Meal Planning with Food Sensitivities
Photos by Ashlee Glen
Sometimes it feels like we live in a time of almost total food-confusion. Science keeps changing its mind about what is healthy—and what was good for you last year might very well kill you now. New “superfoods” with sensational health benefits make the news on a regular basis and suddenly show up in every magazine, restaurant or store shelf. (Yes, I’m looking at you, kale and goji berries!) Even good ol’ chicken eggs are confusing. A few years ago, the egg white ruled the shell from a health perspective … but I think the yolk is making a comeback.
So, what should you eat to be healthy … and, also, feel healthy? Personally, I think it is pretty simple: Healthy eating habits start with you taking control of your own food. Research where it comes from, what it contains and how it was grown or prepared. Also, taking control of your own food means your diet might look a little bit different from your friend's, family member's or coworker's due to our own unique sensitivities.
When taking control of our food, we need to start with the big picture then work on our own individual plan.
The Big Picture
Food writer and author Michael Pollan summarized the big picture very elegantly in his book In Defense of Food. He writes, “Eat food, mostly plants, not too much.” Simple, right?
“Eat food” means avoid the processed, artificial stuff such as vegetable oils and synthetic sweeteners. Buy whole foods and cook at home. “Mostly plants” means to enjoy meat, eggs and dairy in moderation and to fill your plate with a variety of seasonal, colorful plant-based foods. Not just broccoli and iceberg lettuce, but explore your farmers market and grocery produce section. “Not too much” means to keep the calories in mind and control your portion size.
When it comes to food, we are all different, and one size does not fit all. We vary in preferences, lifestyle, body type and sensitivities. Sensitivities or intolerances may be an underexplored area for many people. It certainly was for me! Over the past few years, I have come to realize that my body really does not like gluten, corn and lactose—and it had been trying to tell me that for years.
A sensitivity is different from an allergy. It does not trigger the immune system by producing an aggressive, allergic response but may be more subtle. Food sensitivities may manifest themselves in different ways, and often we are unaware that food is the root cause to a condition or an ailment that we experience. More often than not, we look for a prescription drug to take care of the problem, when our diet may be to blame.
Wheat (gluten), corn and dairy (lactose) are three of the most common foods people are sensitive to, but once you start researching the list gets much longer. The issue with these three is that they tend to show up as ingredients in almost all processed foods. Your yogurt may be thickened with cornstarch, your hot dog may contain gluten and your protein powder is likely made from dairy.
If you experience unexplained symptoms, such as GI issues or skin problems, you may want to take a closer look at what you are eating. A prescription from your doctor may be the solution—but it may also just reduce symptoms, not the root cause.
Here is an action plan that worked for me:
- Again, take control of what you eat. Stop eating out for a period of time, and cut out processed foods. Since you still need to eat, look up some recipes with a lot of room for flexibility (like the ones in this section!).
- Start a basic elimination diet. You may have a general idea which foods cause you trouble so start with cutting them out of your diet for seven to 10 days to see if anything improves. If not, try the next food group.
- Keep track. Read labels and take notes of what you eat. Remember that some symptoms appear instantly while others take several days to appear (especially skin problems).
The following recipes are two of my top picks for those with food sensitivities. One is a hearty meal—another is a tasty breakfast. I’ve also included a recipe that will keep some “crunch” in a gluten-free diet.
Chicken Stir Fry
This basic stir fry is not only delicious and quick to make, it’s also an example of a dish where the ingredients can be replaced based on preferences and what’s available. There’s no gluten or dairy—and you can substitute corn starch for another thickener (see sidebar).
1/2 cup soy sauce (low-sodium, gluten-free)
1 cup chicken stock (easy to make from scratch)
2 tablespoons honey or sugar (or give monk fruit a try)
1 tablespoon corn starch (see more about alternative thickeners below)
1 garlic clove, minced
1 teaspoon fresh ginger, grated
The Stir Fry
2 tablespoons avocado oil (handles heat better than olive oil)
1 red bell pepper, sliced
1 head of broccoli, cut into florets
2 carrots, sliced
4 boneless chicken thighs, cut into strips
1 batch of your homemade stir fry sauce
Rice, spring onions and lime wedges for serving
Wok: A wok pan is relatively inexpensive ($15–$20) and can be found in most supermarkets or in your neighborhood Asian grocery store. The rounded shape is ideal for cooking large amounts of food quickly, and the thin carbon steel gets hot fast. A regular stainless-steel pan will do an acceptable job, but avoid non-stick coated pans since the high heat may result in toxic gases from the coating releasing.
