Overwhelmed and anxious.

That is how I felt when my kids were diagnosed with celiac disease and had to be on a strict gluten free diet. Suddenly many of their favorite foods were now off-limits. You may be wondering how to make this transition easy for your child. But, if you do not know how to find foods that are gluten-free and healthy, it may be challenging and overwhelming for both of you. You may also be wondering how you are going to keep them safe and help them regain their health. Here are some tips that have worked for my kids and I think they will help your family too.

1- Make it fun.

Just because your child has to be on a strict gluten-free diet does not mean they cannot have fun and do all the things other kids do. They can enjoy the treats like everyone else. It simply takes a little effort and creativity on your part.

Ideas include:

  • Bake cookies for the class that no one will know they are gluten free. Gluten Free on a Shoestring has many cookie recipes I like.
  • Send your child to a party with their own treats that are similar to what the host is serving.
  • Bake or buy cupcakes or treats ahead of time and have the teacher store them in the freezer at school so when there is a birthday or celebration, your child can have a treat too. Not all schools have this as an option, but my daughters’ schools did. Call the school and see if they will allow this accommodation for your child.

2- Focus on all the things they can have.

There are so many gluten-free options now for you to choose from. There are foods that can easily be switched out and your child will still feel like they are eating the foods they love. For example, chicken nuggets. There are gluten free chicken nuggets, and they are usually healthier than the traditional chicken nuggets. Sandwiches can be changed to gluten free, most of the time, just by replacing the wheat bread with gluten free bread. Buy the gluten free pizza instead of the wheat pizza for pizza night. Buy all their favorite pastas that are made gluten-free instead of with wheat. I like the Jovial brand, Ancient Harvest, and Banza pasta. Banza is very healthy and made with chickpeas, but it has more of a whole wheat taste and some kids may not like it. Ancient Harvest is a little lighter and made from lentils, but still has a whole grain taste. You can also explore new foods that can be incorporated into your child’s diet. Be creative and do not worry if they do not like them the first time. It takes time to adjust to, and like, certain foods. My kids did not like quinoa at first. But it is so healthy I knew it needed to be part of their diet. So, I found ways to make it that appealed to them. When they were young, I mixed it with cheese and black beans and rolled it in to balls and they loved it. Now they eat it all the time as a replacement for rice. I use quinoa to replace rice because rice lacks nutrients and is overused in the gluten free diet.

3- Go on grocery trips where kids can pick out their own food.

When kids are suddenly diagnosed with a disease and told to be on a special diet, they can feel a lack of control. Suddenly a lot of their favorite foods are on the do not eat list. Allowing them to have as many choices as possible can help them feel a sense of control and help them feel empowered to make healthy choices. Teach them how to read labels so they can make choices that are safe for them. This is a good article from celiac.org on reading labels.

4- Limit processed and starchy foods.

This is true for any healthy diet, but it is easier to buy empty calories on a gluten free diet because of the alternative flours that are frequently used like potato starch, tapioca starch, corn starch, and white rice flour. These starches are the main ingredients in most baked goods from breads to pastries, to gluten free processed foods. There are many options now that can be healthy and still taste good. It just takes learning how to read labels and make educated choices.

While I love treats for the kids, I try to follow the 90/10 rule (90% healthy and 10% treats). It does not always work out with holidays, birthdays, friends’ houses, or grandma time, but I try.

Your child needs all the nutrients they can get, so try to fill most of their diet with nutrient dense foods to help their body heal and have them feel their best. Stick with whole grain flours as much as possible. Look for sorghum flour, quinoa flour, oat flour, millet flour, amaranth flour, teff flour, and bean flours in the ingredient list for options that add nutrients. (For more information, see my blog on 5 Ways to Be Healthy on a Gluten free Diet)

5- Find ways (be creative) to add nutrient dense foods like lots of veggies and fruits, whole grains, organic meats and dairy, and beans into your diet.

