Posted in New Year, Product Recommendations, Tips and Tricks

We’ll Take A Cup of Kindess Yet, For Auld Lang Syne…

In just 2 days, I will pull the 2014 calendar off my wall and 2015 will quietly sneak its way in. In the 48 hours before 2014 makes its quiet escape, however, I’d like to pause and reflect on the year that was. Turn on any news station these days and you’re bound to run into some form of year-in-review. If you watch those reviews, it will seem 2014 was a dark year- one in which planes mysteriously fell from the sky, ebola ravaged a nation and claimed far too many lives, and celebrities and commonfolk alike left us wondering what has happened to the moral compass of our society. Despite my proclamation to the contrary, this year left many of us shaking our heads and echoing the eternal question of Fergie and the Black-Eyed Peas: Where is the love?? Well, I can personally assure you it was there. It may have been overshadowed, as it often tends to be, by the more disheartening news stories…but I guarantee if you stop and take a look at your own year in review (and I don’t mean the one so graciously provided by Facebook), you’ll realize that even if this was not one of the better calendar years in your history, I have no doubt that you also had moments of love. If not, it’s still 2014 and I love each and every one of you: so there you have it 🙂
For me, 2014 will go into my history book as a successful one. I left a job that I loved to try a new job that I’ve also come to love. I gained a whole new set of colleagues and students whom I have grown to love, but I have maintained relationships with the colleagues and students I left behind as well. I DIDN’T MOVE! That’s right: for the first time since 2009 my mailing address has remained unchanged for more than 12 months. (Unbeknownst to many of you, I came very close to moving to New York in 2014…but that’s another story for another time 🙂) I became a godmother to the most adorable little boy I’ve ever seen (granted, I’m a little biased).  I watched the first of my “ACE brothers” marry the love of his life. I watched as my only non-ACE brother proposed to the love of HIS life. I became an official blogger AND GOT PAID TO WRITE!!  I ran my 2nd half-marathon. I spent time in nearly 20% of the states in this great nation (Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Delaware, Ohio, Alabama, West Virginia, and Michigan- in a few hours anyway). I found love in so many places, and I’m hoping I spread love in even more. Sure, the year had its share of struggles too. I fell short in my quest to make it through a year without my body attacking another food (farewell, oats…it’s been real) and my car and I have a bit of a love-hate relationship going on…but all in all, it was a year of joy, laughter, blessings, and love.
2014: A great year in my book 🙂


So, as we round out another year, what do I wish to share with you? Well, as I’m sure you can predict, there will be words of advice and encouragement for a new year…but today is not the time for that. Today all I encourage you to do is to end the year on a positive note and dive into 2015 on an even more positive one! Take some time between now and Wednesday night to think back over your 2014, maybe identify a few things you’re going to leave behind with the calendar year when the clock strikes midnight, and then celebrate a hard-earned end of 2014 and fresh start to a beautiful 2015. The best way to do that? With you-safe foods of course! So here are some suggestions for your last-minute NYE feast preparations:
1)   Celestial Seasonings holiday teas: As the year winds down on Wednesday, I can think of no better way to sit and reflect on the year gone by than with a cup of tea in your hand. Celestial Seasonings outdid themselves this year with their holiday tea line. Cranberry Vanilla and Gingerbread Spice have been my personal favorites, but there are so many other kinds. Just be careful to read the label: some have barley in them (AKA NOT GLUTEN-FREE) but those fantastic people label it rather bluntly. Plus, there are caffeinated and caffeine-free options…in case you need that extra boost to make it to midnight!


2)  Pork and Sauerkraut!: I only learned last year that this is even a tradition, but it’s true. Thanks to my New Year’s Date last year with my favorite octogenarian couple from central Pennsylvania, I learned about this tradition. It supposedly brings luck to eat pork on New Year’s, as a pig roots forward, so you will do the same all year if it happens to be your first meal. The best part is IF you double check the pork tenderloin you purchase, this is an easy Katie-safe (and hopefully you-safe) meal! Here are some great recipes. Adjust as you see fit!

Last year’s pork and sauerkraut dinner!
3)  Shrimp cocktail: Nothing says festive and fancy like shrimp cocktail. At least that’s how I feel. I have a feeling it’s because when I was growing up, the shrimp ring only made appearances at birthdays, Christmas, First Communions, graduation parties, etc. The only time I remember having one in our house when it wasn’t accompanied by dozens of invited guests? New Year’s Eve. A whole shrimp ring to share with no one but my dad…since the rest of the family weren’t shrimp lovers. Now the shrimp part is still easy; the cocktail sauce not so much. Thanks to my frugal/clever ACE roommates, I learned an easy recipe for cocktail sauce during my time in D.C.:
½ cup ketchup (careful! Most have corn syrup!)
2 Tbsp. horseradish
Lemon juice
Worcestershire sauce  (Lea and Perrins is gluten-free, dairy-free one)
(Note: if you have corn issues, Lea and Perrins can’t confirm that the natural flavors don’t contain corn…so this link is for you.
 Yes, it’s a little more complicated than buying that little plastic tub in the middle of the shrimp ring…but better to ring in 2015 with a smile, rather than curled up in a ball on the bathroom floor.

30% off shrimp rings!! Get out there!!


4) Sparking Cider!!: If you’re like most people, ringing in a New Year involves a festive beverage of some kind. While champagne toasts at midnight can certainly be a worthwhile tradition, I prefer my own tradition: sparkling cider. Now I suppose I could come up with a list of reasons why, but the honest truth is that I am cheap. And so is sparkling cider 🙂  It does also stem from another longstanding childhood tradition which involved drinking sparkling cider on Thanksgiving, sometimes at Christmas Eve dinner, and always on New Year’s Eve. And lucky for me, there are still some Katie-safe varieties out there. I recommend Martinelli’s. So many choices, all gluten-free/corn-syrup-free! Granted, if your heart is set on champagne, those are almost all gluten-free too…but really, is it worth the extra $20?? I leave that for you to decide.

Bubbly, delicious, and gluten-free!
And I’m sure they’re on sale somewhere 🙂
Of course you can get creative but hopefully that gives you some ideas, or at least gets you started on thinking about your plans for Wednesday night. Thank you for a great year of writing/reading…your messages really do make my day. And for those of you who read this to the end primarily because you were hoping to find the answer to one of the more frequently asked questions recently: Could it be that one of those examples of love I found this year during the self-proclaimed “Year of Love” was of the boyfriend variety?? Well, to that I say the same thing I’ve told my students for years: You won’t get any information out of me until the day I’m engaged. Until that day, all the characters in the story of my life remain saints and friends. If/When one of those people is elevated to co-pilot status, I promise you’ll know 🙂

Now, soak up the last 36 hours of 2014 (or plow through them if this wasn’t the best of years for you), get excited for a new year of possibility, and I’ll see you in 2015!

Farewell, 2014!


