Navigating Food Restrictions with Joy

Eating together is still sacred
mother and two daughters baking together

Written by contributing author, Corrine Freedman Ellis

Faith+Lead blog image for November  focusing on Faith+Food

I learned to cook from my mom. When my sister and I were barely old enough to see up onto the counter, she’d get us sitting atop the linoleum, stirring frozen cans of grape juice into water, or dumping cups of flour into mixing bowls for pancakes, or cracking eggs just right so no shell got into the scramble. When we got into double digits, we were assigned a night a week to cook for the family. I still remember our first meal we cooked: Cornish hens. There was something so disgusting yet so satisfying about stuffing herbs under the skins and watching them bronze in the oven.  

I learned to cook for a crowd in seminary. My would-be-roommate-turned-BFF Kendra was a consummate baker and natural community builder. Together with a group of fellow first-year students who would become our lifelong friends, we hosted “family dinners.” The fancy stuff was fun: root vegetable and goat cheese galettes, vegan pumpkin chili, homemade bread. But the most memorable moment was the enchiladas with meticulously crafted homemade sauce, which I set on top of the stove to cool, not realizing the electric burner was still hot. The pan, the sauce, the cheese, the veggies, and the tortillas exploded all over the kitchen. We cried, and then we laughed and ordered pizzas. 

I learned to consecrate communion elements at Plymouth Church in Des Moines, Iowa. At the Saturday night worship service, with a bluegrass band and an eclectic crew seated around tables, we shared the sacrament every week. I learned to write the liturgy, but more importantly, I learned to look people in the eye during the Words of Institution and hold back tears as I served them. 

Adjusting out of necessity

All of this hard-fought wisdom came crumbling down when my daughter, now four, was about seven months old. She had always been an unsettled baby, prone to long screaming fits and copious amounts of spit-up. Colic, we were told. When she started breaking out in hives, developing eczema, and vomiting at each meal, we got specialists involved. At age 16 months, she received a diagnosis of eosinophilic esophagitis, an allergic condition involving inflammation of the esophagus. She was also diagnosed with a long list of anaphylactic food allergies. At one point, she had to avoid eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, dairy, wheat, gluten, corn, lentils, chickpeas, coconut, and flaxseed. Today her list of foods she must avoid is much smaller—we can count it on one hand!—but it still makes things complicated. It’s rare that she can eat the same school lunch as her friends when she still can’t eat eggs, dairy, peanuts, tree nuts, and lentils without serious risks to her health.

At first, it felt like the sacramental nature of a shared meal was going to be completely lost for our family. Finding something for all of us to eat was exhausting. My husband has several food intolerances, he and I both have strong preferences, and our younger son has his own set of allergies and triggers. Add normal kid pickiness and it all feels impossible sometimes. 

Feeding our family as sacred

Now that we have the list of safe foods figured out, I try to see the whole process of feeding our family as sacred. Here’s generally how I approach it.

Drawing boundaries: We agree that others can eat foods that are unsafe for someone at the table, as long as they keep their food on their own plate (not an easy feat with a toddler and a preschooler, but we try!). 

Preparation: I scour the internet for easily adaptable recipes, develop a weekly meal plan, and work to ensure everyone has something both appealing and nourishing to eat. 

Cultivation of joy: I plant the seed in my family members’ heads about what’s coming. This week it was a lot easier with the homemade focaccia than it was with the mushroom kale stew, but we take what we can get. 

Playful cooking: I try to make the cooking part of the experience fun, with music and tasting and lots of kid jobs. 

Finally, we eat: Taste and see. Sometimes the kids eat half a bite, sometimes they scarf down their whole plate and ask for seconds, and rarely can I predict which it will be. 

As we approach Thanksgiving with my in-laws, we will navigate our own set of restrictions alongside a dozen more sets of allergies and dietary needs. But for my mother-in-law, this is all routine. She has kept kosher for decades and has each drawer and cabinet neatly labeled with “milk” and “meat” to keep the dishes, utensils, and pots separated. She now has dot stickers for her grandchildren, a different color for each, marking which foods are safe for whom when we visit. My daughter’s were red last visit, her favorite color. Her grace and hospitality reassures me that a sacramental table—restrictions and all—is not only possible, but joyful as well.

What about in congregational life?

Food is central to our congregational life. As we emerge from the most intense phase of the pandemic, we are regathering for potlucks, shared meals, and communion that doesn’t come in vacuum-sealed packages. These events are not only times of fellowship, they also create sacramental space for us to come together as God’s people. It is tricky to include everyone, and it can be tempting to say it’s impossible and people should bring their own food. Our family always does that anyway, but the acknowledgement of our restrictions and efforts at accommodation mean the world to us. It feels like an extension of the hospitality Christ extends to us, unconditional and warm, even when it’s hard.

On a practical level, offering options for communion or an attempt at a “lowest common denominator” makes a big difference. Gluten-free wafers, juice instead of wine, and separate plates all go a long way with inclusion. For potlucks, you can easily purchase stickers that allow people to check the ingredients their food includes. When congregations are providing meals, providing buffet options and allowing people to serve themselves means that individuals can choose what is safe. And education is really important too. Keeping serving utensils in their assigned bowls, knowing butter is a dairy product that will trigger a reaction in someone who is allergic, handwashing before and after eating—all of this feels natural to families who deal with allergies daily, but it’s helpful to have others in the know as well.

Most of all, we can create, adapt, and enjoy traditions that do not center around food. The most inclusive spaces I’ve been in often are completely unrelated to food. Carol sings during Advent, neighborhood prayer walks, Easter egg hunts with stickers inside instead of candy—the possibilities are endless. Hospitality sometimes means an openness to change, and our family is deeply grateful for the faithful witness of congregations who are adapting.

About the author

Rev. Corinne Freedman Ellis is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. She served most recently as Minister of Congregational Life at Macalester Plymouth United Church in St. Paul, and as a clergy organizer with ISAIAH, a statewide faith-based organizing collective. Corinne is currently a full-time mom to a 4-year-old daughter and 1-year-old son. She keeps herself busy with allergy-friendly cooking, crocheting, and seeing as many concerts as possible.

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