Elaine Taylor-Klaus took her daughter Bex off gluten 8½ years ago after a nutritionist suggested the irritable and sensitive girl might have a gluten sensitivity. Within two weeks of eliminating gluten from her diet, Bex, now 18, was a different child.
Whether it’s for diagnosed celiac disease or suspected gluten sensitivity, many parents are switching their children to gluten-free diets. Busy parents might feel overwhelmed by the thought of a big dietary overhaul for kids already picky about food (and change in general). But going gluten-free doesn’t have to be scary.
“Parents are afraid to even try it because it sounds like it would be too hard,” said Taylor-Klaus, a parenting coach in Atlanta. “I was one of those parents. I’m not saying it’s not hard. But [Bex] became so much easier to manage that the trade-off was far superior to what I thought it would be.”
The trade-off is even more pronounced for kids with celiac disease, an inability to digest gluten, a protein found in products that contain wheat, barley or rye.
There is no treatment for celiac disease — which can cause bloating, diarrhea and constipation in some patients and mood swings and neurological symptoms in others — but it can be managed by eliminating gluten from your diet.
Here are some suggestions from experts and parents of gluten-free children on how to make the change easier for you and your child.
Consult a doctor
John Snyder, chief of the division of gastroenterology, hepatology and nutrition at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, said in an email that parents should check with a doctor before changing a child’s diet, to ensure he or she continues to get proper nutrition.
There are many reasons parents consider putting a child on a gluten-free diet, including mood swings, eczema and autism spectrum disorders. But if you think your child might have celiac disease or a severe gluten intolerance, it’s important to have him tested before changing his diet.
“Testing for celiac disease is only effective if the child is on a diet which contains gluten,” Snyder said.
Be a detective
Just because a label or menu says something is gluten-free doesn’t mean it’s safe for celiacs, said Jerry Malitz, president of the D.C. Metro Celiac Organization.
In addition to reading the ingredients, parents need to see how the food is prepared and stored. French fries might be labeled as gluten-free on a menu, Malitz said, because they are made with potatoes. But if they are cooked in a fryer that has been used for onion rings or fried shrimp that are coated in flour, there can be cross-contamination.
“A food might be gluten-free, but nothing about its preparation, storage or anything else is gluten-free,” Malitz said. “That’s a very big issue.”
The same goes for checking labels in a grocery store.
Make your own food
Although gluten-free products are much more readily available now than they were a few years ago, they are more expensive than their traditional counterparts.
Parents can save by buying in bulk or buying the whole grains and processing them at home.
Kelly Courson, a holistic health coach in New York who has celiac disease and writes the blog Celiac Chicks, recommends that families who are used to eating a lot of bread invest in a bread machine.
“You can have the ingredients measured and ready to go in bags so you only have to add yeast and water,” Courson said. “It really helps if you are pinching pennies.”
Keep a stash of gluten-free cupcakes or cookies in the freezer at home and in the school cafeteria or office so your child will be able to have a treat at birthday celebrations.
“Anticipate where they’re going and what they might need,” said Taylor-Klaus. All three of Taylor-Klaus’s children and her husband are gluten-free for various issues, including eczema and difficulty focusing. “Anticipate what you can do to normalize it for them so they’re not different from everyone else. It may be a different dessert, but it’s still a dessert.”
Get the school on board
Talk to your child’s teacher and the school nurse, especially with younger children, and enlist their help. Maria Roglieri of Sleepy Hollow, N.Y., said the nurse at her daughter’s school made arrangements for her to talk to other parents of gluten-free kids, to share information.
Roglieri also suggests seeing whether the school will group two or more gluten-free kids together in the same class, so they have a buddy with similar dietary restrictions.
Give unprocessed foods a chance
Children are notoriously finicky when it comes to food, and most of what passes for kid-friendly in restaurants is loaded with gluten: chicken nuggets, macaroni and cheese, burgers and hot dogs or spaghetti and meatballs.
Although there are gluten-free versions of most of these kid staples readily available, Kelly Dorfman, a nutritionist, thinks the focus of a gluten-free diet should be on whole, unprocessed foods. Load up on fruits, vegetables, seeds, nuts, meats, cheeses and other healthful foods, instead of focusing on the gluten-free versions of your favorite processed foods, Dorfman said.
Do it as a family
Going gluten-free with your child, at least for the first month, can ease the transition to a new diet, Dorfman said.
“You don’t want the child to feel like something’s wrong with him,” Dorfman said. “This is just a crazy thing about modern living. Doing it together, and helping the family bond that way, is really important.”
Epstein said that although her husband, Brian, was celiac, the rest of the family didn’t eat gluten-free until Jeremy was diagnosed last summer. Now they all eat gluten-free at home, and she and her daughter Lauren, 5, eat gluten only when they are out.
“We couldn’t have ‘This is Daddy and Jeremy’s food and this is Mommy and Lauren’s food,'” Epstein said. “I can’t let my daughter have one thing and not let him have it, because that’s not fair.”