1. Read up on each of the top-8 allergens
The more you know about each of the food groups you’ve banned from your pantry, the easier it’ll be to figure out how they fit together and avoid accidentally breaking one rule to follow another. Here are links to our Getting Started Guides on each of the top allergens:
- Gluten-free FAQs (includes wheat)
- Dairy-free FAQs
- Soy-free FAQs
- Egg-free FAQs
- Fish-free FAQs
- Shellfish-Free FAQs
- Nut-free FAQs (includes peanuts)
2. Don’t wait to plan your meals until you’re hungry – or harried at the grocery store
Chances are, you’re going to need to pick up some new supplies to go with your new diet – probably a fair number of them. But we’ve learned that when you’re taking on massive new elimination diets like the top-8 it’s a really bad idea to wait until you’re hungry to try and figure out what you can still eat on this new diet. We found it far less frustrating to do that math when we were already feeling fed, relaxed and surrounded by the comforts of home.
So take a moment before you even go to the grocery store to jot down a meal plan for the first week or so of your new, Top-8 food challenge. We’ve put together a quick exercise to help you make a plan that relies as much as possible on the foods you already know and love.
3. Give yourself lots of extra time at the grocery store, and plan before you go
Now that you’re eating on a custom diet – and a particularly tough one at that – you’re going to have to get in the habit of reading all that fine print on every product’s label. Let’s repeat that – all the fine print on all the labels.
This process falls somewhere between a nuisance and a nightmare depending on how much time you have, how many children are screaming at you and how many different categories of food you’re trying to replace at once. Being on a Top-8 elimination diet, you’re going to need to find a whole bunch of new substitutes so our advice is to give yourself plenty of time.
4. Brands are your friend - most of the time
Creating commonly-recognized foods without any of the Top-8 allergens is a scientific challenge -- one that each brand tackles differently, with varying degrees of success. For instance, Glutino (which makes excellant gluten-free pretzels, crackers and other treats) tends to rely on soy lecithin for that perfect crunch. Enjoy Life Foods, on the other hand, doesn't use any of the Top 8 allergens for any of their foods - and even produces them in a dedicated, allergen-free facility. Yet they rely heavily on buckwheat -- a gluten-free grain that works great unless your two-year old happens to be allergic to it (hypothetically speaking, of course!).
Over time, you will come to recognize these patterns in different brands' formulations and can use them as a bit of a short cut when you're in a rush. However, it is really important to remember that this shortcut is only useful in figuring out which box is worth picking up and reading first in your quest for something new -- it is NOT a substitute for reading the labels. For instance, Kettle Cooked Potato Chips has several flavors (including Backyard BBQ and Spicy Thai Chips) that work just fine on a Top-8 diet -- and others (like their Buffalo Chips and their other BBQ flavor) that contain whey (a milk protein). And just to make things more complicated, a manufacturer can change their recipes at any time, potentially adding in an ingredient that will send you over the immunilogical edge. Thus, while brands are your friend most of the time, labels are your gatekeeper all the time.
5. Think out of the box.
What's so challenging about a diet like this one is that you are removing more than one of the basic building blocks (namely, egg, gluten, dairy and in the case of most processed American foods, soy) that the foods we are used to are made of. You can approach this challenge in one of two ways: (1) find substitutions that can fill those roles in the foods you are used to eating, or (2) redesign your diet to focus on foods (such as meat, fish, vegetables, fruits and gluten-free whole grains) that don't use those foods at all.
We actually suggest that you do a little of both. As we describe in our New Diets Survival Guide, we think it's a lot easier emotionally to get through a food challenge -- or the first couple of weeks on any new elimination diet -- if you don't try to come up with a whole new way to eat all at once. Instead, find clever substitutes to make the old dishes work (for more on that, see our next tip) while you give yourself a little time to settle in and see if the diet is working.
On the other hand, once you've got your dietary feet under you and think it's likely you'll be eating that way for the long haul, in our experience you'll be happier - or at least disappointed less often - if you gradually shift your diet to focus more and more on what works well with the ingredients you can still eat, rather than trying to contort them into the old dishes that maybe don't work so well anymore.
6. Get out the baking pans – and the clever substitutes.
So how can you use new ingredients to satisfy your cravings for old favorites?
Alas, on a Top-8 Elimination Diet the grocery store is unlikely to be much help for baked goods. As much as we hate to say it, there are some common staples of the American diet that are really, really hard to find in your average grocery store without any of the top 8 allergens in them. With a very few but salutary exceptions, these include bread, cookies, crackers, muffins and cake.
The good news is that there are a number of quite excellent mixes available to make these same delectables that do not contain any gluten, dairy, egg, soy, nuts, fish or shellfish fresh out of the box. To be sure, these mixes typically call for such banned substances as butter, eggs and milk. However, you can get to the same – or at least very good – results with, for example, Earth Balance soy-free spread or light-tasting olive oil in place of the butter, Orgran No-Egg powder in place of the egg and rice milk in place of the milk. You can find other suggested substitutions in our Top-8 Shopping List. Really – using this technique we’ve served gluten-free, dairy-free, egg-free, soy-free and nut-free birthday cakes to kids and grown-ups alike with great success.
Never thought of yourself as a baker? We hear you. Yet, depending on your lifestyle, the number of people on your new diet with you and how many of them are under the age of 10, it may be easier to get out the baking pans than to block out the complaints emanating from those would-be eaters who are now forced to go without their favorite treats!
Starting any new elimination diet is as much an emotional process as it is a culinary one - especially an elimination diet as involved as this one. Breathe. You can do this. And as we always say, so long as you have appropriate medical guidance, giving a new elimination diet a try is a win-win:
- if you start to feel a whole lot better, you win! It's likely you've just identified something that was setting your body off and now you're on the road to recovery.
- if you feel worse or it makes no difference at all, you win! Congratulations -- you now get to sit down to a big steaming bowl of whichever food you've missed the most, and appreciate it like never before.
8. Reach out for support.
Honestly, letting go of all top of the 8 most common allergens at once is pretty tough. Not only will you probably have to go without most of your favorite comfort foods, you'll have to think, a lot, before grabbing any foods at all. Eating out or even just going to the grocery store can leave you feeling all the more isolated - making the exercises a whole lot less fun than they used to be.
So if ever there were a diet where it pays to find others ona similar path, this is it! In fact, it was while we were struggling to absorb a top-8 elimination diet of our own that we decided to start freedible. So please, use our advanced search to find recipes you can eat in our Community Cookbook - and once you get your feet under you, add a few of your own. While you're at it, join our community, connect with others who are top-8 free and join the conversation is our discussion groups.
And remember, you're not alone.