As I’ve mentioned several times before, we follow a special diet in our household. The diet has been prescribed by my son’s physician and it works wonders for him. We’ve been doing some sort of dietary intervention for him for nearly three years now, and it’s hard to remember a time when we were living without it.
Over the years I’ve fielded lots of questions about how we got started on the diet and how we stick with it, so I’ve decided it might be a good idea to share some of my thoughts and ideas about the process with you. These tips will work for you if you’re an adult wanting to try a new diet for yourself, but I’ve geared my thoughts especially for parents who are wanting to start their kids on a new diet.
- Do your research. Not every diet is suitable (or necessary) for every situation. Before you jump into a diet, study the theory behind it. In particular, look for symptoms the diet is supposed to help address. If your kiddo’s symptoms match what the diet is supposed to help with, chances are you’re onto something. When we first started the special-diet thing, we jumped into a gluten-free, casein-free diet without a lot of thought. Turns out, it wasn’t the best fit for us, but when we found the Paleo diet, everything really started coming together. It’s okay if you start something and then change midway through. It’s just easier if you have some sort of direction to begin with! If you’re lacking direction, talk to special-diet vets (chances are you know at least one person who is doing a special diet already) and find out why they chose that diet and why they think it is helpful.
- Talk to your kiddo. If your kiddo is old enough to understand, sit him or her down and talk about the diet. Talk about the why’s and the how’s of the diet. Discuss different scenarios he might encounter and why it is important to stick with the diet plan. Make a plan (see below) for implementing and sticking with the diet together. My kiddo was under three and non-verbal when we started him on a special diet for the first time. For the longest time, food was a MAJOR trigger for his tantrums—if he couldn’t have something, he would have a meltdown. Thankfully, things have gotten so much better in that regard! He now has a firm grasp on what kinds of foods he can and cannot eat and if he’s being served something he’s not sure about, he’ll ask, “Does that have milk in it?” If your kiddo has some ownership over the diet, things will most likely go a lot more smoothly. And don’t worry, even if they’re too young or not verbal enough to understand, you can still get through it.
Make a Plan:
- Settle on some parameters for the diet – Is your child going to be 100% on this diet all the time? Are there cheats that are acceptable? Will you feed your entire family this diet, or just your kiddo? (By the way, I strongly recommend having everyone stick to the diet, at least as long as your child is present! But do whatever works for you.) Your parameters may change and adjust as time goes on—and that’s okay. One thing that I recommend is to go for 30 days doing the diet 100% and then after that you can start to add in cheats or adjust your parameters as needed.
- Make a plan for special occasions – If you are new to the special-diet thing, you will probably be surprised at how many opportunities there will be for dietary infractions. Holidays, birthday parties, and other special occasions are happening constantly. How will your kiddo handle it if there’s an unexpected treat that he can’t have? I’m amazed at how many times parents show up at school with cupcakes for their kids’ class to celebrate the child’s birthday. Well, that in itself doesn’t surprise me, what surprises me is how often they don’t tell the teacher beforehand! What I’ve found to be helpful is to make a batch of our diet-friendly cupcakes and have the teacher store them in the fridge at school. That way my son can participate in these special occasions, even when they are unexpected. We also have snacks and special treats for play dates, friend and family birthday parties, and holidays. Preparing for every possible occasion can be overwhelming at first, but once you get the hang of it, it becomes second nature!
- Communicate with your child’s teacher and school. If your child has an IEP, MAKE SURE THE DIET IS INCLUDED. If the diet is in the IEP, the school is legally bound to follow it. It makes things more clear-cut and simple for you. If your child does not have an IEP, communicate with your child’s teacher and make clear what your child’s needs are. For the record, I have NEVER expected my child’s teacher (or anyone else) to provide appropriate foods for my kiddo. I provide what my child needs, and I only ask that he not be given anything else while in school. We’ve always had good communication with my son’s schools and have never had any problems (it probably helps that his diet is in his IEP).
Get Ready to Cook!
- Get recipes. As much as I love finding recipes on-line, I am still a fan of old-fashioned cookbooks. I have loads of them (and just bought another one today!) If you know people on the same (or a similar) diet, ask them for recipes. Chances are, not everyone will like every recipe, so it is a good idea to have lots of recipes that you can choose from.
