If your child has Celiac disease, it can be a real challenge to make sure he’s eating healthy and following a gluten-free diet, especially when you’re not with him. Yet experts agree that if you educate and empower kids with the right tools early on, it will be easier for them to manage the disease throughout their lives.
Here are 8 ways to help your child cope:
1. Take it seriously
Unlike other autoimmune diseases, Celiac disease is the only one where diet is the cure. So, just like if your child had to take insulin for Type-2 diabetes, a gluten-free diet should be followed just as strictly. If it’s not, more damage to the intestines can occur and your child’s overall growth and development could be affected, according to Dr. Alessio Fasano, chief of pediatric gastroenterology and nutrition at Massachusetts General Hospital, and author of “Gluten Freedom.”
2. Talk about it
If your child has recently been diagnosed, explain the disease in terms that are appropriate for his age. Explain why he needs to avoid gluten, and that he can still enjoy food. Most importantly, be positive. “You want to set the tone that while this doesn’t have to define their life, it is something that has to be properly managed on a daily basis,” said Rachel Begun, a culinary nutritionist and gluten-related disorders expert.
3. Give them the skills
If you’re always dictating his diet, he’s more likely to push back or give in. “From the beginning, they need to be made part of the process of managing the condition,” Fasano said.
Depending on your child’s age and maturity level, let him help with meal planning, food shopping, reading labels, placing restaurant orders, packing school lunches and cooking. “They’re empowered to make their own food and they’ll have the confidence to make decisions about what they can and can’t eat,” Begun said.
4. Get creative
Buy a cookbook, subscribe to a few magazines or look online for ideas and recipes for a gluten-free diet.
5. Learn how to read labels together
Wheat, rye, barley and their derivatives are the most important ingredients to avoid, but sometimes gluten can be disguised as something else. Some to watch out for include malt syrup, extract or flavoring, and brewer’s yeast. Gluten can also hide in sauces, salad dressings, deli meats and vegetarian meat alternatives.
Also, oats can be highly contaminated because they’re often grown in the same fields or may be manufactured in a facility that processes gluten, so buy certified gluten-free oats only.
6. Talk to teachers and coaches
Ask your child’s school administrators about their gluten-free meal options and how often they’re available. Also, make sure teachers and coaches know about your child’s diet for after-school activities, sports, field trips and classroom celebrations. If you decide to file a 504 plan which prevents discrimination for children with disabilities, gluten-free options may be made available to your child as well.
7. Focus on fun, not food
Your child might feel excluded at birthday parties if he can’t enjoy the same treats as the other kids so you can either buy or prepare a gluten-free option for him. If other children have Celiac or food allergies, the parents can decide beforehand that the activity, rather than the food, will be the main event, or that all the food will be gluten and nut free. Either way, have a heart to heart with your child beforehand. “Let them know just because they can’t eat what the other children are eating doesn’t necessarily mean they’re different,” Begun said.
8. Let them be adults when they're ready
If your child will be attending college, let him contact the school’s administrators to learn about food options and figure out a plan for his diet.