Posted in Cookies, Teacher Life, Tips and Tricks

"I Got My Lunch Packed Up, My Boots Tied Tight, I Hope I Don’t Get In a Fight…Oh Back to School, Back to School…"

That’s right, it’s that time of year again. (and if you missed the reference in the title, click here!) Once again we’re all talking about how summer has faded away too quickly. If you’re a student, a teacher, or a parent, the past 2 weeks (or the upcoming week for those of you lucky enough to be in a place where school still opens after Labor Day) have been crazy ones. And even if you don’t fit into any of the categories above, you still know it’s Back to School time for one reason: traffic. Somehow it’s like hundreds of cars that were hibernating all summer have awakened and filled the roadways. And the school buses, ah yes, the school buses. I love them, they’re efficient…but I’ve been stuck behind one enough times to know that most drivers have a love-hate relationships that tends to lean more in the direction of hate. Just remember, if they didn’t exist, that would mean an extra car on the road for every kid on that bus. Perspective for the next time you’re stopping and starting your way down the street behind the big yellow bus 🙂

Despite the griping you’ve probably heard from many teacher friends, we really do love this time of year. At least I do. It’s a fresh new start; another chance to greet some smiling new faces and open their minds to new ideas and their hearts to love just a little more deeply (at least that’s the hope). And this year for me this new beginning has been startlingly more real as I began my new year at a new school. Which means there are not only 375 new student faces but more than 50 new faculty and staff members to meet…talk about brain overload. As any student and any teacher, even the most veteran, will tell you, back-to-school time is nervewracking. Somehow the confidence which we had in June is hiding somewhere beneath the layers of sunscreen we piled on this summer. We’re coming back to do exactly what we did day in and day out without hesitation for 10 months last year…and yet the butterflies that fill our stomachs for the week prior to Day 1 are merciless. It’s Year 7 for me and I can attest they’re just as strong as Year 1…and from the unofficial survey I did last week, it seems that’s the case for the next 4 decades at least. Honestly though, as a certain wise former colleague of mine said this week, I hope these first day jitters never get old…because if they ever do, I think it would be time to move on. You always get nervous about the things you care about, right??

My new office…slowly coming together.
And yes, that is a giant sink 🙂

All right, before I get to the informative portion of this post, I do have to get a bit nostalgic for a moment. It has been a great and exhausting two weeks for me for many, many reasons. I’ve had quite a few “pinch-me-because-this-can’t-be-real” moments and of course some totally “I’m-overwhelmed-and-must-be-close-to-drowning” moments too. However, I had one of those amazing moments this week too; you know the kind that stop you in your tracks and give you chills and make you want to just freeze time or bottle it up to save. Or at least to have dramatic background music and some kind of montage like your life is a TV show 🙂  I had a phone conversation with one of the saints I’ve mentioned before. He’s had a dream we’ve talked at length about for years now, one which until recently he shared with very few people. And this week it started to come true. Now the specifics don’t matter (well I suppose they do but they aren’t mine to share) but the point is the joy was palpable in his voice. Of course I shared my life updates too, relaying stories about my new school and my excitement for next week’s Expo and my foray into the world of Official Bloggers! In the course of the conversation, he pointed out that it is pretty amazing how far we’ve both come over the past three years. (Note: I spent Labor Day weekend 2011 in the ER. And actually 4th of July 2011 too…not a good year for me and national holidays) After I hung up, I sat for a moment and just let it all sink in and I realized how right he was. There were so many days, weeks, and months of darkness, confusion, and even some hopelessness…and yet now I am lucky enough to bring just a little ray of light to people in the midst of their own darkness. And next weekend I’ll get to spend 2 whole days getting to know even more people who have journeys just like mine. Yes, to say I feel blessed would be an understatement.

I’ve come a long way since my dazed and confused early-food-issue days 🙂

Now, sentimental reflection over, I promise. Time for the important information. Now last year, my back-to-school post was addressed to my fellow teachers. This year, it’s for food-allergy-ridden friends (or parents of food-allergy-ridden students); though to be honest many of these tips can apply to any student or teacher heading back to school!

1) Stockpile You-Safe Breakfast Items: Mornings are hard. Early mornings are even harder. And this is coming from a self-proclaimed morning person! After a summer of waking up naturally around 6:45 (that’s right, teachers really don’t sleep that late all summer. At least this one doesn’t), a 5:30 alarm is just not a welcome sound. Coffee helps of course but breakfast in a food-allergy world can be a challenge. No just grab a waffle and go for this girl anymore. And sadly, my Katie-safe cereal options have been rapidly dwindling as recipes change, machinery is shared, etc. so even that has become a challenge. So what’s the solution? Make You-safe breakfast foods the weekend before. I had a pancake-making extravaganza last Sunday and suddenly had a week’s worth of delicious breakfasts just a 90-second microwave trip away. Take it from me, you cannot underestimate the benefit of an easy, delicious breakfast…especially when you’re staring at a time on the clock that you haven’t seen in 9 weeks 🙂

My Katie-safe pancake-making party…
Seriously, a griddle is an amazing time-saver!

2) Empower your child (or yourself): As I mentioned above, new years are filled with new names, new faces, new classrooms, etc. While I wish I could say that every teacher will have your child’s unique allergies or issues in the forefront of their brain, I can honestly say I think that would be an unrealistic expectation. The reality is teachers are still trying to connect faces to the names which they’ve been dutifully writing on name tags/class lists for weeks. Now in elementary school it’s a little different. With a class of 20 or so (at least hopefully), the teacher is bound to know your child and their health issues by lunchtime of day 1, if not before. However, it gets trickier when your child reaches middle school or high school and only has face time with each teacher for 45 minutes on that first day. This is why I think it is SO important to empower kids with food allergies (or any health issues really). They should be equipped to handle their own situation, know what questions to ask, etc. If your child can’t do this by late elementary school, you may need to re-evaluate. I don’t have my own kids but even from my time with students, I can’t even imagine how difficult this must be for a parent to relinquish control; however, the reality is your child is going to be living with this allergy or condition FOREVER. Hence the sooner your child learns to advocate for him or herself, the better. However, if your child is young…or even if you’re just concerned…write a note, find the teacher, try to avoid puttig a bright yellow nut-allergy sticker on your child’s sweater (yes, it happens) but honestly, do what you have to do to keep your child safe. Allergies, despite the frequent articles or comedy sketches which poke fun, are actually life-or-death situations. Plan accordingly.

3) “Dinner Plan”:
The first week of school is exhausting. For everyone. There’s no way around it. As an article I read yesterday said, going back to school is like running a marathon after not walking more than a mile for 9 weeks. There is no easing back into school. It’s just full speed ahead into classes, grading, homework, sports practices, parent conferences, etc. There’s just no rest for the weary…well, unless you fall asleep in your school clothes by 8:15 one night and don’t wake up until morning. Yes, that happened…and no, I still didn’t feel rested. I learned last year that by the time I get home from school, dinner is the last thing I want to think about, let alone have energy to plan and make. Hence, the teacher in me won over and I started a tradition of Sunday afternoon “dinner planning”. You know, as a welcome break from my Sunday afternoon lesson planning. I survey my cabinets and add some meals to my weekly planner. Then to fill in the missing days, I consult my trusty weekly grocery circulars for what’s on sale. Within a matter of 45 minutes or so, I’m planned for the week. I recently added a shopping list corner too. AND I realized that if I take a picture of it, I can just pull it up on my phone when I’m about to head home from school and remind myself what I need to pick up. I tell you, I was not a fan of the Smartphone idea, but I must admit it has been an overwhelmingly positive experience for me. So go to the dollar store, buy a dry-erase weekly planner, and get to dinner planning. You won’t regret it!

Think easy meals…especially for Week 1!

