How to Manage Dietary Restrictions in Your Family

Mom and son cooking vegetables

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Whether your child has a food allergy, you have celiac disease and cannot have gluten, or your partner is lactose intolerant and cannot have dairy, planning a family meal can be a challenge—especially if the meal you put on the table could potentially cause an allergic reaction or severe abdominal distress for you or someone you love.

"It is common for families to have one family member, especially a child, with either an allergy, intolerance, or diet restriction," says Nicole Silber, RD, a registered dietitian and creator of Tiny Tasters. "I always recommend to streamline meals as much as possible so that parents or caregivers don't have to make multiple meals. Ideally, that is finding a dinner that would work with all of the restrictions."

If your child has recently been diagnosed with a food allergy and you are wondering how to make meals at home safe—and tasty—the first thing you need to know is that you are not alone. An estimated 8% of the kids in the U.S. have a food allergy or about 1 in 13 children in the country. What's more, as many as 75% of people have oral allergy syndrome and nearly 4% of people worldwide have celiac disease.

Oral allergy syndrome is an allergic reaction that is confined to the lips, mouth, and throat.

Consequently, when you have a family member with one of these conditions, meal planning is no longer something you do to make life easier—it now becomes a survival skill in every sense of the word. To help take some of the fear out of meal planning, below we provide some practical tips on how to feed your family despite their dietary restrictions.

Consider Each Person's Needs

When you need to limit staples from your meals like wheat, dairy, eggs, or even tree nuts or fish, this requires you to change the way you think about cooking, grocery shopping, and even eating out. But that also doesn't mean putting a nutritious—and safe—meal on the table is impossible. With a little thought, creativity, and consideration you can plan meals everyone can enjoy.

"If there is a young child with a severe food allergy, I often recommend eliminating that food from the house and communal meals, so that the child is safe, and there is less stress among the caregivers for cross-contamination," Silber suggests. "As children grow older, they can learn about their allergies and eating safely, and those foods can be brought back into the house and at mealtimes."

Once you take stock of what your child or family member cannot have, think about what they can have. Most likely, you'll realize that you have more options than you first imagined. Likewise, you will need to consider whether eliminating the food completely from the household is best for the entire family.

For instance, if you have both a toddler and a preschooler and one is allergic to milk, it may not make sense to completely eliminate milk from your home. The same is true if one person in your family cannot have gluten—you may want to find ways to have both gluten-free pasta and bread, as well as whole-grain versions, in your home.

Checking for Cross-Contamination

Severe food allergies require extra consideration when it comes to the cross-contamination of certain ingredients. This might mean avoiding products that are prepared in the same facilities as the allergen, or making sure to not use the same utensils to dish up allergen foods and non-allergen foods.

Look for Substitutes

Just because someone in your family cannot eat certain foods, that does not mean you have to say goodbye to your favorite foods. For instance, if your child cannot have peanuts, you might be able to try sunflower seed butter (just remember to check for cross-contamination issues).

Or, if your child cannot have milk, you might try oat milk or soy milk. You will even find yogurt made with coconut milk and cheese made with cashew milk. There also are gluten-free grains like quinoa and brown rice and you can often find pasta made with chickpeas.

"If there is a food allergy, then this is a new way of living," says Kimberly Nanninga, RD, a registered dietitian. "You will be buying some specialty foods and mostly whole foods. It will take a few months of adjusting, but there is a huge range of specialty products that can replace traditional favorites.

Nanninga suggests finding a dietitian to kickstart your allergy-friendly journey, if possible. Additionally, resources like Thrive Market are great for ordering specialty products. "Pinterest is also a great resource when switching to gluten-free, dairy-free, or egg-free for recipes."

Learn to Read Labels

One of the most important steps to take when one or more family members have food allergies or other dietary restrictions is to know exactly what’s in something before you buy it. You can't underestimate the importance of reading a label.

Even if your family has eaten the food before, it is important to still double-check what's in the food you're buying—manufacturers frequently change ingredients in the products they produce. It's also important to make sure your family is still getting the vitamins and minerals they need, even while cutting out a certain ingredient.

"Make sure that you are still getting all macronutrients and fiber that the body needs," says Nanninga. "[And remember] It is still possible to eat meals that you enjoy; you'll just make them in a different way."

Focus on Whole Foods

One of the easiest ways to make sure you are keeping your family safe is to stick with whole foods whenever possible. When buying groceries, Nanninga suggests shopping the perimeter of the grocery store, as well as looking for products that have few ingredients. The fewer ingredients, the less likely there is to be an allergen that falls through the cracks.

