Dear mama of a child with a gluten allergy,
I am right there feeling your pain, fully understanding that it sucks to have a child who is somehow different. That it is not so fun to go from not really paying much attention to food to having to read every label. And that even though there you are telling everyone about your new world, people still offer your child things with gluten, or put their gluten-free bun in the basket with the 21 glutenous ones — hello, “crumbs people!”
But here is the thing. I was that kid who was extremely sensitive to food. I grew up with awful allergies and asthma. My parents brought me yearly to get tested for chronic fatigue syndrome because I always seemed low on energy. I had ear infection after ear infection. I was never obese, but I was not skinny. My period never came. I hid under the table after my birthday cake every year — imagine a day of pizza, ice cream, and then cake when your body can’t process those! Doctors prescribed lots of medicines for all my various ailments, but I never felt comfortable in my own skin.
So fast forward a few years (like over 20!)… I was 35 and in my third pregnancy, and I broke out in hives that would not go away for weeks. I saw doctors and did research myself, then saw more doctors and got my husband to do more research, and then took gluten out of my diet! At that moment everything changed (almost). The hives went away instantly, but I was pregnant and still hooked on processed gluten-free foods. After my third child was born, as many of you may know, I totally cleaned up my food act, and also took out dairy, meat, sugar, and really focused on clean eating, and then I really felt the change! So I just want to emphasize that I have felt the pain of living with an undiagnosed allergy and also felt the other side of being healed….
But even with all this, the moment my second daughter was experiencing constant stomachaches, and her eczema that was supposed to be due to dry winters stayed through the summers, I knew it was food related — and it sucked! I don’t even believe anyone should eat candy, pizza, or chicken fingers as the Standard American Diet suggests, but the first thought that crossed my mind was that my daughter would be missing out on childhood!
So you see, I really do feel your pain as the parent of a child with a food allergy. Even if you don’t have a food allergy yourself, I did, and all I could think about was how sad my child would feel not being able to eat “normal” foods with her friends at birthday parties and events. I still did not want to accept that it is a blessing to know the allergy inside and out and to really work with it! But I continued my research and took the attitude that this was a great thing for her – for both of us! And now we both enjoy eating lots of great foods that don’t trigger our allergies, and how to manage that in the real world where gluten-free isn’t the norm, and tempting foods are everywhere.
So here are a few things that I have learned and pass on to you:
- When there are rules to what you can eat, think of it as an opportunity to see how many things you can eat. When you get out of the processed food world, which I believe is the best way to live Gluten Free, there is actually so much more variety than you ever imagined! I have tried more fruits and veggies than I knew existed in my gluten-packed life because I have actually had to think about what I want to feed myself!
- It is hard to think your kid can’t have what other kids are having, but no one needs to eat wheat today! It is a grain that has changed drastically and bears little resemblance to its ancient counterpart. Think of it as a blessing and an opportunity to eat clean, unprocessed food that will serve you for years to come. And remember this: For snacks and desserts, kids will often choose fruit. Often it is parent’s guilt or need for approval that causes us to serve them doughnuts. Kids are happy with apples and grapes! And enjoying these yourself (and showing your kids how much you enjoy them) is good modeling – kids want to eat what mom and dad eat!
- Planning is key. Meal planning makes your life easier. When you are dealing with food allergies you can use planning to make sure you are rotating the foods your child can eat. Planning allows your gluten-free child the pleasure of enjoying a friend’s birthday party. When you plan ahead for cooking at home, you can easily bake your own treats so you know exactly what is in them. And planning helps you generally ensure you don’t get stuck mid-week with nothing in the fridge, or any weeknight just trying to figure out what to put on the table, which just leads to stress. We do not want mama to be stressed!
- Bring the whole family along for the ride! Your other kids (or maybe even you) might be able to have cake at a party, but at home it is helpful to try to all eat the same way. Cleaning up the food in your house is good for everyone! Use a “no excuses” approach. You may get complaints, but everyone will adjust, and it will become the norm.
- Have a positive attitude. Try your hardest not to complain about food, or say out loud that you wish it would all go away, or even groan around anything food-related like figuring out substitutions or finding gluten-free options. Though children may have a moment when they first find out about their allergy, once you create a loving rhythm around food, life just goes on! If anything, frame it as a blessing, or simply choose not to draw too much attention to what is off-limits.
- Reading labels is a skill. And not everyone has it! So your kids are getting an amazing tool when you read labels and teach them to do that too. More people who read labels and voice their opinions on what’s in their food will make the food industry more transparent and accountable for what is in their products in the future. Many people don’t spend time reading labels, and as a result, companies get away with a lot!
I don’t want to see you suffer, but if your child got diagnosed with a gluten allergy, I’m going to smile about it – and you should too! Because you will now become a conscious buyer and eater, you will pass that onto your family and friends, and they in turn will pass it onto their friends. It is a ripple effect. And it will change the way we eat as Americans! I am here to support you in any way I can, so please reach out. There is no need to feel alone in this transition.
Love and health,