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Help for kids' special diets

For five years, Katherine Revell has monitored every morsel that goes into 8-year-old son Eric’s mouth. Eric, diagnosed with a form of autism at 18 months, is on a gluten- and casein-free diet. He cannot eat regular bread or cookies, drink milk or eat ice cream. But the Miami Lakes mom says having your child on a special diet can be manageable with the right attitude.

"It’s an effort, but after a while, it becomes a lifestyle," said Revell, who blogs about her experience with the diet.

Whether it’s food allergies, behavioral issues or health problems that lead you to seek a special diet for your child, it’s becoming easier to find acceptable foods.

Supermarkets like Publix and Winn-Dixie are grouping gluten-free and casein-free foods in their health food sections, to make buying easier. Restaurants are offering menu items to those on special diets, and even vacation destinations are accommodating special requests.

Experts say back to basics is the best philosophy.

"You don’t have to rush out and buy a bunch of processed gluten-free foods. A basic meat and potatoes meal, with a vegetable and fresh fruit, is all free of gluten, as long as none has been added in the processing," says Glicer Cuadrado-Umbaugh, a pediatric nutritionist and licensed dietician with the University of Miami’s Mailman Center for Child Development.

Here’s what you need to do if your child has special dietary needs:

Inventory your pantry and fridge.

You’ll find there are a lot of natural foods – including meats, seafood, vegetables and fruit – that kids on special diets can eat.

Cuadrado-Umbaugh says the first rule is not to panic and throw out all the food in your pantry. Do your research, and read what foods do and don’t contain the substance you are trying to avoid, whether it’s gluten, casein or peanut butter.

"It’s important to go back to basics, to look up 'What is gluten?' and 'Where does it come from?' "

For example, gluten is not only in wheat, but in grains such as barley, rye and malt.

"Once you realize what has gluten in it, you can look at your pantry and see what’s usable," she says.

Gradually eliminate foods.

When she started Eric on the gluten-free, casein-free diet five years ago, Revell’s strategy involved eliminating one food at a time. "Start with something they don’t like that much, and go from there," she says. "Take baby steps. Don’t take everything away at once." (Of course, if your child has food allergies or an illness such as Celiac’s Disease, you’ll want to follow your doctor’s recommendations.)

Introduce one new food at a time.

Eric was drinking whole milk before he started on a casein-free diet, Revell said. So she transitioned him slowly, replacing some of his milk with rice milk each day until he was drinking only rice milk. "If you give them something new, keep a log of what you gave them and their reaction," she says.

Find substitutes for favorites.

Kids love macaroni and cheese, which is a no-no on a gluten- and casein-free diet. So Revell found a product made by Amy’s that uses rice noodles and soy cheese.

Do a taste test.

Revell has learned over time which gluten-free pastas don’t fall apart (Tinkyada, a dry pasta available at Whole Foods and Publix) and which gluten-free breads taste best (Kinikinnick and Udi). She also likes Envirokids cereals and Earth Balance dairy-free butter. Glutino offers a line of bagels, brownies and snack bars.

Read every label.

Be a detective. "It can be intimidating, because gluten is sometimes used as an additive or thickening agent in products such as ketchup or ice cream," Cuadrado-Umbaugh says.

"It’s important to read the labels."

Be prepared for social occasions.

Birthday parties can be a challenge. Revell bakes and freezes gluten-free cupcakes so when Eric is invited to a party, she can grab one and go. Jeanette Waisbein of Weston packs snacks for her son, Daniel, 11, who has food allergies, when the kids at Hebrew school have pizza, so he can be part of the group.

Look at mainstream foods.

Gluten-free foods are the fastest-growing segment of the food industry, said Nancy Hoffman of Coral Springs, vice president of the Celiac Disease Foundation of South Florida.

Mainstream manufacturers like General Mills are introducing products for special diets. Betty Crocker has a line of gluten-free cake and brownie mixes. Yoplait Plus, I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter and some Progresso Soups also are gluten-free. "There are so many products you can get at a regular grocery store," Hoffman said.