4) Find a You-Safe Option for Dining Out (or Carrying Out): This is important for two reasons. 1) Because the first week of school deserves celebration and whether that means going out as a family for dinner or just celebrating by yourself, it needs to happen. 2) Because no matter how well you follow Step 3, there will be days when you just simply cannot make dinner. Whether it’s time or energy which is lacking, those nights are inevitable. So make sure you have a back-up option (cough, Chipotle or Five Guys, cough) and of course some money in your “I’m too tired to move so yes, this is considered an emergency” fund.

One of my go-to carry-out options!

5) Make Chocolate Chip Cookies: Need I say more? Chocolate chip cookies just make the world a better place. It’s that simple. Bake them, eat some, freeze some…and most importantly enjoy them.

Enjoy Life now makes dark chocolate morsels!
One word: life-changing.

“It’s Going to Be a Great Year!” Chocolate Chip Cookies
1 cup gluten-free flour blend (I used Bob’s Red Mill All-Purpose Flour)
1/2 cup Earth Balance Soy-free buttery spread
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup pure cane sugar
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/3 tsp. baking soda + 2/3 tsp. cream of tartar (or baking powder if you’re not corn-free)
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 Tbsp. flaxseed + 3 Tbsp. water (or 1 egg if you’re not egg-free)
salt to taste

1. Mix all ingredients (I did wet ingredients and dry ingredients separately first).
2. Bake for about 12 minutes at 350 degrees.
3. Enjoy!!

6) Have an AMAZING new school year! To echo what I said earlier, I really do believe every new year is a new opportunity to make new friends, to learn, to love, and to grow into an even better version of yourself. So sharpen those pencils, pack up those new books, put a smile on that face, and get out there! The world is waiting for you 🙂

HAPPY SCHOOL YEAR!!
Posted in Tips and Tricks

Just call me a Boy Scout…

For obvious reasons I have never been and can never be a member of the Boy Scouts…however, I would say by default I live out their motto better than most of them probably do: BE PREPARED. Although, I just learned today that apparently the Girl Scouts of America claim this same motto; somehow in my brief (and I mean very brief…I was not the best at activities which required socializing as a kid) stint as a Brownie, I never learned that was our motto. 

Regardless, I don’t think 2 words could better sum up my subconscious approach to life. You can ask anyone in my family. I was the one who immediately located life vests and lifeboats when we boarded the Hudson Ferry, took note of emergency exits in movie theatres, and committed the escape routes on the back of hotel doors to memory within minutes of arrival. Whether it was cute or crazy, it was who I was. And though I like to think I’ve made great strides in the decades since those days, I’ll be the first to admit that girl is still in there trying to make sure I don’t try to take on too much of life without escape routes and contingency plans in mind. Whether it’s more preparedness or paranoia, I’m honestly not quite sure. What I do know is that this compulsion for preparation has proven invaluable during these past 3 years of food issues; so perhaps it is true what they say: God gives you unique gifts (or quirks!) which equip you to be the person you choose, or sometimes are forced, to be. 
Now preparedness is a good characteristic for all people, regardless of allergies/intolerances, etc. However for those of us with food restrictions, I would argue it is a little more important. And yes, of course, this refers to the various social functions we attend on a regular basis: lunchbox packed, ice pack frozen, Pyrex sealed and filled with a carefully-prepared dish or perhaps a lengthy phone call with the venue’s chef to plan ahead for your visit. However, it is so much more than that. Think about what goes into preparing/storing you-safe foods (HINT: gluten somehow keeps things from spoiling longer…hence GF things don’t keep very well). Now imagine a few hours, or even a few days, without power. Imagine multiple days without the use of your stove or your gluten-free toaster. (Or any toaster for that matter). Now I know what you’re thinking: “yes, Katie, but Al Roker is my best friend. (In fact he was just referred to as a National Treasure today for his role in Sharknado last night). If there is any kind of impending severe weather, he’ll give me plenty of notice and I’ll spring into action”. I hear you. You should have seen me in the days leading up to Superstorm Sandy. I think I had enough Katie-safe foods to feed a small village sealed in Ziploc bags. The same was true this past winter as storm after storm after storm struck the East Coast. Yes, this is important…but what about those little unexpected life emergencies which come without warning??
For example, let’s say you come home from a long day of teaching to find a note on your door that cockroaches have invaded your building and that you must clear out every drawer, cabinet, and counter space in your kitchen for spraying. Of course you then learn that the chemicals they use last for days so you can’t put everything back for a week and each night you arrive home to a kitchen floor covered in dead cockroaches. Yep, sounds like a kitchen I’d want to be cooking in. And sadly this is a true story. Welcome to my world. 
Yep, that’s my whole kitchen…in the dining room 😦
I don’t think I slept for days…
And what about another morning when you spend half an hour whipping up a new recipe for breakfast muffins only to realize the oven you actually remembered to preheat is still freezing cold. That’s right: broken stove. That happened yesterday. See, life is filled with these little hiccups and though I won’t be a proponent of living your life in a constant state of paranoia (take it from me, I’m pretty certain I did that for the first decade or so of my life…it’s just exhausting), I would suggest a few simple steps to prepare yourself for the unexpected surprises life might choose to send your way. I’ll try to keep it simple and concise. After all, I am a member of the Y2K generation; if nothing else we learned how to prepare for unfounded and yet massively publicized crisis situations 🙂
1) Fill your freezer…with cooked foods! I live alone now so filling my freezer with extra food has been an easy task. For example, if I buy a pound of ground beef, there’s no way I’ll come close to devouring that all myself. Hence, I used to cook half of the meat and then form the rest into hamburgers, throw them in a Ziploc freezer bag, date them with my trusty Sharpie, and throw them in the freezer. This is a logical thing to do…and I do still have a few frozen uncooked hamburger patties in there. However, when the power went out, I quickly realized that having a freezer full of uncooked meat is not at all helpful. Especially if the outage goes on so long that it thaws and spoils anyway. So now I always have a supply of already cooked and THEN frozen hamburger patties from my ground beef purchases. This came in handy during the cockroach crisis: just moved a frozen cooked burger into the fridge to thaw while I was at school and then a quick visit to the microwave when I came home had me ready for dinner. Also, I always have a few extra bags of frozen veggies…not that eating them after just thawing and not heating if there’s no power would be ideal, but at least I’d be getting some nutrients 🙂
2) Get a grill…if you’re allowed. A downside to apartment living? I can’t have a grill. I dream about one some nights though. There’s nothing like grilled veggies on a summer night. Not to mention, when the electricity is out, the grill could be a lifesaver! So if you’re lucky enough to get one, do yourself a favor and do it.  If/when I eventually move out of apartment living, expect my wedding registry to be filled with grill supplies 🙂
3) Stock your cabinets with cans. Believe it or not, there are still canned foods you can eat! You do have to be ridiculously cautious because SO many canned things have that pesky “processed on shared equipment” label…but it can be done. Plus, go when they’re on sale and you can have a cabinet filled with canned beans for less than $10. Granted, cold beans from a can is not the most appetizing meal…but you know what they say about desperate times!
I’m ready to survive on beans for days if need be…
4) Have a “rainy day” fund. I know, this seems like common sense. However, I feel like this recommendation often gets brushed aside with the “you really should floss everyday” recommendation. The reality is sometimes (i.e. when your house is overrun with dead/dying cockroachs and smells like chemicals) you just can’t eat there. By now, I’m sure you’ve found at least a few places with dishes (or A dish) that is safe for you to eat. Go there. You might have to go there everyday for 3 days until they fix your home. It’s not ideal…and it’s certainly not cheap, especially on your “my-loaf-of-bread-costs-$6” budget…but again, desperate times. Have a little savings fund for unexpected weeks like this. Plus, I don’t know about you, but if my power is out, I will need to go out for coffee every morning…even though they make about 400% profit on every cup. Priorities 🙂
5) Make friends near and far 🙂 The good news is that in the more localized situations described above (cockroaches and stove), you don’t have to travel far to find friends who will loan you their stove or grill. Just don’t forget to pack your aluminum foil! The other thing is even in times of major disasters (outages on the city power grid, hurricanes that batter multiple states, etc.) there are usually places within reasonable travel distance that are safe. Granted, I’m extremely lucky in this regard because due to my 2 years in ACE, I have friends scattered across pretty much every corner of the country. (In fact during ACE many of them provided such aid to one another in the form of Hurri-cations…another thing we missed out on up north) So stay in touch with friends who live far away. You can never underestimate the fun found in an otherwise frightening situation if you have a place to find solace with friends far away!
Thanks to ACE, I have friends as near as Baltimore and as far as China!
 So, take it from me (or really Ben Franklin): an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Don’t live your life in a state of total paranoia…but take some steps to make sure you’re ready. I mean you just never know when a “twister with teeth” may strike 😉
Posted in Baltimore Recommendations, Tips and Tricks

