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What has been the biggest challenge in changing your cooking habits?
The hardest part for me is actually the same thing that every parent has to face, and that is the job of getting a decent meal on the table at a decent hour every night. Ideally, cooking dinner should be a family activity, but in actuality my husband’s still at work, my kiddo’s doing homework at the table and I’m trying to help him while throwing something together that everyone will eat without grumbling. My son’s food allergies do keep me honest, though, since a bag from a drive through or pasta out of a can aren’t just unhealthy, they are horrifically dangerous to him
Do you have a go-to recipe when feeding a group of kids?
Pizza! For my son’s last birthday we had a pizza party where the kids all got to roll out their own dough and choose and arrange their own toppings. My son used his usual vegan cheese and I kept tight control of the mozzarella to prevent cross-contamination. I put out bowls of veggies for the kids to choose from and was really impressed by how many of them started piling spinach and mushrooms and zucchini and red bell peppers onto their pizzas without any prompting or pressure. Some of their moms were surprised, too.
What are the most important ingredients in your pantry?
Imagination, perseverance and a sense of humor! I try to shop as fresh and seasonally as possible for produce and generally use olive oil when cooking. My son drinks soy milk, but I also use rice, coconut and hemp milk for cooking and baking. Ground flax seed is probably my favorite egg substitute and we go through huge tubs of sunflower seed spread that we use instead of peanut butter. The quality and selection of dairy substitutes has improved greatly over the last few years, but I tend to use them more as a garnish and to sneak a few extra calories into my son rather than centering meals around them.
In terms of recreating flavors and ingredient substitutions, which recipe do you consider to be your biggest kitchen success?
I discovered that copying flavors is much easier than recreating textures. Making a sauce or soup rich and creamy without cream or getting a light and airy baked good without eggs is really, really difficult. For ages, my holy grail was a cookie that was soft and chewy rather than cakey or crisp. Then about the time that I started baking with nondairy yogurts, the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network (now Food Allergy Research and Education) partnered with Divvies, a company that makes egg, dairy, peanut and tree nut free foods, to host a cookie recipe contest. That gave me the push I needed to create my Double Chocolate Brownie Bites (pictured above), which won the contest and were put into production by Divvies as a fundraiser for FARE. One of the judges was Chef Ming Tsai, who is a real hero to the food allergy community in addition to being famous in his own right, and I remember being far more excited that he had liked my cookie than that I had won the prize! I was so proud of that recipe, that I stopped blogging anonymously and finally attached my name to my blog so I could take credit for it.
Have you incorporated your son’s dietary restrictions into your own diet?
Although I haven’t sworn off the foods my son is allergic to, my consumption of them has radically decreased. After initially struggling in the kitchen to cook special food for my kiddo, I realized that I wasn’t a short order cook, and it was time to start making meals that all of us could eat and would enjoy. I never really enjoyed drinking cows’ milk or ate much meat, but I do have a serious weakness for good cheese, which I sometimes miss. Between eating at home and packing leftovers for lunch at work I’ll sometimes realize I haven’t consumed any dairy or other animal products for a day or two.
What are some of your favorite food blogs to visit?
There are so many amazing food blogs out there, it’s hard to name just a few! The food allergy community also has some really strong blogger voices who write primarily about living with food allergies, but also include some of their favorite recipes. To narrow it down, a few of my favorite blogs that focus on cooking and baking for food allergies and restricted diets are Go Dairy Free, which has a ton of resources for food restrictions in addition to milk, Cybele Pascal, whose recipes are free of all the 8 most common allergens, Please Don’t Pass the Nuts, which also has critical information on eating out with food allergies plus restaurant reviews, and Learning to Eat Allergy Free, one of the best blogs for baking allergen and gluten free. I also read a ton of vegan blogs, such as Bittersweet, Diet Dessert and Dogs (which is also gluten free), and The Post Punk Kitchen.
Do you have any tips or tricks for sprucing up school lunches?
I really admire the artistic bentos I see other moms making online, but the sad reality is that my son is going to swing his lunchbox against every vertical surface between the classroom and the lunchroom, then sit down to eat in a cafeteria that sounds like a convention of kazoo orchestras. If I want my child to eat his lunch, it needs to be simple, eye catching and easy to put in his mouth in a short period of time. I really like lunch containers that have multiple compartments and a single lid, which are easy to open and put my son’s entire lunch in front of him. There’s a wide variety of styles and prices available. Silicone baking cups are good for keeping foods separate while adding a splash of color and food picks bring a lot of kid appeal while making some foods easier to grab. Even if you’re sending a sandwich almost every day, you can keep it interesting by switching out the bread for wraps, pitas, bagels, crackers or even pancakes. If you are stuck in a nut or seed spread rut, swap out the jelly for fruit slices like apple or banana. Popcorn or healthy cereals make a nice change for crunchy snacks. Sandwich cutters and a little knife-work also go a long way. I make sure all fruits and veggies are cut up with stems and seeds removed and like to slice wraps into bite size, sushi style pieces. Finally, I don’t do it as often any more, but for years I always packed a sticker for my kiddo, so that he could have a treat that he wouldn’t eat instead of his lunch!
Join Food Network’s Healthy Eats in discovering the best healthy bloggers around the web. Today we’re talking to Jennifer Vagios.