Eat a rainbow” is one of my favorite mottos. Green leafy vegetables, red bell peppers, orange sweet potatoes, red apples, brown or black beans, wild salmon, eggs, or white or red quinoa. These are all nutrient dense colorful options. When changing your child’s diet to gluten free you will see many ingredients of which you have never heard. Examples of some healthy ingredients you have never heard of are teff flour, coconut flour, sorghum flour, amaranth flour, cassava flour, millet flour, bean flour and more. Experiment with lots of healthy options and see what your child likes best. Be creative in how you cook the foods because that can make a big difference in whether they like it or not. For example, I roast broccoli and carrots in the oven. I cut up broccoli and carrots, add some avocado oil, salt, and garlic. Then I cook them on parchment paper at 400 degrees for 10-15 minutes. My kids like them better roasted than steamed. For kale I chop it very fine and sauté it with garlic, salt, and avocado oil. For cabbage I slice it very thin and add it to stir fry or pad Thai and my kids barely notice it. I make gluten free muffins and replace milk with no sugar added almond milk and I replace white sugar with coconut sugar or honey. For battered chicken I use arrowroot and almond flour to coat it. Add blueberries to low sugar Greek yogurt. These are just a few ideas for adding in some nutrient dense foods.

6- Get peers and their parents involved.

It is important to let parents of your child’s peers know that they cannot have gluten. You may need to send them with snacks when they go on playdates or hang out with friends. I prefer to send them with snacks because it is safer. Most parents do not know about how to do a gluten free diet and may give them gluten accidently. I usually have frozen cupcakes and pizzas in the freezer for times when my girls are going to a birthday party or activity where food is served.

7- Help them learn to speak up.

One thing that is necessary for children is helping them take ownership of their disease or intolerance. They will learn the great skill of speaking up for themselves. My daughter was five when she started telling others, from friends, to peers, to ordering out, how to help keep her safe. I also have a daughter who is shy and had a harder time speaking up for herself and did not want to feel like a bother. If your child is embarrassed and has a tough time speaking up for themselves, this is a good time to help them learn some valuable life skills. They need to be their own advocate and put their health first. Together you can come up with phrases your child can use to explain being gluten free in a non-intimidating, and even fun way. As a parent, you can be a good example for your child on how to be an advocate for their health. Your child will learn from you how to navigate the gluten-free lifestyle.

8- Take a high-quality multivitamin.

For those with celiac disease and gluten intolerance it is recommended to take a high-quality vitamin and iron supplement. The newly diagnosed celiac is usually very nutrient deficient due to a lack of absorption from irritation of the gut lining. I recommend having labs drawn to determine what nutrients are deficient before starting supplements. Coeliac patients often need B vitamin supplements, vitamin D, calcium, and iron, but may need other supplements too.

9- Allow them to be as normal as possible.

Children with celiac or gluten intolerance want to feel as normal as possible. They want to participate in all the normal kid activities like birthday parties, sleep overs, and summer camps. All of these can be done but will take some effort and communication with the adults in charge. You will need to send your child with safe food and come up with plans for how to keep your child safe. Most adults are willing to help and can accommodate your child.

I also volunteer at some of my kids’ activities so that I can help with food and keep them safe. My kids go to sleep away camp in the summer and I volunteer as the nurse. I bring my daughters own food that matches the menu as much as possible. While this is not always possible, you can work with the staff so they can accommodate your child. The 504 plan requires organizations to accommodate a child’s diet as much as possible.

10- Help your child learn to cook and bake.

Living with celiac means you will have to do more cooking and baking to save money and be safe. Start kids out learning to cook and bake for themselves. This helps them feel empowered to take charge of their disease. They will learn how to read labels and know how gluten free baking and cooking are different than regular cooking and baking. Together you can learn to adapt recipes to gluten free. This is a skill they will need when they leave home and are on their own.

While this list may be helpful, I know each child is different and each child will have their own struggles when they are transitioning to a gluten-free diet. It is a whole family affair, and everyone needs to be on-board. If you feel you need extra help and guidance as you make this transition, book a complimentary discovery call with me.

Photo by: August de Richelieu