Summer Adventures, Part 1

I know I tend to go off the grid somewhat frequently with these posts and I leave you wondering if I’ve abandoned you in your food allergy/intolerance quest. However, it is summer and thus you would think the posts should be coming more frequently again.  Unfortunately for you, that won’t be the case for a few weeks. I’m off on some more adventures! I’m headed to a weeklong service camp with my parish youth group and then I’m headed straight for the airport to reunite with my ACE DC family to celebrate the first of the roommate weddings!! Then it’s off to the Poconos for a few days for some quality time with my mom and sister. So in short, there won’t be much time for writing until around the 4th of July.

So excited to reunite with these guys in 6 days!!
(Side note…how was this 6 years ago??)
…and to celebrate our favorite science-loving roommate 🙂

So in the meantime, I want to leave you with 2 amazing tips to make your allergy-free summer just a little bit better.

1) Keep cool/Avoid the Stove!: I know last summer when I first learned about my newest intolerances, I was using the stove everyday…or sometimes multiple times a day. Believe it or not, there are many things you CAN still eat that won’t require much stove usage. No, take-out is not as much an option as it used to be but there are cooler/”Why turn on the stove when it’s already 90-degrees+” choices.

  • Salads are your best friend. Stock up on veggies, buy some olive oil and balsamic vinaigrette, and get creative!
  • Buy pre-cooked chicken. Now this is a tricky option because many pre-cooked chicken options have soy or corn in them. However, Applegate Farms makes great gluten-free, casein-free grilled chicken and certain stores (Fresh Market for one) sells those great rotisserie chickens that are safe…but BE CAREFUL. Most traditional chains’ (Weis and Giant I know for sure) rotisserie chickens contain unsafe additives, namely soy and wheat.
  • Use the microwave. Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods both have great gluten-free, casein-free chicken sausage options that are pre-cooked and thus need a little warming in the microwave. Now I know there is a raging debate about the safety of microwave radiation…but this isn’t the time or place for that debate. If you can find bacon or sausage that just needs a little microwave energy, it can make your summer much more manageable. 
A little lettuce, bacon, red pepper, and avocado can go a long way…
2) Eat Snow Domes!!: Now I apologize in advance to those of you who don’t reside in the greater Baltimore area because this is kind of a tease; but when I’m this excited about something, I just have to share. When I was younger, I knew what snow cones were. They were offered at most church carnivals and school field days. That delicious array of syrups squirted onto ice in various combinations. Then they had the gross version in a plastic wrapper on the ice cream truck that frequented our pool. (The real question is why I kept getting them, thinking each time that somehow it would magically be better than the time before) Well, here in Baltimore, I’ve learned two things: 1) they’re not snow cones, they’re sno-balls (or snowballs…it seems the crowd is split) and 2) every other snow cone in your life will pale in comparison to these delicacies. Seriously, there’s a map and everything: Baltimore LOVES Snoballs. I was fortunate enough to enjoy a few during my second summer in Baltimore thanks to the kids I babysat for, but for all its perks, those icy cups of deliciousness contain a million crazy ingredients, corn being a major one. Thus last summer I had reluctantly accepted that my days of refreshing icy treats were behind me. And then one magical night, everything changed…
I found Fresh Bites Snow Domes. I was enjoying a Thursday night concert/picnic dinner at a local vineyard with some dear friends when one of them returned from the farmers’ market stands with the news that she found a woman selling snoballs that were made with all-natural, homemade syrups. I don’t think I’ve moved so fast toward a vendor in my life. After a brief conversation, I learned that the woman (whom I now affectionately refer to as “my snowcone lady”…I know, I know a little selfish; I’m well aware that she actually cares equally about all her customers) started working on these syrups when her son was young because she didn’t like the idea of feeding him all the artificial ingredients in a sno-ball. Now he’s grown and she’s taken her syrups on the road. Literally. She operates out of a little truck. Her flavors are unique and I can personally attest I have yet to try one I didn’t like. And if you are allowed dairy, say yes to her offer of sweet cream, whipped cream, and/or caramel on top. Especially if you get the apple pie one 🙂
My cherry-lime delicacy 🙂
Baltimore friends, she’s at the Kenilworth Farmers’ market every Tuesday throughout the summer and she also visits various events. She’ll be at the Towson 4th of July parade! (as if you needed another reason to attend) Also, here is her website so you can stay updated on her travels.
Non-Baltimore friends, add this to your “Reasons I Really Need to Go Visit Katie in Baltimore” list.
All right, now it’s time to pack up the car and begin leg 1 of Katie’s Summer Adventures! Until next time: stay cool, stay relaxed, and most importantly, have fun!! 
And on a serious note, those of you who are in the early stages of dealing with your food issues and aren’t feeling so great these days, don’t despair. I was there too, watching/listening in envy to pictures and stories of your friends’ summer adventures while you feel resigned to the couch. I promise, keep up the diligent work, be patient, and you’ll get there too 🙂
All my food for the week in 2 bags…I’m getting better at this 🙂
Posted in Bread/Muffins, Newly-Diagnosed, Tips and Tricks

A Summer of Cookouts

Summer has unofficially arrived. The pools are open, the sno-ball stands are back in operation, farmer’s markets are back in full swing, and of course the sweet aroma of BBQ is back in the air. That’s right…it’s BBQ season. From Memorial Day on, the invitations are in full swing. Cookouts become a regular part of the weekend routine. They’re great little gatherings where friends, family, co-workers, etc.  share in laughs, fellowship, and delicious food.  Of course you’re nervous: doesn’t your entry into the world of food allergies make these laid-back, joyous gatherings a source of great stress and anxiety?? Isn’t the simple joy of a summer BBQ a thing of the past for you?? Don’t worry, the answer is absolutely not. It just takes a little bit of planning and you’ll be ready to go!

