So your doctor says your child should cut dairy and gluten for an elimination diet?
What does that mean for your life!? Where to begin!? How do I go gluten and dairy free at the same time for my child!
In a culture where pizza is the norm, (hello dairy and gluten fest!), and if you start thinking about other common meals with dairy and gluten literally everywhere, it feels like going dairy-free and gluten-free all at once (or even one at a time) is practically impossible. It’s going to change your entire life…
I know how you feel. Lots of moms do, because unfortunately dairy and gluten are causing kids a lot of problems. Smart physicians and health coaches know this, and more and more families are experiencing the (initial) terror of the dairy-free gluten-free recommendation.
I’ve always been known for my baby steps and grace along the journey, and I’ll apply that philosophy to your rookie guide to cutting dairy and gluten for your family.
How to Go Gluten and Dairy Free (with Kids)
Let’s do this experiment with as few weird ingredients and new recipes as possible, shall we?
It’s what we did when my daughter discovered a dairy sensitivity and had to cut dairy.
This guide will help you determine alllll the foods in your house that your newly GF/DF (or “GF/CF” often, for casein-free) child can already eat, without even making a special shopping trip.
We’ll cover easy gluten and dairy-free breakfasts, lunches, dinners, and snacks, and by the end you’ll feel much more comfortable and encouraged with this new diet.
Even though I toe the line of being an eternal pessimist, I’m going to encourage you to focus on the positive. That means rather than think of allllll that you can’t possibly make for your family anymore, let’s focus on what you CAN eat.
But first, for safety, forgive me if I spend 2 more minutes on the “X” list. Both for safety and quite honestly, so that this elimination diet is worth all the hassle, you really want to make sure you omit all dairy and all gluten. That means a pretty good working knowledge of where it’s prominent and where it’s hidden in our average food supply.
How to Find Gluten and Dairy in Food
Common and hidden sources of gluten in American food:
- Bread and bread products (buns, pizza, breadsticks, rolls, pita)
- Crackers, pretzels
- Many cereals
- Muffins and similar
- Pancakes, waffles, French toast
- Donuts, cakes, cookies
- Soft tortillas
- Taco seasoning
- Creamy soups and gravy
- It sneaks into other seasonings, thickeners, and seasoned processed foods… If you eat anything out of a box or bag, it’s worth reading the ingredients diligently for a while until you are familiar with what’s what
RELATED: If you’ve been diagnosed Celiac or feel like you’re getting “glutened” somehow by hidden sources of gluten that you can’t figure out, Bethany broke down where specks of wheat may be hiding in your kitchen.
Common and hidden sources of dairy in American food:
- Anything containing cheese: mac and cheese, pizzas, cheesy bread – all gluten bombs anyway, so nothing new here!
- Creamy soups and sauces (most have gluten anyway)
- Ranch dressing and other creamy dips
- LOTS of baked goods will contain butter, along with convenience foods like frozen garlic bread (which is a gluten hang-up anyway…). You’ll need to get savvy at reading ingredients. Hint: Check the bottom of the ingredients as most packaged foods now include an allergy information line like this: “Contains: Wheat, Milk”
- Milk chocolate
If you need a chocolate hit to feel normal, Enjoy Life chocolate chips are dairy-free, and you can find dark chocolate often without dairy too. Thrive Market has many great options, and 85% dark at ALDI is seriously the best. 🙂
And now for the good stuff! Let’s talk about normal things you can eat or make that don’t contain any gluten or dairy.
Tips for Going Gluten and Dairy Free
When you’re first eliminating gluten from your child’s diet, I highly recommend making family meals that are gluten-free.
This will be easier for you PLUS the child won’t feel like they are different than the rest of you. It’s hard enough to cut out a food group without having to stand out, too. And for a lot of kids, they’re giving up literally favorites and sometimes the only food they’re used to eating.
Kelly Dorfman taught me that sometimes when kids are sensitive to a food, they actually crave it, so a gluten sensitive child may look like one who eats nothing but crackers, bread, pancakes, waffles and pretzels. This is exceptionally difficult for families! But it’s worth it in the end to discover a food sensitivity and help your child heal.
Easy Gluten-Free Meals (that don’t need any fancy ingredients or new recipes)
Don’t overthink it. Focus on simple meals with basic categories: meat, veggies, salad.
Just skip the bread! If you’re used to serving bread or biscuits with a meal, just omit them for the whole family and bulk up the veggies or add a salad so no one feels like they’re missing anything.
Same goes for croutons and even buns – after a few times, kids get used to eating a burger or hot dog without a bun, and you can use lettuce leaves or lightly sauteed/grilled portabella mushrooms if someone really wants to pick up their burger.
