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The celiac child is at higher risk of nutritional deficiencies. Indeed, his/her intestinal wall may be less efficient in the absorption of vitamins and minerals, particularly at the beginning of the diagnosis. In addition, flours used in the production of breads, pasta and other gluten-free bakery products are not always enriched, as it is in the case of wheat flour, for example. In some cases, a vitamin and mineral supplement may be suggested at the beginning of the illness or at specific times, such as when the child has a weak appetite that persists over time. The doctor or nutritionist of the child can assess the need for this supplement.
In early childhood, social bonds are formed. Eating is no longer just a vital act, but also becomes a social act. The celiac child is used to eating differently. He is reasonable, he understands, but … he loves to eat foods like everyone else! The day the daycare adapted their regular menu to offer my daughter the gluten-free version, she no longer told me what she had eaten, but that she had eaten the same thing as her friends. This is an important aspect, even for little ones!
The gluten-free food offered is often more consistent with the taste of adults. The crackers contain a lot of grains that are visible, the flours used sometimes give a pronounced taste, the nuts are present, etc. It does not appeal to children. They usually prefer the little fish-shaped orange cracker that the friend beside them has. Over the years, the gluten-free food industry has diversified its offerings so that we find more and more products specially designed to please our little celiacs. It is true that these foods are not usually the most nutritious. However, as the children’s diet does not have to be perfect, they can be given occasionally. They have their place in a healthy diet provided you do not find them every day on the menu.
It is possible for your child’s diet to be similar to that of his friends. The key is: cooking! Although the options are growing, many products are not always available in a gluten-free version, especially the more specialized ones. So you have to be creative to find substitutes. Often, one can even manage to make a version more fitting for appetites and small hands. For example, an English muffin can be used as a mini-pizza crust and a hamburger bun can be cut with a small cylindrical cookie cutter to create mini-burgers. Even better, the substitute will probably be more nutritious, since it is often less fatty, less salty or less sweet. A slice of bread baked in a muffin pan will replace the commercial puff pastry and a molasses cookie recipe and a bear paw-shaped cookie cutter will replace the commercial version, among other examples.
Last May, my daughter celebrated her fifth birthday. It was a big step that leads to another: the beginning of school. Since our diagnosis, we have had to overcome several challenges, including the biggest, which was acceptance. I realize, over time, it is easier to find solutions, probably as we begin to see the situation more positively. I also know that going to school will bring other new challenges. However, the experience you’ve gained since the diagnosis and the growing independence of your child are encouraging aspects for parents. Also, in elementary school, as most students bring their own lunch, the “I don’t eat like my friends” aspect will be easier to manage because everyone will be eating differently. It is also important to take advantage of the available resources, such as the magazine ‘Info Coeliaque’ (in French), which published an article on starting a new school year in the fall of 2016. It includes several tips, including a memo for teachers. A must read!
Despite the challenges that gluten-free eating represents for the celiac child and their parents, not everything is negative. We have to enjoy the beautiful discoveries, the success of a new recipe, the interest of friends and family in our gluten-free favorites, the advances of the food industry in the development of gluten-free products, among others. Before you succeed, you have to give yourself the chance to experiment, sometimes to fail, to be a little discouraged and to start again. Every success, even the smallest, is an accomplishment and gives us reassurance and confidence. Then, after a few years, we find ourselves in front of the pantry knowing perfectly where to start, nutritionist or not!
By Mélissa Dion-Tremblay R.D.