Figuring out how to do an elimination diet can be confusing. Why are there so many different elimination diet meal plans?
Paleo, keto, GAPS, Whole30, gluten-free, dairy-free, detox diets and more…all designed to help you figure out if your family has food sensitivities, if a food is causing inflammation or weight gain, or perhaps to heal your gut.
But life is complicated, and so is dinner and meal planning — already on a normal week! How do you embark on this journey successfully, especially with kids??
Let’s clear the confusion so you know how to do an elimination diet that actually works for your family! These 9 practical tips will give you the planning success without stress that you’re looking for. But first? Why I’m qualified to help…
Our Elimination Diet Experiments
After ten years on a healthy living journey, one thing is for certain: Nothing will stay the same.
Research and recommendations keep changing, and as a family, we’ve tried all sorts of different elimination diets to try to learn about our bodies and what they like.
- In 2010, I heard Jordan Rubin speak and came home announcing to my husband, “Starting tomorrow, you’re not eating grains, dairy, sugar or legumes.” He had been experiencing symptoms of Crohn’s Disease after 7 years without them, so he was motivated to try it, but that was a rough start with no prior planning!
- In 2011, our whole family went without grains for the first half of Lent and remained gluten-free for the second half, because we wanted to do something to prevent Crohn’s from rearing its ugly genetic head in our kids. The adults have continued this tradition in various ways every Lent since then, including doing our first Whole30 in 2015 while I also tried to heal my cavities and a full Gut Thrive in 5 diet, which is very restrictive, in 2017 (here’s how it went).
- In 2013, we considered going full-blown GAPS diet for the whole family to see if it would help my husband’s Crohn’s and my kids’ cradle cap/eczema. However, we had low motivation for a massive diet change since none of our symptoms were severe. Instead, since the adults were grain-free (and I always go sugar-free) for Lent anyway, I decided to take 7-10 days for a “family detox,” like a pseudo made-up GAPS attempt. (Day One: no grains, legumes, corn, dairy, potatoes, nuts, sweeteners, raw fruits or veggies. Day Two: add fermented dairy and some raw fruit and veggies. Days 4-10: Allow dairy, nuts and potatoes. Emphasize bone broth as much as possible. Bring back lentils first, then other legumes, then gluten-free grains.)
- In late 2018, two of my kids omitted dairy for a month, which we had not done with the kids before. My daughter figured out that she definitely has a dairy sensitivity, so we continue to work through what that means and how to heal her gut, hopefully.
Why we Went Grain Free
At first my mother-in-law worried my kids were going to starve, but after a few explanation attempts she eventually understood why it’s so important:
If gluten could have been the cause of my husband’s pain and chronic disease, I would do anything to prevent my son from experiencing the same.
There were so many layers of knowledge she had to understand:
- Gluten is an allergen for many people, even if they didn’t notice it their whole lives
- Gluten sensitivity is on the rise, and it may affect 1/3 of Americans
- Gluten is often tied to Crohn’s (which my husband has and I would do anything to prevent my son from experiencing it too)
- Two days of grain-free for my husband reversed his chronic diarrhea when prescription medication didn’t touch it.
- Gluten is tied to eczema, which is what we saw increase in my son that got me wondering about him
- Eczema can be linked to autoimmune diseases like Crohn’s
- Gluten is everywhere!
- Humans don’t need grains to survive – my kids are fine without it
- And most important, what we eat does affect our health!
- If the body creates antibodies to gluten (i.e. treats gluten like an invader), it continues to do so for up to 90 days after gluten ingestion – there is no “cheating” on a gluten-free diet that doesn’t hurt you…I think this was a turning point for my mother in law, along with my statement: “If we can spare Paul from what my husband had to go through, wouldn’t it be worth giving up some cake and bread as a kid?”
Elimination Diets with Kids? Start Small.
Here’s another thing that’s certain: Starting a new elimination diet or restrictive diet always takes good planning!!
When eliminating foods as a family, helping the kids understand what will happen is a key step.
