No, My Kids Really Can't Eat That

by Elizabeth Broadbent

“We have something else here,” the woman manning the booth sang. I looked down, and I saw it: the little glass bowl of Hershey’s miniatures. And inwardly, I sighed.

“No, I saw it,” I said. “My boys can’t have any.” They stood behind me in a row, smallest to largest, solid in the knowledge that no, they couldn’t have any.

“Oh no, why not?” the woman asked. They always ask. Maybe they just assume I’m a bitch to deprive my kids and they’d like to argue about it. At least, that’s what it feels like.

They have a milk intolerance,” I said.

“Oh no! Well, aren’t they good not to be reaching for it? We don’t want anyone going to the hospital up in here!”

That’s not really what an intolerance is, but I’ll take it. She seems relieved I’m not a crazy strict bitch mom or something. But seriously, if your kid can have candy, who says no? Who says no to a Krackle bar?

I do. I say no, and no, and no — one for each boy, because here’s how that Krackle bar would play out: All three would seem fine for about six hours. Then, my oldest son would turn into a walking, talking demon child. Well, not talking — screaming. And throwing things. I’d hear “I hate you, Mama!” just before he bashed his brother upside the head — probably hard, probably with a rock.

My middle son would lapse into constant tantruming. No, he would not eat that PB&J. No, he would not strap himself into his seat. No, he would not stop kicking the dog, and no, he would not stop tormenting his brother and biting people.

My youngest would just cry. And cry. And cry.

The scenario is the same for gluten and for food dye. It took a long time to discover their issues, other than milk, which they’ve had an intolerance to since birth. That was the easy one to discover. As Reflux Rebels says, babies with a milk intolerance will have “excess gassiness and bloating” and “excess fussiness (long crying spells at all times of the day, irritability, lack of sleeping appropriately)” among other things, including severe reflux and bloody stool.

My kids have grown out of all of it except the excessive fussiness and irritability that Reflux Rebels details. They also suffer from non-celiac gluten intolerance, where they experience many of the same symptoms of celiac disease, including, according to the Celiac Disease Foundation’s explanation of non-celiac wheat sensitivity, “’foggy mind,’ depression, ADHD-like behavior” and other physical symptoms.

And the link between bad behavior and food dyes — particularly in children with ADHD — has become a concern in recent years, with some studies suggesting a link.

An accidental ingestion of milk, dye, or gluten will ruin an entire weekend. My husband and I end up exhausted, splayed out on the bed, with me crying that our children were horrible monsters and him assuring me it was just the milk. It’s so bad, in fact, that we can tell when they’ve had it and can trace it backward to the source. Who knew German sausage was made with milk?

I’ve learned to be annoying. I ask about everything. Do those vegetables come with butter? Do you put milk in your scrambled eggs? Does the meal I selected for my child contain any dairy or wheat? Are you sure this is the gluten-free bun?

I’m constantly on the alert. If I didn’t cook it, I have to double-check it. This annoys my husband sometimes, especially when I’m asking about milk in scrambled eggs at a restaurant that never has milk in their scrambled eggs. But I have to ask. I’ve seen restaurants change their recipes mid-week, and we’ve reaped the consequences.

These intolerances mean my kids miss out on a lot of normal childhood experiences. They have never had a Krackle bar, or a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. They can’t snarf M&M’s or chug most sodas (we avoid all food dyes to be sure). Every hamburger and hotdog comes without a bun. And Halloween just sucks. Every single candy ever contains either milk, gluten, or food dye.

So if they can have it, they get it — a lot of it. My kids adore dark, bitter chocolate — the kind that comes without milk, the kind that most kids won’t eat. They love those Trader Joe’s meringues and coconut macaroons. I keep stashes of safe candy around and trade them for the mainstream kind: hippie gummie worms for regular gummies, real strawberries for Nerds. I make safe cakes for every birthday they’re invited to, so when the tiny guests queue up for the real deal, my kids have their own treat. It’s a pain in the ass. But I do it.

Yes, it’s very sad, as people tell me. And no, they can’t have “just a taste.” My mother thought I was crazy-momming my kids’ issues until she saw Blaise get butter. She became a believer real quick. Other people insist on arguing with me. They usually know that since I say “intolerant” and not “allergic,” the kids won’t keel over, so they think it’s up for discussion. It’s not, unless you want to parent my kids for the next two days. So peddle your orange soda somewhere else.

When we first took Blaise off gluten (since he had a lot of behavior issues and his little brother was showing gluten sensitivity), we whispered to our every-week waitress that he wouldn’t have his usual waffle and please don’t say it out loud. At the end of the meal, she told us that if this was how he acted off gluten, she’d never give it to him again. I was so grateful someone else saw a difference and I wasn’t going crazy.

Luckily, there are substitutes for most things — for bread products, for waffles, for sodas, and for candies. Trader Joe’s even makes gluten- and milk-free Oreos and soy ice cream. My kids don’t miss out on too much, all things considered.

But they can’t have lots of mainstream foods, so don’t offer it. And don’t pressure me to give it to them. Yes, a taste will hurt. And no, I’m not a crazy mom. I just know what’s best for my kids. I couldn’t survive them if I didn’t.