Why Meal Planning Isn't Always the Best Option for Busy Food Allergy Moms and Special Diets (and What To Do Instead)
I have a confession. Even though I’ve written a food allergy cookbook and have helped one-on-one clients with food allergy cooking plans, I haven’t always been a confident cook OR any good at meal planning. Don’t get me wrong, I believe that meal planning is extremely useful, it’s just that it took me awhile to figure it out and realize it should be used differently that I originally thought.
My Meal Planning and Cooking for Food Allergies Journey
Back before I had kids I was a Food Network fan. There’s something about watching someone cooking real, homemade and delicious food that relaxes and inspires me. To this day, you’ll often find me watching cooking shows like The Bobby and Demaris Show or Pioneer Woman, Giada in Italy or Good Eats or almost anything where they’re actually doing a baking or cooking demo.
Back before we had kids, I was footloose and fancy-free and I was watching shows to make more elaborate and fancy meals. I wanted to impress my soon-to-be hubby & friends. Evenings were my own and I could get as elaborate as I wanted when it came to meals. I didn’t have much of a need to streamline or make my cooking & baking efficient.
How Special Diets and Food Allergies Affected My Cooking
Fast forward about 8 years when my oldest daughter was JUST outgrowing her anaphylactic milk and egg allergies. We had just learned of new peanut and tree nut allergies for my second daughter.
Things were very different now.
I felt restricted by our food allergies and found it really time consuming and labour intensive to find safe meals and cook. About this time I went to see Sandy Richard, (a Canadian cookbook author) speak at a mom’s group event. She taught her method of meal planning that used her cookbooks as a base. I was desperately searching for something that would inspire me and help me make cooking family dinners easier. I ended up buying almost every one of her recipes books that day. I loved how she had a meal planning structure that worked and I used those books with allergy substitutions and omissions for several years.
The biggest change in my meal planning happened in spring 2017 when my daughter was told by our Allergist that she has an intolerance to North American Gluten. To make a long story short, we’re now required to only give her “soft” grains/gluten from Eastern Europe or countries that buy their grains from Eastern Europe. When these types of gluten are not available, she needs to eat gluten free (I know that sounds a bit wishy washy, but it’s based on scientific research, from a board-certified Allergist).
This new diagnosis stopped me in my tracks.
The Sandi Richard books no longer worked for the most part. I was forced into a whole new way of cooking and meal planning once again.
At this time, I was also a few months into running my food allergy consultant business. I was working with clients who had even more food allergies and restrictions than our family did. I had done some of the legwork already and I started to get more confident cooking with whole and simple ingredients.
Instead of focusing on all the replacements I could find, I started to plan and cook differently.
I started to use some of the cooking knowledge I learned over the years (thanks Giada, Bobby and Demaris) and started to create meal plans using my own techniques mixed with Sandi Richard’s.
How My Food Allergy Diet Planner Decreases Stress
I’m now doing my own mixture of meal planning. A big part of it is cooking from the pantry, fridge and freezer. In fact, many of the best recipes in my Weeknight Allergy Buster book were created using an ingredient inspired form of cooking that I now use regularly. This type of cooking gives me freedom and allows me to be creative with food. It inspires me and makes me (dare I say) enjoy cooking like I used to back when hubby and I didn’t have any food restrictions.
I still meal-plan too. There are still those busy times when I need a plan to keep things running on autopilot. It’s so nice NOT to have to think about food during these times but still know that I’m prepared to feed my family. That’s when a solid meal-plan comes into play.
Meal planning for me has become a blend of structure (pre-planning) and flexibility (cooking from the pantry) to fit whatever stage or needs we have as a family and I as a mom. This perfect mixture of structure and flexibility keep my meals inspired with variety. Not to mention time-saving!
There are lots of meal planning fans out there. But I think a strict meal plan approach isn’t always the best for food allergy mamas like us, because a mixture of the two is much better.
Why Meal Planning May Not Be the Best Option for Busy Food Allergy Moms
(but a mixture of meal planning and pantry cooking is!)
The cycle of ups and downs.
September comes and we’re all gung-ho to be on the ball and ready for the new & busy year ahead. We get on the meal planning horse with gusto and find a month of allergy-friendly meals and grocery lists. We’re READY. But unfortunately after a month (if that), we usually loose steam. We don’t feel up to finding a NEW month of recipes so meal planning goes by the wayside and we’re back to the chaotic mess of not knowing what to cook while balancing busy schedules.
It’s this down time that causes us havoc. Should we force ourselves to plan and prepare even when we’re uninspired and don’t want to think about food? Or is there a better way? This is the time when I like to cook from my pantry. Allowing some creativity and inspiration is just what’s needed until we are feeling up to starting that meal plan again in a week or two.
We already feel restricted in our food choices because of food allergies. Unfortunately, sometimes meal-planning can make us feel the same way because once we create the menu, we’re forced to complete it, no matter what we feel like on the day. For example, maybe we planned for a warm and cozy soup, but the weather ends up being a scorcher. Because we planned and bought the ingredients we still need to make the soup. Unless you’re good with making soup during a heat wave, these are the days when a pantry based cooking approach may work to use the same ingredients in a different way.
Constant recipe research.
I know that there are lots of ways to repurpose and reuse meal plans, and this is something I definitely believe in. But even with the best repurposing there will always be a certain amount of relentless recipe research that needs to be done so we’re able to get variety in our meals. Cooking from the pantry allows us to use what we have (or what’s on sale at the store) to create something new and different without the relentless recipe research.
Not only does it require time to prepare the meal plan, but also find the safe recipes (as I mention in #3), but we can’t get water from a stone. There are stages when we just don’t have the time. During these stages pantry cooking will likely work better than meal planning.
So what does it mean to “cook from the pantry” and how do you do it?
Cooking from the pantry means stocking your pantry, fridge and freezer with simple ingredients that you can use to create a quick meal. The ingredients are usually basic so there isn’t a long label to read (a real blessing for us food allergy mamas) and they aren’t overly processed. You don’t need to spend a fortune on the ingredients or go to a specialty store for them. These products are not considered to be “allergy replacements” which means they won’t cost an arm and a leg (for example, coconut aminos are often used instead of soy sauce to avoid soy and gluten, but coconut aminos are really expensive!)
But “cooking from the pantry” is more than what you stock your pantry with. It’s learning a few cooking basics and concepts that will create a framework so you can easily make a meal with what you have on hand. Find out how in my Pantry Basics Workshop.
My evolution as a half-decent cook & meal planner started with almost no cooking confidence and a desire to create fancy meals that were time consuming and elaborate. As the years passed and food allergies came our way, I learned how to cook using meal planning and to mix it with a form of pantry cooking to create variety and inspiration for our family meals.
Have you thought of mixing cooking from the pantry with meal planning? What do you think of this way of cooking for food allergies in your family?