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Adapted from two articles published in the National PKU News

Helping your child on a special diet eat right

Persuading a child to eat different and nutritious foods, whether or not the child has special health care needs, can be an exhausting and frustrating experience. However, you can help your child develop positive attitudes about nutritious foods.

Children learn best by example. Remember, your child wants to be like you. If the child sees you eating more salads, fruits and vegetables, he or she may want to do the same.

Listening to our kids

My bright, six-year-old son, Jeffrey, has phenylketonuria (PKU), a metabolic disease that requires him to follow a low-protein diet regimen. This means plenty of substitutions when his friends may be eating "funner" food. When a special diet is a lifelong requirement, it is important that children develop a sense of responsibility for what they eat. At the same time, it is important to allow them to express their feelings about the diet. We can learn a lot by listening carefully.

For example, Jeffrey recently said to me, "Mom, I really liked the 'peanut butter' (actually a low-protein substitute) and jelly sandwich you put in my lunch box today." I realized that this sandwich was more than just a tasty lunch. I knew that it also boosted Jeffrey's self-esteem to be able to eat food that looked similar to that of his peers.

Another time Jeffrey came home from school, sad and dragging, and said emphatically, "I don't like this diet!" Together, we figured out he was unhappy because he couldn't eat a hamburger. Regular hamburgers had too much protein, but together we came up with an acceptable substitute - low protein mushroom burgers. As parents, we have to follow medical advice, but we can still learn to listen to our children and creatively manage their diets. Children appreciate being able to express their feelings openly and having their needs treated respectfully.

A voice and a choice

Parents can reinforce a sense of responsibility in children by giving them a voice and a choice in matters that affect them. Severely restricting your child without explanation can lead to immaturity and rebellion. Children will accept "rules" more readily when explanations are given. Although health conditions may limit some options, we can help children accept inevitable choices gracefully.

Parents can involve young children in food choices by talking about them. For example, a two-year-old can decide whether he wants a half glass of "milk" or a full glass. A four-year-old can be asked if he wants an apple or an orange, or whether he wants his bread toasted or plain.

Children can be deliberately presented with many situations in which they have to make choices and are given chances to succeed. We can creatively select the situations and let children make the choices. This sends a clear message that children are not just recipients of "orders," but participants in decisions that affect them.

For example, when Jeffrey was very young, I always kept frozen low-protein bread and pancakes in Ziploc bags in the freezer, on a low shelf at Jeffrey's eye level. I would let him choose between bread or a pancake by responding verbally, by pointing or by actually getting it out himself. This made him feel that he was "in charge," and was a very small step toward dietary self-management in the future.

I also kept a variety of fresh fruit and vegetables in the lower part of the refrigerator so Jeffrey could see the choices between tangerines, grapes, plums and other fruits, or the choices between lettuce, carrots, celery, tomatoes or cucumbers in the vegetable crisper. The pantry was set up the same way with small cans of fruits and vegetables on the lower shelf so I could ask Jeffrey, "Do you want carrots or green beans?" or "Do you want Mott's peaches or a Strawberry Fruit Pak?" He would go to the drawer where the measuring cups are kept and hold a cup up to the item he wanted.

Introducing new foods may take some effort. However, you will be rewarded quickly when you see your young child making the right choices from a smorgasbord of food. You can help your child develop tastes and preferences that last a lifetime.

This article was adapted from two pieces by Marsha Magol that first appeared in National PKU News. The article is reprinted from the Aug. '95 issue of exceptional Parent, a monthly magazine offering practical information to parents and professionals involved in the day-to-day lives of children and young adults with disabilities. For subscription information phone 201-634-6550.

Marsha Magol is a regular contributor to the National PKU News. She, her husband and one son live in Tampa, Florida, where Marsha works for GTE. She works nearly full-time and in the spring/summer '95 issue of the National PKU News she gave some planning and organizing tips for busy mothers who need to manage diets. Following are several ideas she mentions in that article which may be helpful to MSUD moms as well as others dealing with special diets.

  • It works best to set aside a few hours one day a week to focus on low protein cooking like baking low protein bread and making, pizza and soup.
  • Involve your child by asking, "How would you like to help me press out this pizza dough into big circles?" Encourage your child's participation in diet preparations at an early age.
  • Prepare in abundance while you have your recipe book out and refrigerate or freeze as much as you can for those harried nights. Have your own ready-to-eat convenience foods.
  • Make lots of pasta, regular and low protein, at least twice a week. Then have meatless tomato sauce on Monday, low protein cheese-flavored sauce on Tuesday, and pasta added to vegetable soup or stir-fried vegetables on Wednesday.
  • Keep a lot of pre-cut vegetables and other foods that are almost ready to cook in plastic containers to combine in a 5-minute stir-fry.
  • Keep things in perspective - you can't have "perfect" meals every night. (When Marsha looks back, she thinks about all the low protein food and recipes Jeffrey has grown accustomed to and enjoys - not whether the house was always clean or laundry piled up for days.)

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