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If you have food sensitivities, or are responsible for a child who does, cooking and dining out can seem like a daunting task. However, with an ever-expanding range of alternatives and an increased understanding of allergens, even the most sensitive eaters can now indulge in their favourite meals.
With a little imagination, creativity and the right ingredients, you can whip up delicious, allergy-friendly recipes that the whole family can enjoy.
Understanding food allergies and sensitivities
Food allergies affect between 1% and 2% of the UK population. The symptoms of food allergies vary from mild to severe and can include anaphylaxis, which requires hospital treatment and can be fatal. Food hypersensitivity is an area of ongoing research and includes allergies and coeliac disease, which is an autoimmune disease triggered as a response to eating gluten. Research suggests 1 in 100 people in the UK may currently suffer from coeliac disease.
In addition to allergies, an increasing number of people are either being diagnosed or self-reporting with having a food sensitivity or intolerance.
Certain foods will trigger painful, uncomfortable and potentially dangerous symptoms in people who are allergic or intolerant to them.
Some of the most common allergenic foods include:
- Nuts (peanuts and tree nuts)
You might notice that some products contain Precautionary Allergen Labelling (PAL). This may appear as May Contain X or Produced in a factory that also handles X and X. Precautionary labelling exists to warn those with food sensitivities of potential cross-contact due to manufacturing or production methods. This is why vegan items are not always automatically suitable for milk allergy sufferers.
Allergy vs Intolerance – What is the difference?
An allergic reaction usually occurs quickly after an allergen is consumed; symptoms are often worse in an allergic reaction than an intolerance and only a small amount of the trigger item needs to be consumed.
If you are intolerant to a certain food, the symptoms of your intolerance may not become apparent for several minutes or hours after consumption. You may also need to ingest a larger amount of the trigger than you would with an allergy. Symptoms of a food intolerance often affect:
- The digestive system (causing bloating, stomach cramps, stomach upset and nausea)
- Skin issues (such as eczema)
Food intolerances can be difficult to diagnose and people may wrongly attribute their symptoms to other causes.
If you are allergic or intolerant to certain foods, the good news is that there is an increasing range of alternative and replacement foods available, as awareness about allergens increases. The law around allergen labelling was also tightened in 2021, meaning vendors have to provide accurate information about the 14 allergens, as well as making food labels clearer and allergens more apparent.
Whether you are allergic to dairy, sensitive to gluten or lactose intolerant, you no longer have to miss out on your favourite meals, snacks and desserts and can enjoy creating delicious meals at home, grabbing food to go or even dining out on occasion.
Here are a few breakfast ideas to help you start your day as you mean to go on:
- Green power smoothie – blend together spinach, avocado, banana and almond milk for a nutrient packed breakfast drink. Dairy and gluten free.
- Overnight oats with fruit and honey – soak oats overnight in water or dairy-free milk and serve with blueberries, raspberries and pumpkin seeds. Add a drizzle of honey or maple syrup for added sweetness. Dairy, gluten and nut free.
- Gluten-free pancakes or waffles – serve pancakes or waffles made using gluten-free flour with sliced banana and maple syrup or almond butter. Dairy, gluten free. Nut free without the almond butter.
- Spanish omelette – whisk eggs and pour into a hot frying pan over precooked sliced potatoes. Serve with optional wilted spinach. If you have an egg allergy, replace the eggs with delicious, scrambled tofu.
- Smoked salmon with avocado and cherry tomatoes – serve with optional sourdough and dairy-free spread or gluten-free ciabatta.
Lunch and dinner creations
When you are cooking, although there are so many options out there that include factory made ‘free from’ items, you can also consider recipes that are simply free from certain allergens to start with. You can afford to be creative with your cooking, so rather than buying expensive ‘wheat-free’ pasta, consider an alternative that is wheat free to begin with such as spiralised courgette or brown rice.
If you find yourself craving carbs whilst needing to remain gluten free, you will be pleased to know that potatoes, sweet potatoes and almost all types of rice are naturally gluten free. If you prefer a healthy alternative, consider serving antioxidant and nutrient rich quinoa (pronounced keen-wah) as a side dish.
