As anyone who knows me well will tell you, I’m stubborn and hate to admit when I’m wrong. When my children were born, I thought I knew how to feed my family healthy meals, but I’ve made many mistakes. My kids disliked milk, so I gave them juice or chocolate milk. If the juice or chocolate milk was organic, I gave myself extra points! They loved to eat pizza and spaghetti, macaroni and cheese and ice cream, so that’s what I fed them.
Vegetables stayed on my children’s plates, so I rationalized that the tomato sauce on the pizza was vegetable enough. I fed them cookies when they wouldn’t eat anything else out of a misguided fear my children would starve if they didn’t eat SOMETHING! I felt smug in my belief I was feeding my children well. I was so wrong.
I awoke from my maternal stupor when one of my children got sick at the tender age of three. Very sick. I didn’t understand what was wrong and went from doctor to doctor without finding a solution. At age five, my child was not functioning well in school. At a school conference, a prescient teacher suggested a milk allergy. “Huh?” I thought she was crazy, but lacking any better ideas, went home that day and tossed out all the milk and dairy-containing items I had in the refrigerator. I ran out to the “hippie” health food store and bought soy milk, soy yogurt and non-dairy butter.
A week later, I noticed my child’s runny nose and red ears had disappeared. I realized my child hadn’t had a meltdown all week. It killed me to admit it: the teacher was right. Subsequent visits to allergists and nutritionists confirmed that my child was ill mostly because of what I fed my child–a typical American wheat- and dairy-heavy diet of junky, sugar-laden food. Following the advice of health professionals, I made other changes to my child’s diet, eliminating gluten, sugar, food additives and other foods my child was allergic to, including egg whites, almonds, oranges and peanuts. My child’s health improved dramatically.
The key to success in changing my child’s diet was one very important piece of advice from our nutritionist: Change the way your entire family eats. Out went all processed foods (goodbye mac and cheese, goodbye frozen pizza), all dairy, all gluten, every food anyone in the family was allergic to. My youngest child has allergies not only to gluten but to rice and almonds, so those very useful ingredients left our family’s diet as well. Everyone in our family eats the same foods at home, and we’re all healthier for it.
I quickly realized that taking gluten and dairy out of my child’s diet was not the whole solution. I also needed to get rid of all artificial additives: food coloring, artificial flavoring, dough conditioners, MSG-containing ingredients, preservatives, chemicals I couldn’t identify. Removing processed foods from my family’s diet eliminated most of these additives, but many “natural” and “organic” processed foods contain questionable ingredients, such as carrageenan, “modified” food starch, and “natural flavor,” an ingredient that can be composed of any number of unidentified chemicals.
In addition, our family had to eat a basic, healthy diet: lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, lean, grass-fed organic meats and eggs, healthy fats, nuts and seeds, non-dairy “dairy,” a few grains and some sweets on occasion. Everyone in my family takes supplements prescribed by a nutritionist that are tailored to our individual needs. These include cod liver oil, magnesium, multi-vitamins, vitamin D and others. Always consult a licensed health professional before adding any supplements to your diet.
Does my family always eat this way? Not exactly. When we eat in restaurants, the meats aren’t often organic. We eat sugary treats on birthdays and holidays. I let my youngest child eat corn chips (organic, but still…). We eat mangoes and pineapple, even though they contain a lot of fruit sugar. I believe what my parents taught me: Moderation in all things is the best path. Some pasta is OK. A ton of pasta, no. A mango is fine, mangoes every day, no. Sweet treats are for special occasions, not a daily dose of sugar.
Please note: Moderation is pointless when a smudge of peanut butter or a bite of an apple could send you into anaphylactic shock. If you have celiac disease or life-threatening food allergies, you must completely eliminate gluten or the foods you are allergic to from your diet. Please consult a licensed health professional for advice.
More than 15 years ago, when I started this transformational food journey, there were few dairy-free, gluten-free foods available to the average shopper. Now they are everywhere. Organic produce and meats were hard to find back then. Now, most major supermarket chains stock organic foods on their shelves alongside their usual offerings. Gluten-free flour mixes, which I used to buy online, are widely available. But buyer beware. Gluten-free, dairy-free, sugar-filled junk food is still unhealthy, even if it’s organic.
Over the years, I’ve evolved a fairly efficient way of cooking gluten- and dairy-free meals that everyone in my family enjoys eating. I don’t spend hours shopping for exotic ingredients or making recipes that involve dozens of steps. I’ve found shortcuts that work for me. I’ve pointed these out in this blog. However, my family and I enjoy eating great food, despite all our allergies, so I spend the time I need to make the home cooked meals my family loves to eat.
My advice, summarized: Don’t drive yourself crazy trying to find the “perfect” diet for you or your family. Find substitutes for the foods you can’t tolerate before eliminating those foods. Eat local, organic food as often as you can. Avoid sugar and processed foods. Don’t eat any chemical food additives. Experiment, keep an open mind, and don’t give up. If you eat a pile of sugary junk food one day, that’s OK. Tomorrow is a new day.