Committing to paleolithic nutrition can feel very restricting when it comes to restaurants, travel and celebrations. Even if you relax your restrictions and focus on simply remaining gluten-free, it can be hard. And if you are a very sensitive individual (like I am) or have severe allergies, even relaxing this much isn’t an option.
One of our biggest challenges as a paleo family is surviving the Kid’s Birthday Party, both attending someone else’s and throwing our own. Both situations can lead to a feeling of social isolation, which is a very difficult thing for kids who are often super sensitive to being different (it’s not so easy on us parents either!). Depending on the age of your kid, it also may be very difficult to explain why they are being “left out” of a treat that other kids are enjoying right in front of them.
Attending a birthday party can feel like walking a tightrope. I want my children to have a good time. I want my children to enjoy being kids. I want my children to form positive memories and reinforce lasting friendships. But I don’t want them exposed to foods that will hurt them (this is especially true for my youngest who gets a rash that lasts several weeks when she eats gluten) or turn them into behavioral nightmares (true for my oldest who gets very whiny and emotional when she eats refined sugar). It’s hardest for me to balance these often disparate desires when I’m out of my home and don’t have control over, well, anything.
But, we do still attend birthday parties. This is the gist of my strategy: I feed my children well before leaving the house. If they aren’t hungry, they are less likely to notice the pizza at the table. They may even just continue playing while the other kids eat. I also bring treats with me that my kids can eat. This helps avoid the feeling of being left out and deprived.
Talking with the host/hostess of the party and explaining our situation can be very helpful. Depending on how well I know them, I go into more or less detail. For someone I don’t know, I simply say “my kids are allergic to gluten” which is a common enough allergy/sensitivity that it’s easily understood. I further explain that they don’t need to do anything different or worry about my kids at all and that I will simply bring options that they can eat. Some people will go out of their way to accommodate my kids and others are simply relieved that our dietary restrictions aren’t going to complicate their lives any further (hosting a kid’s party can be stressful enough as it is!). Talking to the host can give me a sense of what kind of food will be served, whether or not any of it will be “safe” (like veggies or fruit), and what I can bring to minimize the sense of deprivation.
If they are going to have a cookie cake for example, I can bring chocolate chip cookies. If they are going to have a more traditional cake, I can bring cupcakes. If they are going to have pizza, I can bring a paleo version of that too (my favorite recipe is from Eat Like a Dinosaur). Maybe I even throw in something extra special like some dairy-free Chocolate for my kids to eat. This is easier with my 5.5-year old who prefers the treats I make anyway (and will do just about anything for chocolate). This is tougher with my 2.5-year old who also needs to be distracted from what other kids are eating.
The other challenge is the goodie bag. I don’t know when candy became such a common inclusion in goodie bags, but I don’t like it (seriously, you hop my kids up on cake and then send them home with MORE candy????). I don’t usually bother requesting a special bag for my kids that doesn’t have candy. Instead, I have something on hand that is a good substitute (like a small coloring book with crayon and stickers) and trade these for the candy. If my kids are feeling really deprived, I sometimes trade the goody bag candy for homemade candy or chocolate.
Yes, it’s hard to be at a party and not eat the treats that the other kids are eating. Sometimes it’s tempting to just not go or leave before the cake is served, but I don’t want to deprive my children of the birthday party experience. And facing these challenges helps teach them about the way that we eat, how to handle these types of social situations, gives them phrases they can use by watching me, and teaches them that being different is okay.
Sometimes my strategy works and sometimes it’s an abominable failure. I treat every new party or similar social situation as a new opportunity to practice these survival skills. Not only does it help me get better at navigating these tricky social situations but my example teaches my kids how to do the same.