Simple and tasty lunch and dinner ideas include:
Lentil cottage pie with sweet potato mash topping – meat, gluten and dairy free. The lentils provide protein and make a tasty, low-fat alternative to minced beef or lamb.
- 1 cup lentils (rinsed and drained)
- 1 diced onion
- 2 cloves of garlic
- 2 tablespoons tomato puree
- Dried herbs (parsley, rosemary, oregano)
- Olive oil
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 2–3 sweet potatoes
- 200 ml non-dairy milk
- Preheat oven to 200 degrees C
- In a saucepan boil the lentils in water until tender
- Fry the onion and garlic in the olive oil and add to the softened lentils
- Add herbs and tomato paste and boil
- Peel and dice the sweet potato and boil in water for 20 minutes or until soft
- Take the lentil mixture from the hob and spread out in a glass oven-proof dish
- Drain and mash the sweet potatoes adding non-dairy milk for extra creaminess (if desired)
- Spread the mashed sweet potato mixture over the lentils and bake in the oven until the lentils bubble and the top of the potato mix turns a lovely golden brown!
Other tasty and simple recipe ideas for allergen-friendly cooking include:
- Chicken or tofu stir fry served with white or brown rice. Naturally dairy free. Check the ingredients on your soy sauce for gluten and buy an alternative wheat-free brand if needed, or use a scoop of Vegemite Gluten Free instead if you are feeling really adventurous!
- Steak served with slow roasted peppers, tomatoes and onions. Nut, dairy and wheat free. Low in carbs and high in protein, this simple to make meal would impress at any dinner party.
- Mushroom, aubergine courgette and onion kebabs (with optional halloumi) served with quinoa. Meat, gluten and nut free (also dairy free without the halloumi cheese).
If you are after a lighter bite, you could try:
- Creamy pumpkin, sweet potato and carrot soup with coconut milk – this hearty soup is free from dairy and wheat and is suitable for a vegan diet! Serve with an optional warm, wheat-free roll or crackers.
- Homemade potato wedges – cook wedges in the air fryer, and serve with vegan cheese, chilli flakes and cracked black pepper. Free from major allergens. Why not whip up a quick salsa if you have the time by finely dicing onions, tomatoes and peppers, crushing with a pestle and mortar and drizzling with a little lime juice?!
- Gluten-free penne pasta arrabbiata – simply cook and drain the pasta and make a simple pomodoro sauce from tomatoes, onions, tomato puree, oregano and a little dried chilli. The sauce is also a wonderful accompaniment to a lean chicken breast. Dairy, nut and wheat free.
- Vermicelli rice noodles with shitake mushroom and broccoli – soak vermicelli noodles in vegetable broth and add in cooked shitake mushrooms, crunchy broccoli and an optional drizzle of chilli oil. Allergen free (check the chilli oil for nuts and broth mix for gluten content).
You can now buy allergen-friendly items from the supermarket that can satisfy any sweet tooth including gluten-free or dairy-free celebration cakes, nut-free cupcakes and dairy-free ice cream. If you want to make some delicious allergy-friendly deserts at home you could consider:
- Frozen bananas – peel, chop and freeze bananas. Remove from the freezer five minutes before you want to eat them for a cool, sweet treat.
- Mango ‘ice cream’ – peel and deseed one to two mangoes. Cut into strips and freeze. Remove from freezer and add to food processor with coconut cream. Blend until the mixture has a creamy consistency. To make a dairy-free milkshake add in some dairy-free milk such as coconut or almond milk and ice cubes.
- Rice pudding – add dairy-free milk to pudding rice and cook until soft on the hob or in the oven in an oven-proof dish. Add a pinch of salt and cinnamon to taste.
- Cornflake tarts made with dark chocolate and popping candy – this simple, no bake dessert is a twist on the childhood classic. Select cornflakes free from malt barley for a gluten-free option and use high-quality, milk-free dark chocolate.