Other Gluten-Free Dinner Options
Gluten-free Pasta Substitutes
Ignore your pasta meals for now, OR try subbing plain rice or gluten-free pasta instead. GF pasta has gotten much better in recent years!
No mac and cheese though…dairy. But don’t despair! There’s so much else you CAN eat!
RELATED: Becca’s family reviewed some of the newer legume-based high protein gluten-free pastas and share their favorites!
Soup is Easy Gluten-free
If you love soup, use rice or quinoa instead of noodles or consider bean soups, chili, and veggie-laden soups.
Avoid creamy soups because they’re usually thickened with flour (plus we’re talking about cutting dairy too) – but there are still LOTS of soups you probably already make that are gluten and dairy free.
Meat-Based Meals are Naturally Gluten-free
Pulled beef or pork is still easy (read ingredients on any BBQ sauce you use though) – just serve without a bun or over rice or sauteed shredded cabbage.
Mexican Food is Great!
Mexican food still works! Check ingredients carefully on the taco seasoning and use corn tortillas or corn chips instead of flour tortillas, and you’re good to go. (Remember to omit the cheese too.) But refried beans, Mexican rice, and taco meat are all typically gluten-free. Just be in the habit of reading any packages you might use, or make from scratch!
Big salads are easy and awesome – grill some meat and have fun with toppings!
Time for Grilling – Easy GF Dinner
Speaking of grilling, grilled meat and baked potatoes or sweet potatoes plus a veggie side (with olive oil instead of butter) is a great go-to while you’re figuring out gluten-free and dairy-free all at once.
Most classic summer picnic sides are still ok: Baked beans, potato salad, coleslaw. Always read ingredients for sneaky gluten or dairy though! Creamy salad dressings MAY be thickened with eggs (like mayo or Caesar), but definitely skip the ranch.
Chicken Nuggets Don’t Have to Die
If you’ve been a big chicken nugget family in the past, there ARE decent gluten-free chicken nuggets now, but you can also try baked or grilled chicken without breading, or use one of my homemade gluten-free chicken nugget recipes.
Just remember, don’t try a new recipe every night and certainly not multiple new endeavors in one meal!
Bit by bit, you can buy some gluten-free flour, try a recipe here and there, and after a few months, you’ll have some new family standbys that you feel super comfortable with.
My best tip? DON’T worry about replacing your family’s favorite bread-based recipes too quickly. GF baking is a skill unto itself, and you’ll want to have some successes before jumping into that arena.
Try ALDI’s gluten-free pretzels for a munchy-crunchy snack, and when you’re ready to try that GF flour, start with muffins or pancakes as they are very forgiving!
RELATED: Haley shared beginner steps to a gluten-free diet years ago with lots of encouragement that applies here too!
This is perfect if you’ve just been told you need a GF diet, if you have a friend or family member eating GF and you’d like to cook for them, or if you’re just curious what it’s all about!
Easy Dairy-Free & Gluten-Free Packed Lunches
The great news is that everything we talked about above is also dairy-free!
I know that thinking about “no pizza?” and “no mac and cheese???” might freak your kids out, but I guarantee that it will become much easier every day that goes by.
Most of the time, dairy-free dinners are exactly what the gluten-free dinners above look like. You just want to watch out for cheese-based meals (so put away any recipes called “Cheesy XXX” for now!).
Tip: Dairy-free cheese is expensive, doesn’t usually melt, and is often made from questionable ingredients (soy, for example) that you may not want to introduce in large quantities while you’re watching closely for symptoms that may be related to gluten and dairy.
For now, I highly recommend just skipping those specialty purchases until you know this is a more permanent lifestyle and are ready to “figure it out” in greater detail. Cheese fails, such as when the child doesn’t like the $17/pound DF “cheese”, don’t bring a lot of encouragement to the process!
Thinking outside the “lunch box”
If your kids have relied on wheat bread sandwiches, cheese and yogurt at lunch, a gluten-free, dairy-free experiment can feel devastating.
It’s not easy to figure out what to pack when your stand-by favorites are gone, as we have learned in our family when my daughter discovered a dairy sensitivity after a month-long elimination diet experiment last fall. 🙁
Focus on the other food groups
Like fruit, with no-sugar-added fruit cups and whole fruits. I always try to make sure fat and protein are high in other parts of the lunch when we send fruit, so Leah ate a lot of apples and nut butter for a while. Adding trail mix with crispy nuts and coconut is a great way to bulk up nutrient density too.
Replace yogurt with Dairy-free Options
Unfold the sandwich for a Gluten-free Lunch
Rather than try to find a good GF sandwich bread (hard to do!!!), just send the insides without the bread.