- Stock your pantry and clear out offending foods. Here’s the thing with my kiddos: If they find something in the pantry, they’ll think it’s up for grabs. It is just plain easier to stick to the diet if we don’t keep non-diet friendly foods around. Here’s the other half of that equation: My life is a lot easier when my pantry and fridge is well-stocked with foods the kids can eat. If the diet is a complete change from your current lifestyle, there’s a good chance you’ll end up spending a lot of money in the beginning. It is well worth it, though, to clean out your pantry and stock it with foods you feel good about.
- Don’t be afraid of scary-sounding ingredients. The first time I thumbed through my first special-diet cookbook, I came across terms ingredients such as ghee, sucanat, and coconut aminos. I almost threw in the towel right then and there! It is hard and scary when you’re cooking with ingredients that are completely foreign to you. But Google those ingredients, find out what they’re used for, and then get some of your own to use and you’ll be a pro in no time!
- Shop around to get the best prices. It takes a little legwork to figure out where you can buy some foods cheaply, but it is well worth it to save money in the long run. I have about five different stories that I frequent, because each carries different products that we use and at different prices.
- Shop on-line. If you have Amazon Prime, take advantage of it. If you don’t, you might want to consider signing up. Even without Prime, Amazon can bring tons of those crazy ingredients to your doorstep at a cheaper price than many stores (and you won’t have to drive all over town to find them). I’m not telling you this just to sell you something, I’m telling you because you can get some good deals on-line. There are certain things I only buy through certain vendors I trust on Amazon (the aforementioned Coconut Aminos are one of those items). Shopping on Amazon has been a HUGE lifesaver for me.
Time to Eat!
- Accept that not all recipes will be winners. Since starting this whole special-diet thing, I’ve made a lot of lousy meals. I remember this one really gross gluten-free, dairy free enchilada recipe that I made. YUCK. My family members know I do NOT like to be told that something I made is, well, gross. But it happens. If it happens to you, scratch that meal off your list of workable recipes and don’t beat yourself up over it. Just move on and try something different.
- If you have a picky eater, start by making over meals they already like and move on from there. My kids love chicken nuggets, burgers, and sandwiches. I’ve re-vamped a classic fast-food meal by making diet-friendly chicken nuggets and homemade French fries and it is a hit! They also love pancakes and so I invented this recipe. Once they start getting more used to eating diet-friendly foods, you can start introducing new meals with different types of food.
- Learn to embrace plain meals. Sometimes there’s nothing we love more than some grilled chicken and vegetables. Seriously. My husband grills some mean chicken and the kids and I devour it. It is simple and makes my life easy, and we have it pretty regularly. Not every meal has to be fancy to taste good.
Tweaking Your Plan:
- Don’t be afraid to change up the diet if something isn’t working for you. When we started the special-diet thing, we did a gluten-free, casein-free diet. We noticed a big difference with the dairy removal, but not with the gluten removal. Once we met with my son’s doctor for the first time, we got more of a customized diet plan and started eliminating grains. THAT made a big difference.
- I mentioned cheats earlier, but it’s important to mention them again. After being on the diet for a while you might start looking into cheats. Obviously cheating isn’t ideal, but sometimes it can make life a lot easier! You might find that your kiddo doesn’t react to small amounts of something and so those can be your go-to cheats when necessary. We have certain restaurants we like to eat at as a family. Again, the food isn’t necessarily as healthy as if I made it myself, but sometimes momma needs a break! If you can stick to your diet 100% with no cheating, fantastic! I admire that more than I can say. But if not, don’t beat yourself up over it. Do the best you can!
My last thoughts: Special diets are A LOT of work, but they can be so rewarding. It feels good when I see my kiddo looking really healthy (meaning his stools look good—yes, I check that sort of thing—and he has no dark circles under his eyes) and acting great because he feels good. We eat better as a family and I definitely believe we’re healthier than we were three years ago when this all started. Are we perfect at it? Far, far from it! But the benefits have definitely outweighed the cost, and I hope they will for you, too!
Best of luck!