Reducing stress associated with restricted diets

Special diets can add an extra level of stress to meal planning and preparation. As the mother of a child with a deathly peanut allergy, I’ve certainly experienced some frustrations as I’ve navigated the peanut-free world.

Even if someone in your home doesn’t have a food allergy, you might invite a guest into your home who does. Or, you may have a roommate or child who is a vegetarian or you may invite a vegan to dinner. No matter the reason for the restriction, it can be frustrating when the diagnosis is new or you’re not accustom to making a meal without a specific ingredient.

The following are tips that can help you to relieve some of the stress associated with preparing a special diet or meal:

  • Ask questions about the diet restriction to learn as much as you can. Whether you’re asking a doctor or the person with the food restriction, it’s best to be as prepared as possible before setting a/the menu. You don’t want to accidentally make your guest or family member or roommate sick, or offend him.
  • Ask for cookbook recommendations or sites with recipes that work with the special diet. Doctors often have handouts prepared for restrictive diets and people with the special diet will know where to turn. Asking for recommendations can save you a lot of time and worry.
  • Unless the diet is somehow not recommended for others, have everyone eat the special diet. If one member of your household can’t eat gluten, have a gluten-free home. If someone can’t eat tree nuts, have a tree nut-free home. The same goes for reduced sodium diets. My husband and I have stopped eating peanuts and foods produced in plants where peanuts are present, and neither of us have faced any consequences. If you’re just cooking a meal for a guest with a limitation, make the entire meal safe or respectful for all your guests.
  • Have empathy. It’s very likely the person with the diet restriction doesn’t wish she had the diet restriction. She probably wishes she could eat chocolate or pine nuts or whatever food she can’t have. Think about how frustrating every meal must be for this person.
  • Imagine you’re on Iron Chef and instead of an ingredient you have to include, you’re given an ingredient you can’t include. Thinking of the meal like a challenge can keep things light and feel less like a burden.
  • If the diet restriction is for you or someone who lives in your home, know that the first three months of following the new diet will be the most difficult. After three months have passed, the restricted diet will be an old habit and you’ll barely experience any stress because of it.

I have a good friend who follows strict Orthodox Kosher laws, and when it’s our turn to host her family we have found it easiest to go out to eat at observant restaurants instead of trying to produce a meal in our kitchen (we only have one set of plates, one stove, etc.). It works well because the burden isn’t always on her to cook for us if we want to get together for dinner, and it’s simple for us to eat at a Kosher restaurant. It’s stress-free for everyone involved.

Do you live with someone who has a restricted diet? What do you do to reduce the stress of meal planning and preparation? Share your advice in the comments.

6 comments posted

  1. Posted by Jacki Hollywood Brown - 04/12/2011

    My sister is lactose intolerant and her daughter is allergic to peanuts. Their biggest problem is ice cream – it is almost impossible to find non-dairy ice cream that has not come into contact with nuts or tree nuts.

    My sister buys nut-free dairy ice cream she keeps in the house for the kids. It isn’t a worry for her because she wouldn’t have any reaction even if she did lick the ice cream off her finger.

    Sometimes she goes to the local nut-contaminated ice cream shop down the road from where she works and enjoys a soy-based frozen dessert. Then she heads back to work, washes up and brushes her teeth. By the time she gets home, she’s nut free.

    By the way, both sets of grandparents have gone nut free too so that all their grandkids are safe in their homes.

    We go nut-free for about a week before our niece visits. I go crazy scrubbing the house including the TV remotes and telephones – because hey, you just never know!

  2. Posted by Karen - 04/13/2011

    I have celiac disease and must maintain a gluten free diet. However, I have not made my family switch to gluten-free foods.

    It would be very expensive to switch my entire family to gluten free pastas, gluten free breads (which are not often as delicious, to their palates, as regular breads), and gluten free cookies and desserts.

    If i had one child who was gluten free, I’m not sure I’d make the entire kitchen gluten free, because eventually they need to learn that the outside world will not automatically cater to their dietary needs. When I go to a restaurant, i can’t assume that everything is gluten free. Unless a child or an adult gets comfortable with asking, “Is there gluten in that? May i read the label on the package?” they will have a hard time later on.

    I have a niece who is allergic to dairy and wheat, and her mother is also sensitive to wheat…even their home is not gluten and dairy free, because they don’t think it’s quite fair to make the other kids, who do not have such medical needs, to switch.

    When I’m cooking at home, if I’m making a gluten-free and normal lunch, I make my gluten free foods first, then set it aside and make the regular version. Most of my dinners that I make are naturally gluten free, except when we have pasta, and then I can easily make two kinds of pasta. I’ve tried my kids on gluten free pasta and they hated it.

