You just learned that your child has celiac disease or a gluten intolerance. On one hand, life as you knew it is over: No more thoughtless snack purchases, no dinner at friends’ homes without label-reading, no spontaneous snacking at Disneyland—you get the idea. But let me reassure you of something before we go on: All is not lost. As cliché as that may sound, never has it been truer than now. Most everything your child once enjoyed can still be enjoyed. In fact, you will find that many positive may come from this change.
Most important of all is your attitude around all this, for that will transfer to your child perhaps as much as will the food she eats.
Here, an overview of the 5 steps I write about in The Gluten-Free Parent’s Survival Guide to help get you started.
Step 1: A Safe Home is a (Much) Happier Home
Once you’ve received a diagnosis of celiac disease or a gluten allergy, the safety of your child’s living space is best addressed without delay. Transforming your kitchen into a gluten-free-safe zone is much easier than you might imagine. Yes, you will need to weed out many an item if you’re like most families. On the positive side, you’ll learn a lot in the process—including (and I speak from experience) how many fillers and chemical ingredients you may have been feeding yourself and your family for years.
- SURFACES: All kitchen surfaces have been cleaned and designated for GF or non-GF. Clean sponges and towels are assigned for gluten-free areas.
- APPLIANCES: All appliances have been cleaned thoroughly. Those with remaining gluten are either designated for non-gluten-free cooking OR have been removed.
- FOOD STORAGE: Cabinets are cleaned and marked clearly. Gluten-containing items are either removed or placed on the LOWEST shelves in cabinets and pantries.
- MEDICATIONS: Current medications have been checked and (if needed) exchanged for labeled or researched GF versions.
- PERSONAL/BATH/HEALTH PRODUCTS: All have been checked and replaced if needed, including toothpaste, shampoos, soaps, detergents, makeup, etc.
- PET FOOD: If your child is feeding pets gluten-containing foods, she should wear gloves or wash hands immediately after handling.
Step 2: Learning Together for Better Understanding and Acceptance
Now that your home is safe, turn your focus towards helping your child better understand his/her condition. Read books, go to the grocery store and play a game around identifying gluten-free foods (more on this in the book), field your child’s questions. Most importantly, take part in your child’s journey towards this new “normal” while remaining calm, supportive and optimistic.
Step 3: Navigating a Gluten-Filled World
This is a big topic, but the bottom line is this: Neither we—nor our children—should live in fear of the great wide world. If anything, being gluten-free should become yet another adventure, one to sail with confidence, as long as you pre-plan. Let a well-thought-out checklist be your compass. Here’s a preview of one we created for children’s parties and events:
- Remember this mantra: We go to events for the people and experiences, not for the food!
- Check with the parent/guardian before the event to plan the best ways to help your child feel included while staying safe. Sometimes just bringing your own version of the party fare goes a long way (such as a chocolate cupcake to match the chocolate cake at the party).
- Never go to events hungry! That way, you can focus on the bounty of fun vs. any kind of lack.
Step 4: Anticipating the Challenges, Celebrating the Upsides
Ultimately, life would not be life without a measure of loss, challenge, and change. These are the things that lend color and character to our days, difficult as they may sometimes be. Your child may get “glutened,” as we call it. You will need to flush out the bad and get on with the good. And there’s no denying the heartbreak that comes when your child feels left out, or lonely, or different in that less-than-cool way. But your child will become stronger, more resilient, and more sympathetic to others through this experience.
Step 5: Expanding Your Repertoire
Now, the best thing you can do is learn, and then keep learning and growing! Get a gluten-free cooking primer (we include a brief one in the book), take classes, study gluten-free recipe blogs and sites. Just learn, and pass on the learning to your child and family.
The bottom line is this: Being a gluten-free parent might not be easy, but it’s a challenge worth tackling with all your heart and energy. After all, like the tree, we bend. And when let our challenges feed the best in us, we—along with our children—experience the very best thing we can do in this life, which is to grow.
Elyn Joy is the author of The Gluten-Free Parent’s Survival Guide (2019), a handbook for helping parents raise happy, healthy, and confident gluten-free children (available on Amazon or at www.glutenfreeparent.com). A career educator of over 20 years, Elyn’s optimistic wisdom on gluten-free parenting has helped countless parents and organizations through the years. Above all, Elyn’s experience as a gluten-free parent has taken her through all the phases and stages of raising a thriving child. Her daughter Edyth is now a happy, healthy teen excited to study neuroscience in college next fall.