The Jewish holiday of Shavous starts on Saturday night, which means I need to be ready for the holiday before Shabbos. It’s traditional to have dairy products, and in the past I’ve made a lot of quiches and baked pasta dishes containing veggies along with cheese, and tomato sauce in at least one of them. Since my dairy intake is supposed to be very limited, and I’m not supposed to have tomatoes, I normally “cheat” for Shavous, in order to make delicious meals we can all enjoy. Well, that most of us can enjoy, since Jack doesn’t really like cooked vegetables mixed into his hot foods.
This year both girls are going to a friend’s house for the holiday, and clearly Ben won’t be joining us this year. All the holidays are going to be a bit strange this year. It’s just going to be me and Jack for the holiday. I have never before planned an entire holiday menu for just two people! As newlyweds, Ben and I went out for all of our holiday meals. We went out for the daytime meals when we had one or two babies. By the time I was cooking full holiday meals at home, I had 2 children with definite likes and dislikes. In the past few years, I’ve had at least 2 adolescents at home, plus Ben for several of the meals, plus the kids often had overnight guests. The house has been busy and crowded!
Since I’m only cooking for two this year, I asked Jack what he wanted for the holiday meals. He told me “cheesecake.” I assured him I planned to bake cheesecake, but he needed to eat something else besides that, and he said “cheesy rice.” That’s just rice with cheese melted into it. I can do that.
I’ve been having a very rough time lately with seasonal allergies, and this is NOT the time for me to cheat on my diet. Dairy is especially bad for me when my allergies are acting up. Frankly, I’d be happy with salad and fish for every meal, maybe with some egg salad and quiche for variety. I can skip the cheese in the quiche if I’m the only one eating it, and cook the mushrooms and onions in butter to give it that dairy flavor.
This does NOT need to be complicated. I’m going to make simple foods that each of us enjoys, relax, and enjoy the holiday.
My family has hit some hard times lately. My primary source of income for years has been SSI, but I've also gotten child support and SNAP benefits (food stamps) for all 4 of us. I haven’t gotten child support in a while because my ex, Ben, has been unemployed, but there’s always been an expectation that he’d repay me when he got back on his feet. Last year, when Leah graduated from high school, we stopped getting SNAP benefits for her, but it was OK because she was out of the house anyway.
Everything changed this fall. SNAP benefits dropped again when Hannah finished high school. Ben got cancer, and is declining rapidly. He won’t be “getting back on his feet” and he’ll never repay me what he owes in back child support. Leah was planning to spend another year in Israel, coming home for Jack’s Bar Mitzvah and going right back. Now she’s home to stay. She is in school full time and working about 6 hours a week, but she still doesn't qualify for SNAP benefits. She has begun to buy some groceries for the family with her own money.
Leah was a big help in locating Food Not Bombs, an organization that distributes free food that stores were going to throw away. I also contacted the local food pantry and started getting food from them twice a month. I no longer need to “borrow” money from my Mom to buy food. I've “borrowed” thousand of dollars from her, with the hope of repaying her when Ben repaid me, but now we both know I’ll never be able to pay that back. She’s OK with this, in that she isn't about to let us starve, but she also can’t really afford to keep doing it.
It’s empowering to realize that I have other resources; that I don’t have to keep “borrowing” money to feed my family. I have a bit of financial independence. But it’s also hard to lose control of the grocery choices. I always walk out of Food Not Bombs or the local food pantry with several bags of groceries, but I have limited choice in what those groceries are.
Right now, I’m well stocked on lentils, but I didn't have the option to bring home split peas or black beans instead- either of which would be more useful right now. I have freezers filled with gluten-free breads, even though I’d rather feed my family sprouted wheat or spelt bread instead. Food Not Bombs does have those occasionally, but the gluten-free breads are more prevalent. I currently have a lot of greens in my fridge, but most of them are on the cusp of spoiling. I’m encouraged to eat a lot of salads this week so they don’t go to waste, and that’s good. There have been weeks when I've been completely out of greens and ate a lot more grains instead. Grain foods keep better- I have uncooked rice in the pantry and breads in the freezer. And I seem to be inundated with fruit while I often have barely enough vegetables.
I've definitely allowed Blood Type Diet compliance to slide. I used to be very careful to not serve chicken to the Bs. Jack never had any obvious reactions to it, but I felt it was better for him to avoid it. Ben got sick to his stomach when he ate chicken, so that was incentive to keep it away from him! But now that Ben is too sick to visit, that incentive is gone. I've also stopped keeping Jack away from tomato sauce. It’s something we have in abundance, both homemade from “Food not Bombs” tomatoes, as well as canned sauce from the food pantry. When I make pizza for the kids’ dinner, I make individual pizzas. I used to make the ones for Jack without any tomato sauce, but I've given up on that. He doesn't eat enough fruits or vegetables anyway, and he prefers pizza with sauce.
