Allergy Friendly · Side Dishes · Wrestling with Reality

Macaroni and Cheese–or, More Rightly: The Problem, and Vegan Creamy Noodles (GF/DF/NF)

“Look at the birds of the air, that they do not sow, nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they?

Matthew 6:26

“My God will supply all of my needs according to the riches of Christ Jesus.”

Philippians 4:19

Dear Joey,

We have a noodle problem in our house. More specifically, we have a macaroni and cheese problem.

I made a vow a long time ago that I would only ever make homemade macaroni and cheese, sans the box–you know, until I had two kids under two and time came at a premium. The less time I could spend in the kitchen, the better.

Over the years, I admit I got lazy. Boxed macaroni & cheese is easier to make; all you really have to do is pull the darn thing off the shelf and boil some water. The rest basically takes care of itself. Homemade macaroni and cheese involves a little bit more planning ahead, meaning you sort of have to know you’re going to make it and make sure the fridge is stocked well enough with milk and cheese to make the dish in the first place (milk and cheese turn sour and moldy. Boxed macaroni and cheese lasts forever.) Plus, taking the time to shred the cheese myself was a minor stressor that I didn’t have time for. For a season, I chucked the guilt and embraced Annie’s brand organic Macaroni and Cheese, thankful there was an okay-ish option out there for moms like me who were just too tired to make good on our virtuous vow to avoid overly processed convenient foods with an inflated price tag.

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Of course, that season lasted a little bit longer than I thought it would. Boxed macaroni and cheese is just so stinking brainless–the kids cheer when it shows up on the table every single time. When you’ve got picky eaters as well as food allergies and intolerances, having a no-fail meal waiting in the wings at all times is priceless.

After I figured out gluten is my enemy, I switched over to the gluten free version because cross contamination is a problem. And then, once Emery was old enough for big kid food, it got harder and harder to leave those garish orange noodles off his plate, especially when his sisters got so excited about them. He was not too happy to be left out of the party, and I knew the days of serving the stuff regularly were numbered.

Soon after that, I picked up a box of So Delicious brand gluten free/dairy free macaroni and “cheese” and quickly discovered how much Emery loved it. I figured Hey! This will appease the boy and provide a quick-fix for the days when my brain is fried! Woo hoo! But goodness, that stuff tasted (and smelled!) atrocious to the rest of us. For awhile, I bit the bullet and made him his own special box of it anyway whenever I made some of the gluten-free-dairy-full variety for his sisters, but it got expensive and tiresome and confusing juggling two different batches of orange noodles. Plus, I have more time to spend in the kitchen now–it’s easier to get dinner on the table than it was in those first bleary-eyed days of motherhood. My excuses for leaning on boxed macaroni and cheese were flying out the window fast. But Mia. She loves the stuff the way I love chocolate, and breaking the hold it has on her has been pretty much impossible.

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Clearly, I had a problem. And so, I did the only thing I really know to do when trouble stares me in the face: I prayed. I realize it might sound strange that I would talk to God about something so trivial as my macaroni and cheese troubles, but I believe He cares about me–about us, and that no problem is too small or insignificant for Him. Besides, at its core, the problem facing me is far deeper and more complicated; it is about so much more than macaroni and cheese.

The problem is about our food system and how broken it is and how someone like me who used to be so against all the mumbo jumbo of the food industry throws at us–even I am guilty of falling into the snare of quick and convenient. It’s about food allergies too, and about the simple fact that I don’t understand why the good food that God made to nourish and sustain His creation turned on our family, so to speak. It’s about how angry this all makes me and how trying to navigate the food allergy world is frustrating because I am not able to ditch the boxed stuff and turn to the normal real food standbys and say, “Problem solved!”

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After Emery’s scratch test, this all came to a head. I was bummed out about food allergies and feeling the sting of the grocery bills; I was weary of making two versions of practically everything at mealtime and tired of a picky eater who rejects just about anything I make for dinner unless it involves a noodle. I started talking to God about it, telling Him how ill-equipped I felt to do something so basic as feed my family well.

A few days later, the anger abated and I forged ahead with a little bit of clarity and in those moments God showed me something as I was unloading my current haul of dairy-free staples: God always provides. Time after time after time, in the great stories of the Bible and in our own, far smaller life story–it’s what He does. Truth be told, we have never gone to bed on an empty stomach, and neither have our children. My feelings are real and true, it’s not easy to juggle allergies and preferences and stretch our dollars, but we have allergy friendly options available to us and we have dollars with which to pay for them. Beyond that, I am equipped me with the things I need to make all this work: a passion for food and for feeding my family well. Kitchen know-how (enough of it, at least) and the willingness to try new things there. The kitchen never used to scare me–why should it now? It’s as if God reminded me of who I am and how He made me, and then urged me to look at our family’s food allergy reality as one to tackle with with courage and creativity instead of something to sulk about.