Here’s a tip: grill ahead. Yes, you can bring your own meat and foil and spatula and barbecue along with the resident grillmaster. However, I personally would still be a bit nervous about that. Your burger will be in awfully close proximity to bread-crumb-filled burgers, swiftly melting cheddar cheese…not to mention those toasted burger buns. In my mind, it’s just a recipe for disaster. In the end, it’s your call but I personally prefer the “grill ahead and pack a lunchbox” option 🙂
Katie’s 5 Simple Steps to a Summer of Fantastic “You-Safe” BBQs:
  •   A few hours prior to BBQ time, cook something delicious. However, I would suggest you always pose the following question to yourself, “Self, how will this taste reheated later??” If it won’t reheat well, choose a different entrée. I don’t actually have a grill at the moment, apartment living only allows for so much. However, I did recently discover the joy that is a broiler. That’s right, in the 28 years I’ve lived on this earth, I never used a broiler until a few weeks ago. (in my defense, our house growing up had an electric oven and thus no broiler)…and I can tell you my life will never be the same. Burgers, roasts, chicken: I’ve found a multitude of ways to put my newfound toy to good use. 🙂 
  • Make  a side dish: Take it from me, there’s nothing like getting to a cookout and seeing a vast picnic table full of side dish options for the other guests while you sit with just your lonely (albeit delicious ) entrée of choice. Yes, potato chips can suffice in a pinch…but really try to treat yourself. It will make the whole afternoon far more enjoyable.

These are amazing and SO simple! Just chop up small red potatoes, mix them in a bowl with olive oil, rosemary, garlic, sea salt, and pepper, then bake at 450 until browning 🙂
  • Learn to to love lettuce! Yes those delectably satisfying hamburger rolls are a thing of the past…but take it from me, a decent lettuce wrap really can be an acceptable substitute. Just choose your lettuce carefully (I always go for the romaine) and DON”T skimp. You have to use a lot to give it an effective bun-like quality. And seriously, it’s lettuce; whether it’s money or calories you’re counting, it won’t put much of a dent in either category. 
  • Pickles. They’re amazing, they’re delicious, they’re cheap.  Always have a jar in the fridge. That’s all I have to say about that.

  • Dessert  is easy! AS I’ve said time and time again, don’t sell yourself short and decide to skip dessert. It may seem like a great idea when you’re tired and don’t feel like cooking yet another thing for yourself in advance…but trust me, you’ll feel much differently when dessert time arrives and you’re sitting with an empty plate. Additionally, in summer, dessert is even easier! Fruit salad is always a perfect default option. Buy some grapes, watermelon, strawberries, and blueberries, cut them up and toss them in a bowl! You’ve got and allergy-safe (and somewhat patriotic) dessert that you can share with the group! Just make sure you dig in first before those contaminated spoons have a chance to do so. Heck, bring some whipped cream for other guests to add to their fruit serving and you may be the new hero of the BBQ.  It’s that simple!!  
    • And for those gatherings where you’re feeling slightly more ambitious, you’ve got to try this recipe. I think I’m still on Cloud-9 from eating these and it was over 3 weeks ago! (Remember: end of year craziness = no time to share great recipes) 
Perfect Summer-Time Lemon Bars
(Gluten-Free, Dairy-Free, Egg-Free) 
Squeeze 1/2 cup fresh lemon juice.
Mix with agar flakes (3 Tbsp. flakes with 3 Tbsp. water)
(unless you’re fortunate enough to eat egg whites…then I’d say stick with those!)
Mix lemon juice, agar paste, 1/4 cup grapeseed oil, 1/4 cup agave.
Seriously, mini food processor = best kitchen device ever.
Meanwhile bake crust at 350 for 15 minutes:
(1.5 cups almond meal, 2 Tbsp. grapseed oil, 1Tbsp. agave, 1 Tbsp. vanilla, salt to taste)
Pour topping over the baking crust. Continue baking for 15 minutes then remove.
Allow to cool and store in the refrigerator.
And they were so good that I forgot to take an “After” picture before they were all gone! Trust me, they’re delicious!! Or just invite me to a summer cookout and I’ll bring you a batch myself 🙂
Here’s to a fun, safe, and relaxing summer! May your cookouts be filled with laughter, friendship, and delicious/you-safe foods. Anxiety, stress, and ants just don’t deserve a place at the table 🙂
This is what a summer BBQ is all about: friendship, laughter, and joy:-)


Posted in Breakfast!, Tips and Tricks

It’s a Strawberry World in the Springtime….

Spring has finally (and I mean FINALLY) sprung here in Baltimore. This means many things: ant colony invasion in the kitchen, pollen covering the car each morning, birds chirping, sun shining…and strawberries will soon be in full bloom. Granted, in other places throughout the country I think they already are because the prices have returned to a reasonable amount over the past two weeks. Plus during my near-weekly visit to the Baltimore Farmers’ Market, I’ve noticed that there are 2 vendors selling a small amount of freshly-picked berries, so even here on the cold east coast, some of the strawberries must be staying strong.

My favorite local “pick-your-own” farm hasn’t reopened so I guess they’re not in full bloom yet…but the time is so close I can taste it. Seriously, if you’ve never picked your own strawberries, you need to do it at least once. Not only do they taste completely different than store berries, it’s a great way to spend an afternoon in the sun, chatting with friends/family while also feeling like you’re earning your treat. Did I mention the sun?? (WEAR SUNSCREEN. I forgot once and I swear I was the same shade as the berries in my box.) Baltimore friends, you have no excuse, I will gladly accompany you any time 🙂

Regardless of where the strawberries come from, my greatest frustration has always been the same: the berries turning mushy and moldy before I get to enjoy each decadent one. Until last month that is…

On one of those rainy days that seemed to consume the month of April, I was “Pinterest”-ing and among other things decided to search for a solution to my strawberry problem. I’ve heard a variety of debates regarding how to prolong the fridge life of strawberries (wash them right away/don’t wash them until you use them; keep them in the ventilated store container/place them in Ziploc with paper towel) but I’d never asked Pinterest. So I did and lo and behold, apparently there is an answer: vinegar. Now maybe this is one of those tricks that everyone else in the world already knows and is simply news to me, but I was floored. Vinegar? That horrible-smelling stuff I just used to clean the coffeemaker? But I had come home from the store with a 2-lb. box of strawberries that morning ($3.99 for 2 lbs…I just can’t turn down a bargain like that!) So I figured it was worth a shot. Here is what ensued:

1) I poured the berries into a large bowl and kept adding water cup-by-cup until the berries were submerged. Then I added about 1/2 cup of vinegar, mixed the bowl around, and left it in the sink.

2) After about 5 minutes, I came back and poured out the water/vinegar mixture. Then I rinsed the strawberries in a colander. Yes, mine is strawberry-shaped. It’s not because I love them so much I have a separate strainer…that just happens to be the one I strain everything in. (Clearly I cook in small portions.)

3) I hand-dried each berry with a paper towel before placing them in a Ziploc bag between 2 other paper towels.

It was a miracle. No joke, these berries last me 13 days and not a single one went bad! I was speechless. Maybe this is common knowledge that the rest of the world has been keeping from me (like the Bed Bath and Beyond coupon secret…you can use multiple coupons in one purchase! And that includes expired ones!! How did I not know??) but I was blown away. I’ve done it twice now since this inaugural exercise and each time, it’s worked like a charm. Granted, I did just buy my latest batch on Friday but still my hopes are high.

