Dairy Free · Dinner · Food Allergy Family · Freezer Food · Gluten Free · Learning from Mistakes · Take Out

The Problem with Restaurants, and Easy Oven Baked Turkey Meatballs (GF/DF/NF)

Dear Joey,

You are the sweetest, most thoughtful man alive. When challenging days threaten to push me over the edge of insanity (and steal my kitchen mojo in the process), you offer to rescue me by bringing home take out. (Or maybe it’s you that’s saved, because let’s face it: walking through the door with take out in hand saves my sanity and saves you from bearing the brunt of my bad day. You’re an automatic hero.)

Lately I’ve been declining the offer, and no, it’s not because my days are any less frazzled than they have been lately. On the contrary, they’ve been just as harried and frustrating as ever, and I imagine they probably will be for the foreseeable future. Here’s the thing: I just don’t trust take out–not right now, at least.

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Since my body was ravaged by gluten over the past several months, even the tiniest bit of it sends my body reeling, and I have to press the reset button again and again and again. The timing couldn’t have been worse, really: keeping a house clean enough to show to potential buyers on a whim is pretty much impossible when you have to still, you know, live in the house (and cook in the house). Between staging and photography; showings and open houses; inspections and more inspections, the stove sat idly by while we took the Goobies out to eat so many times they started whining about it. “A restaurant? Again?”

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More often than not, neither of us ate a thing, opting to eat hummus and veggies or sheet pan nachos after the kids were in bed because actually getting food into our own mouths while cajoling the kids to eat makes exactly zero sense, not to mention the fact that trying to decipher menus requires fluency in a language we are both still trying to learn. It’s hard being a food allergy family. When the five of us go out to eat, we have no fewer than eight foods to avoid, and while Mia’s peanut and pine nut allergy has become increasingly easier to manage; avoiding dairy and casein is trickier, but possible; and gluten becomes harder and harder to weed out.

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Even so, the allergen information and gluten free menus at our go-to places have worked well enough for us, mainly because we’ve gotten used to what is safe and what isn’t so safe for each of us individually. Over time, and without a definitive positive result for Celiac Disease, I grew a little lax with my standards for gluten free fare in restaurants–mostly because a girl’s still got to stay sane, right? (And people “out there” keep reassuring me that people with a mere gluten sensitivity don’t have to be quite as strict about adhering to gluten free fare.) The gluten free items were gluten free enough for me, until suddenly, after the vitamin incident, they weren’t anymore. The tiniest speck of the stuff throws my body into an uproar now, maybe because I’m still healing, and maybe because after being gluten free for so long, reactions are easier and more contamination I did the only I knew to do, of course: speak up. Ask questions. Dig a little deeper. Be particular. Don’t take labels at face value, but look them in the eye, challenging them to prove it. In the process, I found answers that both disturbed and angered me.

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Like that afternoon we took the Goobies to a favorite Mexican spot for lunch. I felt ok enough about going there. We’ve eaten there before and the menu clearly states that most items on the menu are gluten free, but if in doubt, ask the server for more information. Not taking any chances, I chose three “gluten free” items and asked our server about them. After he told me the chicken in the first two dishes had been marinated in beer, I didn’t even want to hear about the third. I stopped him, pointed at the gluten free note, and tried my best to calmly help him understand that the note is misleading, and dishes labeled gluten free aren’t gluten free if they’ve been marinated in beer.

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The server got defensive, of course, saying that the chicken can be substituted with something else that is gluten free, and I do understand special markings indicating which dishes can be modified to be gluten free. Here’s the thing: That’s what should be captured in the note (“The items marked GF can be modified to be gluten free. Please ask your server for details.”) As it stands, the note about gluten free menu items means absolutely nothing at all.  From that point on, I trusted not one more word out of his mouth. I may have skipped lunch that day, but I learned two valuable lessons: 1) Always ask for clarification, on everything, every time; and 2) Emery is a salsa fiend. Both are equally good to know.)

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Sensitive is such a soft word, and saying I have a “gluten sensitivity” makes me feel like I sound like a wimp. People like me are gluten averse, gluten antipathetic–not sensitive, for crying out loud. (And while we’re on the subject, restaurants with a “Gluten Friendly” menu just don’t get it, do they? Talk about a misnomer.) Menus like that just aren’t all that helpful anyway, especially when accompanied by a note that clearly states “Food in this kitchen is exposed to cross contamination. Not recommended for people with Celiac Disease or Gluten Sensitivity.”

