Gluten-Free Food Restrictions



My daughter’s first 8 years involved a constant string of stomach aches. Doctors weren’t concerned, and every time one hit, we told her it’s part of being a kid, and went about our day. As she slowed in the growth chart from the 2nd percentile to the 1st percentile, I asked her pediatrician to check her for celiac. By the time the official diagnosis came in, we were all prepared (and even somewhat excited) for her to embark on a gluten-free diet, but none of us appreciated how difficult it would be. 

Yes, there are gluten-free options in grocery stores and bakeries and restaurants. But see, that’s not often helpful. With celiac, even a spec of gluten can be harmful, can lead to vomiting and days of pain. Cross-contamination is an issue, which makes anything dealing with food preparation difficult. She can’t have the gluten-free cupcake on the bakery shelf or the salad that’s been prepared by the guy who just touched a crouton. She can’t go to dinner at a friend’s house if they cut their fruit on a cutting board that’s ever been used for bread or drain the gluten-free pasta in a colander that’s ever been used for regular pasta.

During the elementary school years, for every birthday, she would head to the teacher’s lounge to extract and then nuke her frozen cupcake while the other kids shared the fresh offering of the day. With 24 kids per class, it was almost a weekly occurrence. And she was just 8.

Girl Scouts, birthday parties, play dates, gingerbread house making at school, the international day fair, every day brought a new occasion to feel left out.

Bat mitzvah season, which spanned two full years, was a challenge, to say the least. With each invitation, I contacted the mom to ask if she would be so kind as to allow me to speak with the caterer. I explained that the nuances with cross-contamination are often lost on folks, even catering professionals. I explained I knew the right questions to ask and that I wanted to take the burden off her plate. Then the phone tag and back and forth ensued. While most caterers could promise a tasteless chicken cutlet with rice to be specially produced and held for my daughter in the back, when all was said and done, she usually came home hungry, having failed to find it despite asking several of the wait staff.

Don’t get me started on the walls of donuts and overflowing milkshake bars and chocolate fountains she missed out on. At 13, my daughter refused to tote around a lunch bag or pull out her own version of chicken tenders. I think she may have shoved a dry cookie in her mouth during a trip to a bathroom stall. My heart ached for her those two years.

Times are changing quickly though. My younger daughter (who has no allergies or food issues), isn’t allowed to bring food to school for birthdays. The moms participating in the international fair are required to list all ingredients. I look back and wonder why it didn’t occur to me to advocate for that five years ago, but I’m happy others figured it out not long after.

In a world that might seem allergy-friendly, until you are dealing with a food restriction, you won’t realize just how hard it is. I’ve learned 4 key tips to make things just a bit easier.

1. Focus on what to add vs. what to take away. We found a fantastic dietician who specializes in celiac disease in kids, and her sole goal is to make sure our daughter is thinking about the intake of the good stuff her body needs. Ice cream is encouraged, so she gets her calcium. Oatmeal raisin cookies may be consumed for breakfast. Cheddar is sprinkled on broccoli. It’s not a perfect diet, but it’s one we can all live with.

2. Use community tools. The findmeglutenfree app, which lists and rates restaurants for gluten-free friendliness, is our best friend, our compass, and our community. It shapes our nights out, travel routes, and speaks our language. Instead of avoiding going out to eat, we make it a point to find great gluten-free food wherever we go.
3. In public, make their stuff better than everyone else’s. A friend and super mom taught me this trick – always make sure your kid’s dessert is one level better than everyone else’s. If they are going to a birthday party at which everyone will partake in cake, send your kid with a cupcake with mounds of candy piled atop the frosting, making other “normal eaters” jealous.
4. Plan, plan, plan. It’s an obvious one, but we make sure we’re prepared wherever we go. Every trip involves the packing of a large food bag filled with fruits, breads, and of course, desserts. Our travel itineraries center around restaurants, and we make reservations well in advance because if we’re skiing and the one restaurant in the area that accommodates gluten-free diets is busy, we’re screwed. On the upside, we never find ourselves waiting hours to eat or forgetting to make reservations. 
I never appreciated how difficult it was for my friends who had kids with allergies. Now I get it. And whereas before (I am ashamed to say) I didn’t think about making special meals for those with restrictions, I take pride in now having a home where my kids’ friends with food restrictions can feel safe and well-fed.


  1. Very well-written Ruth! My kids and I read it and loved it!! I feel your pain…I have a friend whose child has off-the-charts nut allergies that are air-borne. Don’t think that child goes for a birthday party alone/easily. I’ll send her your article…am sure she’ll love it!!

  2. Beautifully insightful! I don’t think I knew just how much energy goes into caring for someone with a serious food allergy. You can’t let your guard down! One thing is clear- you are an *amazing* parent.

  3. As a mom with a kid with food allergies, this article really touched me. It’s not easy having a kid with food restrictions on a regular day, but Bar Mitzvahs and weddings are the worst! I agree. No one knows what is in anything. That’s why I pre-feed and let him have all the soda he wants!

    Thank god the world is changing, now that so many people are tuned into how hard living with these things are. Can’t wait to read the next blog post.

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