Roll up lunchmeat and send their favorite dipping sauce, eat egg salad with a fork, and look for another carrier for the beloved PB&J, like GF crackers, apple slices, or celery for ants on a log.
Here are some other bread-free ideas for packed lunches, although not all are DF as well.
These are a good area to devote some “let’s buy something new” energy, and many use quality ingredients as well. Pack them with nut butter, hummus, or another kind of bean spread for some fat + protein.
Remember that plenty of munchy-crunchy foods, if that’s part of your child’s lunchtime habit, are naturally gluten-free: tortilla chips, Frito’s, potato chips (we love Jackson’s Honest brand in coconut oil from Thrive Market – Save 25% off and free shipping on your FIRST order if you’re new!), popcorn, and nuts and sunflower seeds.
Some brands even have crispy roasted chickpeas commercially now, or you can make your own (my best methods are in my eBook, Healthy Snacks to Go – each recipe in that book is labeled for allergies!)
Beware of seasoned chips though as some include gluten as a filler/thickener for the seasoning or MSG which can cross-contaminate.
Veggies and guacamole
Another good way to get some satiating fat into the meal.
Paleo meat sticks
For a quick grab instead of string cheese, Paleovalley’s meat sticks are a godsend! My special 10% off code will be automatically applied right HERE. It’s an expense, but for an easy button, it’s worth it to have zero compromise on quality or the elimination diet.
Eat Leftovers for a GF/CF Lunch
And we always rely on dinner leftovers for lunch anyway, so when you’re creating lovely GF/DF meals at night, just pack some leftover grilled meat or a thermos of soup for lunch.
Involve the child in shopping
If lunches are a source of pain and frustration for your kids, it’s totally understandable. This may be where they “feel” the change the most and also have other friends to compare to who are still downing PB&J and yogurt tubes.
Important Tip to Go Gluten and Dairy Free with a Child
I’d recommend a special grocery outing with the newly GF/DF child to let them find a few new “treats” that they can pack for lunches. Many brands are on board with gluten-free now, so it’s easy to find pretzels, crackers, cookies, bars and other treats without wheat and dairy.
Leah and I did ours at Thrive Market and found some delicious coconut macaroons, chocolate with freeze-dried raspberries inside and a few other winners. Losers you can avoid include dried carrots, jicama chips (although I like them), and Dagoba very dark chocolate.
Reassure your child that s/he will be able to find food they like, and reassure yourself that as you figure out new recipes bit by bit, the food budget won’t take a hit quite so much. You can still emphasize healthy foods even with a few fun treats mixed in. 🙂
RELATED: For food on the go ideas, try our gluten-free healthy camping menu plan! (It’s not all dairy-free, but soon you’ll have the hang of what you need to tweak!)
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Gluten-Free, Dairy-Free Breakfasts Are Easy
To start the day off right, there are actually plenty of normal choices that your kids will recognize. Try hard to focus on what they CAN eat and just ignore pancakes, waffles, toast, muffins, and Pop-Tarts for a while. In fact, keep ignoring Pop-Tarts their whole life, m’kay? 😉
If you’ve been a milk-and-cereal family, learning that you have to ditch the milk may make you tremble in your slippers, but trust me — you can do this, mamas!
Eggs in any way
Scrambled (use a splash of water instead of milk to make them fluffy), fried, hard-boiled.
Just watch the ingredients for hidden sources of gluten, dairy, or MSG. It’s often in sausage, which is why we make ground meat into homemade sausage.
Sweet or white potato hash
Or go bold with other veggies like this pizza hash.
You may want to look for certified gluten-free oats, which are more expensive, but worth it to make sure all your sacrifices aren’t cross-contaminated.
Instead of adding milk to the oatmeal, kids think it’s cool to throw in an ice cube along with raisins, cinnamon, sliced bananas, maple syrup…whatever would make them happy! This may also be a time to try almond milk or coconut milk.
You can make steel cut oats really easily in your Instant Pot!
Watch for GF cereals with a corn or rice base.
Fresh fruit is Naturally Gluten and Dairy Free
Fruit is a great snack, especially when served with nuts, coconut, or something else with some fat + protein.
Date/nut bars or balls
Plenty of commercial varieties for a quick “uh oh” grab and go if you didn’t have time for anything else! Or these mudballs come together in minutes.
Leftovers for Breakfast?
Think out of the box and try dinner leftovers for breakfast too, like salads and soups. Toss a frozen hamburger patty in a pan and top with a fried egg.
In Latin cultures, beans and rice is a standard breakfast, so pretend you’re in Costa Rica and try that, with salsa, guacamole and an egg on top!
