-by Heather Christo
Both of my young daughters and I were all diagnosed with severe food allergies at about the same time. I have to admit, if it had only been me with the problem, I would have been tempted to sweep it under the carpet and try to minimize the impact on friends and family. However, when it is your children’s health at stake, it is funny how your whole perspective shifts and it feels like the most important thing in the world. And knowing that I as their mother had the power to fix the health problems that were plaguing them through nothing but a change of diet was just the jolt of empowerment that I needed. It made me tackle the changes with a great sense of personal responsibility and motivation.
When your children are diagnosed with food allergies or any autoimmune issue, the first and most important person to get on board with everything that entails is yourself! I know from personal experience how incredibly challenging the transition can be. Your children will look to you for unwavering strength and guidance, and you have to be in a place to give it. You will be the cheerleader. Once you have a firm grip on how you want the future of your family’s health to play out, getting everyone else on board is much easier.
One of the amazing things about parenthood is that we get to help shape our children, and such a big part of that is about leading by example. When it came to modifying how we ate, I had to show them how to do it. I ate what I wanted them to eat. You can’t expect little kids to be excited about their gluten free-cheese free diet when their mom is chowing down on a large- extra cheese, you know? I believe that because I was enthusiastic and positive about what we were changing, that the kids were able to follow suite. I’m not saying that it wasn’t personally exhausting (because sometimes it really, really was) but making the changes as a team made everyone feel good about it- plus the results were so worth it!
Adapting to an allergen-free or anti-inflammatory diet can be emotional. I know that we had so many attachments to foods, and perceived that all of the holidays and celebrations and our family/food-centric life was changed for good. That was followed by anger, grief and even desperation (how can I never have a grilled cheese sandwich ever again!!!???) As we not only went through the steps of totally changing what we were eating day by day, and tackling the emotions that went along with losing those beloved foods, you find yourself navigating other situations you aren’t used to. All of the sudden, food allergies seem to open up this platform with family members, friends and even strangers where others feel that they can comment on your diet. Not everyone understands it. Not everyone supports it.
The people whose views were important were those closest to us, and that is because I needed their support to make sure that the kids were staying on program. I have to call out my bread and cheese loving Greek husband. While he had no interest in following this program himself, he has been super supportive of us. And a funny thing happened along the way. He ate along with us (because I am no short order cook!) and after the first 8 weeks he had lost 20 pounds and felt amazing. He may binge on gluten and dairy outside the house, but 2 years later he always feels best eating how we eat. And more importantly he is supportive because he would never compromise the health of his children over sneaking a cookie- especially when I can make delicious cookies that are worry free.
Grandparents, siblings and other close family, friends and caretakers are the next circle of defense, and you really will need their support. Educating everyone that spends significant amounts of time with your children is the best thing that you can do. No one can understand if they don’t have the information. I find it helpful to really focus on exactly why you are making the changes. I know in our case, my oldest daughter especially had been really, really sick. By simply reminding everyone of where we did not want to go back to, it was easier to keep our eye on the prize- the kids best health. Remind them of the before and after, and how well the kids are doing with their new food reality. Dropping a few things from their diet doesn’t seem like such a big deal when you put their good health in the spotlight. To help remind my relatives and caretakers I printed small laminated cards for their wallets. Each daughter had a side of the card with her allergies listed so there wouldn’t be any confusion. Once the family realized that the way we were eating didn’t change or threaten any of the traditions or time we all spent together as a family, and that we were all healthier and happier for the changes, everyone was able to relax. I always say that in our family instead of dwelling on what we can’t have, we really try to focus on all that we can.
Ultimately you build a level of trust with your children. While the main focus of these diet changes is to give them a shot at their best health, you will find a lot of other growth happens in the process. My children have learned patience and compassion and how to advocate for themselves. I won’t always be there to make sure that they are getting what they need, so the best thing I, and the rest of our friends and family can do for them is to teach them how to be strong and navigate these waters for themselves.
About the Author
Heather Christo is a formally trained chef, caterer, and the voice behind the popular food blog HeatherChristo.com, as well as a permanent contributor to ThePioneerWoman.com. Her recipes and food photography have been featured in many national magazines and television shows, and she is the author of Heather Christo’s Generous Table. She lives in Seattle with her husband and two young daughters.