Dear Dr. Debbie,
My 10-year-old is on a gluten-free and dairy-free diet. When we got the diagnosis her symptoms were not life-threatening, mainly just belly aches. I’ve learned to read labels to find such things as wheat free soy sauce. Cooking from scratch is the easiest way to avoid accidental tummy trouble. Most of the time the whole family eats this way aout of convenience. My daughter is responsible for packing her school lunches most days, but I get concerned when she goes to a friend’s home, or on an outing with her Girl Scout troop if I’m not coming along. At what point should I expect her to be able to fend for herself — to be polite but cautious regarding food she is offered away from home?
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Responsibility is something that increases with age, but can take a dip in adolescence. My advice is to help her get a good handle on this issue now so that it is “her” issue, and not something her mother fusses over her about.
Teach her safe ingredients
Since she is capable of packing her own lunches, this suggests she is aware of safe and unsafe ingredients, as well as the risk of contamination by gluten products that find their way into your home. If you don’t already have one, post a “Safe” and “Unsafe” list on the refrigerator or pantry door as a steady reminder for the whole family. You may already be in the practice of placing “forbidden” foods in a special spot that she is aware of.
There are probably plenty of snacks and meals that the two of you can make when food comes from your own kitchen. It’s other kitchens that pose a risk. The more your daughter can take care of packing food for outings, even to a friend’s house, the sooner it will be as natural for her as dressing for the weather. Ask her to contribute to the routine grocery list and to accompany you to the store as often as is convenient. This will help her to have more “ownership” of the foods in the family kitchen so she can easily assemble a snack or meal to go.
Let her trust her gut
Since your daughter’s reaction to gluten is not as serious as other food issues are, a dining misstep would merely deliver its physical consequence and not a trip to the hospital. Rather than having her mother admonish her for making a mistake, just let her belly deliver its message.
One way to help her monitor and learn from regrettable food choices would be for her to keep a food diary. This could include new recipes and product discoveries as well as expressions of remorse for being too polite or failing to scrutinize a label. A little suffering can be a good lesson.
Your daughter is also getting to an age when peers can be expected to look out for one another. Her good friends will learn, and abide by, her dietary rules if they want to share food with her. They will also kindly accept her refusals. More casual friends might ask questions about the foods she has brought along, which is an opportunity for education should your daughter be so inclined, or more likely, they wouldn’t even notice. Children today have more awareness of food intolerances and allergies, so it usually isn’t a big deal when one person has something different to eat than everyone else.
Likewise your daughter will learn which parents and other adults she can count on to honor her dietary differences so as to spare her unwanted attention and unexpected bother. The scout leader, for example, could be given a list of acceptable foods that would satisfy a gluten free diet as well as satisfy the other hungry scouts. Your daughter can share this responsibility by helping you draft the list. If parents divide tasks to help support the troop’s activities, such as driving on outings, you can offer to be the regular snack helper. This needn’t be a financial burden if parents all contribute equitably in other ways, or if troop moneys are used to purchase the snacks.
Help her champion her health
As adolescence approaches, your daughter should be learning how to be responsible for many aspects of her health. In addition to the foods she eats, she should be supported to take charge of good habits for hygiene, exercise and sleep.
If other family members are also practicing a healthy lifestyle, then her actions are less about being different and more about the family’s value of being healthy. Like taking a morning vitamin, or maintaining regular dental check ups, it’s just what people in your family do. As her parent, your everyday actions express the value that good health provides many benefits — for energy, for mental clarity, for stress management, and for avoiding tummy troubles and other physical ills. Your daughter is merely championing her own health by taking charge of what she eats.
Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She has a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long-time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.
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What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy[at]jecoannapolis.com.