If your child has food allergies, every meal can be an ordeal. You’re constantly monitoring to make sure he doesn’t eat something that could cause a severe, even life-threatening reaction. Not to mention the hours you spend researching and planning nutritious meals that are still tasty enough for your family to eat. The hassle can be enough to make you want to pull your hair out.
That’s why some moms, like Erin Buettgen, are going so far as to hire personal chefs to alleviate some of the stress of preparing meals for their families.
Buettgen’s 7-year-old son, Trevor, is allergic to dairy, rice, cashews, pistachios, peanuts, and tree-grown fruits. When he was just 6 months old, Trevor was already showing signs of food allergies.
“Everything he was putting in his mouth, he was throwing up. At that point, it’s a crisis,” says Buettgen, who explained that Trevor had two endoscopies before the age of 3. She eliminated dairy and soy from his diet, which calmed things down a bit. After removing gluten as well, his symptoms subsided completely.
She also suspects Trevor has celiac disease, like her 11-year-old daughter, Aiden, who was diagnosed three years ago. Buettgen discovered Aiden was allergic to milk when she was a year old, and although she’s since outgrown the allergy, she remains lactose intolerant from the damage done by celiac. Buettgen herself is allergic to dairy and follows a gluten-free diet.
She recounts how overwhelming it became to experiment with new foods and recipes, as well as having to cook practically every meal at home. “When the option of calling [for] pizza delivery has gone away, there has to be something available,” she says. What’s more, meals were becoming very monotonous; she was tired of taking the time to make a new recipe only for her kids to reject it.
With previous experience in having personal chefs (she and her husband hired them in the past when they were both working full time), she went on to hire Stacy Mackey, owner of The Gourmet Table Personal Chefs in Orlando, Fla., to help out.
Mackey comes to the Buettgen home every week during the school year and every other week during the summer. She makes 5 or 6 main dishes, plus one treat for the kids. She’ll make freezer kits that Erin can put in the crockpot or meals that can be stockpiled in the extra freezer in the garage. Dinner leftovers are sometimes used in the kids’ lunches along with a snack that Buettgen makes.
“I can always pull a meal out of my freezer for my family and 5 more guests,” reveals Buettgen, who says that that they do a lot of hosting so that it’s easier to control what her kids eat. “We’re not going over to other friends’ houses to eat, they’re coming to [our] house.”
For last year’s Fourth of July celebration, Mackey prepared an extensive menu of twice-baked potatoes, macadamia nut hummus, firecracker cole slaw, an assortment of pepperoni and cheese calzones, breakfast quiche, and chocolate-chip bars.
Prior to working for Buettgen, Mackey didn’t have any clients with food allergies, so when she first started, she spent countless hours researching substitutions, reading labels, and scouring Whole Foods, gluten-free markets, and online retailers. She has since become an expert in identifying unsuspecting ingredients or additives. In fact, she brings a reference guide when she shops and has an app on her phone that scans products to make sure they’re safe.
Initially, Mackey used gluten-free recipes but didn’t like the way they tasted, so she switched to regular recipes and made her own substitutions. Since there weren’t as many gluten-free options available on the market a few years ago, she would create her own flour blend and bake snacks for the kids. “It became my challenge to just make things the kids were really happy with. And then when their friends came over and ate it, their friends didn’t know they were eating ‘the special food,’” Mackey says.
A Growing Need
According to a 2011 study in the journal Pediatrics, 5.9 million children in the United States have food allergies, with a third of them allergic to more than one food. And those numbers are on the rise – between 1997 and 2007, the amount of children diagnosed with food allergies increased 18 percent, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.
Kirsten Helle, a personal chef, nutrition consultant, and owner of Mesa de Vida in Seattle, says that 75 percent of her clientele are families with food allergies, many with multiple allergies.
“To find one common thing that the entire family can eat is very difficult,” according to Helle, who says many of the moms are tirelessly trying to cook a variety of meals. “The family is just getting bored, and she’s getting burnt out.”
Personal chefs can step in where moms are maxed out, ensuring each meal has enough nutrients to support kids’ growing systems. Karen Ansel, co-author of The Baby & Toddler Cookbook: Fresh, Homemade Foods for a Healthy Start, says kids “run the risk of certain nutrient deficiencies if they are cutting out one or more food groups without replacing those nutrients from other foods.”
They also provide a safer alternative for moms who typically get a break from cooking by taking the family out to eat at a restaurant, which always carries a potential risk for those with food allergies. “The great thing about a personal chef is that you get to plan that menu with them,” says Larry Lynch, CEO of the United States Personal Chef Association. “You don’t have to ask [about ingredients] after the fact. You have the opportunity to suggest upfront.”
Not Just for the Wealthy
The average cost for a personal chef is between $25 and $50 an hour, plus the cost of groceries. That might sound high, but remember that the chef is being paid to do more than cook – they’re researching ingredients and substitutions, creating recipes, and planning menus. For many families with food-allergic kids, their services are priceless when it comes to safety and convenience.
“It becomes very affordable when your personal chef becomes your partner in your food preparation,” according to Lynch, who notes that a personal chef can quickly become a trusted advisor for the family.
For the Buettgens, Stacy Mackey is an invaluable asset to their family. “She wants to do whatever my family needs, which is amazing,” Buettgen says. For a recent birthday, their young son requested a character birthday cake, like his friends had at their parties. It was something he had never been able to eat in the past. The gluten-free bakery near their home had gone out of business, so Mackey made it herself. The next day, Buettgen’s husband emailed Mackey to tell her that seeing his son, happily eating cake at his own birthday party, was one of the best days of his life.
What do you think? Would you consider hiring a personal chef if your child suffered from severe food allergies?
Julie Revelant is a freelance writer, copywriter and content marketing writer specializing in health, healthcare, parenting and women’s issues. She’s also a mom of two little girls, one of which has food allergies. Learn more about Julie at revelantwriting.com and follow her on Twitter.