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The Holidays can strike fear into anyone who feeds her family in a particular style, such as low-carb, traditional or whole foods, or has a child with food allergies or intolerances. There are mounds of forbidden food everywhere you go. You receive invitations to events that contain a sea of smiling faces, some thinking they know better than you what your kid needs to eat. “Just a little taste won’t hurt! You’re just too controlling, let them live a little!” They sneak your child bites while an accomplice across the room ties you up in conversation. There’s dearly loved Great Aunt Matilda who would never feed your celiac child an un-approved bite, but wants to hold her plate of gluteny-goodness in one hand while she kisses and loves on your little one in the other, not realizing the damage it could do. You desperately don’t want to hurt her feelings, but you don’t want your little guy throwing up for days or wetting the bed for a month, either. Then there’s those who mean no harm, but just haven’t heard the news yet or don’t realize that what they’re giving your child could make them sick. You can’t glue your kids to your legs the whole event; they just want to go play with the other kids. Yet you fully realize that in the room runs the gamut from people who are helpful and supportive to people who would gladly sabotage you. It’s enough to make any mama grab their kids and run screaming from the best of events!
Then comes the reactions to the food you have brought. No matter how beautiful or ‘normal’ the dish, people turn their noses up at it with a collective “Ewwww!” To them, different = disgusting and their minds snap shut just as quick as their jaws when offered a bite. Your plate is the only one who comes home barely touched beyond the servings you spooned out for you and your kids and the one serving your supportive aunt or adventurous brother-in-law took. Your husband’s extolling your cooking abilities to the family is met with blank stares. Many people assume because you have made something different, your food doesn’t contain sugar/flavor/spices or any other myriad of attributes or ingredients they deem ‘normal.’ I once had to tell someone at a church event that store-bought gluten-free cookies weren’t health food and they did contain white sugar, they just didn’t contain the protein that would make me sick. He turned his nose up at my plate of store-bought cookies until he learned that they weren’t ‘nasty health food.’
To many people food equals love, and love could never hurt. The denial or changing of food, no matter the reason, evokes a very visceral reaction in some people that comes from places you can’t even begin to fathom. I once had a relative practically cry over what my celiac daughter was “missing out on” at her birthday party. The cake I had prepared but she had not yet tasted “just wasn’t the same,” while Belle was excitedly serving cake to her friends and no one was the wiser that there was anything ‘different’ about the cake. No one could taste the difference, it was all in the relative’s head and she was grieving for my happily oblivious daughter in the middle of her birthday party in a room full of people. She was the only one that was sad, everyone else was eating cake!
Few people in our culture have been through an experience that allows them to eat to live instead of live to eat. They are so attached to their own context that they can’t come to grips that it could possibly harm another person. You can’t change other people, but you can change how you frame things, what attitudes you display to others about the foods you serve, and be vocal about the normalicy of the life you and your children live.
One of the best coping strategies is to only be open and honest about the extent of and the challenges that come with the changes you have made to those who are supportive. Get online and vent, cry to your supportive friends over the phone, complain to your husband about the unsuccessful attempt or burnt food after the kids are asleep, but don’t be anything but togetherness and sunshine when your unsupportive relative or the family gossip calls on the phone. Convert the family favorite or holiday recipes into safe forms before the next event, so when asked, you can honestly respond that what they’re eating is the much-beloved family recipe. You don’t need to include the details that you’ve substituted some ingredients.
If you’re making a cake, compromise and use a box mix so people aren’t as suspicious. Often, I found if I fixed something from scratch, people would sniff and pick, but if I said the cake was from a box mix, they’d take a big bite without another thought. Tell them it’s an allergen-free mix and not Betty Crocker once they’ve finished their piece.
Speaking of Betty Crocker, I often take recipes from the Betty Crocker website or books to events that require food. When people sniff at what I’ve brought, I mention that it’s a great Betty Crocker recipe I found and I didn’t even have to convert it! You’re telling the truth, because rice or sorghum flour is still flour, and rapadura is still sugar. You must pick and choose recipes very carefully when you take this approach, or the differences in color with the sugars and flours can give you away. Obviously, this approach will not work if you are dealing with a close relative who will babysit or need to fix food for you or your child in the future.
