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It's Not (JUST) About the Food: Keeping the Focus on Experiences

Updated: Nov 24, 2022

I know, I know... it's easier said than done--especially when that holiday buffet is laid out like pretty poison under the twinkle lights and the kids are so excited about the snowman cookies.

That's why the mantra I'm going to share with you needs repeating. And repeating. And repeating again:

It's not (just) about the food; it's about the people, places, and experiences in our lives!

And yes, I'm fully aware that we all need sustenance, a little detail that feels so much bigger for anyone with celiac disease or gluten intolerance (and their parents). Still, life--and I'm talking about real, wholehearted living--includes not just one sense, but five. And there's so much to see and smell and touch and hear... yet at times, we deemphasize this fact and overemphasize our fear around "getting glutened." I know. I've been there.

And that's exactly why, after realizing my own misdirection, I realigned the ship and created a mantra. Then, nearly every day through our celiac daughter's elementary, middle, and even high school years, I--and eventually we--repeated this mantra. Now that she's in college, it's basically woven into her DNA. And, given how involved she is in a long list of clubs and activities, the mantra may have had an even more profound impact than I'd imagined.

At first, when you say it, you may be met with resistance. And sometimes, that resistance will be your own.

Because when this or that parent (or teacher or coach or other person who should know better) hasn't provided a single item that your poor David can eat at the event--even after you'd called to inform them of the situation--it's easy to revert to the idea that yes, it IS all about the food. It doesn't matter that David always carries an "emergency" bag of GF snacks in his backpack; still, you expected better. So your inner voice rages: Now my son will have to be the weird kid, the sad kid, the left-out kid who can't eat what everyone else is eating. And so does a nine-year-old’s birthday celebration become, in your mind, a complete DISASTER!

Again, been there.

But having lived and learned, I'm here to tell you that the calamity in your mind was not invited to this party. Unless David has not eaten all day (which is never a good plan for any kid, let alone a GF one), he is probably operating with an adequate level of nutrients in his system to survive the event--with or without that emergency stash. And for the record, David is probably out in the jumpy castle with his friends, playing a game of robot invasion in zero gravity. Food? What food?

The thing is, the more we worry, the more they worry. They sense it. They're like super-sponges when it comes to taking in our anxieties. And our fears aren't just heard; they're actually MADE and then amplified.

So remember to breathe. And say it alone if you must:

It's not (just) about the food; it's about the people, places, and experiences in our lives!

Shift your default setting away from fear and towards more encouragement for your child to get out and take an active role in the world. Food be darned (because "emergency" stashes come in many flavors and sizes). Bring back the focus to what matters most, and your child will follow suit. And when the event allows, send along something delicious to share with everyone, every time. Because sharing isn't just about what's on the plate; it's about connection.

OF COURSE there will be difficult moments. When you love your child, you want him or her to feel great about every aspect of life. It's natural to feel a twinge of loss in thinking about those spontaneous pizza parties or gingerbread house-making gatherings (though there are ways around these, too). And I'd never suggest that we stop being vigilant--because we absolutely must! But ultimately, our vigilance must become their vigilance--and the sooner, the better. You will relax more as your child learns to self-advocate and to navigate the world on her own.

So as the holiday season launches, go ahead and check all the candy lists twice. But do it with your child, as an exercise in growth. Host a gluten-free soirée at your house, and continue to encourage a walk-on role in life. And, if there is something at that not-so-safe buffet table that looks particularly enticing, suggest keeping a "GF wish list" of things to recreate later in your own kitchen! We've recreated cake pops (though ours were square), calzones, and so many other dishes through the years. Many were great, and a few were total busts. But we learned and had lots of laughs and delicious memories in the process.

The bottom line? Don't let the fear of what your child can't have or do eclipse the richness of all she can have and do. Because after 12 years of parenting a celiac child (now a young adult), I realize that the journey has been far more sweet than bitter. In fact, I am 100% certain that our girl wouldn't be as self-assured, multifaceted, resilient, or involved in life as she is today had she not been diagnosed all those years ago.

She is a healthy, flourishing example of the truth that indeed, it's not (just) about the food; it's about the people, places, and experiences in our lives.

Say it. Teach it. And most of all, live it.

Elyn Joy is the author of the newly-revised and pediatrician-recommended book, The Gluten-Free Parent's Survival Guide , as well as The Gluten-Free Teen's Survival Guide. Her articles and interviews have appeared in Gluten-Free Living, Whole Foods Magazine, Allergic Living, and numerous other GF sites and publications. Elyn has been a featured presenter at Celiac Awareness events and has taught various courses on the topic. For more information, visit or contact

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