I am allergic to onions, one of the most common fillers in prepared and convenience foods. Onions are everywhere – even in cans of unrelated vegetables. Onions permeate ketchup, salad dressings, canned broths, frozen foods, and canned tomatoes. It is nearly impossible to buy a tomato-based pasta sauce without onions added SOMEWHERE. While you will find some varieties not mentioning “onions” on the label, government relations allow food manufacturers to use the vague “spices” on product packaging – allowing companies to conceal exactly what is in something. While I can appreciate companies wanting to keep their recipes secret, for those with food allergies, secrecy can be lethal to the consumer!
Food processing companies are not alone in their lack of full disclosure. How many restaurants have you ever gone to that tell you EVERYTHING they put in a dish you order? If you ask the wait staff, they rarely know and have to go back to the kitchen to ask, creating an excessive delay and a lot of effort that could be avoided by better labeling. As a consumer, I find it easier to just keep quiet about the allergy than deal with an extra 40 minutes delay being served my dinner when I am coming to the restaurant very hungry already!
The safe bet for me: cook as many food items as possible from scratch.
Cooking from scratch when you are used to convenience foods is not an easy switch to make. As mentioned earlier, food companies hide ingredients extremely well. So that “home-made” chili using canned tomatoes and canned beans can easily hide food allergens, salt, sugar, and cancer-causing chemicals. Fresh food, grown yourself or bought in the produce section, is always the safest choice! Preserve this food yourself as you buy in season or harvest from your garden or indoor planters. This summer I discovered how easy it is to freeze a far broader range of fresh foods than I ever imagined, reducing my dependence on all those cans (not to mention much greener!) and increasing the retained nutritional value of each food which is otherwise destroyed by commercial canning.
Once you have your fresh ingredient system in place, it is time to actually cook with them. If you are used to pre-packaged, this is not easy. Most of us are not cooking hobbyists who love to spend lots of hours in the kitchen, myself included, so cooking from scratch is almost counter-intuitive. But what has worked for me is to start small with simple fresh additives to pre-packaged foods or making simple sauces like salad dressing.
Watching TV cooking segments has also helped. The message: it’s okay to experiment with food. I’ve learned so much by starting with my tried-and-true dishes like simple hamburgers. Hamburgers are really easy: thaw the amount of ground meat you want, roll into a ball, and squash into patties into your frying pan. Serve on a ready-made bun. Now try adding something you like to this. Chop up some fresh herbs (whatever you like); add some soy sauce and red pepper paste for an Asian flavor note. If you are religiously allowed to add cheese, try adding different types of cheese (not just your classic Kraft singles).
These small steps make all the difference in learning how to cook from scratch. I’m really surprised how well LITTLE from scratch additives can transform the most basic and simple dishes into something that tastes gourmet.
As you grow, increase the proportion of fresh whole ingredients until you are cooking entirely from scratch.
I never thought from scratch cooking would ever fit into my lifestyle, but it really has. While it is not yet possible for me to never used a processed ingredient (and therefore purge onions entirely from my diet), the reduction in exposure has made a difference to my life. All the extra nutrition from whole ingredients has made an equally powerful impact on me life.
Sometimes a food allergy can be a blessing in disguise!