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Forbidden Foods: I’ve Become a Food Cop for My Son

It’s difficult maintaining a special diet for children with ADHD, but worth it when avoiding their food sensitivities means better behavior.

Every insufferable hippie has her life-altering food regimen. She’s paleo. He’s primal. She follows Weston A. Price, or he doesn’t eat white food, or she only scarfs organic, non-GMO food and spends all her time brewing kombucha. You know that person. She smells like patchouli and listens to a lot of Phish.

I was one wacky food fad away from being one of those insufferable hippies. Then we realized that my children have food sensitivities. Gluten and casein (a dairy component) sensitivities are common, as are egg and nut sensitivities. Artificial food dye can be the worst of all.

I could detail how we discovered our kids’ sensitivities, but I won’t give you the gory particulars. Basically, we’ve known since my five-year-old son, Dragontrainer, was three months old that he suffered from milk and soy protein intolerance. His gut launched an all-out immune battle on any trace of dairy or soy, even the small amount that came through my breast milk. Unlike other kids, he never grew out of the milk problems. He also reacts strongly to food dyes (especially red dye) and gluten. And so does his three-year-old brother.

Our insufferable food rules: no dairy, no gluten, no food dye. None. No trace amounts. No cheating. No “just-one-bite.” We tell the disbelievers that if they’d like to feed it to our kids, they will be parenting the kids for the next two days.

Any ADHD mama whose kids react adversely to certain foods knows what happens when the kids get a forbidden nibble. The screaming tantrums begin. The lack of impulse control makes your precious kid a roiling ball of pure Freudian Id. There’s throwing. There’s hitting. We get biting, and crying jags, and an inability to follow basic directions. One bite of cake can ruin a weekend.

[Free Download: What to Eat (and Avoid) for Improved ADHD Symptoms]

If you don’t live this reality, it sounds like the diet version of Munchausen by Proxy Syndrome. Your family often thinks you’re nuts. Friends roll their eyes. Since it’s not a “true” allergy — a stray cookie won’t crash my kids into anaphylactic shock — people don’t take it seriously. But you know that if you want to stay marginally sane, you have to keep your kid off his forbidden foods. And that’s a bitch.

A kid with food sensitivities turns you into a label-reader, a question-asker, a party-ruiner, and a cook-interrogator. If it goes in my kids’ mouths, I have to ask if it has dairy, gluten, or artificial coloring. No matter how familiar the food, no matter how alluring the treat, I have to ask questions. Did the restaurant start adding milk to their scrambled eggs? Do the marshmallows have blue dye in them? Is that fruit cocktail cherry tinted with red dye number 4?

It’s a killjoy. They’ve had to learn to love dark chocolate instead of Twix; they can’t eat licorice or gummy bears. We dread birthday parties, which involve my baking a separate non-dairy, non-gluten, food-dye-free cake. That way my kids aren’t deprived of all the fun in the world.

But if birthday parties suck, holidays are nightmares. Most kids with ADHD who react to food react to artificial coloring. You know which Easter and Halloween candies contain artificial coloring? Almost all of them, and the rest contain gluten or dairy. My kids can’t have basic holiday treats.

[Feed Your Child’s Focus]

There are work-arounds. We special-order candy online and stockpile it for special occasions. At Halloween, my kids trick-or-treat, then trade their candy for some allowable treats and a toy. We don’t do public Easter egg hunts; we have our own. Eggs contain safe candy and coins, small plastic dinos, and dragons. I try to cook substitutes for all the festive staples. I make a mean faux buttercream.

All this work is a general pain in the ass. It’s especially galling when people think you’re fabricating it, or when relatives don’t read labels. But, like many other ADHD parents, it’s the path we have to walk, a path paved in gluten-free bread and hippie fruit snacks. My kids do better without their forbidden foods. They can function when they don’t eat them. So we avoid them. Yes, it hurts that I’ll never share a marshmallow Peeps or a Cadbury Creme Egg with my babies. But in the end, they’re worth it.