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And then my attention turned to the Trader Joe’s Vegan Cream Cheese I just restocked, the one that is one of many dairy-free building blocks with which I am learning to construct new recipes, and I thought about that Alfredo-like sauce I made a few months ago, the one I made up on a whim because creamy pasta sounded warm and comforting to me that night. I tossed it with gluten free pasta, grilled chicken and broccoli, and we didn’t have any leftovers to speak of. It occurred to me that a simplified version of that sauce tossed with gluten free noodles might make a suitable substitute for boxed macaroni & cheese. Turns out, I was right.

No, the creamy noodles I came up with do not taste exactly like their boxed counterparts (which is a good thing, when considering the vegan varieties pretty much taste like cardboard covered with cheese that went bad a long time ago, in my very frank opinion), but they do taste good. They are quick, easy, and everyone eats them happily (and the house doesn’t smell like feet when I make it). I didn’t go so far as to add vegan cheese-like shreds like I wanted to because our girls don’t like them (yet…), but for now this recipe works for me. For us.

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Mia does not love them the way she loves boxed macaroni and cheese, true, and often I will sprinkle a little bit of Parmesan cheese on top of her plate to really sell them to her (once Emery is strapped into his high chair, at least), but I am weaning her off of that because they really do taste good without it. Plus, Emery started noticing this minor little difference between his plate and hers and lets us know he does not like being told Sorry buddy, no cheese for you. The whole point of these creamy noodles is to make a dish everyone can and will eat, so the days of Parmesan cheese are numbered indeed.

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In the days since Emery’s scratch test, I came out the other side, in some ways. I am not happy about his allergies. I am not happy about Mia’s allergies either, or about my own issues with gluten for that matter. I realize now that this is not God’s fault. We live in a fallen world where human choice spoiled God’s good earth. In His sovereign kindness, God still provides even in the midst of this ravaged land. I do not believe food allergies were part of His good plan for creation. I believe our bad choices messed it all up (maybe not our family specifically, but humanity as a whole), yet somehow, in the midst of it all, He still takes care of us just like He promises He will.

There is still one lonely package of gluten free macaroni and cheese out in the garage, way up on the highest shelf tucked all the way in the back, but I don’t plan to restock the shelf. These creamy noodles aren’t the answer to every problem food allergies brought to our table, and perhaps they aren’t the most clean/whole/organic/healthy/perfect alternative out there, but they are a choice I feel good enough about, one that I know I will lean on like a reliable friend in the coming years.

Love,

Scratch

Vegan Creamy Noodles (GF/DF/NF)

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This recipe screams Allergy Friendly Flexiblity.  As written, it is free of gluten and dairy, but feel free to swap out alternative ingredients based on what your family can tolerate (if you are dairy free but can tolerate gluten, use wheat noodles. If you are gluten free but can tolerate dairy, use regular cream cheese, butter and milk. Or if you don’t have food allergies at all, use both–the recipe will still work.) We use Trader Joe’s Brown Rice Fusilli, but clearly, use your favorite noodles. Also, I cannot vouch for the flavor profile if you use other brands of Vegan Cream Cheese, but I think it’d be worth a try if your family likes other brands. We prefer the Trader Joe’s Vegan Cream Cheese, so that’s what we use around here.  To round out a meal for the kids, I sometimes add diced ham and frozen peas. Let your family’s preferences let your creativity soar.

Ingredients:
  • 8 ounces brown rice pasta (such as Trader Joe’s Brown Rice Fusilli)
  • 4 ounces Vegan Cream Cheese (such as Trader Joe’s)
  • 2 Tablespoons Earth Balance Vegan Buttery Spread (you can use a bit more or less if you’d like. No hard and fast rules on this one)
  • 1/4 cup plain, unsweetened Rice Milk
  • 1 teaspoon onion powder
  • 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon white vinegar
Method:

Boil 8 oz. gluten free noodles according to package instructions.

Meanwhile, set a medium sauce pan over medium heat. Plunk in the Earth Balance and Vegan Cream Cheese and whisk until the two have melted together. Pour in 1/4 cup rice milk, vinegar, onion powder and salt. Whisk until smooth, then add the noodles to the pan. Toss to coat and serve immediately.

If you have leftovers, add a splash or two of rice milk to help re-hydrate the sauce when reheating the noodles.

 

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