How to Keep Your Kids on a Special Diet
At some point in most of our lives, we’ve probably all put ourselves on some sort of a dietary restriction and experienced some level of distress because of it. Now compound that distress with peer pressure, confusion, and a lack of understanding as to why you're being restricted from eating certain foods in the first place.
Those are just some of the challenges that children of any age face on a special diet.
Here's the good news:
Being on a restricted diet doesn't have to be a frustrating experience that will only make kids mad, sad, and tempted to “cheat.” By taking age appropriate steps towards encouraging the diet your child needs to be on in order to thrive, it’s possible to keep your child healthy and happy.
How to Help Keep Your Kids on a Special Diet
Food Allergy Tips for Kids for the 3-8 Year Old
• Lack of understanding and education of both child and caretakers
• Desiring tempting treats that other kids are allowed to enjoy
- Be involved: At this stage, parents need to be actively involved in keeping their child on their gluten-free diet or other special diets. This means ensuring that all caretakers, teachers, and anyone that may be providing your child with food is made fully aware of his or her food sensitivities. It also helps to educate these individuals on some easy foods that your child likes and is able to have.
- Plan Ahead: Special celebrations such as birthday parties or events at school can often bring those tempting cakes and cookies that your child can't have, right under the noses of your kids. But this doesn't have to be a segregating experience for your child.
Many schools and parties now have gluten-free or special diet options available, but if that's not the case, parents can request that there be special treats or they can bring their own for their child so their child doesn't feel left out. In case of the latter, it may be a good idea to check on what treats will be offered at the event so that you can make suitable counterparts.
- Educate: Finally, it's never too early to educate your child on his or her special diet. Though you don't need to get into the specifics, advising him or her of what common foods can make them feel sick and why will go a long way in helping them stay away from problematic foods.
When they're able to read, teach them how to read food labels and which ingredients contain the problematic foods and which don’t.
Lastly, arm your child with the responses he or she will need to respond to others when they are offered a sweet treat from a friend. This will help stop him or her from accepting inappropriate foods from friends.
Food Allergy Tips for Kids for the 9-14 Year Old
• Peer pressure from friends and other students
• Increase opportunity to deviate from their special diet
Most children in this age range know they're on a special diet and what it's all about. The real challenge here is peer pressure. Children are becoming more acutely aware of what makes them different and oftentimes try to conceal it in hopes of “fitting in.”
- Plan Ahead: No child should feel shame for having a food sensitivity or an allergy, but parents can make it easier on their child by preparing school lunches that look like those of everyone else.
Ask your child what he or she would like to eat and you can begin to plan out their lunch (i.e. sandwiches can be prepared with gluten-free or grain-free bread, start baking some allergen-free cookies and brownies for desserts, pack soups, etc. that meet the dietary requirements).
- Educate: Having a child on a special diet also presents a great teaching opportunity for everyone. Most school-aged children are familiar with nut allergies, so ask if teachers or caretakers can educate children on other special dietary restrictions, such as gluten-free, egg-free, and dairy-free, etc. You can further encourage this teaching opportunity by offering to provide some of your most delicious snacks and treats to the class, or you can even come in and have a special-diet baking class.
Food Allergy Tips for Kids for the 15-18 Year Old
• Ample opportunities to deviate from diet
• Peer pressure & carelessness
- Educate: At this point, parents are going to mostly be taking a backseat to their child's food consumption and will have to hope that their child is making the best dietary choices for themselves. You can continue to encourage their diet by getting more in-depth about what happens when they do have food off of their diet (i.e. the physiological effects and how offending foods can cause digestive problems, headaches, anxiety, and even brain fog), and how such foods can have a lasting detrimental effect on them.
- Plan Ahead: Lastly, teens are often “on the go” and rushing to a friend’s house, a sporting event or a party. Having a selection of readily available gluten-free foods (like these Raspberry Almond Squares) that your kids enjoy will also go a long way in keeping them on their special diet.
What food allergy tips for kids have you found to be helpful?
Audrey is a gluten-free vegan blogger, book author, and baker. She loves to create and explore paleo, raw, and refined sugar-free recipes too. Visit her site at Unconventional Baker and find something wonderful to make!
Such a great guide! Love that there are different steps to follow for different ages. As it should be. Great job.
Thank you, Beth!
Thanks for such a great article about this topic. We have been struggling with this some with our teenage son. His sensitivity is not life threatening so I think he sometimes doesn't see why he should limit himself. We have been working with him about recognizing the symptoms he experiences when he chooses to "cheat". It has been an interesting journey.
I know what you mean. I've been through that phase as well too many times as my health changed. Like when I was suspecting I might be sensitive to something and thinking I should avoid it, but then it would inevitably come up in something tempting and I'd always have a justification to eat it ("I'm probably not that sensitive to it" or "it's a healthy food I should be able to eat" or "I'll only have a little"). The painful results were the best teacher for me, but it wasn't until I started recording how I actually felt after specific foods that I realized how detrimental this pattern was. Something about putting it down on paper made me reflect and realize it was a much more serious problem and helped me be more responsible with my choices.
I think also, as I mentioned in the article, that having lots of foods/treats/snacks I can enjoy helped me avoid temptations too. There are many freezer desserts for instance that are great for restricted diets and have a long shelf life, so I find those handy to have around. And having things like granola bars, chips/crackers, or a bread/pizza crust recipe on hand helps me too. Not sure what your son's temptation foods are, but maybe if he notices a pattern of foods he tends to crave more of or can't resist, then having healthy substitutes for those foods can probably help him not feel deprived and therefore more likely to make a better decision about eating them.
This is an awesome step-by-step guide!
I think it's a good list/advice. My daughter has a dairy, soy, banana, peanut, and egg allergy. It's an exhaustive list for a kid, but I'd say so far she's managing pretty well. She's only five, but I'm amazed at how quick she learns what she can and can't have and how serious she is about it. She's actively questioning grown ups to read out the ingredients to her on things they offer her, which is surprisingly comical :). I let her teachers at daycare know about her allergies and they are pretty accommodating and let me know in advance if I need to send something to school with her. They are actually very supportive because there's been such a huge behavioral change in her since I eliminated these foods. Until we did an allergy test, I was just trying things out on my own and it wasn't very successful, so as a result she was very moody, aggressive, had anxiety attacks over a fear of a tummy ache when food was offered to her, etc. Keeping her off these foods changed all that pretty quickly.
Thanks for sharing your experience, Ella. Your daughter sounds like a smart little lady :). I know what you mean about the behavior changes too -- I've seen quite a bit of that. I've also seen this even in myself as an adult, like if I happen to be "glutened" or have something with dairy in it or too much sugar I can get pretty irritable. How can you not be when your body is irritable and swollen, your brain is foggy, and you're experiencing all kinds of aches and pains everywhere...? Unlike children though, as an adult it's obviously easier to control your emotions. Glad to hear you figured out what she's allergic to though. Must be nice to have a healthier and happier kid around 🙂
For my teenage daughter who spent 1 year on the GAPS diet I made sure she was on board before we started. I knew it would be hard and she needed to be able to commit to it.
That is SUPER helpful. Not perfect, but very helpful. Thanks, Jennifer!