Monday, June 28, 2010

Birthday Party Success on a Special Needs Diet

There are two parts to birthday party success on a special needs diet. One is having your own party with food you can eat and everyone will enjoy. The second is being invited to someone else's party and being prepared with your own goodies that don't make you feel like you are missing out on the "good stuff."

As a child with ADHD or on the autism spectrum, it might be rare that they are invited to a party to begin with, so when it does happen, you want it to go well. The focus of today's article is about food and not the sensory issues of birthday parties. Provided your child can handle these events, I'm going to give you tips on how to enjoy them while on your special needs diet. If you're child isn't quite "there" yet with the ability to attend parties without overwhelm, keep in mind that being on the diet will change that! Don't disregard this helpful information, but keep it for when you need it.

Your Own Party

The place to start is mental attitude toward the issue of party food. When we first went through these dietary changes, I panicked just thinking about what I would make that the other kids (who weren't used to our food) would enjoy. Don't focus on what they will think about the food. Focus on the fun they will have while there. That's all that really matters. If the party is fun, then it's a success.

The good news is that by serving only healthier foods, or even a few transitional things that are still within the diet criteria, you are going to have a whole group of kids who aren't spiking on artificial chemicals and sugar overload. That alone can make a world of difference from the typical party craze.

It's been through trial and error that I've found what works well. I definitely don't recommend that you make your child's food different on the side and provide standard food to the other kids. After all, this is your child's party and you can make sure that he or she gets the same thing that all the other kids get for once.

Ideas to make it easier on you:

  1. Set the party time mid-afternoon for a 2-3 hour window. That way you can avoid providing an entire lunch or dinner meal.
  2. Make a list of your child's favorite foods and include them. (The success of any of the following food suggestions will, of course, depend on your child's unique sensory issues. If your child has limited preferences, keep these in mind for the other kids. Even if yours wouldn't eat it, keep it within the diet guidelines so you don't have to say no just in case!)
  3. Don't underestimate our kids and assume they won't eat something healthy! Set out a uniquely designed veggie platter with the other snacks and watch it disappear, too.
  4. Make a delicious fruit salad with berries or other in-season fruits. Serve in a clear cup with a blend of fruits as a sauce on top.
  5. There are great homemade non-dairy ice cream recipes and even store-bought brands.
  6. Make cupcakes instead of a birthday cake if you don't want to serve a GFCF version to everyone. You can provide both, but have them look the same. Better yet, use homemade or store-bought non-dairy ice creams to make an ice cream cake and skip the baking all together.
  7. Give small, inexpensive toys that you can buy in bulk as prizes and goodie bag stuffers instead of candy. As a party activity, make a craft and have that as the take-home gift. (At my daughter's 6th birthday party, I bought a package of craft gems, some bottles of craft glue, and shot-glass sized tea candle holders. The girls all decorated their candle holders and took them home with a candle inside. It was very inexpensive and they all loved it!)
  8. Make air-popped popcorn instead of the microwaved, chemical covered kind.
  9. Make homemade lemonade (with stevia or agave syrup instead of sugar) or serve plain fruit juice mixed with soda water for fun party drinks. Freeze a berry inside ice cubes for an added touch.
  10. If the party must be scheduled around a main meal, use oven baked potato wedges (or "fries") as the main base of the meal. Build the rest of the meal around it. If you think of a base that doesn't include flour products or dairy, then it takes the pressure off of making something without substitutes!
Most importantly, be prepared! Brainstorm and be creative. Remember, the games and entertainment you have will make the party the success, so put most of your efforts there and have fun!

Parties Away from Home

It isn't easy to go to a party and miss out on all the special treats and foods that are standard party fare. Let's face it, pizza, hot dogs, cake, flavored chips, artificially buttered popcorn and chemical-filled drinks abound at parties. The last thing we need is the regret of attending one and dealing with a week long reaction to the food. It only takes a small amount to see a reaction like this and to overload at a party will not move you toward success. This is not the time to let down your guard on diet, especially knowing that parties are a sensory overload even without the junk food!

Plan of action:

  1. Simply explain to the other parent that your child has allergies to certain foods. (You don't have to mention the specifics like artificial ingredients, gluten, dairy, etc...)
  2. Be specific that your child should only eat/drink what you provide. (It is just safer this way. Other parents will sometimes go to great lengths to try to provide something "acceptable" for your child but miss a key ingredient. After their efforts, it's harder to say no, so play it safe and keep it simple from the start!)
  3. Be prepared and stay well stocked! (Prepare the "safe" recipes in bulk batches of cupcake sizes and freeze them to have on hand at a moment's notice. That way, you aren't making a whole cake recipe for your child every time someone else has a party!)
  4. Keep a stash of "party food" ready, but not visible! (There are natural, fruit-juice sweetened candies and gummy bears that you can buy to use as a trade for the chemical-filled junk when coming home from a party. This stash is only for trade-offs from what other people give them. I don't recommend keeping it for regular use at home!)
  5. Even better, trade for money! (Older kids who understand the value of money and want to save for something special will gladly hand over the candy in return for some cash. Keep it realistic and don't pay too much. As my son says, "That candy only lasts a little while in my mouth, but a toy lasts forever!")
These tips don't only apply to birthday parties away from home, but also for seasonal events, spontaneous get-togethers, or even regular play-dates. Being prepared and sticking to the plan are the most important factors in your success with a restricted diet. Start with these suggestions and create a plan that works well for you.

© 2010 Stephani McGirr

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