We went to another birthday party today. It was at a really good indoor playcentre and the kids had a great time. Obviously I prepared a packed lunch for Zac, my gluten and dairy intolerant three year old - as it would be foolish to expect that there would be anything on the menu that is suitable. But we are fine with that. Zac has now got to the point where he knows he will have his special lunch while the other children go off and have theirs.
To be honest, I have managed to put a positive spin on it for Zac. He sits with me, bolts down his lunch and gets straight back on the play equipment and gets the place to himself while everyone else chomps away at their cream cheese sandwiches and ice cream.
While he happily whizzed up and down the slides, I took a look at a menu I found on the next table. There was not one single thing that would be suitable for a Coeliac sufferer or a dairy free, gluten free child – unless he really fancied a ‘naked’ jacket potato!
He soon got thirsty so I went over to the coffee bar and got him some water. Had a quick scan of what was behind the counter and apart from a vastly over-priced packet of Kettle Chips – ready salted kettlefoods.co.uk/our-hand-... and some tired looking bits of fruit, there was nothing I could buy him.
So I started thinking, what would be our ideal party menu? What could we do, if we had a mix of Coeliacs, intolerant and ‘normal’ kids? Could we cater it without having to shop entirely ‘free from’? No problem.
This is not necessarily a list of Zac’s favourite foods, but it is certainly suitable should he be less fussy. I am hoping that day will come soon. I do offer him a variety of foods, but have been told by several dietitians that he has an inbuilt self-preservation instinct now. His brain and body are working together to protect his gut by telling him to be cautious around food. I can understand that so I don’t make a big deal of it. Another nugget of advice I have been given many times over. Don’t make a drama around food, he has had enough drama already. Let his natural curiosity grow.
So here is my dream menu. The party foods I would put out or perhaps one day dream to find. Zac would sit alongside all the other children and all would tuck in together and no-one would pull a face and best of all - my purse would not be groaning too much.
The dream party food menu
Hummus – most shop bought ones are dairy free. Obviously, live by the golden rule of always read the label and you should be fine. In my experience a lot of children like its garlicky, creamy texture and everyone knows pulses are full of goodness, so it is a nutritious choice.
Obviously, you want to appear to be putting out your rainbow of healthy raw, veg. I have seen many children at parties, diving into the sweet tiny tomatoes, carrot sticks, cucumber strips and slices of peppers. Easy. How many home kitchens or restaurant don’t have a few carrots kicking around!
What else can we dip into? How about a homemade avocado dip? Dead easy. Nice and creamy. Also very good for ‘small people’. I remember someone once told me it is very good for eczema sufferers, so that would score points if we do have any other sufferers in the house.
So far, we have not had to buy anything from the ‘free from aisle’. So it makes you wonder why some of the ‘play places’ and other so called family restaurants don’t give it a bit more thought. I know it will be down to cost etc, but many are starting to bring in specialist ‘gluten free’ breads and cakes and we all know how insanely expensive they are. Why can’t they just think a bit smarter!
So we have a couple of dips, what else can we dip that is a bit more fun than a carrot? How about an oven chip? It is a party after all and they are not expensive. The original McCain oven chips mccain.co.uk/mccain-product... in the orange bag, are just potato and oil. No need to go wandering into the free from aisle or section. There are plenty that are safe but just remember to read the label – quite a few oven chips have added wheat flakes, stuck on with milk protein for extra crispiness apparently(!) and of course are ‘dangerous’ to a dairy and gluten intolerant child. Same goes for potato waffles and anything in that section of the freezer. Some are quite ‘pure’ and others smothered in ‘rubbish’ – so watch out, but they are there and I don’t know about you but I think chips dipped in hummus are a revelation.
Not all kids are vegans and that is all I have offered so far, so what about meat? In a previous blog post I mentioned that there are a couple of naturally dairy free, gluten free sausage brands sitting on the normal shelves. They are vastly superior to the ‘free from’ options and are a better price. So head to the premium sausages aisle and there you will find Debbie & Andrews debbieandandrews.co.uk/arti... and The Black Farmer theblackfarmer.com/gluten_f...
All these clever people do, is leave out the ‘rubbish’ (milk protein and low grade cereal) and fill the thing up with quality meat. Easy. Serve these sausages and no parent will complain and neither will the children.
I know kids love ham but that is a potential danger. Again, a lot of the pre-packed ones come with milk protein listed in the ingredients - and some are 'breaded' - yuk. It baffles me as to why they do this, so I don’t think about it too much, just avoid. So the advice here, as with most of my advice is, make sure it is ‘the real thing’. Speak to the ‘deli counter’ staff at your supermarket or read the packets on the shelves.