When people come to dinner, fix a naturally ‘normal’ meal that doesn’t need converting, such as roast chicken or a beef roast with carrots and potatoes. It’s normal to you and it’s normal to them. Make a custard for dessert or the easy peanut butter cookies from the mailer. Ditto if you’re taking a main dish to an event- use your crock-pot and make something they recognize but is still acceptable to your diet. Offer to host the event, if you can, and provide the main dishes. Chili, beef stew, chicken soup, grilled steak or chicken and many more meat dishes are quick, easy and recognizable to all. Better yet if you can say it’s your mom’s recipe or it came from Betty Crocker!
Make things as normal as possible for your child when in public. If your child’s Sunday School class serves juice boxes with dye in them and your child reacts to Red 40, send a 100% juice box with them instead. Often, if you just have an honest conversation with the person who provides the snacks, they’re more than willing to change what they’re buying so your child can be included. I have had people at our church and homeschool co-op bend over backwards to make sure what they were doing was safe so my kids could partake and feel included once they understood why I made the requests that I had to. I have yet run into someone who had a heart to work with kids who was difficult about our food allergies.
Keep some individual servings of decorated cupcakes (in a cup-a-cake), brownies and the like in the freezer and ready to go should your child need them for events. Same for holiday parties. Learn how to cook ahead and freeze portions of popular holiday foods. This afternoon, I made my yearly batch of caramels and caramel sauce. I take them to every party we attend, and use the sauce to make fresh caramel apples for the same events. Although it is made with white sugar, I make it with coconut milk so it is safe for my GFCF household. It’s a compromise that people readily recognize as ‘normal.’ When I go to parties, I also take plates of commercially made GFCF cookies, such as those from Enjoy Life. If you eat a traditional foods or other low-sugar diet, plan on serving low-carb meals and snacks for the meal prior and the next 24 hours after the event so you don’t add to the sugar rush your kids will get. After one or two events where your children over-eat sugar and suffer the consequences, some children will learn to self moderate so they don’t feel sick afterwards.
Emphasize how happy you are at the improvements made in your child’s health. Talk it up. Your changes are working well and you’re quite pleased with it. If you’re new to the food allergy road, you’re excited about any further improvements you might see down the road. Frame everything as positive and absolutely worth the effort you make to anyone reluctant to cooperate.
If a very difficult family member unrepentantly exposes your kid, stay with them with them overnight if possible (don’t leave the kid with them!) or make frequent phone calls while the child suffers so they can see exactly what happens when your child gets exposed. A phone call where the relative gets to hear your four-year old crying with his stomach ache or puking at 1am can be quite effective against hardened unbelievers of food intolerances. If they do not change their tune after this one incident, they should never be allowed access to your child again without strict supervision and never at events with food. In the end, sometimes there will be only one approach with obstinate people. Withdrawal. Eventually, some people will have to learn that as a parent, you will withdraw access to your child before you allow harm done to them and there are some things you just can’t compromise on. Sometimes, this will open up a dialogue, other times it will shut it down. If it does shut down the conversation, in the long run that can be a good thing for your family in that it will reduce your future aggravation and stress. Obstinate family members aren’t just obstinate over food, they’re that way over everything. Their issue isn’t food, it’s control. Continue to frame everything in terms of being about the needs of your child and not about the wants of the difficult family members. Eventually, the message will get through to those who truly care.
KerryAnn Foster runs Cooking Traditional Foods, the longest running Traditional Foods Menu Mailer on the internet. KerryAnn has over nine years of traditional foods experience and is a former Weston A. Price Foundation chapter leader. Founded in 2005, CTF helps you feed your family nourishing foods they will love. Each mailer contains one soup, five dinners, one breakfast, on dessert and extras. You can learn more about our Menu Mailers at the CTF website. For a free sample Menu Mailer, join our mailing list. You can also join our forum to chat with other traditional foodists and learn more.