It’s hard enough for an adult to manage celiac disease, a condition caused by intolerance to gluten. However, for a child who wants to enjoy birthday party cupcakes, classroom snacks and soccer team treats, it can be difficult to understand. It’s also hard for a parent of a newly diagnosed child to know how to effectively remove gluten from the little one’s diet so he starts to feel better and recover from the intestinal damage celiac can cause.
The Importance of Going Gluten-Free
Before diagnosis, you might have noticed that your child was exhibiting gastrointestinal problems such as weight loss, gas or bloating, diarrhea, constipation, abdominal pain and even vomiting. Without removing gluten from his diet, these painful symptoms will continue, assuming they are indeed being caused by celiac disease. In addition, the villi in the small intestines will become damaged, and your child’s body won’t absorb the nutrients in his food efficiently. This can cause further weight loss and anemia from lack of iron absorption. A gluten-free diet, however, can mitigate these problems.
Remove These Gluten-Containing Foods
As a parent, you’re probably wondering what to eliminate from your child’s diet. At the most elementary level, you need to cut out wheat, rye and barley and everything they appear in, such as bread, cereals, pasta, pizza, cakes, cookies and as additions to many processed food items. Grain products such as bran, faro, orzo, matzo flour and meal, seitan, udon and Panko are all off-limits, as are many “hidden” sources of gluten, such as lunch meats, broth, soy sauce, commercial sauces, stuffing and soup base. When you’re at the grocery store, analyze the ingredient list and, if you’re not sure, only buy products labeled as gluten-free. If your child enjoys oatmeal for breakfast, be aware it can be cross-contaminated during milling and processing. Talk to your pediatrician before giving oats to your child.
Serve More of These Gluten-Free Foods
Plenty of foods are naturally gluten-free, so you can likely create meals your entire family will enjoy. Boost consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables by offering freshly cut produce as snacks and side dishes. Continue to serve main dishes of animal proteins, fish or beans and legumes; however, buy only prepackaged legumes to avoid cross-contamination in bulk bins. If your child really likes pasta, pick up brown rice or corn varieties that are becoming increasingly available. You can also serve quinoa, rice and corn as whole-grain options. Dairy products, such as cheese, yogurt and milk, are naturally gluten-free, too — but be sure to check ingredient lists on processed varieties.
Teaching Your Child
Young ones diagnosed at an early age will need your assistance to prepare and serve gluten-free meals. As the child grows, though, he can begin to learn how to take responsibility for eating safely, particularly when away from the home. Teach him how to read labels early, placing a particular emphasis on recognizing the word “wheat.” As his reading skills grow, he can also learn to look for “rye,” “barley” and “malt.” Practice with your child how to question an adult about ingredients in food, how to say “no” if he’s unsure if it’s safe for him to eat or when to simply accept a treat to be polite. Additionally, teach your child about look-alike foods, such as the brown rice pasta he eats at home and the whole-wheat pasta he might get at school or a friend’s house.
Handling Special Circumstances
Some of the most difficult scenarios for both parent and child are in the lunchroom, at birthday parties, athletic team get-togethers, classroom events and other similar situations where the child’s friends are enjoying pizza, cake and other gluten-filled foods. Set up a meeting at the beginning of the school year with your kid’s teacher, principal and school nutrition director to ensure everyone understands the importance of your child eating a gluten-free diet. Ask the teacher to alert you when there’s a classroom celebration so you can bring in appropriate gluten-free treats for your child. Speak with the parents of your child’s friends to arrange for similar circumstances for in-home birthday parties.
While having a gluten-free child might make meal planning or social gatherings a little more challenging, you’ll likely notice a change in your child in the coming days and weeks — making all the extra work worth the effort.