There are hundreds of articles on the internet and in parenting and health magazines about what it’s like to deal with food allergies. From the relatively minor challenges of mild lactose intolerance to the devastating effects of an anaphylactic reaction, there’s advice on avoidance and labeling, special medical alert bracelets and school safety plans. There are lists of substitutions for these newly dangerous foods, recipes for making things “(fill-in-the-blank) free,” and products popping up on shelves to replace the foods you used to love before they became a danger to you or someone you love.
It’s easy to find those articles. What I felt was missing was an article to help families in those first few days. The day after a child is first raced to the emergency room with a swelling throat, or after the gastroenterologist hands over the celiac diagnosis, or after an oncologist tells someone to follow an anti-cancer diet, they stand in their kitchens and stare down their former life — and their kitchen cabinets — without knowing what to do first.
That first day is daunting. That first day was terrible for us, when it really hit us that our daughter would have to cope with a challenging number of food restrictions.
This article I wrote for The Mighty is meant to be a guide for Day 1, the first day of the rest of your life “without.” It doesn’t matter what you need to avoid; I found this strategy equally useful for the six food elimination diet, the GERD diet, and a fat-free diet for chylothorax. Just like the parenting advice I’d gotten when my older daughter was little — to say “yes” to the behavior I wanted instead of “no” to the behavior I didn’t like — I set out to find my “yes” foods. It wasn’t always easy, but the focus on what worked instead of what didn’t made the process less painful.
As a side note, The Mighty is an incredible resource for people with medical issues, disabilities, and mental illness, as well as for their families. The articles they publish offer a perspective seldom shared online in this kind of concentration. I’ve been grateful that they have republished a number of my blog posts; this article is one I wrote just for them.
To The Parents Whose Child Has Just Been Prescribed a Restricted Diet
(originally published on The Mighty)
It feels so hard… at first. It feels like the purest definition of overwhelming because it is overwhelming: the beginning of a life lived without what may feel like one of the foundational foods of your family’s diet.
Maybe your child has just been diagnosed with a food allergy. Maybe it’s celiac disease, lactose intolerance or something rarer and harder to explain. Whether it’s a lifelong restriction or a temporary one, the thought of reading labels, re-thinking your family’s mealtimes and being vigilant about whatever your child puts in her mouth seems like a lot to manage right now.
The first thing you might want to do is start searching for replacements for what your child is not allowed to eat. You may want to begin with the one-word suffix “-free.” Gluten-free, dairy-free, egg-free, nut-free – that “-free” word will initially pepper every corner of your consciousness as it plasters itself across the labels of the foods in your pantry and refrigerator. However, before you look for those items, I suggest a different approach:
First, look for the things in your existing diet that already work.
When my already-vegetarian daughter was asked to follow an elimination diet that completely removed dairy, eggs, soy, nuts and wheat from her life, it seemed there was nothing left. However, when we began to look at our average week, there were several meals that worked already. Beans and rice were fine, for example. So was our favorite chickpea soup. Every fruit, every vegetable. We began to marvel out loud at how many things could be made from potatoes.