If you enjoy baking, you can try your hand at using gluten-free flour or a gluten-free ready-mixed cake or brownie mix to make life easier! By checking packets carefully for allergens, you can easily make nut-free desserts such as chocolate chip cookies or traditional tray bakes.
It can be difficult to think up alternatives for easy, grab and go snacks, sometimes meaning we resort to expensive shop-bought items. However, there are lots of cheaper and more fun snack ideas out there to satisfy your allergen-free cravings, such as:
- For snacks free from all of the main allergens consider making mouth-watering fruit kebabs. Simply place whole grapes, diced pineapple or watermelon, satsuma segments, and sliced apple or pear onto a wooden skewer and enjoy!
- Cucumber, carrot and pepper sticks are free from common allergens and can scoop up a healthy serving of homemade hummus (made without tahini if you are sesame free) as well as any cracker or breadstick ever could!
- Cherry tomatoes are also a sweet and refreshing, healthy snack, free from common allergens.
- For nut allergies, swap peanuts for nut-free trail mix, raisins, dried apricots, banana chips, chilli rice crackers or wasabi peas.
Some simple snack or light bite ideas that are popular with children who suffer from food sensitivities include:
- Rice cakes with avocado or mashed banana
- Wholemeal pittas or wheat-free pitta with vegan cheese
- Wheat-free wraps filled with dairy-free spread, honey or jam cut into triangles
- Sliced peaches with coconut milk
- Pineapple lollies (large wedges of peeled pineapple served chilled on a lolly stick)
Cooking tips and substitutions
People may choose to make substitutions in their cooking for a number of reasons. Here we are focusing on allergens; however, finding alternatives and choosing substitutes can also be helpful if you:
- Are vegan or vegetarian (or cooking for someone who is)
- Have limited funds and need cheaper alternatives
- Are in an area with limited resources
- Want to use up items in the cupboard
- Have dietary requirements due to religious beliefs (such as Kosher)
- Like experimenting with new things
If your dietary requirements mean you cannot consume cow’s milk (which contains lactose), consider:
- Oat milk – made from oats
- Soya milk – made from soybeans
- Coconut milk – made from coconut
- Rice milk – made from rice
- Hemp milk – made from hemp seeds
- Lactose-free milk – a dairy milk that contains lactase, an enzyme that helps to break down lactose
- Almond milk – made from almonds
Some people argue that many milk alternatives are actually healthier than regular milk. Hemp milk, for example, contains brain-power-boosting omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids and is less calorific than regular milk. Many milk alternatives are also fortified so that they contain important vitamins and minerals such as B vitamins and calcium.
To substitute eggs in cooking and make your recipe both egg-free and vegan, you can substitute one egg for roughly one small, mashed banana and a tablespoon of cooking oil.
Dairy butter can be easily swapped out for a dairy-free spread or margarine. These are usually made from vegetable oils, soy or coconut fat. Dairy-free spread can be used in the same way as regular butter, such as in sandwiches or spread over toast as well as used in baking and cooking.
Alternatives to wheat flour include gluten-free flour, rice flour, chickpea (chana) flour or cornflour. Note they may change the appearance and consistency of desserts and dishes so it is best to practise and research the best flour to use for your allergen-free cooking needs.
If you haven’t got the time to cook from scratch, there is an ever-expanding range of gluten-, dairy- and wheat-free items available on supermarket shelves including:
- Dairy-free yoghurts (usually made from coconut or soy)
- Dairy-free chocolate
- Wheat-free bakery goods (bread, buns, cakes, tortillas, pitta bread, etc.)
- Wheat-/gluten-free pasta and noodles
If you have the time to browse, consider visiting your local health food store or Asian or Caribbean supermarket for exotic fruits, vegetables and alternative foods.
Creating inclusive meals
By creating inclusive meals, we can continue to enjoy our food together despite allergies, intolerances and dietary differences. As more people are diagnosed with food sensitivities and an increasing number of the population adopt lifestyle changes due to environmental factors or other beliefs, it is important that we are able to embrace change. This makes for a more diverse and inclusive environment in which we can meet, socialise and dine together.