Holiday season can be stressful, but everything is harder when a child’s diagnosis or condition means s/he isn’t able to manage changes in routines. Travel, packing, preparing meals, mingling with family and guests, sitting at a big family table with cousins, grandparents… loads of fun for no-issue kids, but anguish for others. Celebratory gatherings is one reason why restricted diets get deferred entirely. When you can’t participate in holiday or family food traditions – at a time when some respite and joviality is most needed – it is more isolating! But, it doesn’t have to be that way.
The good news: Not as isolating as it used to be, just a few years ago. In fact, it need not feel isolating at all, once you get the game down. It’s easier than ever to navigate this time of year, for kids with diet restrictions or special supplements protocols. There are more allergen-free foods available than ever before. Support on the web is just about infinite now, for allergy-free cooking and baking. There are even gluten free holiday cookie exchanges popping up. Your family can relax about the food part, and focus on the joy. After many years of doing this for my own family and for my patient families, I’ve come up with “best practices” for this time of year on special diets – here you go:
– This may be the most important thing you do for reducing stress: Forgive your in-laws, ahead of time. Or siblings, parents, grandparents, cousins – whoever is passing judgment on you for working with a special diet for your child, or blaming you for “ruining” the holiday gathering with special food needs. Let it go. Don’t need your relatives to understand; in fact, expect them not to. Don’t try to enlighten them. If you have supportive and understanding family, lucky you! If you don’t, simply release this argument, and it will lift a big burden. Most likely, their concerns are well-intended. Remember that part and let go of the part that (understandably) makes you mad.
– Nothing eases tensions more than kindness. Bake or buy extra gluten free pies; bring a gluten free pie crust (available ready made at many supermarkets now) so it can be filled grandma’s with signature filling and enjoyed by all. Offer to bring alternate main dishes that meet the special diet needs of your family members. Or bring an extra special gift for the host family, with a note acknowledging their efforts.
– Whatever your child can eat, bring enough for many to enjoy. No need to mention that these are allergen-free versions of holiday favorites. Just bring and share.
– Often people simply don’t know how to help, what to say, or what to do. If you’re hosting, give instructions so guests can make it easier for you. They may be relieved – people mostly want to help and be appreciated. If foods appear that your kids can’t eat, instruct your kids as you would anyway about which items are safe for them to eat.
– Ship key items ahead to your destination, if local stores don’t see what you need. Gluten free bread can be shipped direct by Udi’s Gluten Free, Canyon Bakehouse, Rudi’s Bakery, Gluten Free Mall, Thrive Market, and many others. Each of these bakeries offers an assortment of gluten free baked goods too, from muffins and pizza rounds to hamburger buns. I sometimes ship ahead a box filled with gluten free pasta, cookies, baking or pancake mixes, and even the raw goat milk cheddar we use instead of cow’s milk cheeses.
– What about supplements – should you carry them with you? Is it okay to miss them for a few days? Supplements can be as important as prescription medications to your child’s mood, well being, sleep ability, or energy. But too many can be unwieldy at the airport. I often work with families to trim supplement protocols down in general, and especially for travel. You can also easily ship items ahead. Emerson Ecologics bundles brands and products from hundreds of suppliers. If you’d like help setting up your own account for easy ordering and shipping, contact me for more info.
– For food allergy, in addition to bringing your usual medications (Benadryl, EpiPen), consider naturopathic helps too, like activated charcoal, nettles herb, or homeopathic Apis, Urtica urens, or Rhus tox. These can help stop dangerous exposures to allergens in their tracks. Charcoal can be taken orally as well, to bind anything just eaten. Either swallow 1-2 capsules, or open capsule and mix in a 2-4 ounces of water, and swallow (though it looks messy, charcoal doesn’t taste like much, so this is easy to do). You can also pull charcoal mixed with water up into an oral syringe and squirt it in your child’s mouth. It will bind whatever was just eaten to help minimize effects – including medications, supplements, or other foods. It won’t stop anaphylaxis, so have your usual medications at the ready.
– If your child is not anaphylactic, but avoids foods due to intolerance, don’t sweat the small slips. Have chewable enzymes, chewable probiotics, homeopathics or medications on hand to help your child safely digest and excrete foods they typically avoid.
– Plan ahead for rare treats that give your child full inclusion. If your sister’s homemade egg nog is to die for – but full of forbidden ice cream, milk and eggs – let your child enjoy a cup with cousins, if you know this can be safe, with planned use of appropriate enzymes and probiotics. This won’t work for anaphylactic children, but for those with intolerances, a transgression or two may be manageable. I choose from a variety of digestive enzymes and probiotics in my practice to accomplish this – choose one that breaks down casein, with an enzyme called dipeptidyl peptidase IV.
For recipes, check out Gluten Free Baking, Whole Life Nutrition Cookbook, or Gluten Free Italian Cooking – a few of my go-to books for baking and cooking at holiday time. Paleo recipes are always free of allergens like gluten, dairy, or soy, so be sure to peruse this list too. My own book Special Needs Kids Eat Right includes an egg nog recipe for those avoiding dairy and soy. And be sure to peruse my own recipe blog for more ideas. Here’s to a happy and minimal stress holiday season!