Now onto the next question: But Katie, what will I do with 2 lbs. of strawberries? I’m just one person! Well, don’t you worry, I already thought of that. First, you could chop some up each morning to add to your cereal. You have to get those fruit and veggie servings in somehow! Second, you could add them to ice cream or mix them with yogurt to blend a smoothie (if you’re fortunate enough to have a stomach which can handle either of those.)  Third, you can dip them in melted chocolate for a delicious dessert treat! (Even I got to do that with my dairy-free, soy-free Enjoy Life chips!) And of course, you can bake with them. There are a hundred different muffins, tarts, pies, etc. you could probably make using strawberries but I have to share this most recent creation of mine which has left me drooling. Well, almost 🙂

Strawberry-Vanilla Pancakes. Yep, you read that right. Why didn’t I ever think of this before??

It all started when I used a Living Social deal to order this delicious pancake mix:

But I learned long ago that gluten-free pancakes need a little something extra to make them delicious. Something about the consistency is lacking without that pesky gluten. My go-to is usually blueberries or chocolate chips. However, on this particular morning I had strawberries on the brain. So I got to chopping…

And then I got to mixing. And as I mixed, I thought hmmm…you know what goes well with strawberries?? 
 

VANILLA! So before I knew it, I had all these ingredients in front of me. (The yellow bowl has my flaxseed egg substitute. Unfortunately, my “only tolerates eggs when baked in things” stomach is not fooled into thinking things such as pancakes or battered chicken/fish are baked enough. So no eggs for me 😦

Onto the griddle they went. Now I’ll admit at this point, I was skeptical. They didn’t look so stellar…

Fortunately, I was wrong. They were AMAZING!!! Here is the finished product with some delicious maple syrup and some Katie-safe breakfast sausages (Jones Dairy Farm…I know, misleading because it sounds like it would contain dairy. They don’t!). And coffee of course. I mean, come on now… I think you know me well enough so that should go without saying at this point.

And I even had enough to freeze for multiple weekday breakfasts. Springtime success!

And in case you’d prefer not to do the “taste test the batter” method I used, here is what worked for me. Though I personally would recommend the taste test. It’s more fun 🙂

Strawberry Vanilla Pancakes
1 cup “1-2-3 Gluten Free” pancake mix
1 egg substitute (AKA 3 tsp. flaxseed + 1tsp. water) or just 1 egg 
almost 1/2 cup almond milk (I poured 1/4 cup and then kept adding until the texture seemed right)
3/4 cup chopped strawberries
1 Tbsp. vanilla extract (adjust based on how much you love vanilla!)
Drizzle the batter with agave syrup (if I had to guess 1 tsp.? Maybe 1.5?)
1 Tbsp. olive oil (again depends on the batter texture you’re looking for)
 
Put on the griddle at 375 and you’re good to go!!
 

Now let’s hope the sun keeps shining and I’ll see you soon at the strawberry patch! Or the Farmer’s Market…they each hold a special place in my heart 🙂

Posted in First Aid/Staying Healthy, Product Recommendations, Tips and Tricks

Cough, Cough…Sneeze, Sneeze

Yep, it’s here in full force: cold and flu season. Sometimes I think if you walked someone into an elementary school with a blindfold on this time of year, they’d mistake it for a doctor’s office; The coughing, the sneezing, the red noses, the watery eyes, and of course, the whining. For those first-year teachers out there, I know you’re probably on your third or fourth sinus/ear infection, case of strep or bronchitis, etc. by now. Take it from me: it does get better. I can personally attest that I spent the entire spring semester of my first year with a malady of some kind. Your immune system does toughen up and next year, you’ll be golden. (And by that I mean you’ll only end up with 1 or 2 of the nasty plagues which cross the threshold of your classroom).

This is one of those posts that if you DON’T have any food allergies, might just make you face the dreaded cold and flu season with a little more spring in your step. And even those of you who just have one or two food allergies may just find some joy in your condition by the end of this post. And then there’s those of you like me. Well, we’re just going to band together, hold hands (after applying Purell of course), and pray for a swift and safe journey through the remainder of the season. And we’re off…

It was just a year ago this past week that I woke my then-roommate around midnight. My heart was racing at warp speed, I couldn’t catch my breath, and my pasty white skin would make Casper the Friendly Ghost look sun-kissed. After spending the night in the ER, it was determined that I had bronchitis and that the cough medicine I had taken had induced an autoimmune response. Granted a few weeks later when I learned about my casein-intolerance, I realized the cheese in my omelet that night was probably more the culprit…but you know what they say about hindsight. Or Monday morning quarterbacks (it is Super Bowl weekend after all). The reality is cold and flu season is frustrating for anyone with food sensitivities…and downright dangerous for those of us who have autoimmune conditions on top of that. Let’s start with the food sensitivities.

Picture a childhood sick day. One minute you’re hot, the next you’re cold; it hurts to move; the thought of lifting your head off the pillow, let alone getting upright to stumble to the bathroom is simply too much to bear. Then Mom walks in with a hot bowl of chicken noodle soup with some crackers, a glass of ginger ale or Gatorade, that little medicine cup of cough syrup, and your next dose of Tylenol. In a few hours (or maybe days for those particularly brutal bouts) you’re sitting up, curled up under the blanket, enjoying a rare night of total control over the family TV choices. (I mean there has to be some perk to being sick, right??) And when that’s not enough, it’s a quick trip to the doctor’s office, a stop at the pharmacy, and in no time at all you’re smiling and laughing with the best of them.

Well now, think about that day through the eyes of someone with a gluten allergy. Chicken noodle soup?? No way. Unless you were smart and made a safe batch for yourself weeks ago and added it to the “Just In Case of an Emergency” section of your freezer. Saltine crackers?? No again. Sure, there are gluten-free alternatives…but keep in mind, they’re not always light on the stomach so tread cautiously. Cough syrup? Tylenol?? Well, they’re safe…provided you did your research ahead of time and only have safe choices at your house. (WARNING: Advil is safe MINUS the Liqui-gels. I learned that one the hard way. Imagine having a horrible headache, taking medicine, and feeling exponentially worse! Such is the way in an allergy-filled world.) Gatorade and ginger ale… at least they’re still safe. And as far as that prescription, well you can’t even imagine the headache that’s going to  be. Literally and metaphorically.

So here are some tips for facing the rest of cold and flu season with JUST a gluten allergy:

  • Do your research now!: Researching gluten-free medications is enough of a headache when you’re feeling well…it’s unbearable when you’re already feeling sick. This link will take you to a great website of gluten-free medications. Of course, we’re lucky in the sense that many packages are now listing specifically whether something is gluten-free. 
  • Stock up!: You know sickness is inevitable and most medications have a long shelf life so buy now, thank yourself later. My personal  recommendations are as follows:
    • Vick’s Nature’s Fusion: There are many gluten-free cough syrups out there but this one is specifically marketed as such. Maybe I’m just a sucker for marketing ploys, but this stuff works AND it comes in daytime and nighttime formula. Do yourself a favor: buy the double pack with one of each. Nothing like finally soothing your cough but then falling asleep at your desk because you only chose to buy the nighttime formula.
    • Airborne: I first remember hearing about this product as a “parting gift” on Jeopardy as a kid…and I assumed that like most of those “gifts”, it was just something that failed to sell and so Jeopardy was passing them off on the poor runners-up who would probably much prefer to go home empty-handed. Then I went to college. One of my roommates there, we’ll call her the Tenacious Track Star, was the embodiment of a star athlete. And she still is…I’m telling you 2016 in Rio, watch out. This girl is a math whiz, has already defeated cancer, and maintains a level of devotion to her faith which still humbles me and inspires me in my own faith every time we talk. (I can just see the heart-wrenching montage on NBC already…complete with Bob Costas’ emotional grimace) She told me stories about the miraculous power of these tablets…and after a year of watching her down glass after glass of that fizzy elixir, she turned me into a believer. I still attest it’s the only reason I made it through that first year of teaching/perpetual illness. Their website claims all products are gluten-free; I can only personally attest to the fizzy, effervescent tablets. Go for lemon-lime or very-berry…and prepare to be amazed.
    • Gluten Free Cafe: GET EXCITED!!!  Just when I thought it was all over and my easy-to-cook-when-I-can-barely-stand-up chicken noodle soup days were over, I stumbled across this gem recently at Eddie’s Market (which is a more upscale grocery store in the Baltimore area). I bought a bunch and they’re on reserve in the back of my cabinet. If you can’t find them in a store near you, order a few cans online. I’m not normally this demanding…but I’m telling you, this will be a LIFESAVER when you’re sick.
    • Cough drops: For some reason, when I was first diagnosed, cough drops never crossed my mind as something to consider. Maybe because I was diagnosed in the summer so by the time I faced my first cold, it had been just long enough that I felt “normal” again and didn’t give it a second thought. Bad idea. There is so much confusion out there regarding cough drops. Just google it and you’ll see. My advice: don’t buy a package unless it explicitly states gluten-free. I personally stick to Walgreens generic brand which say certified gluten-free on the package. Hall’s does claim that all their cough drops are gluten-free…but I for one will never believe that because I will argue until the end of time that their Fruit Breezers are NOT. I ended up in the ER because of those once too…no 2nd chances from this girl. But again, that’s just me 🙂
    • Gatorade, tea, ginger ale, etc.: One thing that remains true is that hydration is key, especially when you’re sick. Stock up on whatever beverage you like best, and just keep drinking those germs away.
Now, those of you with gluten issues, I’m hoping you’re feeling a little better (or at least a little more informed) about the days and weeks ahead. Now for the rest of us…here comes the bad news. My favorite cough syrup that I raved about above? Contains High Fructose Corn Syrup. Gatorade? Corn syrup. And even the ones that don’t switched to glucose syrup…which can be derived from wheat. Ginger ale?? Yep, you guessed it: corn syrup. My Walgreens cough drops? Soybean oil.  The soup and the Airborne don’t have anything that explicitly alarm me but I’m still waiting to hear back from the manufacturers for a final verdict. In other words, this cold and flu season has me nervous. And sad. Who knew corn was such an omnipresent ingredient?? And forget about prescriptions! I thought gluten was hard, Corn is EVERYWHERE. I bet you didn’t know most capsules that house those wonderful antibiotics that bounce you back to health come from corn. And I bet you don’t really care…because I certainly wouldn’t either if my body didn’t. Once I even had to resort to a compounding pharmacy because my doctor couldn’t find the medication on the market in a form she was convinced would be safe. It was kind of fun to go back in time to an “It’s A Wonderful Life”-type pharmacy…but still not exactly how I wanted to spend an afternoon.
There was a brief glimmer of hope or those of us in the gluten-free world when Rep. Tim Ryan from Ohio put forth a bill to require all drugs for human use to require gluten listed as an ingredient…but as you can see here, that bill was recently changed from “referred to committee” status to “DIED”. So yes, in essence, one could say my hopes for getting medication without spending hours and hours on the phone are dead. I, however, prefer to think of them as cryogenically frozen. I’m counting on one of my politically-interested friends to bring this back to the forefront one day. Until then, I’ll be running up my phone minutes with frustrating phone calls to surprisingly uninformed drug representatives. Such is life…
So in closing, cold and flu season is brutal for all of us, but it might be just a little bit worse for those people with food sensitivities, and especially those with autoimmune conditions. Whoever you are, PLEASE do us all a favor and do what I tell my kids: wash your hands, cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze, and if you’re sick, STAY HOME. Don’t try to be a martyr and take the rest of us down with you in the process. For those with compromised immune systems, it really can be a matter of life or death. Or at the very least a trip to the hospital.
I wish you all health, happiness, lots of fluids and Vitamin C…and the swift arrival of spring. Come on, Punxsutawney Phil, I believe in you…
Photo courtesy of someecards.com
Posted in Newly-Diagnosed, Tips and Tricks

Once Upon A Time…

…I was an accountant.

Yes, as many of you know, though I am a teacher, I didn’t follow the most traditional path to get here. See, I started out as an accounting major at Villanova University. I was a student at a business school which is consistently ranked in the top 20 by BusinessWeek magazine. I followed the typical path of a Villanova accounting student…I worked hard, I earned an internship with one of the “Big 4” for the summer after my junior year, and before I even sat down in my first class as a senior, I already had a contract in hand for a lucrative, full-time position in the audit department at that same firm. However, after a long, drawn-out year of life chats, debate, discussions, deliberations, prayers, and discernment, I made a decision that to this day still makes some people shake their heads: for the first time, I ignored the outcome of my weighted-average pro/con Excel spreadsheet (yes I had a template for that…you can laugh) and decided to follow my heart instead. I walked away from a “dream” job, a hefty paycheck, and a comfortable start to post-collegiate life in downtown Philadelphia…and I became an elementary school teacher instead. And not just any elementary school, but one of the most amazing, challenging, and life-altering schools in the heart of our nation’s capital. 6 years have passed and I am still a teacher…though now outside Baltimore, with no CPA but an M.Ed. under my belt, and I can honestly say that I have not once looked back with regret or second thoughts about my decision. While the financial cushion would certainly be a welcome gift, I wouldn’t trade the lessons, experiences, and blessings of the past 6 years for all the money, corporate meals, and frequent flyer miles in the world.

Spring 2008: My last “official” business function…with the University President of course 🙂 

That being said, I can also say without hesitation that I do not have an ounce of regret about my course of study during my college years either. People often ask if I wish I could go back and not spend four years filling my brain with knowledge of balance sheets, cashflow, GAAP, PP&E, COSO, SOX, and countless other acronyms which are now gathering dust in a back corner of my brain. My answer to that is a resounding no. Partially because I firmly believe that every single life experience: good, bad, or indifferent, makes you the person you are…but also because those 4 years taught me so much useful, practical information. I have a profound understanding of what it takes to run a small business, a large corporation, a Catholic parish (that’s right, my course of study culminated in a 90-page thesis project exploring the internal controls and financial structure of the Catholic church, with an emphasis on the parish level); but most of all, it’s because once a year I have to return to that accountant-self…and I’m so grateful I sat through all those classes.

The culmination of my unique course of study…
  
       We love income tax finals!!

That’s right…it’s tax season.