I’m not in a position to turn down free peanut butter from the food pantry, and the kids will eat it. Leah likes it in smoothies and in hot beverages, and will sometimes prepare that for her siblings as well. It might even make sense to encourage the kids to have peanut butter on toasted gluten-free bagels, instead of the cream cheese I have to purchase.
It all just feels like the opposite of how I used to feed my kids. I no longer have the luxury to select spelt bread over gluten-free bread, because the gluten-free bread has a few questionable ingredients near the bottom. None of them are in 100% perfect health, and I wish I could encourage them to clean up their diets to see if that would help. But I honestly can’t afford to.
I’m doing what I can to keep my own diet as pure as possible, since it directly affects my energy and pain levels. I can avoid the “questionable” breads, and keep my overall grain intake down. I’m eating larger quantities of lentils than SWAMI suggests I should, and I’m not being as strict about avoiding additives such as sodium benzoate in bottled lemon juice or soy protein added to canned tuna. I simply can’t afford to always buy fresh lemons when they’re so much more expensive than the bottles, nor can I afford to turn down free cans of tuna from the food pantry.
I’m not about to actually go hungry, nor was that ever a risk. But I can’t afford to be as careful with our food choices as we used to be and as I’d like to be.
There’s an organization in our area called “Food Not Bombs” that collects unwanted food from stores at the end of the day, and then gives it out for free. I have no idea what the origin of the name is, or what political leanings the name may refer to. I just know that it’s run entirely by volunteers, and it’s been a great way to stretch the food budget.
Last week, Leah went with some friends who had been going for months. She came home with 4 cloth bags LOADED with food- over-ripe produce, perfectly ripe produce, some dented boxes of instant organic oatmeal, cut flowers, even 2 potted herbs! We now have both basil and thyme growing on our kitchen window sill, entirely for free. They also got some fresh and some potted flowers.
Last week, I made two batches of apple/pear sauce plus one batch of tomato sauce. I hadn’t expected to make another batch of tomato sauce until next summer, when tomatoes were back in season. We also got some black garlic- a healthy food that I’d read about, but didn’t try because it was too expensive. Our friend also got black garlic and didn’t want it, so we got double. I’ll be enjoying that for several weeks. Plus each person is allowed one dairy item- Leah selected a small carton of pasteurized egg whites.
This week, our friends weren’t going and my daughters had plans with a different friend, so Jack and I went. We saw that it was supposed to be below freezing, so we bundled up. - though not quite enough. Next time I’m wearing TWO pairs of wool socks rather than just one!
This week they had a lot of bread- I could tell it was more than usual from the way the volunteers were encouraging everybody to take “as much as you want.” Most of it was the white flour stuff I literally can’t touch, but I also got a package of Trader Joe’s rice tortillas, a loaf of sprouted wheat bread, and some Udi’s bagels and sandwich bread. Since they contain corn starch, I can’t eat that safely, but the kids aren’t as sensitive so they can eat it.
I took a half gallon of milk from the dairy table, and Jack took a package of free-range eggs. At the time I wasn’t sure it was the wisest choice because some were already broken and another broke before we got it home, but the end result was 8 more eggs that Jack can eat. The rest of us can eat the inexpensive ones from Costco, but he doesn’t tolerate those. The eggs were probably the most useful thing he could have taken, as it saved me several dollars and was an immediate need.
When we were cold and our bags were full- Jack’s precariously with the eggs- I noticed the flowers arranged on a picnic blanket on the ground. I decided not to bother bending down to look at them. Leah was disappointed not to have fresh flowers in the house, so we’ll make sure to grab some next time. Or she’ll get them herself if she’s the one who goes.
All in all, it’s a wonderful opportunity, and something we plan to use regularly.
Years ago, I struggled with depression. I was even hospitalized for it a few times. Over the years, I found that supplements worked better for me than drugs, and later I discovered how various foods made me feel. It was easy to track nasal congestion to dairy consumption, but seeing that I got angry and short-tempered from wheat took longer to notice.
When I found the Blood Type Diet, I thought I’d left depression behind me forever. I’ll stay away from the foods that might trigger depression, and I won’t ever get depressed again. Simple, right? Wrong!
Diet cannot fix absolutely everything. It didn’t keep my ex-husband from getting cancer, and it’s not going to shield any of us from grief. My children are losing their father and I’m losing a friend. I also have to somehow support my children while they’re losing their father, even while I’m having a hard time holding myself together. That tendency to depression never really went away; I simply managed to keep it under control. I’m having a much harder time with that now.