Our very first time, the kids were so young that I was still in charge of what they ate anyway. Plus I didn’t really understand that they would need understanding, so I did a poor job of it.
The second time, we told the kids this was going to be our “weird food week” – yes, weirder than usual. 😉
That was 2013 when the family cut out gut damaging foods like dairy, sugar, and grains for about 10 days. We also focused on nourishing foods like probiotics and bone broth. If you want to know more about gut healing elimination diets, what to eat, what to skip, and why, then check out these keys to gut health.
Even though we didn’t go full out GAPS, I learned a LOT about how to make an elimination diet successful in our home.
It’s like training for a 5K. Folks say as long as you’ve run half the distance in practice, you’ll make the whole thing when the rubber hits the road.
If you’re considering a very restrictive diet, you might try a “2.5k training” with something less intense. Then you’ll know if you can make it!
With these tips and learning from my mistakes, I feel sure you will. 🙂
How to Do an Elimination Diet With Kids
Here are the tips and tricks I came away with from our little experiment for how to do an elimination diet successfully… even if you have kids.
#1 Explain Everything About the Elimination Diet to Your Kids
Starting an elimination diet with kids should be a long-term plan.
We mentioned on and off for several weeks our family was taking a week to skip the grains, sweets, and corn – so family members were ready for, “No, crackers aren’t an option with your egg salad,” and “We’re not having any desserts this week.”
My kids were pretty cool with the idea, which surprised me. I thought we were ready to go.
What I learned on Monday (the first day of our diet) was I didn’t prepare them nearly enough.
Next time, I need to explain every part to the children:
- We’re drinking bone broth all week, even for breakfast, and how it’s important they finish it all.
- There will be no milk or yogurt or raw fruit for an entire day.
- I’ll still say no to milk the second day.
- We will get to eat applesauce – this was very exciting for the kids because we haven’t had a jar open for a while, so it was a fun treat.
They were shocked when I said yogurt wasn’t a choice for snack, because our homemade yogurt is always a choice for snack.
I needed to be more specific with the kids about what we were going to eliminate from our diets and what we would eat — to allow them to imagine what it would really be like.
Think 3-minute movie trailer, not one-sentence critic review.
#2 Start the Diet on a Saturday
It was hard to plan and pack lunches for my husband and second grade son.
I quickly realized for the first few days of an elimination diet that it’s a ton easier for the whole family to be together all day long. Especially for an elimination diet like GAPS when you’re eating soup all day!
I’d highly recommend Friday as a “transition day” and Saturday as the first “real” day of your elimination diet.
#3 Meal Planning is a Lifesaver when Cutting Foods!
A little recipe organization and meal planning is great for any family, but it’s even more helpful to have an elimination diet meal plan. This way you know exactly what your family is eating at each meal, no scrambling around for last minute meals looking for allowed ingredients you don’t have.
I visited a friend and remarked on her chalkboard with the week’s meals listed. She told me how much her family likes to see what’s coming, and then got more excited as she described the benefits of meal planning she discovered:
- Less food waste because you can think about what’s in the refrigerator and plan to use it
- Use food from the freezer more consciously and regularly
- Get in and out of the grocery store faster
- Use more meat yet spend less
- Save money by shopping only once a week since you know exactly what to buy.
I was so happy my friend discovered the joy and freedom of menu planning.
Whether you use a chalkboard or something more techy, trust me — make a meal plan for your new restrictive diet!
Elimination Diet Menu Planning
You gotta write it down. Once you do, you’re more likely to stick to your plan. Have fun with it!
I’m a paper and pencil person, but only because I say I can’t do one more thing on the computer. Here are some tips to get started:
- Use Pinterest to collect recipes.
- Write a simple list on paper or in a notebook.
- Buy a cute chalkboard, whiteboard, or bulletin board
- Write it on the fridge with magnetic poetry (ok, maybe that’s a stretch)
- Use an online meal planner
I didn’t try many new recipes, just cut out the bread when we had soup, offered eggs often, and survived on homemade yogurt like we always do. I did make some grain-free granola which was a total lifesaver and is so tasty it will continue to be a staple no matter where our family’s diet lands.
