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Kids With Dietary Needs Must Be Empowered, Not Protected

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When we get the news that a family member has Celiac or food allergies, we automatically go into overdrive. We see to it that we provide everything our loved ones need to regain their health. We watch and worry until we all adjust and adapt to a whole new lifestyle.

When I got my kids' multiple diagnoses that's how it was in our house. In the beginning I took control of everything. I asked a million and one questions to the professionals, I devoured information and then I proceeded to remove everything from the kitchen pantry and the refrigerator.

That's how I handled it, and this impacted my kids.

They saw how seriously we were to take their diagnoses and the treatment for it which was to commit to being 100% gluten free, in the home and outside of it.

Within time -- I'd say about six months in, I settled my household into a routine and it hit me that this was a lifetime commitment for my kids, and even though I wanted to make their life easier by doing all of the work, it was not the answer.

I wasn't doing my kids any favours by handling everything, and I knew I had to let the kids take some of the responsibility. Even though they were only 6 and 7 then, I started to share everything I knew and everything I did in the name of safe eating for Celiacs and allergies, and as time passed, they started to take over for themselves.

I taught them the bare essentials of self-management outside the home so they could adopt food safety habits.

I can imagine many of you reading this have kids who are aging up and out of grade school. Both of mine are in high school now. Sending them to high school opened the door to new concerns as I wondered, "Will they be able to handle themselves where the onus of responsibility will rest on them?"

I now know for sure that all the work I did over the years to include them in food choices and in helping them to become educated in how to make safe choices was my ace in the hole.

For example, when I overheard my son explain to a friend how he is affected by eating certain foods and that he can't eat a whole bunch of favourites because of how sick they make him, I secretly beamed.

He went on to tell his friend that he won't eat them, and that he has equally great food he can eat. I was so proud and put to ease. I realized he understood what he needed to do to stay safe and he was fully in charge of it.

"By letting go and giving [your children] the responsibility, you empower them."

This blog post is not going to list the five best ways to handle lunches at school, or birthday cake at friends' parties, or how to fill a fridge and freezer. I'm not going to tell you what candies are safe for Halloween -- or any other holiday for that matter. Instead, if you will indulge me, I'd rather get personal.

I don't profess to know it all... hardly! Did I take my kids' food safety needs to heart? You bet I did. I made a career of it as a Gluten-free food developer and supplier. I have experience and if it is true that experience is the greatest teacher then please let me impart some of what I learned over the years.

So here it is. My one piece of advice: Start early!

Living gluten-free is NOT about providing for them in secret in order to protect them. Do what you do intentionally for them to see: In front of them so they know what it's like to shop, cook, and advocate.

Show, teach and model everything they must know about safe foods and danger foods. The more practice they have managing themselves in the outside world the better they will get at it.

Don't rush to rescue them in their struggle to adapt to taking charge. Try packing their lunches with their help. Give them grocery money to find gluten-free foods to add to the shopping cart. They'll learn real quick how to read those labels!

Ask them to listen to how you ask for food that is safe when you take them to friends' houses. If you are bringing your own food, tell them to grab what they want just in case they can't control what food is around them. They will learn this very quickly when you forget to provide and they are hungry while everyone around them is eating but they can't.

Use dining out as quality time on every level, including letting them see how you manage getting answers from waiters before you order the meals. Being totally open about the problems and challenges of being gluten-free and having allergies and facing all of it together means your kids will be less likely to encounter unfamiliar or uncomfortable situations that they won't be able to handle.

By letting go and giving them the responsibility, you empower them.

I need to involve them because it's about their life. Thanks to the way my parents raised me, I was self-sufficient. I valued that about myself so wholeheartedly that when it was my turn with my kids, I decided that it would have to be the same for them.

So even before we faced illness and dietary challenges I was already grooming them to be responsible for them. Post-diagnoses well, we just had to kick it into full gear. The best and most important gift I can give my kids is self-sufficiency especially now that they have celiac and allergies.

You have to try hard to instill this in them. Do it with them and not for them! Understand it's about giving them the tools and trusting that they will know how to use them, because one day they will go off to high school and you want to hear them say to you, "I got this Mom! Don't worry. I know what to do and I can handle it!"

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