My Deep Dive Into Toddler Food Sensitivities
Our journey navigating food sensitivities has been an overwhelming, stressful and time consuming path to follow the past almost year. No one ever says, “I sure hope my baby has food sensitivities!” Having a toddler with food sensitivities can be stressful, and when you don’t like to cook it is double trouble. I’m sharing what we went through so it can hopefully help someone else skip ahead a few steps and find solutions sooner, or just find comfort in that someone else has gone through this maze.
We found out pretty early that my son was sensitive to dairy, which makes sense, as I’m definitely lactose intolerant. For the first year of his solid food eating life he seemed to tolerate everything else well. Right around his second birthday he developed a rash on his lower stomach that spread to his upper thighs. It didn’t hurt or bug him, was just skin colored bumps, and he didn’t have any other symptoms. I took him to his Pediatrician who said it was likely just a skin irritation to something he came in contact with and it would go away. That didn’t seem right to me as we use all chemical free detergents, diapers, and it was an odd area to have repeated exposure to something besides clothes or diapers – and it didn’t go away. I took him to his Naturopath who said it was likely…food. This felt more likely to me as someone who is also sensitive to some food, but still not something I was excited to hear. She recommended an elimination diet to see if the rash went away and to more clearly be able to tell what he was reacting to.
I’ve done elimination diets for myself so I knew it took a lot of planning. I was motivated as I wanted to get to the bottom of what was going on. After two weeks on the elimination diet his rash was totally gone! No denying that it was food related.
After the full elimination we started adding back in foods and get a clear idea of what his body reacts to. The immune response to foods after they've been out of your system for a while is amplified (my very unscientific summary, you can find many many articles on this online). So as we started adding foods back in, he started reacting to... everything. Not just typical allergens (wheat, dairy, nuts), but turkey, grapes, chicken, rice, the basics. Basically his entire diet. So I freaked out.
He wasn’t having massive reactions to show that it was a full on allergy, but he was getting super red and flushed histamine cheeks. When the cheeks flush significantly it shows there is inflammation, when it’s related to food it’s usually caused by his immune system attacking the food. This means redirecting immune system energy away from fighting what it should be fighting (colds, virus, mold), and putting it’s energy on chicken (or whatever food it is reacting to). So I went back to his Naturopath and she said it is a sign of leaky gut. Well, that was a new one to me!
She explained that there was an imbalance of his gut flora, which caused the walls of his gut to be more permeable allowing food particles to get through. Foods that he ate in repetition were targeted by his immune system as invaders, so his gut wasn’t able to heal, and his immune system was activated all the time. She said many kids gut floras are imbalanced these days due to their diets, medications (antibiotics, vaccines, steroids), and if their mother has their own gut imbalance (it is passed on to the child upon birth).
She said the good news is that he was so young that his gut wall can repair relatively quickly with the right protocol. The protocol was to take out any food that has triggered an immune response for 4-8 weeks before trying it again, as well as doing a 3-day rotation diet with the foods that he can tolerate. She said if we did this along with taking some gut healing supplements (collagen, fish oil, probiotics), that his gut should heal in 6 months or so. At the end of it he may still be sensitive to dairy, but not the other ‘normal’ foods that are being triggered due to leaky gut.
The biggest challenge was that this recommendation had taken me a few months to get to, and by this point he had been triggered by pretty much all his normal food. So to limit his diet to food that hadn’t triggered him, and put it in a 3-day rotation (i.e. food that he has Monday he can’t have again until Thursday), seemed impossible. There weren’t enough foods! He couldn’t have anything with gluten, rice, spelt, almond flour or oats. He couldn't have dairy, eggs, chicken, turkey, grapes, dairy, or any nightshades to name a few of the biggies.
I felt totally overwhelmed. I would have to not only cook all of his meals and snacks (no packaged anything), but also be creative in a way that I have never been with cooking. Oh and did I mention I really don’t like cooking. Then comes the problem that he is a TODDLER so he’s not interested in eating straight veggies, he snacks like crazy, and loves his muffins and pancakes.