When you work so hard to make changes, you have to be kind to yourself and know what you’re cooking and eating each day, or you probably won’t make it.
#4 Plan for Everything That Might Happen
Nope, we’re not talking about global disaster preparedness!
It is very helpful to plan every single snack and beverage, not just the main meals. Down to the morsel!
I was personally surprised on day one when I failed at this point: What in the world do you make for snacks on an elimination diet? Seriously soup all day???
I found by day two, I’d made a few things we could eat, but I wasn’t prepared for all the things we cut out on day one — you can do better. 🙂
#5 Make Snacks and Meals Ahead of Time that Fit the Dietary Restrictions
Make some basic soup the day before – a huge batch if you’re smart! Then you don’t need to worry about lunches.
We also stocked up on elimination diet approved snacks for your meal plan.
My husband loves beef jerky, which is one of the few snacks he could pack for work when raw fruit and nuts were off the table. Plus I made things like coconut flour muffins with date sugar instead of honey and Butternut Spice Bars from Healthy Snacks to Go, without the maple syrup.
Here were our common snacks:
• a piece of fruit
• cut apples with peanut butter for dipping
• cheese (sometimes with an apple, sometimes not)
• the occasional “meat stick” from Paleovalley – a special treat! (Get 10% off with that special link!)
• homemade beef jerky ( this often supplemented a packed lunch)
• hard-boiled eggs (again, more often for lunch)
• yogurt and frozen fruit – luckily my kids could eat this twice a day and never complain!
• grain-free granola with milk
• grain-free muffins (apple flax or coconut flour)
• nuts and raisins
• power bars (like Larabars) and Popeye bars from my Healthy Snacks to Go eBook
If taking real food on the go is a challenge for you, you’re not alone.
Join thousands of other happy owners of Healthy Snacks to Go, an eBook that is helping real foodies everywhere keep their families nourished (and kids happy) even when they need to pack a snack — without resorting to processed junk food or expensive health food store treats.
With over a dozen different “bar” recipes alone, including many that are grain-free and contain zero refined sugar, I guarantee you’ll find a new family favorite in Healthy Snacks to Go.
Although it looks like a ton, I pretty much said, “yogurt or nuts and raisins?” 75% of the time. Thankfully, my kids love those options, so it wasn’t a big deal. Note: Obviously this was just for a grain-free elimination experiment, and when my daughter had to go went dairy-free, it all looked totally different. That’s where the PLANNING comes in!
#6 Ditch the Leftovers that the Family Can’t Eat on the Elimination Diet
All the food you can’t eat, like cut fruit, leftover suppers, open cheese, etc. should be given away, frozen, or put away somewhere well before the diet begins.
Better yet, avoid off limit leftovers period. Plan your shopping trip the week before you begin so you don’t have a bunch of food staring at you that goes to waste. This comes back to that long-term planning…
You will appreciate having a “transition day” or two as you begin the diet to absorb any mistakes you’ve made in shopping or meal prep the week before.
#7 Brainstorm Activities That Don’t Involve Food
…or don’t make people think about food.
For example, if my kids watched a show in the morning, they often munched on before-breakfast trail mix, so I had to come up with other activities that didn’t include the habit of eating.
- Board games and card games
- Going for walks and playing outside
- Doing hands-on crafts
- Field trips to a zoo or children’s museum (unless you have a family tradition of a special edible treat in those places — stay away from good smelling food!)
- Bubbles and sidewalk chalk
- Learning a new skill: sewing, painting, origami
In “What Can I Eat Now? 30 Days on GAPS” GAPS expert Cara has a shopping list, exact meals to eat, and ideas for what to do as a family that won’t make you think about food. I relied on her book to help me out, but I only cracked it open last week for 5 minutes to help me shop for veggies.