I’ve had some really bad days lately. There were a few where I “forgot to eat” because I just didn’t have any appetite, or the energy to prepare food. The depression I already faced was multiplied by low blood sugar, and dehydration, plus I wasn’t taking my supplements regularly when I wasn’t eating. The end result was a feeling of being completely cut off from the world, barely able to keep going. I had a lot of days like that 15 and a half years ago, shortly before I wound up in the hospital.
I do NOT want to end up in the hospital again. I need to take better care of myself so that doesn’t happen. I started the process to get therapy, but that will take a few weeks before I have my first session. I’ve begun making sure I have a good breakfast in the mornings. Even if I’m not hungry, I’ll sauté up some onions and garlic, add frozen peas or spinach, then eggs. The first day I did that, the smell of the cooking vegetables nauseated me. I just WASN’T hungry. But then I managed to eat the entire thing and felt better afterwards. I took another look at my supplements. I increased the dose of one and started taking a couple that I’d stopped.
Another big help is Bach Flower Remedies. They work well, but it takes some time and focus to figure out which ones I currently need. While depressed, I found it hard to do that, and the old bottle I’d mixed up for myself was long since empty. I made the time to figure out which remedies I now need and prepared a new treatment bottle for myself. Remembering to take it a few times a day is the easy part.
All these little changes are starting to help. When I suddenly realized it would be Hanukkah in a few hours, I didn’t panic. Really, we’d put things away well enough last year, and it only took 15 or 20 minutes for Leah to set up all the menorahs nicely. Then I was able to sit and watch the candles burn down with a sense of peace.
Last Saturday, Jack had his Bar Mitzvah! This means that he’s an adult according to Jewish law. He’s old enough to count in a minion (prayer quorum) and read from the Torah. This is a pretty big deal in a Jewish boy’s life, and the custom is to have a large party to celebrate it. Specific customs regarding the party vary quite a bit from one place to another. I’ve been to Bar Mitzvah celebrations that were fancier than some weddings!
The party we had was modest by New York standards. We planned a Saturday afternoon service, rather than the traditional Saturday morning service, for a few reasons. Primarily, it’s because the Torah needs to be read on Shabbos, but Jewish law forbids us to do things like play music and take photographs during Shabbos. So we wanted the party Saturday night after dark, and having an afternoon Bar Mitzvah service means less time waiting around between the service and the party. The Torah is also read on Monday and Thursday mornings, but those days are inconvenient for family members we wanted to attend.
After Jack read from the Torah, we all shouted “Mazel Tov” and threw candy at him. We made sure to buy individually wrapped gummy candies- nothing too hard that might hurt! After the service, we had a small meal for the congregation. We had a variety of cold foods and salads, which included a few kinds of fish and egg salad. We also served challah bread. The party downstairs after Shabbos included both hot and cold foods and 3 kinds of meat- but there were still plenty of options for the vegetarian guests.
I’d had a long talk with the caterer about 2 months ago, talking about my dietary needs, and balancing that with having a nice spread that would please the most people. I told her to avoid gluten, corn, and potatoes in my food, but I didn’t worry about any other “avoids.” The chicken nuggets were made with regular wheat-based bread crumbs, but she used gluten-free crumbs in the meatballs and rice flour to thicken the gravy for the chicken Marsala. We had rice, but not pasta, as I’m too afraid of cross-contamination, and I knew I’d want to be able to eat the leftovers. Jack insisted on a minestrone soup with pasta, but we also had a split pea soup that I could eat.
Everything seemed perfect during the planning. I’d been unable to locate a specific product- Mary’s Gone Crackers “just the crumbs” so I ended up buying a box of the whole crackers, figuring she could crush them herself. But she managed to locate another brand of gluten-free crumbs that were 100% rice flour, so there was no need to crush the crackers. The crackers could be served at the cold meal instead.
When I arrived at shul on Saturday, half an hour before the service was scheduled to begin, I saw that she’d already started setting up the meal. Among other things, she’d put out two platters of challah- with the gluten-free crackers on the same dishes beside the sliced bread! With all the discussions of what I could and could not eat, somehow we’d never discussed bread crumbs on crackers being a problem? A single crumb could make me sick for weeks.
What I did was take a plate and carefully selected crackers from the edges of the platters, and put those crackers aside for myself. The plate was waiting for me after the service. When we brought the leftovers home, all those crackers were placed into a clean grocery bag. They’re still in that bag, now sitting on my kitchen table. My kids will finish them.
All in all the Bar Mitzvah was a huge success and we’re all very proud of Jack.