How to Food Shop When You Can't Eat Anything "Normal"
One of the biggest adjustments for most people when they find out about a new dietary restriction is in how they shop for food. Especially if this is your first dietary restriction and you've never had to stand in the baking isle Googling brands of vegetable shortening before, suddenly having to worry about ingredient lists and separate factories and what other foods are made on the same equipment as that item you've got in your hand can be overwhelming.
The truth is, allergy-friendly grocery shopping (aka looking for food with dietary restrictions in mind) will take more time than you're used to until you get the hang of it and find your own safe go-to food items. And the process of finding those go-to favourites can be a roller coaster of emotions, especially if the allergen you're looking to stay away from snuck in right at the end of that looooong ingredient list. So I'm here to help you skip the sad steps and jump right into being an allergy-friendly-shopping pro!
If you're brand new to this world, the glossary in my introductory post is a great place to start. That short list will give you some basic language to look for on food items and some key terms to use when asking questions about ingredients and how things are made. You'll feel more confident, more in-the-know, and be able to quickly identify some items that will be safe for you, or your loved ones, to enjoy.
Once you've got your 'free-from' terminology locked and loaded, you're ready to go grocery shopping!
Here are my Top 5 Tips for less-stressful (and less-disappointing) grocery shopping trips:
1) If you're looking for something specific, Google it ahead of time. For example, if you have a nut and soy allergy and you're shopping for vegan cheese, your choices will be limited - but there are some great options out there! Pop 'nut-free vegan cheese' into Google and go to different brands' websites to check out their products, and those products' ingredients. And then, when you find something you can have, use that brand's website to tell you where you can buy it (almost every food brand has a 'where to buy' or 'store locations' section). A lot of big-box grocery stores carry limited selections of more-niche food items (like vegan cheese), so checking where to find the brand you want in advance will save you time and disappointment.
In the end, spending 5 minutes on your phone or computer will give you exact names and brands to look for, and can often direct you to the grocery store or food delivery website that carries what you're looking for!
(Psst - my favourite nut-free soy-free vegan cheese is Nafsika's Garden, but it can be hard to find. Violife is in most big-chain grocery stores in my area, and is great too!)
2) Get comfortable reading all the ingredients *every time*. If you're brand new to reading ingredient lists with allergies in mind, this is a great first-stop resource for you. Once you get more comfortable reading ingredients, you'll be able to skim them faster, but you'll still want to check them *every time*. Companies can change ingredients whenever they want to without notice, and even the most seemingly-simple foods may have ingredients you wouldn't think would go in them (did you know most BBQ and soy sauces contain gluten as a thickener?).
Of course, this isn't always limited to foods - I read ingredients on shampoos, eye liners, deodorants, moisturizers, toothpastes, and more. Nuts (specifically) are becoming super common in bath-and-beauty products, so I'm standing in the isle scanning the backs of products wherever I go!
Form this habit as soon as you can, and it will serve you for the rest of your life (the very first word I learned how to read was 'peanut', thanks to my super allergy-conscious mom!). And even if you don't have specific dietary restrictions, it's always good to know what exactly is going in and on your body.
3) A lot of what you're looking for might not be where you think it is. While more and more alternative foods can now be found in the big-chain grocery stores (which is great!), the specific items you need might not be where you think they should be. Beyond Meat vegan sausages might be with the tofu, but they also might be in with the fridges with the pork sausages. And the vegan cheeses might be in a separate refrigerated section, or they could be in with the dairy cheeses. And coconut milk could be refrigerated with the other milks, it could be in the baking isle, or I've found it in the 'Asian Food' isle. Every store is a little different!
Some of the big-box stores now have a short "Gluten-Free" isle, or designated "Organic Foods" section, and those are great first places to look for allergy-friendly items. Not all the time, but *most* of the time, if an item is designated as being "free-from" one or more common allergens, they will be free from others too - or at least have very clearly marked ingredients.
If you cannot find something the store is supposed to carry, get used to asking the employees where items are - and asking them to reorder something if it's currently out of stock. You're not being a bother, you're letting them know what items are in demand, and what items are worth stocking. And a well-placed grocery store department manager is a great friend to have (especially in smaller, independently-owned shops) that can even order specific items in for you if they know you're going to buy them.
4) Get comfortable ordering some foods online. Especially since March 2020, the online grocery delivery market has BOOMED. The coolest part about this is that many of these online companies have really niched-in on the "health-foods" market, so they are great places to find allergy-friendly and allergen-alternative items. That means many of the foods that you may not be able to walk into any Loblaws or Sobey's and pick up can be shipped to you instead! Generally, theses companies will stick to non-refrigerated items as their orders are shipped through a carrier (like Purolator or FedEx), or just sent through the postal service, but some even offer express cooler-packed options too! Check out what is available in your area and poke around their selections.
