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Trying a Wheat-Free Life

Rebecca Konegen
Riverside, CA USA
From New Beginnings, Vol. 26 No. 1, 2009, pp. 32-34

For a variety of reasons, including some wheat allergies or insensitivities in cousins on both sides of the family, I recently decided to stop eating wheat for a while. Since I'm chief cook in our family, and I am not fond of preparing separate meals for the family, that meant that my children would eat largely wheat-free as well. We had been eating a great deal of wheat because we like wheat bread, bagels, and wheat pasta, so I anticipated that this change would be difficult for us, but it has been much easier than I had any reason to expect.

I didn't make any big announcements to my family about our new wheat-free diet. I just started serving fewer wheat products. I gradually used up what wheat products were left in the pantry, serving them to the children and filling in with other foods for myself (and anyone else who was interested) in the meantime, and spacing it out with more wheat-free meals for all of us -- and then I just didn't buy more. I had to plan ahead a little more to serve brown rice instead of pasta, since it takes 40 minutes instead of pasta's 10 to 20, but I've also learned that plain rice freezes beautifully, so it's not difficult to have a reserve for busier evenings.

I haven't yet served any wheat-free versions of foods that my children are used to eating. I did not want to present them with substitutes for their favorites. I didn't want our new food plan to seem like a cheat or a burden to them because of foods that they perceived as approximations of the "real" thing, so I just served another food altogether.

Instead of my old dinner-time fall-back of pasta, I served potatoes or brown rice -- both foods my children were familiar with, and both of which they like. They were actually very happy to see more of both foods at our dinner table. I also incorporate more beans into our meals. Although only one of my three really likes beans, another will eat them sometimes, and I still hope that the third will become more accustomed to the idea.

We weren't a family that ate a lot of sandwiches, which undoubtedly has made our transition easier. I was already making a lot of soups and stews and serving bread on the side. We have incorporated more cut-up fruits and vegetables where we might have had crackers or bread.

My crock-pot is seeing much more frequent use. For beans in particular, the crock-pot makes my life very easy. When I realized how much more often I would be serving and eating beans, I realized that I did not always want to buy my beans canned since they're more expensive and use more natural resources in the canning. I have found along the way that my beans are much more flavorful than from the can, anyway, because I can add bay leaves or thyme or another herb or spice I like at the beginning of cooking. Beans are very easy: I pour in the dried beans, checking for the occasional pebble (rare but possible), fill with water to twice the level of the beans themselves, and add any flavorings I care to. When beans should be salted is actually a fairly controversial subject: some authorities assert that beans salted too early will be tough. Whenever you salt them, the beans in the crock-pot should be cooked on low until tender. The cooking time varies from bean to bean. I don't presoak the beans, since it has never been necessary with the crock-pot. I have cooked cannellini beans for four hours and kidney beans for eight, and been happy with the results both times.

My crock-pot is also seeing more use simply because my evening time for cooking is very short because of my children's activities. The short cooking time was one of the reasons I had fallen back on wheat products so often, since they tend to cook very quickly. In order to cook without wheat I have had to plan ahead a little more, even if it's just cutting some vegetables, placing them in the bottom of the slow cooker, adding a little liquid (as little as a half cup), and layering some chicken pieces on top without any recipe in particular.

Here are a few miscellaneous thoughts on living wheat-free: quinoa makes a beautiful substitute for couscous, and is as "whole-foods" as can be. It's also a little crunchy, depending, of course, on how long it's cooked, and crunch was something I missed from crackers and other wheat products.

I have also found that low-carb cookbooks can be very helpful for recipe ideas. Occasionally recipes are unsuitable or I need to omit the two tablespoons of flour from a recipe, but a much higher proportion of the recipes are useful to me than in other types of cookbooks -- and I can always add a grain or other starchy food, either as part of the recipe or on the side.

Finally, I am happy that we're eating a much wider variety of foods now, including barley, lentils, quinoa, and winter squashes (which serve as a starch in many eating plans), as well as the old stand-bys of potatoes and brown rice. Wider variety can only mean better nutrition. There are still other grains to try, but I know that if I overwhelm my family with too many new foods at a time I'm likely to face some resistance, so I'm taking it slowly.

