Birthday parities are supposed to be happy events, but imagine that you are four years old, and everyone has cake but you. Instead the parent of your little friend digs up a banana or an old sucker from last Halloween. Once your parents get a look at your party favor bag, they pull out the candy bar, the cookies, and the little carton of rainbow goldfish and throw them in the garbage. Cruel as this may sound, it is all done with the child’s best interest in mind—she has celiac disease.
The number of people diagnosed with celiac or wheat sensitivity has increased dramatically in the past few decades. Four and a half times more people have celiac now than in 1950, according to a study by the Mayo Clinic. Put another way, one percent of people in the U.S. have celiac, which means virtually everyone knows someone who can’t eat wheat, rye, and barley.
For kids with celiac, maintaining a gluten-free diet is especially important for long-term health. According to Mayo clinic dietitian Julie Bucholtz, R.D., L.D., straying from the diet can lead to anemia, stunted growth, and even cancer later in life. Those with wheat sensitivity react to fructan, a carbohydrate in wheat, as opposed to the protein gluten. While the major symptom—digestive upset—is the same, there are not the same concerns about long-term health. “Celiac is quite severe and you need to make sure the child has a gluten-free diet because its really going to cause problems later on that will keep kids from reaching their full potential. With wheat [sensitivity] it is up to the individual to decide,” explains Bucholtz. Though initially daunting, most families find going gluten-free at home quite easy. For most, the hardest situations are events like birthday parties.
So what can be done to cheer up the little kid at the party without jeopardizing her health? With a little planning and creativity—a lot. “It’s about parents educating their child and being prepared, pre-prepared, for those situations,” says Bucholtz.
Calling ahead to check on the party menu enables parents to anticipate the pizza, mac and cheese, cake, and other gluten-filled snacks. Sometimes the best route is to approximate the menu as closely as possible. Other times, it’s best to simply bring something you know your child loves. A chocolate truffle may even be better than a sub-par cupcake! Talk it over ahead of time. Find out what your child would prefer.
Party favors that include wheat-filled treats are usually handed out at the end, and a parent may be able to go through the bag before the child even sees the forbidden items. When that’s not the case, a creative trade can soothe feelings. Safe snacks or small toys can replace cookies or crackers.
For older kids, a candid discussion about why it is important to stay gluten-free may be the most important thing a parent can do. “Kids that age are going to make mistakes, mistakes intentionally or not intentionally,” says Bucholtz, “but [parents] need to continue to send the same message, that they need to be on this diet for their long term health.”
Glitches in the plan
Despite all that preparation, there still may be hiccups in the plan. I have two wheat sensitive kids. The last time I took one to a party, she was very excited about her gluten-free cupcake—until she saw the big birthday cake decorated with blue and red frosting. Suddenly the cupcake didn’t look so appetizing. The kids and parents around us tried to help—maybe we could move the frosting to the gluten-free cupcake? Maybe ice cream would help? In the end my daughter deemed it best to put the frosting on the ice cream and ignore the cupcake. But within 15 minutes all desserts were forgotten. She gathered with the other children around the birthday boy as he made short work of a pile of presents. Wrapping paper flew, cameras and phones flashed. Though cake is at almost every party, it is far from the main event.
Accommodating a child with celiac at a birthday party may sound like a bit of a chore, and frankly, it is. Throwing a party for a gluten-free child is actually, by comparison, a piece of cake. When hosting, it is often easiest to make the cake gluten-free. Once the frosting is on, most kids (and adults) won’t know the difference. Gluten-free cake mixes are now available at most grocery stores. As for the oft-served party pizza? Galactic Pizza in southwest Minneapolis and Pizza Luce (various locations) offer gluten-free pizza crusts. The Twin Cities is also home to a number of bakeries that have gluten-free options, if a ready-made cake is more appealing. Be on the alert if any of your guests have a nut allergy, as some gluten-free flours use almond meal.
Bittersweet Bakery in Eagan is exclusively a gluten-free bakery. When owner Lareen Narva switched to gluten-free eating 30 years ago, there were few options. The dry cardboard-like products drove her to the kitchen to create something better. Her friends and family prompted her to open a bakery, which has now been making gluten-free goodies for a decade. In southwest, French Meadow Bakery, Common Roots Cafe, and People’s Organic has a number of products for gluten-intolerants.
Ice cream sundaes, fruit parfait, pudding, macaroons, or meringues can also make a tasty birthday dessert. As long as there is a place to stick the candles, any dessert can become a birthday dessert.
School day parties
At school, Bucholtz stresses the importance of communicating with teachers. “I always encourage parents to talk to the teacher to know when kids are bringing in birthday treats so that they can make sure they prepare and give their child something that’s similar or something they enjoy, so they’re not missing out on the fun.” Having a box of favorite gluten-free cookies on hand at school can keep surprise birthday treats from being a disappointing situation.
Keeping all the allergies in one classroom straight can be a challenge. Wheat, dairy, peanuts, tree nuts, and citrus were all off-limits the last time we brought a birthday treat to school. Sometimes it is nearly impossible to accommodate everyone. Fun erasers or birthday pencils are one way to celebrate without having to worry about dietary restrictions. All those allergies also go to show that even if your child is the only one in the room that can’t have wheat, in a broader sense, he or she is not alone. In many ways, there has never been a better time to have a dietary restriction. No longer an anomaly, children are less likely to be seen as strange or different, because they and their friends all know other people with food allergies or sensitivities. And the foods available at the grocery store are catching up too. Dietitians agree. “Nowadays the bread products that are out there are so much better than they used to be,” Bucholtz says appreciatively. “There are many gluten-free cake recipes out on the web and there are mixes…now more than ever it is easy to be gluten-free.” •