GrapevineFeb/Mar 2011 Issue

Allergy-Friendly Eating Games for Kids

Play therapy is an effective way to help children heal from trauma. So why not use food-play therapy to help kids with allergies and sensitivities heal from negative experiences with food? Rashes, stomachaches, intrusive medical procedures and anaphylaxis can wreak havoc on a child’s emotional well-being and quickly add up to a fear of food—a recipe for disaster.

My sister Lisa worried when her 4-year-old daughter, Ella, (seriously emaciated due to previously undiagnosed celiac disease) refused to try her new (not to mention expensive) gluten-free food. The pediatrician advised, “Use toothpicks, make it pretty, serve meals on Dora plates.” The ideas were cute but they didn’t address the underlying issue: Ella associated food with a “yucky” feeling. A subsequent episode of severe cross contamination didn’t help.

To introduce positive feelings around mealtime, Lisa gradually started doing mini-food projects with Ella, encouraging her to get more hands-on with her food. Without the pressure of “this is your dinner,” the projects became a side activity they did just for fun. Ella loved it. Over time, as her body began to heal, so did her attitude about eating. She thought of it as play, which took away her anxiety.

Playing with food is more than helping mom and dad prepare dinner. It’s about letting kids use their imagination to create masterpieces while familiarizing themselves with the tastes, textures and smells of ingredients.

My sister wanted Ella to try nutritious gluten-free grains like buckwheat and quinoa. So she and Ella started grocery shopping together after school. At home, they played “store” with their new goodies and then they worked on a recipe, making a game out of it. It turned into a taste adventure they enjoyed together.

When kids are exposed to new food in fun, non-threatening ways, they begin to trust that it won’t make their skin itchy, cause them to breathe funny or prompt a bellyache. Having fun with food encourages picky eaters to touch, smell and taste new things, always a plus when switching youngsters over to a special diet.

Remember that learning to develop trust again takes a patient, confident guide. If you are relaxed and open-minded about eating, your child will pick up on it and model that attitude.

Lesson in Fun

These play-with-your-food ideas are great for kids’ parties, playgroups and even as an educational activity (learning about food sensitivities or nutrition) to do with your child’s class at school. Kids can taste and munch while creating and playing.

Ice Cream Parlor Great for dairy-allergic kids who are getting used to alternative ice cream. Put out a display of different flavors and toppings and pretend it’s an ice-cream parlor. Have sampling spoons and encourage kids to try different combinations.

Tic-Tac-Toe Create a tic-tac-toe board with raw carrot and zucchini matchsticks. Almost any veggie or cooked bean can be your X’s and O’s. Try corn kernels, cut up red pepper, diced cucumber, snow peas, etc.

Noah’s Ark Ask each child to “build” an outline of an ark on a dinner plate, using gluten-free pretzels (Glutino, Snyder’s) and licorice sticks (Clif Kid Twisted Fruit) as “logs.” Have the kids sandwich together two animal crackers (Mi-Del, Kinnikinnick, Orgran) using SunButter. They can even create a plank out of fruit leather where the animals can walk by twos up into the ark.

Fruit Rainbow Have your child draw a rainbow on a piece of paper. Place it inside a gallon-size Ziploc bag. Together, cut up different-colored fruits to represent hues of the rainbow and fill in the picture.

Reader Sharon Wanunu of Philadelphia has a young daughter with celiac disease and lactose intolerance.

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