Eat out carefully.

• "Do your homework, and get familiar with the menu before you go in. Be very familiar about what type of food you can and cannot have," Cuadrado-Umbaugh says. "Talk to the server and explain what type of diet you are on. Now it’s so common that kitchens are familiar with preparing dishes for special dietary needs."

• Be aware of cross-contamination possibilities, when special diet food is prepared at a station where regular food is handled.

• Think of the big picture. If you order a salad, ask them to leave out the croutons. Ask if the dressing is made from scratch, because prepared dressings often have stabilizers. You may be safer with just lemon juice, or with oil and vinegar.

• Pick restaurants that are special diet-friendly. Revell says it’s hard to go to fast food places, but in a sit-down restaurant, you can talk to the chef or have them prepare something special.

Plan ahead when traveling.

This can seem overwhelming – all of those meals on someone else’s turf, but people on special diets travel all of time.

• For a trip to Disney, Revell mentioned her family’s dietary needs when making dining reservations. The note stayed on her account, and every restaurant she visited met her requests.

• Hoffman says she has had good luck with cruises, which prepared meals to her needs and pointed her to items on the buffet that fit her diet.

• Don’t be afraid to call ahead or ask the chef if a meal can be prepared a special way, Hoffman says. Cruise lines, caterers and hotels can prepare special meals.

• Be specific about your needs. Hoffman remembers how sick she got once after eating fresh broccoli steamed in pasta water. "Talk directly to the chef or manager, and tell them what you need," she said.

Network and stay up on trends.

You are not alone. Find a support group (the Celiac Disease Foundation of South Florida has one) and chat with other parents at the grocery store. Find a blogger who writes about your diet and periodically Google your area for new restaurants and products.


To avoid gluten (a protein found in many grains, cereals and breads) or casein (a milk protein), pediatric nutritionist Glicer Cuadrado-Umbaugh offers this advice:

• Meats, poultry and seafood are safe, except for imitation crab, which uses gluten as a preservative. Just monitor the additives when cooking. For example, if an item is breaded and fried, there may be gluten in the breading.

• Vegetables such as corn and potatoes are fine (be careful of French Fries - if they’re dusted in flour before frying, they contain gluten.) Many of the Caribbean vegetables found in abundance in South Florida, such as yucca, plantain, mélange and polenta, also are good. Fruit is fine.

• Grains such as rice and quinoa are safe.

• Beans and chickpeas are fine.

• Look for flour made from rice, chickpeas or potato and pasta made from quinoa or rice. 


Grocery stores, cateringGluten-free displays are popping up in area grocery stores such as Publix and Winn-Dixie. Whole Foods Market has outlets throughout South Florida. Nutrition S’Mart has stores in Pembroke Pines and Miami Lakes.

Check out Healthy Way in Boca Raton and Tunies in Coral Springs. Pam’s Gluten Free Kitchen offers catering, custom cakes and cookies for special diets. The Organic Consumers Association lists Florida food co-ops and health food stores.

Visit the free South Florida Gluten Free Food Expo, with 100-plus vendors, Feb. 19 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the South Florida Fairgrounds (Expo East Building), 9067 Southern Blvd., West Palm Beach.


Many chain restaurants, such as Outback and P.F. Chang’s, offer gluten-free options. Search Urbanspoon’s gluten-free friendly restaurants, the Gluten Free Registry and the Celiac Disease Foundation of South Florida for restaurant listings, some with links to menus. Other local options:

Naked Pizza

1260 Washington Ave, Miami Beach


Pizza Fusion

Locations in Fort Lauderdale, Weston and North Miami Beach

Beehive Natural Foods Juice Bar

5750 SW Bird Rd, Miami


Tamarind Thai

946 Normandy Dr., Miami


Fresh Brothers Coconut Creek

6556 N. State Road 7, Coconut Creek


Mellow Mushroom

24 SE Sixth Ave., Delray Beach


Maggiano’s Little Italy

21090 St. Andrews Blvd., Boca Raton