There are now gluten free and dairy free fish fingers. Some of the supermarkets do their own, and Youngs have a branded offering. youngsseafood.co.uk/web/pro... Easy to find, either amongst the ‘normal’ fish fingers or in the ‘free from’ freezer section. I have tried them myself and thought they were good. Slightly different colour and texture but perfectly tasty. Sophia, my non intolerant daughter, loves them, so you could offer these up at a party, alongside the chips and you would be a very popular hostess. Throw in some baked beans (check the label) and you have the holy trinity – fishfingers, chips and beans.
What about crisps – a party staple? These can be notoriously ‘dangerous’. It took us a long time to work out that crisps were one of Zac’s main aggravations. Many crisps aimed at little ones have milk protein listed among their ingredients and of course many have wheat. It is a tiny amount but still enough to upset a very sensitive little tummy.
The safest ones tend to be just plain ready salted potato chips or sometimes salt and vinegar. We have also discovered that plain, salted corn/tortilla chips are usually safe – not always, but mostly. Some tortillas are wheat. Check every time. So again, no need to head into the ‘free from’ aisle, just spend a bit of time reading the labels in the normal snacks!
Also, we discovered that some of the ‘baby’ snacks are quite safe. Particularly the Organix Goodies range organix.com/goodies/our-foo... Zac loves the carrot sticks and they are great for dipping. He also likes the tomato noughts and crosses. No wheat, gluten or dairy.
Obviously, to make a ‘sandwich’ you would need to head to the free from aisle, but what about wraps? So long as you find a pure corn tortilla wrap oldelpaso.co.uk/mexican-foo... - these should be safe, am pretty sure they were, last time I looked - but you will need to double check as they claim their ingredients can change! So long as it is gluten and dairy free, you are in safe territory and could potentially make cute little wraps of avocado or hummus and home cooked chicken or ham. Go a bit further and chuck in a tomato or some sweetcorn and you have your colour and ‘veg’. Everyone is happy! All healthy, simple food.
If you do find some genuine corn tortilla wraps, you could really push the boat out and use them as a pizza base. If not, you could just buy the free from pitta breads. Very versatile. You can buy the ‘normal’ jars of tomato pizza topping from the supermarket. Very cheap and a great fridge staple. Just take your tortilla, smear on the tomato and then top with anything you like and bake in the oven for five minutes or so.
You could even invite the children to top their own. You could turn it into a bit of a ‘party game’. Put a selection of little jars of ready prepared toppings in front of them and invite each child to create a pizza face. You could try olives, sliced tomatoes, ham, cooked chicken, mushrooms, peppers, courgettes – or if your child is like Zac, just the tomato paste and a sprinkle of sweetcorn! The dairy lovers might not even notice that the cheese is missing!
We all know that kids don’t really eat much at parties but suddenly regain their appetites when the ‘desserts’ appear. Dairy free ice cream is delicious but expensive. And finding a dairy free, gluten free cone is rarer than hens teeth. So I don’t ever expect to find it at a party or in a restaurant but what about a frozen fruit lolly? We just recently discovered Zac loves ice pops and rocket lollies. mysupermarket.co.uk/#/sains...
Maybe it is because I am a child of the seventies and remember them fondly, or perhaps it is because they are so cheap, but during the recent heatwave I did buy some and they were a huge hit. Jellies can also be safe (just check the label) and fresh fruits are always a hit, so I am still slightly baffled as to why neither of these options appear much on restaurant menus.
If you bring out a gorgeous looking jelly in the middle of a large plate surrounded by a variety of fruits, followed by rocket lollies and ice pops you will not see too many grumpy faces!
I reckon that is more than enough to keep some hungry little ones happy and I know most parents would be happy to hoover up the left overs. Apart from the fish fingers, and perhaps the ‘pizza bases’ nothing was a specialist ‘free from’ product and none of it should be very difficult to find or prepare.
So my point is this – we just need to get the restaurants and catering world to think a bit smarter. Saying they cannot cater for dairy free kids because the alternatives are too expensive, is not acceptable. They just need to ‘clean up’ their existing menus and stop thinking all foods need to be wheat and dairy based. They could actually find that they save money, or even make money! The place we went to today certainly missed out – how hard would it have been to put out a few things from my list? You might also find that the more health conscious, diet aware people out there might also select these options. Delicious food that is free from ‘junk’ appeals to more than just the ‘intolerants’!