Dairy-Free Fats to Keep Things Simple
We bump into dairy often when it comes to butter – it’s used in a lot of baking recipes and as the yummy topping on potatoes and veggies a lot. Check with your practitioner about whether you can use ghee, which is “clarified” butter without any dairy proteins. They may request that you wait on ghee just to ensure a good dairy-free elimination, but when you can use it, I find the best prices at Thrive Market.
Other dairy-free fats to consider include:
- Olive oil: use for dressings and drizzling over potatoes or veggies (I love this pure olive oil)
- Egg yolks: to thicken dips and dressings instead of a creamy dairy base
- Coconut oil: easy for sauteing if you used to use butter (get the refined coconut oil (use the code STEWARDSHIP to get 10% off) for no smell/no taste)
- Coconut oil: making another appearance as the easiest solid fat to replace butter in most recipes
- Palm shortening: This also replaces butter very well in baking recipes, but it’s not as easy to source (I get mine from Tropical Traditions)
- Avocado oil: also for sauteing and dressings
What to put on toast, if you’re splurging for gluten-free, dairy-free bread? Mashed and salted avocado, nut butters, and coconut oil + jelly are all viable options.
What About Getting Enough Calcium while Dairy-Free?
I know my favorite holistic and integrative MDs, Dr. Elisa Song and Dr. Sheila Kilbane, would want you to know that you shouldn’t worry about your child getting enough calcium when they go dairy-free.
This seems to be a huge concern in the mainstream, but they spend a lot of time reassuring parents that calcium is found in many non-dairy foods, and it’s often easier to absorb anyway so you don’t need to obsessively count milligrams.
Foods high in Calcium:
- All greens, especially spinach – time to make coconut milk smoothies, and a great chance to try kale chips if you haven’t yet…
- Black-eyed peas (and lesser in white beans)
- Salmon and trout, especially canned salmon with the bones – if that freaks kids out, you can make salmon patties by using a food processor first
- Sardines are very high, although not something people automatically think is kid-friendly. You can buy them in a can and if you mix them up with mayo and mustard like tuna salad, maybe some dill pickles too, some kids actually find they LOVE sardines! Who would have guessed?
Calcium is often fortified in non-dairy milk and a whole bunch of other stuff, but that’s not necessary and not very bio-available anyway…especially for an elimination diet that might not even be forever, this is not something to worry about supplementing.
Check out this inspiring interview with Dr. Kilbane – she does her best to ease your way into dairy-free living!
If you can’t view the video above, click Could You Live Without Dairy? Why (& How) You Probably Should Try it (with Sheila Kilbane, MD) to see it directly on YouTube.
But Should I go Gluten and Dairy Free?
It seems like going gluten-free has been pretty en vogue fpr a while, and the dairy-free movement is definitely up and coming as well.
As with any fad, it’s not right for everyone. (And as with some fads, it may not be a fad but have a lot of truth buried in popular responses to “getting healthy.”)
After watching my husband’s amazing experience with going grain-free and then figuring out it was gluten that bothered him and hearing statistics like:
“One in three Americans may have some issue with gluten”,
I’m to the point where when anyone talks of an unexplained malady, a pain that they can’t get rid of, or a health issue that doctors can’t figure out and are just medicating, I automatically think, “They should cut gluten.”
When I see a child out of control or struggling academically or with their health, and especially when I notice dark circles under their eyes, I think, “I bet they have a dairy problem.”
I can’t always be right. Not everyone can have an issue with gluten and dairy.
But one in three just for gluten is a pretty huge percentage of the population.
So maybe it’s a good idea to follow the advice of Dr. Tom O’Bryan’s, searing words that I heard on a podcast way back at the beginning of our journey and I’ll never forget:
“If anyone has a health issue of any kind, they should start by cutting gluten.”
It might not help, but what if it does?
If you’re familiar with the Bible, you may have heard this (paraphrased):
“If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. Better to go into life crippled than to be thrown in to Gehenna, where the fires never go out.”
The point of the verse is this: if something causes you to sin, it’s better to cut it out of your life rather than end up in a place of eternal suffering.
For some people, gluten (or dairy or sugar or corn or soy or…) makes them feel like Gehenna.
If that’s you, you shouldn’t be doomed to eternal suffering.
Cut it out.
Pray about it and be open to listening to God’s Word.
Be brave, be bold, and try an elimination diet, cutting out all of the possible offenders and figure out what’s bothering your kids!
If you have found that your child DOES really need to avoid dairy in particular, Mary’s post about sticking with a dairy-free and gluten-free diet long term will help you discover some super unique new recipes to replace some dairy-full favorites!