How many of us know a child who insists he’ll only eat pizza, chicken nuggets and hot dogs – perhaps with a side of chocolate chip cookies? As parents, most of us have experienced feeling – at least on occasion – that we are held hostage by our little picky eaters. In the face of that reality, the idea of putting our kids on a new, restricted diet looks about as attractive as poking oneself in the eye; not something one takes on lightly.
Yet the upside can be well worth the effort, whether it is to avoid potentially life-threatening allergies or to see if removing gluten, dairy and/or additives like artificial colors and preservatives will improve your child’s focus and emotional happiness. Those of us who have been through it have been amazed to see that we do in fact re-emerge on the other side and that dinner gets made and eaten every night – whether it looks a little or a whole lot different than it did before. Amazingly, our own little foodie even touts our family’s adventures in specialty diets as something that makes our little clan ‘special’.
So how do you get from here to there? Here are a few tips that might make the road a bit easier:
1. Start the whole family on your new diet together.
Food isn’t just emotional, it’s social. Every family, and every child, is different, but even if you have just one little adventurer who needs a special diet it can really help him accept the apparent injustice of his fate if he doesn’t have to watch big brother eating all his favorite – and now off-limits – foods. This may seem like multiplying the pain but over time it may actually make life easier, as it helps you avoid cooking a different dish for every child (like a short-order cook in a diner).
To be sure, you can still satisfy your other kids’ cravings for the now-embargoed foods, just don’t do it in front of the sibling who’s forced to go without, at least not in the beginning. Instead, these foods can be special treats for dates out with dad, or for a snack when big sister is on a play-date.
Just remember, Mom and Dad: this goes for you, too! It’s not fair to take away the milk but keep a stash in the fridge just for your coffee.
2. Be consistent.
This perennial parenting tip was never more true than it is for putting your little one on a food restriction or two. If you've just learned that your child has a diagnosis like celiac disease or food allergies where even tiny amounts can cause a really significant reaction, this is not just a good idea, it's essential. But even if not, please trust us that your life will be far easier if you DON’T give in to pleas for little tastes.
Kids tend to have an easier time understanding black and white rules than fuzzy boundaries. You’ll have fewer tantrums if the answer to gluten-rich chocolate chip cookies is always “no - but here’s a delicious gluten-free one” than if it’s “just this once” (cuz kids know that there's never a “just once”!).
If you're embarking on a trial elimination diet to see if it makes a difference for your child to remove certaiin foods then there's an added reason to follow this rule. The goal of these temporary experiments is to get your little one’s body to a baseline where he or she has none of the offending food left in his system so you can see if it has made a difference. Your doctor may have told you to take out a whole roster of ingredients for a month or so, and then introduce them back in one at a time, in a controlled way, to see if any of the symptoms return. Well, the more slowly you wean your child off of the offending list, the longer you’ll be on the diet before you know if it’s even making a difference. And the more difficult it will be to determine which foods can be safely put back in if you aren’t working with a clean slate.
3. Keep hope, and be patient.
Perhaps the most surprising (and certainly the most pleasant) thing about our own family’s path through food issues and specialty diets has been not the changes in our kids’ bodies but in their attitudes. What started out as Mom’s Exquisite Torture Device has turned into Our Unique Family Adventure.
Yes, we started out with a flare of tantrums and whining every time our kids’ immunologist put one of them on a new regime to test out a different theory as to why the stomach aches, the low growth, etc. But these days, I'm just as likely to find my son fist-pumping in the backseat at the news that he can still eat a favorite fruit, or getting into the spirit of the mental maze that is figuring out what to make for dinner.
For anyone, embarking on a custom diet doesn’t just change your food, it can change your life. Helping your kids learn to take responsibility for what they put into their bodies and to resist temptation are skills that will serve them well for the rest of their lives. And where positive changes do follow, reminding them that they did this, for themselves can be an incredibly empowering lesson for a child. Yes, it will be a tough road from here to there, with many bumps particular to your kid, on his or her particular diet and at his or her particular age. But as the Vikings allegedly said, "what doesn't kill you outright will make you stronger."
4. Reach out for help.
Like so many parenting challenges, putting your child on a new diet or doing an elimination diet for him or her can be overwhelming, and isolating. In a society obsessed with eating and full of options designed to be fast and convenient rather than nutritious and diverse, trying to avoid certain foods can be both tough and isolating. We know - we've been there.
In fact, that’s why we started freedible.