The gluten-free diet is confusing for anyone of any age. So it’s tempting to spare your child the details. Instead, you choose her food. You talk to her teachers. You grill the server. While the precautions are both necessary and reassuring, keeping your child on a “need-to-know” basis won’t help in the long run.
In my family, I’m the only one with celiac disease. When I got diagnosed, I wanted to make sure my daughters understood why mommy could no longer eat certain things. They grew up eating quinoa before it was popular. They learned why they couldn’t order a pizza at home like their friends did. It made home life easier, and a lot safer for me. It also helped my daughters develop a healthy approach to food, and for one of them, an interest in the medical field.
I’m not suggesting you sit your child down and dole out a lengthy course on gluten, antibodies and cross-contamination. Lessons, like medicine, work best in doses – just don’t approach the learning like a lecture.
Games have the remarkable ability to teach while they entertain. These days, most games revolve around an iPad and apps. But the old school approach still has its charms for gluten-free educating.
For instance, turn a trip to the grocery store into a scavenger hunt by asking your child to find products that match images you printed on a sheet of paper. Or, hold up containers of similar products – one gluten-containing, one gluten-free – and ask your child to tell the difference.
You can even make couponing an educational activity. Ask your child to circle five products that are safe to eat from a grocery store circular or to scan their QR codes.
Plastic play foods can be especially useful when starting to teach a child with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity the rules to the gluten-free diet. Take turns “making dinner” for each other.
If your child reaches for bread, ask if it’s gluten-free. If turkey with gravy is on the “menu,” remind the “waiter” that gravy sometimes contains flour, which is a no-no. Use this playtime to reinforce good practices of gluten-free living.
Your child’s first nutrition lessons don’t have to be limited to gluten-free details. Talking about more general topics like how food helps our bodies to grow and why we need different vitamins and minerals can actually set a framework that makes the gluten-free stuff easier to, well, digest.
A great way to reinforce those ideas is to involve your child in a backyard garden. Plant a few vegetables or grow tomatoes in a pot. As the seedlings grow, talk about the plants’ nutritional needs, like water and sun. When they’re big and beautiful, go online and look up the vitamins and nutrients in each vegetable – including what they do for the body.
If you don’t have a green thumb, then let the grocery store do your harvesting. Build a salad that uses a different fruit or vegetable for each color of the rainbow. You can also cut vegetables into animal shapes (we all remember “Ants on a Log”).
Ask your child to pick out a salad dressing in the store. That way, you can tie in a quick gluten-free lesson while their interest is high.
You can also look up recipes for dinners and treats. Read each recipe together and point out which ingredients are safe and which are off-limits. Choose a fun gluten-free recipe and get cooking!
Educate, Don’t Intimidate
With each conversation about nutrition or gluten-free food, remember that learning is a process. If your child reaches for a breaded chicken finger or huffs and puffs when you read a label, don’t despair. The good news is, by talking with your kids, you’ll learn exactly where their knowledge stands.
Can they pick out a safe snack? Do they know which questions to ask at a restaurant? Even resistance can be a sign, like knowing that she’s not ready to speak up when her friends are around.
Most of all, let them know how proud you are with their progress. Just like in school, kids need a gold star when it comes to gluten-free awareness.
Alice Bast is the CEO of Beyond Celiac, the national organization working on behalf of the celiac patient community. Visit Beyond Celiac to learn more.
Read more articles by Alice Bast:
How to Learn from Our Mistakes – and Reduce Gluten Cross-Contact
Taking Celiac Seriously: Stand Up for Your Needs With These 5 Helpful Tips
Debunking 4 Big Celiac Myths