Families face many challenges when it comes to sitting down to dinner together, but food allergies can present a whole new set of complications. In my work as a registered dietitian, I’ve helped many families continue to enjoy their family dinners despite a new diagnosis such as a food allergy.
Here are some suggestions for meal planning after a new food allergy or celiac diagnosis:
Be sure to identify exactly what each family member is allergic to by meeting with an allergist. A registered dietitian can also provide more specific instructions for meal planning.
Determine if the food allergen needs to be eliminated from the house. Recently I worked with a family that has two children with peanut allergies, and one child who does not. Lots of kids love peanut butter, and I’m often asked in situations like this one: Do you let it in the house for the sibling who can eat it? In this case, my professional recommendation was no. It would be too easy for the allergic children to to accidentally ingest. Instead, I told them to buy a substitute such as sunflower butter. To determine what you should do, you must know the severity of your child’s reaction. If the reaction could be life-threatening and if the food item is easy to transfer from place to place, don’t bring it in the house. It’s always best to err on the side of caution.
For meal planning, start with foods with simple ingredients, like fruits and vegetables, meats, whole grains and dairy products. You can control what’s added to the recipe in a more specific way and prepare something the whole family will eat using this simple step.
Take a look at your family’s favorite recipes and see what needs to be changed to continue to serve them. Document those changes by writing them right next to the recipe or make a new cookbook for your alterations.
Plan, plan, plan. Even when here are no special diets to follow, planning out meals for the week can eliminate stress. And in the case of allergies and special diets, when you need to be even more careful, planning will help you stay organized and have a more successful, less-stressful meal.
At the supermarket, read labels by using a food allergy listing. This listing is updated yearly and it covers the eight major allergens. Print it off and take it with you to the supermarket. It will be a valuable resource. And if this is your first time shopping for a special diet, plan some extra time without the kids. You won’t feel as rushed. Better yet, find a supermarket that has a registered dietitian on staff that can help you navigate the aisles.
If possible, serve the same meal for all family members, but adjust parts of the meal for the special diet. This may include swapping out the bread for gluten-free bread for the person with celiac disease, or pouring a glass of soy milk for a child with a milk protein allergy. Don’t make the food allergy an excuse to serve quick and convenient options that might not be nutritionally balanced. Aim for a balanced meal that looks like MyPlate.
Consider cross-contamination issues. For those with celiac disease who need to avoid gluten, it is especially important to not cross-contaminate or co-mingle butter dishes, knives, toasters, certain cooking utensils, cutting boards, jars of jam and other areas or jars of food in the kitchen that might harbor gluten-containing crumbs.
Continue to enjoy your time together around the table. It’s so important to make mealtime fun and meaningful. And even though a special diet might cause a little more thought and planning, the meal can and should still be enjoyed together.
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Jen Haugen, RD, LD, is a registered and licensed dietitian and an active member of the Minnesota Academy of Nutrition and Dietetic. She worked at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota for seven years as a clinical dietitian and now works as a supermarket dietitian for Hy-Vee. She provides practical solutions to help families eat healthier through simple ideas in one of the best classrooms – the grocery store aisles. Her Down-to-Earth Dietitian blog focuses on “nourishing moms so they can nourish their families,” and Jen consults with companies to “unearth the food journey” by sharing the story of food from the farm to the table.
Connect with Jen on Facebook and/or on Twitter @jenhaugen