicable helped reassure him every week he cooked. M even shared my blog with her as he wanted her to understand more about his condition and see the many recipes that I’ve already adapted to suit his various allergy needs.
From chicken biryani to a prawn stir-fry and chilli con carne to a cheese and potato pasty (although that one wasn’t safe for him), M flexed his cooking muscles and has learned some great new skills that will stand him in good stead in the future. Our thanks have to go to a fantastic teacher who didn’t see M’s food allergies as a barrier to him learning to cook and worked with him to make sure that his health issues don’t stand in the way of achieving whatever he sets his mind to: that’s inclusion at its very best.
You’d have thought that, given the vast quantities of chocolate that I simply had to taste as part of my stint as one of the FreeFrom Food Awards judges this year, my pretty much non-existant sweet tooth would be more than satisfied until well past Easter and yet, here I am, wanting to share yet more chocolate that we have found over the last few months.
Finding safe chocolate is always something that makes me rejoice and the marketplace is becoming much more populated by great dairy-free products. As a parent, nothing beats being able to buy allergy-friendly Easter eggs or chocolate Advent calendars, or even Christmas selection boxes for your child, especially when that is perhaps something they’ve never been able to to enjoy before, which was certainly the case for both G and M when they were small. These days, thanks to the wonderful Moo-free chocolate, my 2 no longer have to feel quite so different from their friends and can enjoy treats that taste incredible to them. Similarly, it can be incredibly frustrating when many manufacturers don’t take the next step and make those dairy-free treats, soya-free too, something that renders them unsuitable for M.
However, the following 3 products are new discoveries to me and ones that I would definitely recommend to anyone looking for a tasty dairy- and soya-free chocolate treat:
So Sweet Couture, Hooey & Boo Chocolate Bars: These were an unexpected find during our birthday stay at the Bluestone resort last September. Mike and I found them when we visited the Bluestone village shop and on discovering that they were both DF and SF, I immediately snapped up 2 bars to tuck away for the Christmas stockings. We opted for a mint bar for G and a raspberry bar for M, which were both a huge hit and I don’t think I was even offered a taste of either one. Needless to say, G and M give these bars a huge thumbs up and I’m waiting for the perfect opportunity to buy both the Orange and White Orange bars that are also available on their website.
Ooh! Chocolata: Another pre-Christmas purchase, though this one was much closer to the big day itself and fortunately available much closer to home. Mike and I were at our local greengrocers looking for the perfect Christmas wreath for our front door when these items were spotted. Another vegan and soya-free chocolate range and this time I opted for the honeycomb and minty crisp bars, knowing that both children would be happy with either flavour. Just as with the Hooey & Boo Chocolate bars, these didn’t make it much further than our flight out to NYC on Boxing Day, but that simply means that I know they were a big success and nobody’s going to complain if a few more bars find their way into our house as we head towards Easter as well as make our way through weeks of GCSE exam revision and instrument practice.
CoCo Chemistry: I don’t quite know why nearly all of our best discoveries happen when Mike and I out and about exploring together, but this was yet another one that we stumbled across on our recent day out for my birthday. We were visiting the beautiful National Trust property, Lacock Abbey, and decided to spend some time wandering through the village itself, mostly because I wanted to pay a visit to the wonderful Watling Goldsmiths to give Mike some not-so-subtle hints for future present ideas. It was a rather grey and miserable day in February, but everything brightened up considerably when we entered the doors of this wonderful chocolate emporium. I wasn’t expecting to find anything for G or M, so was delighted to spot this vegan chocolate slab on their shelves. In fact, they have a good selection of vegan chocolates, although I only conceded to buy one for my pair to try. It’s currently safely hidden away, ready to be pulled out for a more suitable occasion. I don’t know what the vegan chocolate tastes like, but if it’s anything like as good as its more normal counterparts, it’ll be delicious!
14 years ago today he arrived in our world in a whirlwind of absolute chaos; and, to be honest, we’ve spent most of the time since then embracing that chaos with him. I can’t remember a great deal about his arrival, both M and I were far too ill for me to even consider stockpiling memories to look back on in the years to come. Indeed, the first image I have of our premature son was from the polaroid photo that Mike eventually brought back from the NICU, a photo that I wish we still had, but have absolutely no idea what happened to it and I would guess it got lost in the chaotic few days that followed his birth.
14 years on and life with M is filled with what can only be described as wonderful chaos. He is growing into a kind-hearted, empathetic young man, who constantly surprises me with his deep thoughts and insightfulness at times, whilst filling many other moments with humour and frustration in equal parts.
Happy 14th birthday M – as your card said this morning, you are one of my favourite kids! Love you always xxx