Meet Pittsburgh’s allergy-friendly foodie

When she’s not strategizing creative marketing for Pittsburgh businesses, North Hills native Liz Fetchin has her hands in the kitchen, cooking up allergy friendly food for her family. Recently, Liz launched Octofree, a blog where she shares recipes for everyday meals and comfort food free of the top eight food allergens; product reviews for her favorite ingredients, snacks and kitchen tools; and how-to guides for navigating life with food allergies and intolerances. Responses have been edited for clarity and length.

Liz’s egg-free, dairy-free Easter quiche. (📸: @octofree)

What made you want to start your allergy-friendly food blog, Octofree?

I come from a family with lots of food allergies and intolerances. If there’s an allergy or intolerance out there, chances are we’ve got it covered. I’ve been cooking meals without the top eight food allergens (dairy, gluten, peanuts, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, soy and eggs), for 15+ years, and for a lot of that time, I thought our family was unique.

After I had my son and started talking with other moms, though, I realized that many other families are navigating life with food allergies or intolerances. In fact, in the U.S. alone, more than 32 million people, including 5.6 million children, have food allergies. There are so many of us dealing with the same challenges. It can be exhausting to find quick, convenient foods, and we are often made to feel like our allergies – which can be life-threatening – are burdensome or a nuisance to others. I realized that the recipes and tricks I’d learned from my own experience living with food allergies could help other people.

My mission with Octofree is to normalize and celebrate food allergies and intolerances by providing beautiful, calming resources that empower people to create safe, easy and delicious meals, tackle the challenges that food allergies present with ease and connect with one another in a positive and supportive environment.

How did you come to discover your food allergies?

I was on a field trip in elementary school when I took a bite of a chocolate chip cookie and suddenly my lips and tongue started to swell. It turned out the cookie had walnuts in it, so my parents took me to an allergist, and that’s how I discovered my anaphylactic allergy to walnuts and pecans. I realized I had a dairy intolerance much later, in my early 20s. I’d been having debilitating stomach aches for years, and a doctor recommended I try cutting out dairy. It was easier said than done. So many meals, in restaurants especially, have hidden dairy ingredients, but once I got the hang of it and eliminated all products made with cow’s milk, my stomach aches disappeared.

Do you have any lessons for our readers about dramatically changing your eating habits?

It gets easier once you learn how to master ingredient substitutions (sign up for my emails at octofree.com/subscribe, and I’ll send you a free substitutions chart for common ingredients such as butter, flour, nuts and eggs). It can definitely be overwhelming at first, though. After my husband realized that his eczema was the result of gluten and soy allergies, and I already was dairy intolerant, I remember standing in the grocery store thinking, “Okay, what CAN we eat?”

But once you get used to cooking for allergies, things get a whole lot easier – and in many cases, just as delicious. There are now so many wonderful brands that make gluten-free, dairy-free staples like flour, cheese alternatives, bread alternatives, etc., that make it much easier to create an authentic-tasting meal without allergens than it was when I first started. It doesn’t have to be hard or complicated. Most of the meals I make take 30 minutes or less, and many can be prepped ahead of time and frozen.

Liz’s Four-Ingredient Sesame Chicken Tenders. (📸: @octofree)

Call out some of your favorite recipes or upcoming features that we can look forward to on your blog.

The Four-Ingredient Sesame Chicken Tenders are so easy, and they’re real crowd pleasers for the whole family (kids included). And a delicious surprise was the Top-8-Free Scalloped Potatoes, which started as an Instagram challenge. Next week, I’m planning to post a roundup of top-eight-free recipes to stock your freezer for spring and summer. I’m especially excited about that one because I think it’ll really help people to have convenient, fresh, safe, homemade meals on hand.

How do you overcome the restrictive mentality with food allergies and instead focus on embracing allergies with more of an abundance mentality?