I went where we all go when trouble hits – to Pinterest. I found a few references to people who were doing a rotation diet or the GAPS method, which also repairs leaky gut. These were more for adults or older kids as they suggested lots of variations of salads. There’s no way my son would eat a salad. There were a lot of resources for Paleo kids, which had some good ideas, but relied heavily on almond flour and other ingredients he couldn’t have.
I know enough about gluten-free cooking to know that you can’t just replace regular flour with a gluten free one, they typically require mixing gluten free flours to find the right balance. When you’re trying to stretch out flours to make the rotation work (i.e. no more than 1 type of flour a day if you’re lucky to find 3 flours that are tolerated), you don’t want to use 2 in a day! I researched lots of gluten free flours to try besides the ones he was already reacting (rice and oats), and learned about Teff, Arrowroot, Quinoa, Tigernut, and Cassava to name a few. Some worked and some he reacted to right away. I started to get ideas, but I still couldn’t figure out how to fill out a 3-day rotation meal plan.
I called in the big guns, a certified nutritionist: (www.cookingnutritionseattle.com). I worked with her to learn about different proteins I hadn’t really used before (lamb, other types of fish) and strategies on what a 3-day rotation diet looked like in reality. She helped me understand which foods were the most imperative to really spread out to 3 days (proteins and grains) and which were ok if he had them a little more often (most fruits and veggies). She also came to my kitchen and showed me cooking techniques to make toddler-friendly food that didn’t include dairy, wheat and other triggers. She helped give me confidence and guidelines to help me feel like I could actually do this!
As you’ve probably noticed if you search Pinterest, there are lots of good ideas for ‘veggie fritters’ or ‘veggie tots’ or ‘veggie muffins’ but they ALL include cheese and/or some sort of flour to bind them. I experimented using the nutritionist’s cooking techniques and became the veggie-only fritter extraordinaire using binders like avocado and squash instead of flour or cheese. I made butternut squash and parsnip fritters, avocado carrot fritters, zucchini avocado fritters, spaghetti squash gelatin fritters and more! I also played around with flour free meatballs, patties, and other creative ways to get him to eat meat. My kid loved (most of) them and because of it he now eats an incredible amount of vegetables!
This process, while very hard and time consuming, helped me gain confidence and a plan of action for keeping my son’s immune system calm so his gut could heal. It had lots of challenges like cooking a whole new batch of fritters with some random combination I invented, just to have him spit them out, then trying them myself and spitting them out because they really were gross. Or having something I’m relying on in my rotation cause a reaction and having to remove it and start from scratch.
After just about 6 months of this rotation I took my son in to get his food sensitivities tested again. In order to have an accurate test you have to consume ALL the problem foods within a week of the test. This was insane to me after months of keeping all these foods out of his diet. He had a week of gluten and honey, eggs, cheese, potatoes, and all kinds of foods he hadn’t been able to have. It was probably the best week of his life. I was surprised he had some small reactions, but for the most part he didn’t get any super flushed cheeks. We did however notice a BIG difference in behavior. His tantrums went way up, he was much more contrarian and difficult to manage.
We got the test results back and he was so much better! The only things we now need to avoid are gluten, dairy, and peanuts. He isn’t allergic to these things, just normal food sensitivity. Let me tell you after six months of this restricted cooking, just being gluten and dairy free is a piece of cake! We are so happy that he is doing so much better and have been able to expand his diet exponentially without any side effects.
