I’d like to introduce you to my hashtag on Instagram: #InclusiveFood. It’s a subject dear to my heart, because food is best shared with people you care about. Nothing brings me joy more than hosting a table full of family, and friends; arms flying over the table as easily as conversation, grabbing this or that morsel.
With more than one special dietary requirement to deal with at home, it takes on a new importance. In the early days of my coeliac diagnosis I’d put a brave face on the sorry looking dishes with key elements missing whilst the rest of the party tucked in; but for some, it hurts. A birthday party without cake; a roast dinner without the potatoes, Yorkshire puds or gravy; fruit for pudding at the Christmas party. Maybe it sounds trivial, but food is so much more than a jumble of nutrients – you take out the key bits, you take out the heart of a gathering.
When I also came to dairy and egg free cooking due to the children’s allergies I was struck by how much allergy-friendly food was defined by what wasn’t in it. I want to celebrate what is in it, and I’m now on a journey of my own to celebrate the uniquely delicious foods we caneat together. Sometimes that’s best served by keeping things simple – lovely naturally ‘free from’ fresh ingredients with not much done to them; or other times by exploring food from other cultures or countries that happen to fit our needs.
Occasionally I also go to town on trying to recreate what we can’t have so no one misses out – even if that doesn’t fit with any kind of artisan clean-eating ideal. I want home to be a sanctuary for my children (and sometimes for our friends who have similar needs), where they can eat, share and enjoy freely. The little ‘special’ packed lunch for kids’ parties is a frequent extra guest as I try to second-guess what the menu might be so no one misses out.
We have a bit of an internal family debate about this. By creating cakes and baked treats, or finding ‘special’ versions of cheese, milk & yogurts; I am trying to be inclusive, but am I also raising expectations too high and failing to prepare the children for the ‘real world’? The sad recent news about the death of Natasha Ednan-Laperouse from a fatal allergic reaction shows the duty of care we have – the need to equip allergic children with the skills to keep themselves safe in a world full of allergens. Do we need to also prepare them emotionally with some ‘tough love’ for the reality of not always being included or considered? “Sorry, no ice cream for you on this hot day. You aren’t allowed it.” Perhaps.
Recently, though I attended a workshop about ‘Intuitive Eating’ for children – essentially to seek some practical strategies to make sure we help our children to have a healthy relationship with food: doubly important when you consider the association between dietary restrictions and mental health problems like eating disorders. I realised something which validated the inclusive approach we’ve been trying to take. My eldest, in particular, tends to eat a lot. She has a big appetite (appropriate for her size and activity levels) and gets very anxious about there being enough for her to eat, or missing out. When she was catered for at nursery and now at school, they have been great at making a ‘special’ version of a dish for her, but it was just for her and they would make a portion size they deemed suitable. The other children would be helped to a portion from a big serving dish, and second helpings if needed. They might have cake or yogurt for pudding, she would have fruit. Our daughter would often come home hungry.
I recognise her anxiety from my own early days with coeliac – the worry of being out and about without anything safe to eat. The handbag full of snacks. The tendency to over-compensate when given a whole packet of gluten free biscuits by a friend. It could be the seed of a disordered eating pattern. The best I can do is reassure my small family with deeds that there will be enough food for them, they will be looked after, and included. I am lucky to be in a position in terms of time, skill, and money to do this: to cook a big casserole we can all eat, to place it in the middle of the table and share until our bellies feel full.
There’s also a selfish motive to cook inclusively. Journalist requests have been doing the rounds this week which have uncovered families who cook 2 or 3 different meals each evening to accommodate the needs and wishes of different family members – something I have neither time nor patience to do. We try to eat the same meal as a family. “Isn’t it difficult cooking for so many requirements?” we are often asked. Well, maybe sometimes but mostly not. We keep food relatively simple, and mainly cook from scratch, so it’s second nature to cook without gluten or dairy. Of course as well as dietary needs we have preferences, and not everything always gets eaten; but at least our children continue to be exposed to a range of foods – maybe one day they will actually try and enjoy dark, green leafy things?!
So, inclusive food. We’re not asking anyone to have their fun spoiled by taking things away, but equally I don’t think anyone has a ‘right’ to eat a certain food (peanuts on a aeroplane, anyone?!). All we ask is a little consideration for others, and the lot they have been dealt when you serve up a dish. I’d love it if you joined in with my hashtag by sharing your own inclusive food pictures.