Does your child need to go on a gluten free and/or dairy free diet, but they’re a picky eater and you have no idea how to make that a reality? There’s a way! Check out this step by step approach…
Having a picky eater is stressful enough, but trying to get them on a gluten free and/or dairy free diet can seem downright impossible. Maybe a professional recommended this diet to you because your child has a gluten allergy or a sensitivity? Or, maybe because they have PANS/PANDAS?
Maybe you’ve been doing some of your own research and you’re concerned about the health of their gut? You wonder if going gluten free and dairy free could actually be the solution to their picky eating?
All of these are very good reasons to go to a gluten free and/or dairy free diet. I know from personal experience it can be a very difficult step to take because our culture is heavily rooted in gluten and dairy based foods. And, those are the foods that most picky eaters tend to eat.
The good news is that today, it’s easier than ever to go gluten free/dairy free than ever before.
I’ve watched several of my Mealtime Works students make this transition successfully, even with VERY picky eaters, and their eating has only improved.
Should You Go Gluten Free or Dairy Free With Your Picky Eater?
I’ve been gluten free and dairy free for almost 3 years now. I’ve never had any formal sensitivities testing done, although I was tested for Celiac disease and it came back negative. After years of painful heart burn, bland diets, headaches, and fatigue, I threw in the towel and tried the paleo diet.
It hasn’t always been easy, but my health and my life have been completely transformed.
My family is not gluten free, but we are very low dairy and we’re using one of the approaches below to ultimately eliminate it for everyone because most of my family has symptoms when they have dairy. Usually in the form of constipation. Learn about natural ways to treat constipation in kids.
Even with all this personal experience, I do believe making the decision to try this diet with your child is a personal choice, unless you have a diagnosis. You should never feel shamed into trying a GF-DF diet with you child.
But, it’s something you may want to consider if you see any sort of chronic pain, digestive issues, or behavior issues that can’t be explained. I will say that it is NOT normal to have frequent heart burn, reflux, constipation, or diarrhea. Because of over the counter medicines, we can treat the symptoms and not the cause.
If you feel like you’ve explored other causes of any of these issues and can’t find a solution, you may want to try a gluten free and/or dairy free diet with your child. Certainly, if you have a diagnosis like Celiac Disease, then you must make the change.
How to Go Gluten Free or Dairy Free With a Picky Eater: 2 Approaches
There are two ways to go about getting your picky eater onto a gluten free and/or dairy free diet. The first approach is removing all gluten and/or dairy cold turkey. The second approach is to ease into the removal, which is easier for most families. Although sometimes, that’s not an option.
If you’re child is old enough to understand these dietary changes, talk to them about it first. If you have a diagnosis, have them be part of the conversation with the doctor, they’ll be able to understand better if it isn’t just coming from you.
If it is something you’re trying on your own, you’ll want to share with them why. For example, my son has severe constipation after eating dairy. He loves pizza in particular, but he understands that the pain and discomfort is caused by that cheese and so he can tolerate the removal of pizza from his diet.
Let’s talk more about each approach:
Approach #1: Cold Turkey
Going cold turkey means picking a day to remove all gluten and dairy from your child’s diet. The day before you begin the diet, they may have eaten toast, Doritos, and a cheese stick. The next day they can eat none of those things or anything else with gluten or dairy in it.
You’re drawing a line in the sand.
Again, if your child is old enough to understand, you’ll want to let them know when this day is, but more importantly, you’re going to need have a game plan. Lucky for you, I have one right here:
1. Make a list of all the foods your child eats that are gluten free and/or dairy free.
2. Make a list of other foods your child might eat that are naturally gluten free or dairy free.
3. Ask your child if they have any suggestions for foods. Search online together.
4. Show your child what the “GF” and “DF” symbols look like on packaging and take them on a grocery store trip with you. Most stores now have a wide variety. But, you might want to think of shopping at a health food store as they’ll have lots of options.
5. Make a menu plan for one week so you know what foods your child is going to eat. Try to ensure that there’s one food they typically eat at each meal, and experiment with new recipes. For instance, if your child loves chicken nuggets, try our gluten free chicken nugget recipe, which is also very successful with picky eaters. I’m a picky eating expert so I know at this point that your stress is rising if you have an extreme picky eater. Your child may only eat 4 foods and they’re all gluten based. If it’s not an immediate medical necessity, use the second approach.
6. Remove all gluten and dairy based favorite foods if possible from your home, or put them in a location where your child won’t easily see them on the day you begin the new diet.
7. Begin the gluten free and/or dairy free diet.
This approach takes some mental fortitude and it isn’t for everyone. If you don’t have to immediately remove gluten/dairy because of a medical diagnosis, then for most parents, the second approach will be more pleasant, especially for extreme picky eaters.
However, going this route can have some pretty big benefits because you’re likely to see faster results. Remember, if you choose this bold approach that you don’t turn this gluten free, dairy free thing into a battle. It’s very hard not to. You’ll need to remind yourself, often, that pressuring them to eat these new foods can backlash.
That begging, bribing, tricking, and rewarding can ultimately create a negative association with gluten free and dairy free foods.
Instead, focus on this process together. Use compassion and encourage exploration with the food. It will take time. Begin this process with that expectation.
