Is your family struggling with food allergies or converting to a gluten-free diet? Eight years ago, my oldest child was diagnosed with celiac disease and a number of food allergies. Since then, I have given advice to many friends and family members who needed to make diet changes due to food allergies or other health reasons. Living with food allergies or celiac disease is tough but the transition is probably the hardest part. The moment when you realize you need to make major changes to your family’s diet can be overwhelming.
Maybe you are in that situation right now, wondering what you are going to feed your family. Fear not. I’m here to help. This is my list of ideas for how to survive the initial change and ideas for long-term meal planning.
It isn’t as bad as you think.
First, make a list of all the foods you ate before this diagnosis that you can all still eat, both meals and snacks. Meals I had cooked before that we could still have included: chili, beef stew, vegetable soup, salads, roasted chicken, barbecue chicken, pot roast, baked potatoes, steak, steamed or roasted vegetables, grilled pork chops, grilled chicken, raw fruits, applesauce, and rice. My kids ate a LOT of applesauce and cheese sticks as snacks while I was figuring out our new diet. It is okay to have a transition period while you figure this out.
Small moves can make a big impact.
Next, make a list of foods you can still have with some simple changes. For us, that list included my meatloaf recipe as long as I changed out the regular breadcrumbs for gluten-free ones and served it with broccoli and roasted potatoes instead of mac and cheese. There were also many meals we could change a little, such as having fajita steak and veggies on top of refried beans in a bowl, instead of on a tortilla.
Avoid the “fake” foods… at first.
Now, you are thinking- “I saw gluten-free bread, pizzas, and tortillas at the grocery store, should I just buy those?” The answer is No. Just don’t do it, yet. Those things will not taste like the ones you are used to and you will be heartbroken by them.
Wait a few weeks, or a month, until you have forgotten what really great pizza tastes like before you have a gluten free one. It will be better for waiting. Not all brands are created equal and some bread, and tortillas will eventually become palatable. But they just don’t taste like the wheat versions. This also goes for giving up dairy and trying substitute kinds of milk, yogurt, and cheeses. Some of the substitutes are quite good, but they just are not going to taste like what you are used to.
But it’s all healthy, right?
On the topic of gluten-free foods, you should know that most of them are just not very nutritious. They are often made of simple flours that will convert straight to sugar in your body. When my family went gluten-free, I gained 25 pounds in the first year. I didn’t want the kids to feel deprived, so we had a lot of replacement foods. It was bad for me and I don’t think it gave my children the nutrition they needed to grow.
Today, I still make some gluten-free mixes, but I try to add some nutrition, and only make them sometimes. My favorite trick is to take a gluten free pancake mix and add shredded apples, cinnamon and a spoonful of ground flax seeds. It makes the pancakes more filling and adds a lot of nutrition. I have also started cooking with coconut oil, to add good, healthy fats to my baked goods, instead of the canola oil I used to use. I think it must be better for us because one piece of cake now is much more satisfying and I don’t feel like have to go back and eat the whole thing.
Introduce some new favorites.
I also recommend getting a few new cookbooks. When we went gluten free, I got a number of gluten-free cookbooks but there isn’t a single one I would recommend. Too often they had recipes that were basically the same as my old cookbooks but with instructions like “serve this sandwich on a gluten-free loaf of french bread.” That sentence makes me stabby. First off, I didn’t need a gluten-free cookbook to tell me how to make a sandwich on gluten-free bread. And second of all, wonderful loaves of gluten-free french bread are not exactly easy to find.
Instead of these, I suggest getting a good Paleo diet cookbook. My first experience with a paleo cookbook made me SO happy. The recipes left out my daughter’s other food allergies of corn and soy and no one tried to tell me how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on gluten-free bread. The recipes were inventive and tasted good.
Making it easier.
Now, there are going to be nights when you have to cook. If your child has celiac disease, you can’t just go through any old drive through to grab dinner. For this reason, it is important to have some easy meals you can throw together quickly. I always keep some Tinkyada noodles in the house and a jar of pasta sauce. That brand of noodles is actually pretty good, and it makes for an easy dinner on occasion.
Another easy dinner is to pick up a rotisserie chicken from the grocery store and a bag of salad. You will still need to read the label to make sure it doesn’t include soy sauce or other wheat ingredients as flavoring. It also works to make a can of baked beans and some frozen french fries as side items. But remember, some brands or flavors of french fries can be coated in wheat flour to make them “extra crunchy.”
The crockpot is also a great way to maintain your sanity on busy days. You can throw dinner in there at breakfast and know there will be something to eat at the end of a long day.
Making the transition is hard but the benefits are worth the struggle.
Living with food allergies or celiac disease does get easier. It can still be annoying and challenging to need to constantly figure out how to accommodate food allergies for your family. But it will get easier.
When we transitioned we found that my husband, who had had digestive problems for years, apparently had celiac disease, too. He lost lots of weight, has more energy, and has a better attitude for getting off of gluten. My daughter has grown to be an average sized person, instead of the tiny, frail child she used to be. She is healthier, gets sick less often, and when she does get sick, she gets well faster. The benefits of this change are worth it.
Because we have lived with this struggle, I have made a point to write gluten-free recipes to go with every curriculum Five Senses Literature Lessons has. I believe in the power of food to help children make connections and I want my lessons to be as easy to use as possible, for everyone. Some lessons have a regular, wheat version of a recipe and an additional recipe for gluten-free families. Some lessons naturally have recipes that should work for everyone without changes, such as eating fruit that ties into the lesson.
P.S. Here are some of my favorite gluten-free foods and brands if you are interested.
And some of my favorite Paleo cookbooks.
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About the Author
Laura Sowdon, OTR/L is an occupational therapist, writer, speaker, educator and creator of the Five Senses Literature Lessons homeschool curriculum. She has worked as an occupational therapist with children in public and private schools, as well as private practice. Laura has taught and managed homeschool co-ops as well as homeschooling her own three children. Laura is dedicated to the idea of educating children at a pace that aligns with brain and physical development milestones and respects neurodiversity in all its forms.