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How to Enjoy the Holidays on an Allergy-restricted Diet
Helping kids obey their food restrictions during the holidays
By John F. Taylor, Ph.D., and R. Sharon Latta
Holidays can be stressful enough. But with so many seasonal functions centering around food, having a child with food allergies can be overwhelming. To help make the holidays more enjoyable, this article features an excerpt from the book,"Why Can't I Eat That! Helping Kids Obey Medical Diets," by John F. Taylor, Ph.D., and R. Sharon Latta.
Commit to the dietary guidelinesFor holidays, special events, or even just an ordinary day, your child should be committed to following the dietary guidelines. She should have an underlying attitude that a holiday celebration does not give license to test or stretch dietary limits. The commitment must be made in advance of a given event so that she can avoid the temptation to rationalize about eating off-limits food.
Despite dietary restrictions, your child can fully participate in the festivities. Maintain a calendar with your family's holiday events and commitments. Identify what types of foods are likely to be served. Clarify in advance with the host, hostess, or sponsoring group how your child prefers to handle the various activities and food situations. Perhaps it would be appropriate to offer bringing particular food items, which she could share with others. It might be helpful for her to take along diet appropriate food items that are similar to what the other children are eating.
Involve your child by working togetherMake a conscientious effort to include your child in the joy of holiday food planning, shopping, and preparation. As you work together in these activities, there are opportunities to stress the importance of observing the diet even when it is difficult to maintain. By doing so, you are equipping your child for the reality of living with dietary measures over an extended period of time. She may even develop a sense of personal pride in her special food as she participates in these types of holiday plans. The goal is to convince your child of the truthfulness of the belief that permits her to say: "I'm special, and I eat special foods to help me feel better. My food is just as special as the holiday food others get to eat."
This is the time to go that extra mile to prepare a favorite food item. Cookbooks offer tantalizing holiday food ideas that can be altered to accommodate children's dietary guidelines. Locate those rarely used recipes you might have tucked away for special occasions and take the time to prepare them. Traditional family recipes frequently can be adjusted also, and serving a favorite family treasure could be of real encouragement to your child.
Some major holiday treats acceptable for your child's diet may be available in specialty sections, or even regular departments of grocery stores. It is prudent as a rule to purchase an ample amount so that you have these special treats on hand when your child attends a holiday event. She may wish to share her special treats with other children. This act of sharing something special can help build her feelings of belonging and acceptance.
Prepare your child to recognize unsafe foods during the holidaysPrepare your child for the probable event of being offered a food item that is not compatible with her diet. An overly zealous host who constantly encourages guests to indulge in a variety of food selections can present a challenge for even the most staunch dieter. Discuss with your child how this overbearing gesture might be handled. Remind her of the importance of self-control with respect to eating. Encourage your child to relax, eat slowly from acceptable food selections, and enjoy the experience.
"I'm sorry, but I cannot eat ______. Thank you anyway" is an effective way for your child to set limits on an overeager host. Rehearsing various situations by role-playing may prove helpful. An abrupt or defensive "I can't eat that" retort might insult the well-intentioned host. On the other hand, your child may opt to receive the particular food item being offered and then pass it on to an accepting sibling who is not bound by the same dietary restrictions. Under some circumstances, your creative child may wish to receive the food, and then negotiate a trade with a sibling or a friend so as to bring an acceptable reward to herself after all.
Be tactful when inquiring about the types of food being served. While you should not feel apologetic for your inquiry, you should anticipate that most people are unaware of your child's need for dietary intervention and specific details related to the diet unless they personally have been involved with your child. Your inquiry is not out of place, an imposition, or an insult. If, however, you sense that the host is offended or feels awkward, immediately reassure that you are not suggesting a change in the entire menu to accommodate your child. Instead, make it clear that you are simply trying to determine how your child can best handle the eating situation. If the host seems determined to offer a questionable food item but you sense that he would be open-minded, suggest that he use a specific brand name or a substitute ingredient of your choosing.
Non-food alternatives for celebrationTo reduce possible confusion or conflict about food choices, de-emphasize the serving and eating of food. Instead, attempt to focus on other joys of holiday celebrations. Continuing to participate in various meaningful family traditions channels positive thoughts and energies for the entire family.
There are always exciting alternatives to an elaborate dinner or party at someone's home where the primary focus of attention would be on the serving of food. Specifically attempt to plan a particular celebration around a community event, sight-seeing excursion, or outdoor activity. Any snacks or meals during the celebration should be low-key.
Tap your child's creative talents for decorations, announcements, or festive setups. Consider having your child help make decorations for the entire area occupied by the party -- centerpieces for tables, window displays, individualized name tags or place cards, or even costumes. A small holiday craft item can be a special treasure for guests if your family is entertaining. Your child will enjoy the opportunity to experiment, discover, dream, imagine, and express original ideas in a free and open way through arts and crafts. Display the production proudly as an expression of her uniqueness and as a gift of love. It is the process of producing the item, not the quality level of the finished product, that provides the real source of joy at holiday time!
Final preparations before the holidaysBe aware of potential difficulties in relinquishing dietary supervision to adult care givers for extended periods. Make appropriate preparations ahead of time, provide clear instructions, perhaps prepare some food yourself, and convince the care givers of the importance of upholding the dietary guidelines.
During extended travel, carefully select the destination and mode of travel, the items to be brought along, and the restaurants you will patronize. Develop effective methods of getting restaurant personnel to help you find correct food items for your child.
During holidays, take advantage of the need to prepare special holiday food, encourage meaningful nonfood traditions, and support craft projects as substitutes for focusing on food. Prepare your child ahead of time to resist the temptation to overindulge with food. By following these types of procedures, you can help ensure continuous dietary cooperation even under times of disruption in ordinary mealtime routines.
John F. Taylor, Ph.D, a practicing psychologist, has written extensively on parenting and has workedwith children with special dietary needs. He and R. Sharon Latta are authors of "Why Can't I Eat That! Helping Kids Obey Medical Diets," a book that offers perspective on helping children follow medically necessary diets for conditions such as food allergies, diabetes, cancer and digestive disorders, from which this article is excerpted. Find out more by visiting www.add-plus.com.
Reprinted with permission of the authors.
This article first appeared in the Winter 2007 issue of Support Net™.
Approved by KFA Medical Advisory Team November 2007; updated November 2008.