If your child is low weight and only has a few foods that are gluten and or dairy based, I wouldn’t recommend starting this diet cold turkey without the support of a professional, such as a functional medicine doctor, naturopath, or nutritionist with training in this area.
Approach #2: Ease into it
With this approach, you’ll be following the same steps as approach 1, but you’re going to take it slower. You’ll start to introduce more gluten free and dairy free foods, and work on getting your child to accept those before eliminating the gluten and dairy based foods they typically eat. For strategies to help picky eaters begin accepting new foods, check out our free picky eating workshop.
At the same time that they are beginning to accept to new GF-DF foods to eat, you’ll start choosing some gluten and or dairy based foods to eliminate.
For instance, when I first started eliminating dairy from 2 of my kids diets, I cut out milk first. We started using almond milk instead. It took a few months for them to totally get used it, but they did. Shortly after that, I also cut out plain cheese. I used to serve that as a lunch option: cheese and crackers.
Then, I made sure we only had grilled cheese once a week, and after a few months, we didn’t have it all anymore. In that time, I worked on ham and grilled cheese sandwiches. Once we didn’t eat grilled cheese anymore, they could have ham sandwiches.
You get the idea.
Create a plan and timeline – or not?
If you need to get your child off gluten/dairy quickly, establish how long you have. Your doctor can make a suggestion or think about what you feel is best. The answer could be 1 month, 3 months, or a year. It depends on your goals and if there are any immediate medical needs.
If you’re choosing a short time frame, you’ll want to establish weekly goals, like this:
Week 1: Dairy at only 1 meal a day
Week 2: Dairy 4-5 times a week, never 2x in the same day
Week 3: Dairy 2-3 times a week, never 2x in the same day
Week 4: Dairy 0-1 times a week
Pick one day a week, Sundays usually work well and evaluate your goals and give yourself some time to brainstorm and menu plan. If menu planning for the whole week is overwhelming, planning out 1-2 days in advance works too, just try to get in the habit of doing it until it comes natural.
If there isn’t any urgency to have your child be totally GF-DF by a specific date and having a plan feels stressful, then you don’t necessarily need one. You can follow these steps at you and your child’s own pace.
Tips to make going gluten free with a picky eater as painless as possible!
Going gluten free-dairy free is a REALLY big change for some kids. To help with this transition, there are a few other strategies that could help:
- Eat what they eat – You can still eat gluten and dairy if you want when they aren’t looking, but doing this diet with them will help a lot, at least in the beginning.
- Don’t have gluten or dairy based foods around if you can help it – if you have other kids in the house, this may not be impossible. If that’s the case, try to be aware of the additional tension this could create and plan meals where everyone eats the same food.
- Encourage trying foods over and over again – Explain that it takes time to get used to new foods and that trying helps us do that. This can turn into pressure, so be careful. Focus on compassionately educating! Tell your child that it takes up to 15 times of trying a food before they get used to it.
- Use Dips – A lot of dips like ketchup, peanut butter, and honey mustard are GF-DF, if your child likes one, serve it with their new foods. It’s a great tool because they taste something familiar with the dip. Learn more about using dips for picky eaters.
- Cook together – When you’re making GF-DF substitutes of their favorite foods, try to get your kid involved in the kitchen! When they can touch and see the ingredients, they’ll be so much more likely to try the food!
Gluten Free + Dairy Free Food Ideas for Picky Eaters
Need some inspiration for GF/DF foods? Here are some ideas:
Cassava flour chips
Chick pea chips
Roasted chick peas
All fruits and vegetables are also gluten free. Think about serving them in different ways. Dehydrated fruits are successful for some picky eaters because they’re crispy. Breading veggies in almond or coconut flour is a great trick too.
All protein in gluten free unless it’s been altered. Nearly all bacon and hot dogs are gluten free too!
And, as mentioned, most favorite gluten or dairy recipes can be made GF-DF. Here are two gluten free and dairy free recipes that were created with picky eaters in mind:
What If Gluten Free or Dairy Free Doesn’t Work?
I’ve seen gluten free or dairy free diets not work because they were never followed 100% of the time, if your child has a sensitivity or PANS/PANDAS, you might not see ANY progress with their symptoms until the foods are TOTALLY eliminated. That means if they’re eating gluten or dairy without you knowing at school or another location, it will sabotage everything.
Or, if they cheat at a friend’s birthday party or on family pizza night.
There’s no blame here, but I don’t want you to quit the diet if you only need to ensure more consistency.
And, for some kids, there could be additional sensitivities to soy, egg, food coloring, or processed foods in general. Sometimes kids need processed foods eliminated, which is another layer. If you have 100% eliminated gluten and dairy for 3 months and still aren’t seeing results, I’d recommend seeing a functional medicine doctor, naturopath, or nutritionist that specializes in this type of diet.
Take a deep breath, and know this is possible. If you have a question about the diet or picky eating, drop it in the comments below. We’d also love to hear from you if you have any tips that have worked for you!
More Help for Picky Eaters
Alisha Grogan is a licensed occupational therapist and founder of Your Kid’s Table. She has over 15 years experience with expertise in sensory processing and feeding development in babies, toddlers, and children. Alisha also has 3 boys of her own at home. Learn more about her here.