I didn’t really read it until the night before we started the elimination diet, so I learned the hard way why I should plan ahead.
Confession: I skipped over the “activities” page thinking, “Yada, yada, I don’t need that….” and then thought about it all day Monday after we started.
I was wrong. Cara’s book makes the GAPS Diet practical. She even tells you which pages in the GAPS book you should read if you’re too short on time to read the whole thing. Love that!
Cara also has a GAPS Starter Package which rolls together all her resources. It’s the closest you’ll get to having a chef come prepare all your food 😉 You’ll have everything you need to get started in one neat package.
#8 Stick to Your Guns in Special Situations
If you’re really committed to learning from an elimination diet, you cannot cheat!
The most difficult challenge was to be expected: eating out and eating with others.
Since you can’t cheat, you either need to cancel social events or figure out how to make them work with the diet.
It’s extremely hard for people to understand where gluten hides, and then to take a step to cut it out just for one meal to share with our family was tricky. Our extended family did an impressive job, even when we visited my sister-in-law for the weekend.
Paul was invited to one birthday party when we were gluten-free that first time, and it nearly broke my heart he couldn’t eat the pizza or the cake. I almost called the whole experiment off and let him have at it, but the kid had sacrificed so much for a month already.
I had to stick to my guns!
Our solution? We let him get Burger King French fries for a special treat and ate lunch at home (nachos, something he really likes) and then took him over half an hour late when the pizza was nearly gone. He was disappointed to be sure, but he handled it very well. He did miss the social time during eating, which is a tricky balance. 🙁
I sent a special gluten-free cake with homemade “yogurt cheese” frosting, but his biggest disappointment was there was cookies-n-cream ice cream and he was stuck with butter pecan. Understandable!
#9 How to Do an Elimination Diet and Still Eat Out
Whenever you cut something from your diet, it always comes into stark relief how common that food is in regular society. Most items on the kid’s menu in particular have gluten, from chicken strips to pasta to pasta.
Usually my kids had two choices if we were stuck eating out while eliminating gluten: grilled chicken breast or a hamburger without the bun. (I realized after the fact many burgers probably had funky gluten-laden fillers – which you notice when there’s no bun! Gotta ask questions!)
It helped my kids that the whole family skipped the bread during our gluten-free experiment. In short order Paul picked up the language, “Our family is gluten-free,” and learned to spot gluten wherever he looked.
I’ve picked up more ways to make going gluten free and/or dairy free with kids easier here, but my best tip if you’re trying a short-term elimination diet? Just don’t eat out. It’s not worth the risk of cross-contamination!
Dr. Lauren Jefferis Weighs In On Elimination Diets For Kids
I had an opportunity to interview Dr. Lauren Jefferis and we talked about all sorts of things – you can watch the full interview here or this little snippet below is where we talked about where to start if you think your child has a leaky gut.
How Our Experiment Turned Out
The very first time we eliminated grains and gluten, I recorded the results:
My husband had a near immediate change in digestion and his almost chronic diarrhea disappeared during Lent. But by Easter afternoon with one piece of sourdough toast under his belt, the diarrhea returned. He experienced it almost every time – but not every time – he ate gluten in the next week.
For me … I was expecting that year, so my digestion was weird, no matter what. I didn’t notice any obvious changes or less constipation, but I also didn’t find anything negative (although I missed buttering my bread, so I ate baked potatoes slathered in homemade raw butter like a madwoman to make up for it).
Once I started eating gluten again though, I noticed I was more constipated. Once I saw the change back, I realized there was some difference during the experiment. Constipation has continued to be a problem for me and possibly related to why I’m now toxic for lead (and tackling a more serious detox!).
How the Kids Did with an Elimination Diet
Poor Paul, age 5, got strep throat when we did our long-term gluten-free experiment. That exacerbated his eczema like I’ve never seen it before, so it was hard to tell if there was any positive change there.
With the weather changing and a trip to Florida filled with hours in a chlorinated pool, I figured we would need to see what happened on his skin when we reintroduced gluten.