Wooden spatula: Your regular plastic spatula may get damaged from the heat so look for a bamboo spatula or spoon that can tolerate some heat.
Start by placing all the ingredients for the sauce into a sauce pan. Cook over medium heat until the sauce starts to thicken and set aside. (Note: If you are using egg yolks as a thickener instead of corn starch, add 3 large egg yolks to the sauce and heat slowly over medium-low heat while whisking constantly. Remove from heat and let cool.)
Prepare all the ingredients for the stir fry before turning on the burner. (Note: Since this dish cooks fairly quickly you may not have time to step away.)
Turn on your exhaust fan and start heating up your wok dry over high heat for 2–3 minutes then add the avocado oil. You will be cooking the ingredients in batches.
Once the oil is hot, add the chicken and cook until done, about 4 minutes depending on how hot you managed to get the pan. Set aside.
Follow the same process with the carrots, broccoli and bell pepper, separately. Once all ingredients have been cooked, mix them into the wok pan over medium heat and add the sauce.
Heat through, and serve over rice with sliced spring onions and lime wedges for decoration!
Whole Food Super Smoothie
This is the perfect breakfast! It’s packed full of macro- and micro-nutrients you may have a hard time getting without taking supplements. Everything is either frozen or dry from the pantry. And just like with the stir fry, the exact ingredients can be altered based on what you have available and your personal preference. It’s gluten- and corn-free, and the milk can be substituted with kombucha, coconut water or regular tap water.
High-speed blender: Any Vitamix will do the job flawlessly. A NutriBullet or Ninja blender may struggle with whole seeds, but if you buy ground seeds, those will do fine.
1/2 banana (buy in bulk and freeze, peeled and halved)
1/2 cup frozen strawberries
1/4 cup frozen, wild blueberries
1 tablespoon peanut butter (or your nut butter of choice)
1 tablespoon Greek yogurt (full fat, like Fage 5%)
1/4 cup frozen spinach
1/2 cup frozen kale
1 1/2 cup whole milk (or coconut water, kombucha and/or tap water)
1 tablespoon chia seeds
1 tablespoon flax seeds
1 tablespoon unsweetened, shredded coconut
1 tablespoon cocoa powder
Add all ingredients in a high-speed blender. Blend on half speed for 30 seconds and then on max for 90 seconds. Serve in pretty glasses—or pour into a protein shaker for an amazing on-the-go breakfast.
If you are sensitive to gluten AND corn, you probably have a hard time finding things that provide some crunch in your life. These seed crackers are delicious and are great with toppings such as cream cheese, peanut butter, fruit preserves—or just some good spreadable butter.
7 ounces sunflower seeds, raw
1/4 cup whole flax seeds
2 tablespoons almond flour
2 tablespoons psyllium husk (thickener, available in health food stores)
1/4 cup sesame seeds
1/2 cup pumpkin seeds, raw
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 1/2 cups water
1/4 cup poppy seeds, for sprinkling on top
Pre-heat your oven to 350 degrees. Mix all ingredients except the poppy seeds in a bowl and mix until combined. Let sit for eight to 10 minutes to allow the psyllium husk to absorb the water. Spread out the mixture into a square shape on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and sprinkle the top with poppy seeds (and some flake salt if you like). Bake for 30 minutes or until the top starts becoming golden. Break or cut into pieces, and serve with a cheese tray or simply with your favorite topping.
Thickeners are food products intended to help thicken up sauces, gravy, pudding, pie fillings, soup, stews and more. As the name indicates, these ingredients are only included for their ability to thicken and rarely affect the taste, which means that if you are sensitive to one, there are options for substitutions. Or, in some cases, you can forego a thickener altogether.
Corn starch and white flour (wheat) are the most common thickeners and both tend to make trouble for tender tummies. The most commonly available alternatives include potato starch, tapioca starch or arrowroot starch. They all thicken in different ways, so you may want to test more than one.
However, if starch itself is something you are trying to avoid there are still options, even if they are more limited:
Psyllium husk is a plant-based, gluten-free product that is a good replacement in certain recipes and is worth experimenting with. It is especially useful in baking and sauces.
Gelatin is a protein typically derived from animals and is wonderful when making desserts that will be served chilled. It has virtually no expiration date when stored air-tight.
Egg yolks are often used as emulsifiers (binding an oil and a liquid) in French sauces, like Béarnaise, Hollandaise or their condiment cousin, mayonnaise. But it can also work as a thickener, like when you make custard for homemade ice cream.