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This matters because cross contamination is a thing. It is very real. I know how nutty it sounds that foods like scrambled eggs cooked on a griddle shared with pancakes, or french fries cooked in the same oil as chicken nuggets aren’t safe, or that they could wake up the body’s anti-gluten army and make the next several days miserable. But that dastardly gluten is teeny tiny, and it likes to stick around, and so how could a gluten free bun toasted on the same surface as its gluten-laden counterpart not come into contact with the stuff? Even the most minute amount can hurt people who are sensitive to it. Not just, like, cause a little tummy ache, but actually damage the body and incite an array of problems that make a simple tummy ache seem preferable.

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I still don’t  understand it all, of course. I’m learning too, right along with you. But what I know is this: eating food prepared anywhere but our own kitchen is risky right now because my system is sensitive. (Blech.) Sure, there are many Celiac Friendly restaurants (and I am thankful for them), and I want to trust folks who do their best to provide menu items that really are gluten free. Bless them for the extra effort it takes to do such a service.  But the fact remains that the overwhelming majority of restaurants are not friendly for gluten averse folks like me. It makes me sad and angry and frustrated and defeated we can’t just pile the Goobies in the car on a whim and head out to our favorite spot for a sloppy burger with a big ol’ mess of fries to celebrate an ordinary Friday night. It makes me even angrier that my limitations limit you, too, and that our kids are missing out on some of that stuff along the way as well.

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We’re adapting, of course, because that’s what we must do if we’re going to survive, right? And besides, there are worse things in the world than cooking and eating at home. Like having bare cupboards. Or not having a home. Or not having a way to feed our family at all. Really, being able to cook food at home is a blessing, and not a bad thing. In fact, it really is the best thing for so many reasons, and I love most of those reasons, which I suppose I can even poke fun at ourselves every so often (Like when I said, We watched that little bunny scamper toward a bowl of what looked like amazing ice cream, and as you salivated, I said, “Now there’s something that would kill three out of the five of us,” and we laughed and laughed and laughed because it felt so true.)

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So the next time you offer to bring home take out, please don’t be surprised if I say “No, thank you.” It won’t always be this way, and you really are my hero: your offer is almost as good as a break from cooking itself. I wish I could say yes with abandon, plop down on the couch, throw my feet up on the coffee table and let you serve me. (Wait a second–who says that can’t still happen? Don’t underestimate the power of a man in the kitchen. If I stash plenty of real gluten free (and dairy/casein free; and peanut/pine nut/sunflower seed free) foods in the freezer, sending you in to cook them might be sort of like take out, right? All you have to do is take it out of the freezer and heat it up.

Hm. Let’s try that.

Love,

Scratch

Easy Oven Baked Meatballs, Two Ways (GF/DF/NF)

This recipe was born out of frustration that my kids loved meatballs, but they took a ot of time to make, and buying prepared gluten/dairy free convenience foods comes with trouble all its own. Pictured here are Italian Style Meatballs, perfect to drench with marinara sauce, but if spinach freaks your family out, leave it out or try the other, more basic version that follows, (which is delicious smothered in barbecue sauce). Either way, coconut flour is my favorite grain-free binder for this recipe because it adds body to the meatballs without too many added carbohydrates, plus it absorbs moisture like super sponges. 

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Ingredients for Italian Style Meatballs:
  • 2 pounds ground turkey
  • 1 pound frozen spinach, thawed, drained, and most moisture squeezed out
  • 2 Tablespoons coconut flour
  • 2 eggs, lightly whisked
  • 4 teaspoons onion powder
  • 4 teaspoons Italian Seasoning (or 2 teaspoons each dry oregano and dry basil)
  • 2 teaspoons garlic powder
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper, or more to taste
Ingredients for Regular Meatballs:
  • 2 pounds ground turkey
  • 2 Tablespoons coconut flour
  • 2 eggs, lightly whisked
  • 1 Tablespoon onion powder
  • 3 teaspoons dry parsley
  • 2 teaspoons garlic powder
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper, or more to taste
Method:

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Line two baking sheets with aluminum foil and spray with coconut oil non-stick spray.

Next, dump all the ingredients in a large mixing bowl and smush them together (don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty). Once the meat is thoroughly mixed up with the spinach and spices, wash those hands and get scooping, using a 2 T/ 1 1/2 inch scoop (which makes the job quick). Line those meatballs up like little soldiers, about 24 to a pan. Bake them as they are, or smooth them out a bit (like they are in the picture above) by rolling them gently between the palms of your hands. Either way works fine.

Pop the trays into the oven and bake for 18 minutes.

For the freezer: Let the meatballs cool, then plunk them into a two labeled gallon sized zip top bags (for two batches of 24 meatballs, each), or use one batch now and save one for later. Your call.

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