  3. Posted by Erin Doland - 04/13/2011

    @Karen — As an adult, it’s probably easier to serve gluten-rich foods to your children than it might be if one of your children were in your position? I think it’s tougher on kids than it is on adults, in many ways. My cousin’s entire house is gluten free because her daughter is gluten intolerant. Her daughter is only seven, so that might be the difference.

    I disagree about your idea that kids need to have their specific allergen in the home as a way to prepare them for the outside world. My son can die if he comes into contact with peanuts. I don’t want him to have those fears at home. I want him to feel relaxed and know that this is a safety zone for him. He’ll learn how to read labels and ask questions fine enough beyond the threshold of our door — his life depends on it. I actually think having peanuts, peanut products, or products produced in a facility with peanuts in our home would be insensitive and cruel. The severity of the allergy certainly weighs into this decision. If he were simply intolerant, it might be less of an issue to have the allergen present in the house.

  4. Posted by Bridget - 04/13/2011

    There is an important medical distinction between allergies and intolerances.

    Someone who is allergic to a given allergen (pollen, mold, peanuts, shellfish) — the proteins of that allergen interact with the immune system and cause an immune-based reaction. This can happen on the skin, in the lungs, in the stomach, in the blood…all over the body.

    Someone who is intolerant to a given allergen (gluten-containing proteins, milk) have some sort of internal reason for the reaction that is caused. Gluten peptides once digested cause a still not well-understood immune reaction in the intestines. Milk sugar (lactose) cannot be digested by those who are lactose intolerant since there is no enzyme production of lactase (that’s why they take lactaid–a synthetic form of the enzyme that breaks down lactose).

    Therefore, the accommodations to be made for someone who is gluten free are very different for those made for someone who has a severe peanut allergy. If I poured wheat flour on someone with a gluten intolerance, nothing would happen. If I poured peanut flour on my younger brother, I would need to epi-pen him in less than five minutes and get him to the ER.

    Certainly there is a component of self-awareness that comes with any food allergy or intolerance that must be taught while they grow up. And trust me, the vast majority of kids with that kind of allergy, once they go through the Epi pen-ambulance-hospital stay routine, understand that the world is not a completely safe place for them. But that doesn’t mean that precautions shouldn’t be taken in the home.

  5. Posted by Tiffany - 04/13/2011

    Cooking for guests with restricted diets gets complicated when you’re cooking for a large group of people, but it’s still doable. We frequently throw large, informal parties where there are 20-30 people in and out of the house over the course of the day, and multiple sets of food restrictions: vegetarians, gluten-intolerant, peanut-allergic, bean-allergic, corn-allergic, lactose-intolerant, olive allergies, etc… And I can’t stand the thought of anyone leaving my home hungry, or getting sick because of what I made for them.

    So in those cases I go by the standard that my friends with dietary restrictions are accustomed to having to choose their food strategically (and HATE feeling like they’ve made someone go to a lot of trouble), but shouldn’t have to feel like they’re cobbling a meal together out of side dishes. To make it work, I end up cooking a whole bunch of different dishes, served buffet-style, and making sure there is a meal for everyone on the table, even if everyone doesn’t eat the exact same meal. I keep track of ingredients and labels, and have a couple of strategies to reduce the risk of cross-contamination from someone, say, sticking the wrong serving spoon into the wrong bowl.

    Granted, this works because I’m mostly accommodating adult food restrictions; most of the children in our group of friends are still young enough that it’s totally normal for their parents to directly manage their food intake or even bring safe food for them. As our friends’ food-allergic children get old enough to notice that their food is different and possibly feel excluded by it, I consider it basic hospitality to check in with the parents and ASK how I can make meals at my home both safe *and* welcoming for their children.

  6. Posted by Karen - 04/14/2011

    Erin–I did not mean for my situation to equal that of a child with a life-threatening allergy. While I have ended up in the ER with anaphlyaxis, it was unrelated to my celiac disease (more likely to my cat/dog/mold/dust allergies, which are severe).

    If i eat gluten, nothing will immediately happen to me, save for some heartburn, possibly, or if I eat a large enough portion, vomiting or diarrhea. If I get exposed over a long period of time to gluten (i.e. eat it, either knowingly or unknowingly), I experience neuropathy and depression. It’s very different from an allergy. Even so, I wash my hands a lot in the kitchen, and as my kids get older they handle regular bagels and breads and other gluten-containing foods for me. I can bake for them without having a reaction; some celiacs are so sensitive that they get ill just being in a bakery or around wheat flour!

    My niece’s allergy to dairy and wheat, as far as I know, is not as life-threatening as your son’s allergy to peanuts, so they keep some regular bread on hand for those who want it.

    I am sorry if my post came across as insensitive to those with life-threatening allergies. I was trying to share how I handle my own restrictive diet and how it works for me. FTW, I’m also allergic to green beans, apples and bananas…yet I keep bananas and apples on hand for my kids, I just wash my hands after peeling a banana for my youngest.

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