I live in Ontario, Canada and I frequent Well.ca - that site carries a massive variety of GF flours, a couple fast-dinner favourites (like GoGo Quinoa's version of 'KD' , Daiya Pasta Sauce Packs, the biggest and most affordable bag of Nutritional Yeast I've ever seen, and truly delicious Made Good snacks). I have also ordered from NaturaMarket.ca. Both sites will also carry allergy-friendly seasonal treats at different times through the year - for example, they are a great place to find gluten-free, vegan, nut-free, and soy-free Easter candies and Christmas chocolates so I don't have to miss out on some of my favourite parts of the holidays. ;)
5) Best to accept this now - it is *very* unlikely that you'll have a one-stop shop. If you have a grocery store in town that carries everything you need all under one roof, that is amazing! And you are *very* lucky. ;) In all likelihood, as you find your own favourites and go-to items, you'll need to source them from at least a couple different places - especially if you don't have easy access to a local health food store (that is more likely to stock allergen-free alternative foods).
I get my food from at least 4 different places, and at this point I've got it almost down to a cycle. I order my flours and nutritional yeast (and usually a bunch o' treats) from Well.ca and place a grocery delivery order from Costco (our bulk food membership store) about once a month. Both Well.ca and Costco carry items that I can't find anywhere else - or carry items at a cheaper price point than I can find elsewhere. I am lucky to have two local health food stores in my city - we've got a Goodness Me, and a very small independent shop on our downtown strip - and both carry very different stock. This gives me access to more variety (which is fantastic!), but also means that there is not a lot of overlap in what they carry, so often I'll need to choose which one to go to based on exactly what I'm looking to pick up. And then, I still get a lot of groceries from my local big-box grocery store.
I love supporting small and local, but money is tight so I need to find a balance to keep things on budget. Health food stores may carry that one brand of ice cream I can have, but their fresh fruit and veggies are also often much more expensive than non-specialty stores. Grocery chains like Food Basics, No Frills, Loblaws, and Sobey's carry well-priced produce and protein/meat-alternatives, and are really increasing their allergen-aware and alternative-foods stock range more and more.
Looking to make something cheap, easy, delicious, and only use stuff you can easily find in *any* grocery store? I've got you covered - here is my recipe for Kitchen Sink Chili! (I know that's not the most appetizing name, but it is the most fitting - you'll see why I've named it that in the note right below.)
KITCHEN SINK CHILI
(vegan, gluten-free, nut-free, soy-free)
NOTE: This recipe has a silly name because you can throw almost anything *other than* the kitchen sink on top of this base, and you'll have a dynamite chili every time! The ingredients I've listed here are sorted into Base Ingredients (the stuff I always include in every chili) and Optional Ingredients (the many different things I've thrown into chilis before). Absolutely feel free to experiment and make this your own, find combinations that you like the most, or just include your favourites every time!
- One can of red kidney beans (drained and rinsed)
- One can of black beans (drained and rinsed)
- One can of diced tomatoes
- One can of crushed tomatoes
- 1/2 cup uncooked, rinsed quinoa
- 1/2 cup diced onion (fresh or frozen)
- A heaping tablespoon (to taste) of Chili Powder*
- 1 tsp dried oregano*
- 1 tsp cumin*
- 1 tsp paprika*
- 1/2 tsp turmeric powder*
- 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper* (I prefer just a little heat - if you like things *spicy* feel free to up this amount!)
- 2 tsp onion powder*
- 2 tsp garlic powder*
- salt and pepper to taste
*I tend to measure herbs & spices with my heart, so these are approximate - please feel free to measure by sight if you wish, or add more or less depending on your taste profile preferences.
- One can of lentils (drained and rinsed)
- Sliced mushrooms (white or button tend to cook best)
- Sliced fresh or frozen sweet peppers (green, red, orange, and/or yellow)
- Sliced yellow or green zucchini
- Sliced eggplant
- Canned or fresh corn
- Jerusalem artichokes (aka Sunchokes), peeled and sliced
- Sweet potato/yam (peeled and sliced into bite-size pieces)**
- Potato (peeled and sliced into bite-size pieces)**
- Plant-based crumble (I like this cauliflower one)
- Beyond Meat Beyond 'Beef' (brown in a pan first, then add to the chili)
- Sliced Beyond Meat Sausages
**potato and sweet potato bits finish up in the last 30-45 mins of the cooktime, so don't be concerned if you check on your chili an hour before it's supposed to be done and they're still firm.
1) Dump allllll your desired ingredients into your slowcooker/crockpot (my preferred method) or large pot, starting with the cans of diced and crushed tomatoes, then the beans, then everything else, with the quinoa and spices added in last.
2) Stir everything together so it's well-mixed and the spices & herbs are distributed throughout.
3) If using a slowcooker, set the cook time to 4 hours on HIGH (or 8 hrs on LOW), and come back to check on it and stir it a little once or twice during that time. If you're using a stovetop pot, cover and simmer on low or medium-low heat (depending on your stove, whatever temp lets you maintain a simmer) for at least 90 minutes to two hours, and stir occasionally to make sure nothing is burning or sticking to the bottom (and add a little water if things are burning/sticking).
4) Serve when done, or portion out and refrigerate or freeze to eat later! I've never met a chili that doesn't freeze and reheat beautifully on the stove or in the microwave. ;)