Helping your child understand their free-from diet

Emma Amoscato shows how to empower our children to take responsibility for their own dietary restrictions in a safe, controlled, informative and interactive way…

Mother and little kid girl baking gingerbread cookies for Christ

Would you like a cake mummy?” asked my three-year-old son as he worked away busily in his toy kitchen. As I turned around to take it from him he pulled it away. “Sorry, you didn’t ask me if it has eggs in it,” he said proudly.

With multiple allergies, including nuts, eggs and dairy, it is important that we can help him navigate his way through life in a safe and confident way. He is only young, but is already beginning to understand his allergies and process the information in his pre-schooler way.

Whether your child has an allergy, intolerance or free-from diet for other reasons, there are lots of ways to empower them and encourage them to understand and embrace their food restrictions.

All education starts at home and it is the first place where children need to feel comfortable around food and their dietary needs. Children can begin to understand their needs from a young age and the concepts can be introduced simply through play, conversations and mealtimes. Mealtimes together are an important part of family life anyway, but even more so when you have any issues with food. They are an opportunity to enjoy and embrace the food that they are able to eat as well as create positive associations.

You can help children begin to understand their restrictions in a safe and familiar environment by talking openly about them, discussing ingredients and explaining why some people can eat food that they can’t. It’s also a great time to teach them about simple allergy awareness such as not sharing food without asking, washing or wiping hands and the difficulties of cross-contamination.

As well as focusing on the practicalities, it’s important to keep making food fun. Cooking together is a great way to get children with restricted diets to feel excited about food and focus on what they can have, not what they can’t.

Encourage them to go food shopping with you as well. There are a lot of free-from ranges available in mainstream supermarkets, but it is also really good to discover regular foods that they can eat to help them feel normal around their friends.

When you eat out together or attend any food-focused events, talk about what food will be available, how to navigate it safely, what questions to ask, or what alternatives you will take. The more these interactions become a part of everyday life, the more confident children become in leading the conversation and advocating for themselves as they get older.

Holly Shaw is a Nurse Advisor for national charity Allergy UK. She encourages families to make allergies or restricted diets a normal part of everyday life, so children feel comfortable talking about them at home and with others.

“Make it as normal as possible for them and make it a positive part of family life,” she says. “Always offer alternatives so children have choices and are able to say ‘You can’t have that, but you can have this’. There are many alternatives to food rewards, such as stickers. The more positive experiences they have as a child, the more prepared they will be to become an adult living with a restricted diet.

“Education from a young age is really important – understanding they need to ask a parent, teacher or trusted adult about eating something that hasn’t come from home or being able to ask ‘Does that have nuts in it? Is it safe for me to eat?’ As they get older or start eating out, have a look at an online menu with them so they feel confident in identifying safe food choices when they are away from home,” she says.

“For children at secondary school it is about increasing autonomy and responsibility. If they need an  autoinjector, make carrying it as normalised and as discreet as possible by giving them a little bag. Encourage them to show their friends how to use an autoinjector or explain their allergies or dietary needs to them. They may face peer pressure and are more likely to engage in risk-taking behaviour, so it is important to make them feel confident in allergy management by the time they reach that age.”

As parents, it is very easy to want to wrap our children up in cotton wool to keep them safe, especially when they are facing a potentially life-threatening allergy. Food allergies can be scary for everyone involved, but it is important that children feel empowered to deal with them.

When they are young they should know the names of things they are allergic to and be able to tell others. Often, if it is excluded from their diet, they may not even know what the food looks like, so it is a good idea to introduce them to it in person, through pictures or a toy kitchen. As they get older, help them understand that foods can be hidden or called different things and explain about ‘may contain’ labelling and cross-contamination.

Children also need to feel confident in telling someone else when they are having an allergic reaction. Talk to them about the symptoms, tell them to speak up and explain what treatment they may need. If a child doesn’t remember having a reaction then it can feel like it isn’t very real for them, so it is important that they know what to look out for.    

Try to think about it from your child’s perspective too. Children see the world very differently to us and will have different levels of understanding and engagement as they mature. It is key to keep information age-appropriate, but also understand how they are feeling about their situation. Are they worried about being teased by friends? Do they feel they miss out? Are they scared about suffering a reaction at school?

Girl helping her mom by stirring the ingredients for cake

Many children suffer stress anxiety and often feel isolated because of their allergies or intolerances. Dr Polly James, clinical psychologist in Children’s Allergy, works at Evelina London to help families deal with the psychological impact. She says the first step is for parents to make sure they are addressing their own worries or concerns and setting the right example.

“Help yourselves as parents to feel confident. Children pick up on parental stress and anxiety. They are perceptive.”

Although it may not be possible for young children to fully understand and manage their allergies, the way we handle them is setting the tone from a young age.

“Children start to become aware of their difference around the time of going into nursery. It’s important to build a strong support network at nursery, with friends and family, so those early experiences of feeling they have the same opportunities as others are positive.

Sometimes, even with the best efforts, children still become worried or unhappy about being different or being unable to eat certain foods. This can show in different ways, but it is a good idea for parents to be aware of the signs and be able to address them.

“Younger children often focus on the unfairness of the situation and this can present in anger,  aggression or behavioural problems. Older children tend to be more anxious, worry about having a reaction or are often overly restrictive or focused on avoidance. We use a Cognitive Behavioural Therapy approach to help them break down their behaviours, understand and challenge them.”

Dr James says there is plenty that parents can do at home, and the key thing is to make sure your children feel they can always talk about their emotions and discuss their worries.

“Give them the opportunity to talk about things so they feel the dialogue is always open. They need to know it’s normal to feel anxious and think that it’s unfair, and that’s OK.”

It is not always easy to live with an allergy or restricted diet, but there are lots of resources available to help children understand and accept their situation and to work on seeing them in a positive light.

A good place to start with younger children is a story book, as it is a great way for them to feel what they eat is normal and also gives them a chance to start asking questions.

As children get older, encourage them to join a support group in person or online. There are also a great range of cookbooks, blogs or forums where you can find inspiration and advice for cooking together or adapting recipes.

Take a look at the range of medication bags available which can be fun for younger kids, or discreet and practical for the older ones. It is also possible to get personalised clothing, placemats or  lunchboxes, which can be useful. Medical ID jewellery is also worth considering if they are feeling anxious about suffering a reaction.

Leading a free-from lifestyle for any reason is going to make your child feel different and it is important that they don’t view this as a negative thing. Starting the conversation from a young age is key to helping them understand and embrace their food restrictions.

As my son pulled his toy cake away from me he smiled and said “Don’t worry mummy. I made a safe one for you and it’s much better than all the others!”