Caleb EganFrei was plagued by severe stomach aches for most of his childhood. Though he noticed a correlation between eating dairy and his gastro woes, he didn’t think much of it. However, when he was 10-years-old, he was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. A chronic inflammatory bowel disease, the condition irritates the lining of the digestive track.
Caleb didn’t know it, but his condition would inspire a company.
Having Crohn’s meant certain foods were instantly off the menu for Caleb, in an effort to minimize further aggravation and pain. At first, the tween just needed to cut out dairy, which was relatively easy. But as the disease got worse, the diet got stricter. Next to go were grains and starches.
“It was very difficult because I didn’t know what I could and couldn’t eat,” says EganFrei, who is now 14-years-old and lives in Washington Grove, Maryland. “My friends would be eating doughnuts and everything unhealthy, and I would feel left out.”
Ultimately, he went on the Specific Carbohydrate Diet, a highly restrictive regimen that additionally nixes simple sugars, canned vegetables, preserved meats, and other foodstuffs deemed unhealthy for the gut.
Caleb’s mother, Cindy Frei, took charge of the cooking. Finding SCD appropriate ingredients was a chore. “Everything you shop for has either sugar or preservatives in it,” she says.
Learning and perfecting recipes was a draining and error-laden process, but she ultimately got into the groove. However, the work never got less time consuming. Frei says she spends two full days of every week in the kitchen, because she makes many items from scratch - from breads and muffins to jams and yogurt. An average day’s menu for Caleb might include eggs, fruit, and muffins for breakfast, PB&J wraps, dates, and some nuts for lunch, and salmon and salad for dinner.
The diet worked and the internal inflammation diminished. That could have been the end of the story, except Caleb struggled psychologically and socially. His feelings of ostracization could partially be blamed on having to eat different foods than other kids his age, which made him stand out.
All he wanted to do at mealtimes was eat typical fast food favorites - pizza, chicken nuggets, and enchiladas - nothing that looked too different. So his mother founded Caleb’s Cooking Company, which will manufacture freezer-ready options that are grain, gluten, sugar and preservative free, and SCD compliant. The idea is that it would accommodate the dietary regimens of children with a wide variety of autoimmune and inflammation related disorders, such as celiac disease, irritable bowel syndrome, and ulcerative colitis. Despite her desire to target this narrow market, Frei wants her company’s food to blend in seamlessly with the mass produced junk food options available. “It’s about making food that kids love to eat that looks, tastes, and is packaged like regular food,” she says.
Frei commissioned Seattle-based chef Travis Bettinson, who has been cooking SCD for children for years, to create the recipes. The first four products will be Caleb’s favorites - cheese pizza, a dairy-free pizza topped with sausage, bean and pork enchiladas, and chicken nuggets.
They did a taste test of the products with Caleb and some of his friends, who don’t follow the SCD diet. It was a hit. “They were surprised at how it tasted, because they didn’t expect it to taste normal,” says EganFrei.
The firm is currently in the midst of a Kickstarter campaign to raise funding, so they can begin manufacturing the frozen foods. Frei aims to produce them in Union Kitchen and begin shipping to campaign backers in August. The products will initially be available by mail order, though Frei hopes to ultimately get them into grocery freezer aisles.
“It breaks my heart that Caleb has to live with his condition,” she says. “So we’re doing this to help the other kids out there like him.”