Has living wheat-free made a difference for my family? First and best, we're eating a lot of nutritious foods without significantly affecting the cost of feeding our family. I feel physically better. I also think that for one of my children, it has made a huge difference. This child has always needed a great deal more from me than my others in terms of discipline and management. Since I didn't ban wheat outright, one day fairly far into the process, she had some pasta at a friend's house. She was unhappy and confrontational for a few hours. A few weeks later, she had a bagel -- and was nearly hysterical at the slightest provocation for the next several hours. I wouldn't consider these incidents absolute proof that she can't have wheat, but I do think I have cause for concern, and I can't say that I see much reason to re-introduce that particular grain back into our lives. I think for some families, living without wheat matters. I like what it has done for my family.

What's the difference between wheat allergy and wheat intolerance?

Wheat allergy triggers an auto-immune response of the body, consisting of a severe sudden onset allergic reaction to a certain protein component of the wheat. True wheat allergy is extremely rare and people who are allergic to wheat must observe a strict wheat-free diet to remain healthy.

Wheat intolerance affects a greater number of people and consists of an intolerance to gluten, a complex protein found in wheat and some other grains. Wheat intolerance involves a difficulty in digesting wheat. It manifests itself in a variety of slow onset, chronic symptoms including aching joints, gastro-intestinal problems, depression, eczema and low blood iron levels.


Slow-Cooker Chicken Tagine

In its original form, this recipe suggested serving the stew on couscous; we use quinoa instead.

1 medium butternut squash, peeled and cut into 2-inch chunks
4 medium tomatoes, coarsely chopped (or a 14.5-oz can chopped tomatoes)
1 medium onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
2 C. cooked garbanzo beans (or a 14.5-oz can of garbanzos, drained and rinsed)
1 C. chicken broth
1/3 C. raisins (optional)
2 t. ground coriander
2 t. ground cumin
½ t. ground cinnamon
½ t. salt
¼ t. pepper
3 lbs. bone-in skinless chicken thighs
½ C. green olives, optional

In the slow cooker, combine squash, tomatoes, onion, garlic, beans, broth, and (if using) raisins. In a small bowl, combine seasonings. Sprinkle half of seasonings over vegetables, place chicken on top of vegetable mixture, and sprinkle remaining seasoning over chicken. Cover slow cooker and cook, on low for 8 hours or on high for 4. About 15 minutes before serving, prepare quinoa according to package label. Stir optional olives into stew, and serve stew over quinoa. [Recipe corrected for website]

Yields: 6 servings

Adapted from an Internet recipe by the Good Housekeeping Research Institute

A Different Way to Cook Beans

Garbanzo beans seem to take extra water, so the first time you cook them you may want to check them halfway through the cooking, and add more water as necessary. The cinnamon here adds a wonderful gentle spiciness -- these beans are excellent in salad.

1 lb. dried garbanzo beas
2 bay leaves
1 cinnamon stick

Pour beans into slow cooker and cover with water to about 4 inches above the top of the beans. Add bay leaves and cinnamon stick, cover, and cook on low for 6-8 hours.

Yields: 6-8 cups cooked beans

Sausage Soup

This is excellent with brown rice or beans, which I cook separately and portion into the bowls at serving time.

1 T. olive oil
1 onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 bunch kale, chopped
2 turnips, peeled and chopped
1 stalk celery, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
½ t. thyme
¼ t. crushed red pepper
Salt and pepper to taste
6 C. broth (chicken or vegetable)
12 oz. turkey kielbasa, sliced

In a large saucepan, heat oil over medium-high heat. Add onion and cook for a minute until fragrant. Add garlic and kale and cook, stirring frequently, about 2 minutes. Add the remaining vegetables, stir, and add spices, salt and pepper to taste, and the broth. Bring to a simmer and cook until the vegetables are tender, about 10 minutes. Finally, add the kielbasa and simmer another 5 minutes.

Yields: 4 servings

Adapted from Saving Dinner the Low-Carb Way, by Leanne Ely, c 2005
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