This is such a great question and really sums up how I like to think about living with food allergies and intolerances. I’m an optimist by nature, and I like to focus on the possibilities of what I can eat and create rather than lamenting what I can’t. I’ve been cooking this way for so long now that it’s second nature; I see a classic or beloved recipe and immediately start thinking about how I can modify it so my family and I won’t miss out. There are also lots of shortcuts that I’ll include on my blog, like preparing freezer meals, purchasing top-8-free certified snacks, building trusted relationships with local restaurants and making meals that require minimal effort. Having a positive, creative attitude goes a long way.

What is your goal for Octofree?

I’d love to create a space where people feel like they’re getting great advice and recipes from a trusted friend. I’d also like it to be a place where people can build a sense of camaraderie and shared experience. Eventually, I’d like to create an Octofree seal that can be used on product packaging and in the windows of participating restaurants to identify products and eateries that are safe for people with allergies, and an app to make it easier to access and sort my content. My goal for the very near future is to launch an e-cookbook, hopefully in January 2022. Stay tuned!

Where do you like get allergy friendly food in Pittsburgh?

Interestingly, I don’t know of any restaurants around here that are officially top-eight-free, but there are lots of great options that will accommodate for allergies. With COVID-19 restrictions, we haven’t eaten in restaurants at all in the past year, but as restrictions lift, I can’t wait to try out Bar Botanico in Lawrenceville, which I’ve heard is very accommodating.

More exciting news this month: Gluten Free Goat is relaunching as a wholesale/retail kitchen, and you’ll be able to get their pastries at Adda Coffee & Tea House, Mediterra Bakehouse, the Speckled Egg and other coffee shops and breweries around town. I love that they’re also offering a service where you can order pastries for pickup or delivery straight to your home, and add curated items by local artisan makers such as honey, tea, spices and specialty coffee.

We couldn’t live without Naturally Soergel’s in the North Hills – they stock all the good stuff, including items I can’t find anywhere else.

And Consider the Lilys is a top-eight-free bakery in New Castle that I’ve been ordering a lot of novelty desserts from lately, including pumpkin pies for Thanksgiving and adorable bunny and chick cookies for Easter.

Throughout the month of April, we are featuring sustainable practices and businesses in The Incline. Tell us how you incorporate sustainable practices into your kitchen.

Absolutely – it’s important to me to be as sustainably-minded as possible in my home kitchen. I meal plan every week, and buy food accordingly, so we never end up with much waste. We also cook almost everything at home, which cuts down on reusable takeout containers, and we use glass straws and cloth napkins. I try to support local farmers and makers as often as possible and cook according to what’s in season locally to cut down on my carbon footprint, and almost always buy organic ingredients. Of course, we recycle everything we can – and try to come up with creative ways to use up ingredients. When in doubt, it can probably go in a soup or a stir fry!

When you’re not working in PR or plugging away at your blog, what else do you like to do around the ‘Burgh?

The pandemic has helped me to realize how simple pleasures can be so rejuvenating – I’ve been walking and hiking in North Park with friends and spending time outside at McConnells Mills and Moraine State Park with my husband and son. There are so many wonderful attractions in Pittsburgh, like Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, which also happens to have a very accommodating café; the Andy Warhol Museum; the National Aviary; and the Carnegie Museums. And I’m a major book worm – I like to end every day with a good read.

What local business do you think deserves a shoutout (and why)?

412 Food Rescue – for the work they do to combat both food waste and hunger. They’re able to redirect perfectly good fresh food from grocery stores and restaurants directly to people who need it most. During the pandemic, they created new programs including a home delivery service that operates like a DoorDash for good, and Community Takeout, which pays restaurant and service industry workers to prepare nutritious meals for the food insecure. Co-founder and CEO Leah Lizarondo is such an inspiration, and is always innovating alongside her team. I can’t say enough about them.

What’s a project you’re working on (big or small) and how can The Incline readers help you with it?

The main project I’m working on right now is building my audience through my email list and Instagram. Sign up for email at octofree.com/subscribe, and find me on Instagram at @octofree.