Utilize Your Freezer

Let's admit it, some days you just won't feel like cooking. For this reason, it is important to have a backup plan. This is where your freezer will come into play.

Plan a meal prep day where you make one or two recipes that work for your family and freeze them in single portions. This way, you can fall back on them when you need to get a safe meal on the table in a hurry or you are going to be away from the house and someone else will be feeding your child.

One option might be a chili (or other soup) recipe made with safe ingredients—like ground turkey, beans, tomatoes, onions, garlic, and shredded carrots. Then, on the day you need it, you can simply pull it out of the freezer and drop it in the crockpot. Just serve the chili over rice with corn and avocado on the side and voila! Dinner is ready to go.

Prep Ahead of Time

Set up a meal plan and let this be your guide, suggests Nanninga. "I also try to make a soup or simple meal on the weekends or early in the week so that if we get really busy, this is available."

Plus, making a menu can help make dinner prep much more manageable and organized, says Silber. "It is also a great way to find some common denominator foods that everyone can enjoy!"

Try to Make One Meal

When you first find out that one of your kids or your partner needs to eliminate certain foods or follow a restricted diet, it’s easy to assume you will have to make multiple meals. Fortunately, that is rarely the case. Instead, all you need to do is pick a protein or side the entire family can have and build your meal from there. You also can consider making a deconstructed meal that accommodates everyone's allergies and preferences, suggests Silber.

"For example, if a child has a dairy allergy and it is pasta night, prep a base of pasta without cheese or a dairy-based sauce, and offer it on the side to those who can tolerate it," she says.

You also can set up a taco bar or put together options for a grain bowl. Offer rice, quinoa, or cauliflower rice along with a protein and a variety of vegetables. You also plan a pizza night and allow each person to make their own with their favorite toppings. If someone cannot have gluten, there are a number of pre-made cauliflower crusts available, or you can make your own. An omelet bar (assuming your child is not allergic to eggs), deconstructed stuffed peppers, or a Mediterranean platter are all fairly easy, safe meals for allergies.

"Just like any meal planning, try and establish a balance between protein-filled foods, healthy fats, vegetables. and carbohydrates," says Silber. "Variety can be accomplished in simple ways, such as swapping out the type of pasta, or the sauce, or the prep of the veggie between steamed and sautéed." 

Prevent Cross-Contamination

If you have a child or family member with food allergies or other health concerns, you need to be aware of the risk of cross-contamination—especially if you have decided not to completely eliminate the food from your household. The Food Allergy Research and Education organization recommends that you have separate cookware—like pots, pans, cutting boards, knives, and other utensils—for preparing food without that allergen. If buying separate items is not possible, you can make sure you wash them in hot, soapy water before using them.

You also will need to take steps to keep your food-allergic child or family member's food free of cross-contamination while prepping the meal, too. For instance, if you are serving whole grain pasta for the entire family and chickpea pasta for your child with celiac, you need to be sure to use separate spoons for stirring the pasta and strain them in separate colanders.

Give Yourself a Break

Planning meals and feeding someone with dietary restrictions can be exhausting at times. For this reason, it is important to give yourself some much-needed rest when it comes to meal preparation.

For instance, share the meal prep duties with another member of the household—or consider ordering takeout or going out to dinner every now and then. While eating out when someone has a life-threatening food allergy can seem counterintuitive, it is possible.

More and more restaurants are able to accommodate restricted diets. Many have gluten-free menus and clearly mark menu items that contain food allergies. Even if you don't feel comfortable taking your little one to a restaurant, this does not mean, you cannot go with a partner or friend while a trusted adult stays with your child.

You also should be patient and give yourself time to adjust, encourages Nanninga. Food restrictions can be overwhelming in the beginning.

"However, start simple and over about two months you will find a new way of eating," she says. "Food can still taste delicious. There are alternative recipes and products out there for almost everything."

5 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Food allergy.

  2. American Academy of Allergy Asthma and Immunology. Oral allergy syndrome.

  3. American Academy of Allergy Asthma and Immunology. Celiac disease, non-celiac gluten sensitivity, and food allergy: How are they different?

  4. Nationwide Children's Hospital. The importance of reading labels for food allergen avoidance.

  5. Food Allergy Research and Education. Avoiding cross-contact.

By Sherri Gordon, CLC
Sherri Gordon, CLC is a published author, certified professional life coach, and bullying prevention expert. She's also the former editor of Columbus Parent and has countless years of experience writing and researching health and social issues.