It’s that time of year where I get to brush off my Judy’s 10-key, dust off the cobwebs which have gathered in that back corner of my brain, and file my taxes. In my first 2 years out of college, I was the personal accountant to my fellow ACE roommates…and even my first year in Baltimore I had a few “clients” who paid me in Starbucks gift cards to file their returns. Then my health issues set in and derailed my plans to also have my own “I’m not a CPA so I’ll charge you less to file simple tax returns” side business; however, as with so many other things: my health issues opened up a whole new world for me: this time it was tax deductions. So, my fellow food-allergy friends (or any kind of health ailment really), here are some little-known tips that can save you a pretty penny. It’s probably a little late for your 2013 returns since you didn’t know to save all your receipts…but 2014 is a new tax year and we’re only 24 days in…start stockpiling those receipts now 🙂

Health-related tax deductions:

  • Gluten-free food deduction: Yep, you read that correctly. After a year of reaching deep into those pockets, shelling out $5 to $6 for a loaf of bread while your wheat-flour consuming friends were piling the $1 loaves of Wonder bread into their carts, you finally catch a break. Admittedly, it’s a small one…but at this point, I’ll take whatever I can get. Now, before you get too excited, you can’t deduct the total amount of your loaf BUT you can deduct the DIFFERENCE between what you paid for gluten-free bread compared to the cost of the regular counterpart.
    • Pros: 
      • It works for all gluten-free foods that have a “regular” (i.e.gluten-filled) counterpart. For example, gluten-free pizza vs. regular pizza. It also works for any gluten-free item that is deemed essential but has no counterpart. The most common example is xanthan gum. You’ll never, and I mean never, have to use that in regular baking but it’s a key ingredient in any gluten-free baked good SO the full amount of your xanthan gum purchase is tax-deductible. Of course, 1 $12 jar of that will probably last you a good 2 or 3 years so it’s not a deduction that shows up often (unless you bake as much as I do).
      • This deduction also includes mileage ($0.24 each!) for the extra distance you have to travel to your “special” grocery store to get those items you just can’t find at the local Safeway or Giant.
      • Last but not least, you can also deduct shipping/postage costs for any and all gluten-free items you ordered and had shipped to your home.
    • Challenges: 
      • You must have an official doctor’s document confirming your diagnosis of celiac disease. I know, I know. Gluten-intolerant friends, begin the rant now. This stipulation was put in place to prevent people on the “I’m going gluten-free because it’s in and trendy” plan from taking advantage of this deduction…but in the process of doing so, they’re hurting an awful lot of people in that gray “I can’t officially diagnose you with celiac because…” area. Talk to your doctor…I don’t know what else to say. Except maybe, “Dear IRS, please hire Katie”.
      • Paperwork. I hear you loud and clear, “Katie, I’m lucky I don’t lose my chapstick by the end of a week, you think I can keep track of receipts for a whole year!”. Trust me, I know. And honestly for some people, this deduction is more work than they’re willing to put forth and that’s OK. I just believe in informed decisionmaking (I mean, need I remind you: weighted-average pro/con spreadsheet??) so here is your information. Decide what works for you. And just to give you a little boost, here is an Excel Spreadsheet you can use. Yes, it’s for Canada…but it’s provided by TurboTax and it’s the one I use…same columns necessary in the US..just easier in Excel than a PDF. Now all you need is a box to throw all your receipts in (just in case the dreaded auditors call 🙂 and you’re set! 
  • Medical Expenses: Ah yes, just one look at my tax returns from each year and you can pinpoint which years were health struggles for me. There’s no nice way to say it: being sick is EXPENSIVE. Well, I guess really it’s being healthy that’s expensive…but you get the point. I am blessed to have decent medical insurance so I’m luckier than so many; however, even with that, the out-of-pocket expenses for co-pays, prescriptions, labwork, ER visits, etc. were enough to make my jaw hit the floor. I punched everything into my calculator 3 times to be certain…and then took on 2 part-time jobs. The good news (if one can call it good to be ill) is that all of these out-of-pocket expenses are deductible. Well, sort of.
    • Be careful!!:  You can only deduct these medical expenses IF they exceed 10% of your AGI (Adjusted Gross Income) for the year. It was just increased to 10% this year from 7.5% so even if you already knew about it, make sure you still qualify this year. It’s one of those odd moments where your expenses surpass a certain threshold and you find yourself holding your breath, waiting to see if they’ll add up to just a little more so you qualify. The cruel irony of the IRS…
    • Don’t forget!!: This includes ALL medical, prescription, and dental expenses. (Yes, late-diagnosed celiacs, I’m talking to you. I know all those years of misdiagnosis eroded your enamel and those poor pearly whites have been paying the price…but hopefully now your bank account won’t have to!) This also includes PARKING at all doctor and hospital visits. I always want to say “Why even put the 0-30 minutes FREE category on the sign? What doctor is going to get me in and out and back out of the garage in under 30 minutes? Just take my $3”. Of course, this does mean you need to save all of those little stubs. Every single one. Same goes for tolls to get to your various treatments and appointments. And there’s a standard mileage deduction as well if you have to travel for your care. Again, lots of paperwork…but definitely worth it for some people!
    • So I leave this on a good note: This also includes medical conferences!! For example, you attend a fantastic food allergy conference to learn more about your new life, taste delicious “you-safe” samples, feel like a “normal” person again for a few hours…AND it’s tax-deductible!! Just the cost of your entry and your transportation to get there. Not your lodging or food while you’re there…but really, let’s not get greedy. I’ll take admission and transportation any day  🙂
Now some deductions that apply to anyone…but often get overlooked:
  • State Income Taxes Paid OR State Sales Tax Paid: This one always shocks people…but think about it. Those lucky Delawareans don’t pay sales tax all year and those of you in Arizona and Louisiana are coughing up nearly 9% at the register. Floridians don’t lose a cent of their income to the state government while those of you soaking in the California sun are losing 13% of your income in each check. A lot of things in life aren’t fair…but even that is a bit of a stretch as far as the federal government is concerned. So if you itemize your deductions, you can deduct the higher of the two: either the state income taxes you paid this year or the total sales tax you paid to the state. Of course that one requires, you guessed it, every single receipt from the year. So most likely that one will only prove worthwhile if you made some major purchases this year…but then again, you never know. Some people really love to shop 🙂
  • Job-Searching Deductions: Searching for a new job is never an easy thing to do…and in this day and age, it seems like people are going through jobs like I go through aluminum foil: absurdly fast. Any career counseling, costs of resume printing and mailing, travel expenses to interviews, etc. are all deductible. Of course, as with everything else, there are stipulations. This does NOT apply to the search for your FIRST job, only subsequent job changes. Also, this job switch must be within the same field…so no deductions for a teacher turned baker in my future 😦 Finally, your costs must exceed 2% of your AGI to be deemed deductible. The great news: this deduction applies whether you were successful in finding employment or not! The bad news: 2% of your AGI is probably a big number to be spending on job searching…
So if you’re trading in your corner office for this corner “office”, no tax deduction for you: SAME FIELD ONLY!
  • Education/Student Loan Deductions: There are a variety of education credits and deductions. Most people know about the deduction for student loan interest but many people forget that there is a Lifetime Learning credit for any post-collegiate education (i.e. grad school classes) REGARDLESS of whether it’s a degree program or not. (So that free-lance poetry class you signed up for last year: qualifies! Even if you have no plans to earn a Masters in Creative Writing.) There are several stipulations of course…but too many to explain. Just go here.
There are so many more at the IRS site as well, especially if you’re fortunate enough to be a recent homeowner! But for now I’ll stop. I’m sure I’ve overwhelmed you by this point; in fact, I’m a little surprised if anyone made it this far. High-five to you.
Now get out those W-2s, sharpen those pencils, and get excited to file your taxes!! Or at least get excited for a new tax year. Say it with me now: I will be organized and save all my receipts this year. You’re only behind by 24 days, you can catch up 😉 
Happy New (Tax) Year…and Happy Saving!!
You  know what they say: “Once a Villanova accountant, always a Villanova accountant.”
 I mean I do still have the hat. And the mug 🙂