Special needs families face additional stresses at holiday times. Everything is harder when a child’s diagnosis or circumstance means s/he isn’t able to manage changes in routines – travel, packing, preparing meals, mingling with family and guests. This may be one of the biggest reasons why parents defer restricted diets and nutrition measures entirely, as part of a special needs child’s total plan for well-being. They fear these will set the family even further apart at times when they already suffer some isolation, bringing up children with autism or other differences. When you can’t participate in holiday or celebratory food traditions – at a time when some respite and joviality is most needed – it is more isolating.
The good news: Not as isolating as it used to be, just a few years ago. In fact, it need not feel isolating at all, once you get the game down. It’s easier than ever to navigate this time of year when you have little ones using special diets or supplements. There are more allergen-free foods available than ever before. Support on the web is just about infinite for recipes and resources that support allergy-free cooking and baking. There are even gluten free holiday cookie exchanges popping up. Your family can relax about the food part, and focus on the joy.
After fifteen years of doing this for my own family, and twelve years doing this for others in my nutrition practice, I’ve come up with “best practices” for this time of year on special diets. Here’s my short list – there’s loads more to try, once you dive in – but these are my recommended starting points:
- This may be the most important thing you do for reducing stress: Forgive your in-laws. Or siblings, parents, grandparents, cousins – whoever is passing judgment on you for working with a special diet for your child, or blaming you for “ruining” the holiday gathering with special diet needs. Let it go. Don’t need your relatives to understand; in fact, expect them not to. Don’t try to enlighten them. If you have supportive and understanding family, lucky you! If you don’t, simply releasing this argument will lift a big burden.
- Nothing eases tensions more than kindness. Bake or buy extra gluten free pies; bring a gluten free pie crust (available ready made at Whole Foods and other resources) so it can be filled grandma’s with signature filling and enjoyed by all. Offer to bring alternate main dishes that meet the special diet needs of your family members. Or bring an extra special gift for the host family, with a note acknowledging their efforts.
- Whatever your child can eat, bring enough for many to enjoy. No need to explain that these are allergen-free versions of holiday favorites. Just bring and share.
- Often people simply don’t know how to help, what to say, or what to do. If you’re hosting, give instructions so guests can make it easier for you. They may be relieved!
- Ship key items ahead to your destination. Gluten free bread can be shipped direct by Udi’s Gluten Free, Canyon Bakehouse (my favorite), or Rudi’s Bakery. Each of these bakeries offers an assortment of gluten free baked goods too, from muffins and pizza rounds to hamburger buns. I sometimes ship ahead a box filled with gluten free pasta, cookies, baking or pancake mixes, and even the raw goat milk cheddar we use instead of cow’s milk cheeses.
- What about supplements – should you carry them with you? Is it okay to miss them for a few days? Supplements are as important as prescription medications in a biomedical treatment model. But too many can be so unwieldy that compliance fails. I often work with families to trim supplement protocols down. For travel, ask your provider which items you can skip for a brief time. You may be able to get by with just protective supplements like your child’s probiotic (these mitigate inflammation from foods) and digestive enzymes (these can help manage foods your child is avoiding if he eats them by mistake).
- For food allergy, in addition to bringing your usual medications (Benadryl, EpiPen), consider naturopathic helps too, like activated charcoal, nettles herb, or homeopathic Apis, Urtica urens, or Rhus tox. Ask a naturopathic doctor how these help stop dangerous exposures to allergens in their tracks, and how to administer them.
- If your child is not anaphylactic, but avoids foods due to intolerance, don’t sweat the small slips. Have chewable enzymes, chewable probiotics, homeopathics or medications on hand to help your child safely digest and excrete foods they should avoid.
- Plan ahead for rare treats that give your child full inclusion. If your sister’s homemade egg nog is to die for – but full of forbidden ice cream, milk and eggs – let your child enjoy a cup with cousins, if you know this can be safe, with planned use of appropriate enzymes and probiotics.This won’t work for anaphylactic children, but for those with intolerances, a single transgression may be manageable. Check with your health care provider working with you on nutrition.
For recipes, check out Gluten Free Baking, Whole Life Nutrition Cookbook, or Gluten Free Italian Cooking – a few of my go-to books for baking and cooking at holiday time. My own book Special Needs Kids Eat Right includes an egg nog recipe for those avoiding dairy and soy. Here’s to a happy and minimal stress holiday season to all families with special needs!