Calling for pizza on a busy weeknight or picking up cupcakes on the way home is a much trickier proposition when your child has a food allergy. Having everyday basics on hand will help get dinner on the table in a pinch, make baking a batch of cookies a no-brainer, and mean a healthy snack is always available. Need some guidance? Here are 10 versatile staples to get you started.
Let's face it: It would be a tragedy if gluten-intolerant children were deprived of pasta! Happily, at the supermarket you'll find an endless array of gluten-free pastas made from a variety of flours, including rice, corn, and quinoa (and sometimes a combination of two different flours). Gluten-free pastas may be an acquired taste, especially for family members accustomed to the taste and texture of traditional semolina wheat pasta. Experiment and see which ones your family likes. Once that choice is made, the rest is easy -- just substitute it in your favorite pasta recipe.
This superfood is technically a seed, and all the varieties -- white, red, and black -- taste basically the same. For parents, quinoa is a dream come true. It's gluten-free, protein-packed, and full of fiber. Plus, it's a good source of calcium. Perfect for weeknight meals, it cooks in 15 minutes and is oh-so-versatile in the kitchen. Serve it as a side dish, mix in some grilled veggies and meat or tofu for an all-in-one meal, or turn it into savory cakes. It's what's for breakfast, too. Cook quinoa in cow's milk or nut milk for a creamy breakfast porridge. Unless the package indicates it has been pre-rinsed, be sure to rinse quinoa first to remove the harmless bitter coating.
Are your kids allergic to nuts? Offer them seeds instead. Varieties like sesame, sunflower, and pumpkin have a similar nutty flavor that kids will enjoy. When raw, seeds are full of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an essential omega-3 fatty acid, and they're an inexpensive source of protein, healthy fats, and nutrients such as zinc, copper, magnesium, and manganese. Toast seeds until they're fragrant and crunchy; then toss them into salads, trail mixes, and granolas, or use them raw in baked goods. Any of these seeds can be ground into a smooth butter as a replacement for peanut butter.
Unlike their nuttier seed cousins, flaxseeds don't have much flavor or texture. But they're also a great source of ALA omega-3s and fiber. Be sure to buy ground flaxseed (flaxseed meal), as the body can't absorb nutrients from whole flaxseed. For an egg substitute in baked goods, whisk one tablespoon ground flaxseed with two tablespoons warm water to replace one egg.
Rice is a good starchy stand-in for bread or pasta at the dinner table, as well as a traditional component of Asian meals. Because it's less processed than its white cousin, brown rice is healthier. It's rich in nutrients such as thiamin, calcium, and magnesium, and an excellent source of fiber. A wide variety of brown rice is available at the supermarket: Medium to long grain work well in most casseroles and pilafs and as a plain rice side dish. Brown basmati rice pairs well with curries. Choose the stickier, short grain rice for Asian dishes or serve it cold with fresh fruit, sweetener, cinnamon, and a drizzle of milk for an easy pudding-like snack or dessert. If your kids don't like the chewy texture of brown rice, start off by mixing it with equal parts white rice and gradually change the proportions.
If your family is avoiding butter, canola oil is a versatile player in the allergen-free pantry because it lends itself well to both savory dishes and baked goods. A good source of plant-based ALA omega-3 fatty acids, canola is also low in saturated fat and high in monounsaturated fat, making it a healthy, safe choice among cooking oils. Plus, it has a high smoke point and a neutral taste that doesn't compete with other flavors in a recipe. Use it to make homemade salad dressing, and dairy-free cakes, cookies, and brownies (just substitute 1/3 cup oil for 1/2 cup butter). Whenever possible, choose expeller-pressed canola oil, which isn't subjected to high heat or chemicals which damages the oil.
For any kid, but especially one with allergies, chickpeas can be a versatile part of a healthy, delicious diet. Just think of hummus and falafel for starters. Like the rest of the bean and legume family, chickpeas are a superb source of protein, folate, zinc, and manganese. Dried chickpeas need to be soaked overnight before cooking but canned couldn't be easier -- just open, rinse, and use. Toss chickpeas into soups, curries, and salads, or sprinkle with spices and roast for a nutty, crunchy snack. When ground into flour, chickpeas work as a thickener for soups and gravies. Chickpea flour can also be turned into socca, a delicious, savory Mediterranean pancake. Bonus: One tablespoon of chickpea flour mixed with two tablespoons of warm water can be substituted for one egg. Find chickpea flour at health food stores and Indian grocery stores.
Not just for Asian-inspired dishes anymore, unsweetened coconut milk is becoming more popular as a nondairy milk substitute. It tastes great in any sweet or savory dish you'd normally use dairy in; just substitute one-for-one in recipes. Add coconut milk to soups and smoothies for a smooth, velvety texture. Thicker coconut cream builds body in custards, ice creams, and puddings. One caveat: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reclassified coconut as a tree nut even though it's botanically a fruit. To be safe, if your child has a tree nut allergy, check with her doctor before introducing coconut into her diet. Canned coconut milk and coconut cream are readily available at supermarkets and lighter versions are often sold in cartons in the refrigerated section.
Unfortunately, no single gluten-free flour, or even two can do the job of all-purpose wheat flour when it comes to baking. Thankfully, gluten-free all-purpose flour mixes are readily available from companies like Bob's Red Mill, Cup4Cup, and King Arthur Flour. The ingredients in the mix vary from brand to brand, and may include rice flour, tapioca starch, and sorghum flour or garbanzo flour, potato, and fava flour. Some mixes also contain a gelling agent such as xanthan gum, which does the job of gluten. You may have to try a few brands before settling on one that your family likes. For best success, follow gluten-free baking recipes rather than substituting gluten-free flour in a conventional recipe.
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