Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Simple meal stirs memories, appreciation

A wave of nostalgia came over me tonight as I prepared dinner. I looked over at my son and daughter playing and thought about Joseph's toddler years when his go-to meal was plain grilled chicken cutlets and applesauce paired with a fresh, steamed vegetable and a sweet potato or mashed potatoes. It was a simple, safe meal to make for my son, who is allergic to peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, milk, egg and soy. But it also was his favorite. It's no surprise that the meal quickly became a standard in our house several years ago. It is healthy for all of us and easy to whip up quickly, especially with my handy indoor George Foreman grill. We went through a lot of chicken during those years.

I hadn't made grilled chicken in a while, so tonight's meal of grilled chicken, mashed potatoes (made using Earth Balance vegan, soy-free natural buttery spread and Vance's DariFree non-dairy milk alternative) and carrot sticks brought memories of my early attempts at allergen-free cooking. I also thought about how happy I am to offer my family so many more meal choices now than I did seven years ago when we became part of the food allergy community. My toddler daughter certainly has a more diverse meal selection. We still eat a lot of chicken. But I prepare it in many different ways, such as simply roasting a whole chicken (saving the carcass for homemade chicken noodle soup), cooking chicken thighs with chopped lemons, coating chicken strips with crushed potato chips and baking them (recipe from Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN)) or making kid-friendly EZ GFCF chicken nuggets. My family also enjoys Irish beef stew with parsley dumplings (I substitute the flour in these recipes with my gluten-free flour mix), turkey meatloaf or meatballs and beef pockets. Pizza is even in our meal rotation now, thanks to King Arthur Flour gluten-free pizza crust mix and Daiya mozzarella style shreds.

Sure I've had several years to experiment with various substitutions and meals to build my recipe repertoire, but I'm especially thankful that there are so many new recipes, cookbooks and products geared toward people with food allergies and other special diets. It is so gratifying to be able to take a meal request from one of my children, such as, "Can we have macaroni and cheese?" and know that I can find a website or blog with an allergy-friendly recipe to help me fulfill that food wish.

As we plan for Joseph's quickly approaching 8th birthday, I remember the allergen-free cupcakes I made for his 1st birthday. They were pretty dry, but thankfully he enjoyed the experience. I've learned a lot about allergen-free baking since then and will be happy to bite into this year's birthday cake. For his Harry Potter-themed party this year, I will be making a snitch cake modeled after a photo I found online. He can't wait to bite into our favorite recipe from Cybele Pascal for Red velvet cake in the shape of the snitch ball and he will happily sample the rich and chocolaty base cake, thanks to the King Arthur Flour gluten-free chocolate cake mix.

Our family, as well as its meal choices, has grown since the days when grilled chicken reigned on the menu. But we still delight in simplicity, whether a simple, healthy meal or the simple pleasure of savoring a slice of tasty birthday cake.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Egg-static at Easter

Joseph clutched his orange basket and ran across the field with a determined grin on his face. He picked up various colored eggs — shaking them first, of course, to see if they met his standards. Pamela's pace was a bit slower than her big brother's, but she was so proud of the prize-filled eggs she found and just as thrilled as her big brother to be on the hunt. Even when her prized Easter bonnet blew off while she ran across the field, she just giggled and held onto it with her loot.

Both of my children enjoyed the annual food-free Easter egg hunt hosted by our local food allergy support group, NC FACES (Food Allergic Children Excelling Safely). As always, I am thankful for the chance to participate in a holiday tradition without the stress of candy-filled eggs that threaten my son, who is allergic to peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, milk, egg and soy. Instead of worrying about smeared chocolate, peanut butter candy and other remnants of children indulging in their candy at traditional egg hunts, I get to sit back and soak in the joy my children experience as they do some silly dances and then hunt for treasure. They love sitting with the other children after the hunt and opening each egg to find a prize, such as a cool yo-yo, dinosaur eraser, bubbles or bouncy ball.
Those plastic eggs get a lot of use near Easter at our house. I use plastic eggs in our homeschool lessons for various games that are suitable for my 7-year-old and 2-year-old. Both love when I hide the eggs and the assignment that follows is always met with enthusiasm. Eggs can be used for matching, color sorting, counting and letter recognition for younger kids. They are also great for vocabulary, story building and math for older kids. For example, I fill eggs with Bananagrams tiles and ask Pamela to identify the letters she finds, while Joseph must make up sentences based on a chosen theme that start with the letters in his eggs.

We've used plastic eggs in crafts and even used stickers to decorate them. But my favorite egg-decorating tradition involves wooden eggs. I found white wooden eggs at Oriental Trading that are perfect for Easter egg crafts. The bonus is when they are inevitably dropped, they don't crack or fall to the ground in a heap of shells and yolk. Both kids love painting them and adding glitter or other decorative craft supplies.

The lack of real eggs in our house is not felt at Easter because there are so many other ways to celebrate the holiday without putting my food-allergic son at risk. Both children are getting ready for Easter with fun food-free activities, crafts and games. We also are already planning the allergen-free treats we will bake and both children are anxiously awaiting Easter morning when they will find their baskets full of prizes. Joseph hopes the hints he's dropping about a certain Lego set will make it to the Easter bunny's big ears, while Pamela keeps asking when she can go on another Easter egg hunt. Yes, we will be putting those plastic eggs to use once again on Easter when we fill them with small prizes and hide them in the yard. The biggest prize will be sharing in my children's joy on a special holiday.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Music for the soul — and lungs

Pamela puffed out her cheeks, blew and giggled with delight as the first squeaky, breathy sounds floated out of the harmonica. Her immediate success creating any kind of noise with her new instrument was all it took to get my 2-year-old's toes tapping with every new note she hit. Joseph, too, tapped into the joy of soulful harmonica playing while he experimented with the different sounds he could make as he moved his mouth across the instrument.

I bought children's harmonicas yesterday after reading about a program at Sinai Hospital of Baltimore that uses the instruments to help pediatric patients with pulmonary disease to exercise their lungs in a fun way. The story in RT: For Decision Makers in Respiratory Care (RT) noted that the breathing required to play the instrument could help children with asthma or pneumonia. It states, "The harmonica requires diaphragmatic breathing, pursed-lip breathing, and the use of both phases of ventilation (inspiration and expiration) to play a tune. These are maneuvers that health care providers encourage when a patient is admitted to the hospital with pulmonary conditions."

I don't usually jump after reading about one program or study that might help with my son's asthma. But the timing of this seemed to fill a need. Joseph went for his post-pneumonia lung check last week and, while the infection is gone, his lungs still have some inflammation. So he will need to continue extra breathing treatments before exerting a lot of energy, such as when he plays tennis — his favorite sport. I know that the effects of pneumonia linger for several weeks, especially in an asthmatic like Joseph. But the news about his lungs still brought me some dismay. After all, he is finally feeling good and we are both so tired of hearing me tell him to take it easy. So it seemed like a fun idea to bring a little musical therapy into our house.

While both of my children happily made their own kind of music, I fondly remembered my grandfather's skill at coaxing melodies out of the small wind instrument. Anytime I hear a harmonica I think of Grandpa Al and the way music lit up his warm face. I can still picture the shiny, silver harmonica with the red center fitting naturally in my grandfather's large hands. He would sit me on his knee while effortlessly playing folksy tunes.

The sounds resonating from my children's harmonicas evoke fond memories of my grandfather and hope that maybe those notes are helping my son's lungs. I don't know if our foray into harmonica playing will improve Joseph's health in any way, but we are enjoying it.