With the bread back on the table on Easter morning, Paul zealously ate two pieces. He left the table with unfinished eggs and holding his belly, moaning about how awfully full he was. After that he continued to comment on how quickly bread fills him up, in an “I’m uncomfortably full” voice.
Later Paul had tiny bumps on his back (eczema flaring up in a new way?) and had a very loose BM, although most of his have been well-formed.
After our diet 3-year-old Leah quickly had painful BMs. This happened the same way another time when she had about a week on low grains and then had oatmeal. The next day, she was constipated. She wasn’t bound up one time during Lent, even though she had the occasional piece of bread.
That’s another hot tip for you anytime you try a restrictive diet, gut healing, or food elimination: write everything down! I am lucky that I have written a lot down on the blog, because it’s literally shocking to me to read about some of our history. It’s far too easy to forget, even in a span of 4 weeks, what you actually felt and how your poop actually worked!
Hope For Healing by Cutting Out Foods
Those results were a bit depressing — not always fun to read about what the end of an elimination diet is like. But the HOPE found within is that if you can determine that a food isn’t kind to your system, you can continue to cut it out and heal!
Check this out:
- My dear hubby cut certain foods out of his diet and it’s been a lifesaver... quite literally! Since going on an elimination diet, the Crohn’s is reversed and he’s no longer a walking heart attack. The doctors removed his Crohn’s diagnosis entirely after a 2019 colonoscopy, and he doesn’t have to be grain-free or gluten-free all the time anymore.
- My friend Amanda Torres reversed life threatening obesity after she cut out foods like grains and dairy and is now a healthier, stronger version of herself.
- Nikki drastically changed her diet and her breastfed daughter finally saw major relief from severe eczema and food allergies.
Time to celebrate the healing successes!
The Hard Parts of Trying an Elimination Diet
It Works: But Now What?
If you determine that your elimination diet has discovered food sensitivities, your diet suddenly becomes long term, which can be very emotionally challenging.
Like Debra, you might cry tears over all that your child can’t eat anymore. Her post on what she wants you to know at the beginning of your journey with a child with special dietary needs is so touching and practical. A must-read!
If you do decide you want to stick to a gluten free, dairy free diet long term, here’s how to do it (without going crazy!).
It Doesn’t Work: A Next Step
What if you DON’T learn anything from the elimination diet?? That’s frustrating too.
If you can’t quite figure out WHAT to eliminate, you might need a different kind of kickstart called a rotation diet. This can allow you to “test” for many different food sensitivities without giving up each one for a full month and taking too long to get results.
It Works…and Then It Doesn’t!
A common refrain lately is that a certain gut-healing or weight loss diet works for someone, they see the results they want, or they determine they DO have a food sensitivity and carry on with eliminating that food.
And then…symptoms start to come back. They hit a weight loss plateau. New symptoms crop up!
People start to wonder if the elimination diet is right for them.
Mary reminds us that a gut healing diet may not be the place to start, especially for adults. And we must also remember that we are all extremely different people, and it’s not likely that one diet will “work” for the whole family. Bioindividuality is an important concept to understand, and it takes real detective work to unearth each person’s ideal diet and lifestyle.
Bottom Line: Elimination Diets are Tough, But Worth It
But it’s worth it! Every time our family tried an elimination diet, we learned something — even if it was just how to cook and eat vegetables in more diverse and interesting ways!
When you jump in, just remember these tips:
- Let your kids visualize what their days and meals will look like well before you begin. Tend towards over-explaining.
- Start on a Saturday with Friday as a transition day (i.e. cooking no new foods that are off-plan but possibly eating leftovers that would be off-limits).
- Meal plan every meal!!
- Also plan every snack and beverage!
- Make snacks ahead of time.
- Ditch the leftovers (transition day).
- Brainstorm activities that don’t involve food or make people think of eating.
- Be tough about parties and socializing – no cheating!
- Try not to eat out. For short term, it’s not worth it!