Given the insanity we went through I wanted to share my best tips for how to handle the news that your kiddo has food sensitivities:
1) Find medical professionals you trust – I personally find that Pediatricians are amazing for handling acute issues and I trust Naturopaths more for systemic long term health related issues such as food sensitivities. In our case our Pediatrician didn’t think my son’s rash was any big deal – and in the acute sense he was right! I knew it wasn’t contagious or dangerous, but after having chronic health issues run in my family I know the long term damage of inflammation and that the rash is sending a message that something wasn’t right. So for ME I needed to get to the bottom of what it was even though I knew it wasn’t an acute issue. Everyone has their own opinion on these types of concerns and a different threshold of what they want and are able to address.
2) Get help – I was so overwhelmed that I needed more support. Getting help from the Certified Nutritionist was a lifesaver. I needed someone who could answer my questions and help me make a plan. After a few months of using her methods I felt like I needed even more support to make sure I was on the right path and I found a Naturopathic clinic who’s primary focus is children with food sensitivities. They have been extremely helpful as well and I wish I had found them sooner! His initial Naturopath was great, but didn’t have the deep experience with the issue this clinic does.
3) Remember, it’s not personal – It’s hard to not be frustrated with ‘why me’ thoughts when I saw other kids eat anything and everything and seem just fine. I also felt moments of judgment from other parents and people in general when I was being so controlling of my son’s food by bringing our own food everywhere and not letting him have what the other kids were eating. “Geez, let him live a little, what’s the harm” was something I heard more than once. I knew the only way to heal his gut was to really commit to it. The other part to not take personal was when I made a full rotation meal plan for the week, bought all the stuff and batch cooked, just to see my son suddenly have a bad reaction to one of the ingredients meaning the whole batch was unusable for the next few weeks at least – UGH. It was key in those moments to remember his body isn’t out to spite me, although it sure feels personal!
4) It feels like forever but they can heal fast – When I was in it each week or day even could feel like forever. It’s hard to stay motivated and creative every day. And it’s SO MUCH COOKING. I felt like that was the only thing I did - cook, dishes, repeat. It did push me in a new way; I learned so much about different techniques and ingredients. My son also got exposure to all kinds of new vegetables and fruits that we never would have tried if this hadn’t happened. Once I was able to stick to it, it felt so good to know I was able to help my kiddo through this time and set him up with not only a stronger digestive system but also much stronger immune system.
5) Organize, batch cook, calendars – In my previous life I did a lot of project management. I used these methods to help me get through this time and only go a little crazy. I would make a weekly meal plan in a word document. I had an excel spreadsheet that the Certified Nutritionist gave me to work off of that I modified to track all of his food intake each day and make sure I was sticking to the rotation. I was able to add notes to it as to any reactions, as well as remind myself when I needed to cook more fritters, muffins, meatballs, or whatever it was that day. I also became a master of batch cooking. With a rotation diet batch cooking is imperative to make the most of each time I was cooking. I would divide it into portions and freeze what I didn’t need that week. Then I was able to spread out a batch of fritters for 2-3 weeks. Mind you I’d have to be mixing that in with maybe 2-3 other batches of fritters that were also on rotation. So I was still constantly cooking, but was able to at least stretch out each batch that I made.
6) Behavior – We didn’t go into this process because of any behavioral issues, but a side effect of this cleaner diet was that my son was significantly calmer, better sleeper, and had way fewer tantrums. He was such a tough baby that it made me wonder how much of his crying and fussiness during those early days was due to his reaction to something I was eating while breastfeeding, or if he was more sensitive than I knew that first year of solid foods. I’m not a nutritionist or scientist obviously, but as a mama observer I can say there was a direct correlation of better behavior when we removed foods that caused him inflammation.
If you end up finding out your kiddo has food sensitivities – I feel your pain! It is a lot of work and organization, but it can be done. It is so great to see your kid looking and acting so healthy, and know you are doing all you can to set them up for health for life. If you find out your kiddo has sensitivities I’m happy to help share strategies, recipes and be a supportive voice to you on this new path. The support system in my life made all the difference, as it is trying and just one more thing to manage on top of the already super full mama load.
Have you had to deal with any food sensitivities? Let me know if the comments below!