Gluten-Free Toddler Menu and Tips

by Julie Snyder

Gluten-Free ToddlerFeeding a toddler can -- and does -- test a parent's patience. Yesterday's favorite food turns up on today's most-hated list. Adding a food restriction to the typical toddler picky-eater syndrome makes nourishing your child seem a daunting and almost impossible task. Some kids take time to accept new tastes and textures.

Toddlers begin eating a variety of foods about the same time they start showing off their new found independence. They're growth is also slowing down a bit so they'll need less food than during those rapid growth baby months last year.

You might be concerned that a specialized diet could cause your tot to turn up his nose at the food on his plate. It's more likely that you're observing a normal developmental milestone.

With all tiny eaters, you'll want to avoid foods that could cause choking like grapes, hot dogs, string cheese and cherry tomatoes. A good rule of thumb is to cut the food into pieces no larger than the width of your child's little finger. Also on the "not for toddlers" list are fish with high mercury content and foods that might contain bacteria like e coli.

In addition to that list, your toddler needs to avoid foods containing gluten. When a child with celiac disease eats or drinks something containing gluten, the immune system responds. This attack on a "foreign body" damages the small finger-like villa in the small intestines that absorb nutrients. They're less able to do their job. The National Foundation for Celiac Awareness says that continued exposure to gluten can ultimately cause malnutrition.

Gluten-Free Foods for Toddlers

Once your child has been diagnosed with a gluten issue, ask for a referral to a nutritionist. You'll be able to discuss ways to include all the important vitamins and nutrients in your child's meals, safely.

Many of the most popular toddler foods are loaded with gluten. Most crackers, pasta, breads and cookies contain flour. Processed foods like soup, lunch meat and hot dogs often contain gluten and/or casein. It crops up unexpectedly as a stabilizer in foods like ketchup, puddings and beverages.

Parents can offer an excellent, nutrient dense diet to a child with celiac disease or gluten-intolerance. There are plenty of things you can do with fresh fruits and vegetables, dairy products, fresh meat and healthy oils and fat. Your toddler can safely eat a variety of healthy celiac-friendly grains including rice, quinoa, buckwheat and corn.

Today, a variety of toddler-friendly, wheat-free finger foods can be purchased at your local health food store or at many major grocery store chains and online. A good amount of gluten-free products could contain processed flours and added sugar that provide very few nutrients. You'll always want to read all labels carefully.

Menu Ideas

Breakfast: In a world of cereal, toast and pancakes, coming up with gluten-free breakfasts might be your biggest challenge. Use these ideas to prime your imagination.

• A fruit and vegetable smoothie: Spinach in a smoothie? You bet! The baby spinach leaves donate a nutritional power punch and the blueberries and strawberries influence the flavor and color.

• Gluten-free pancakes: Top with a thin layer of almond butter, finely chopped apples and a sprinkle of cinnamon. Another day, just for fun, cut the cooked pancakes into shapes with a cookie cutter. Serve with a fruity dip.

• Eggs can be scrambled, soft-boiled, poached or made into a frittata or omelet. You can even beat them well, add cottage or ricotta cheese and fry like pancakes.

Lunch: Whether your toddler is home at lunchtime or at daycare, these menu items offer a quick and appealing meal.

• Gluten-free pizza: Bake a gluten-free pizza, cut into small pieces and freeze snack-sized sacks for lunches.

• Yogurt and fruit: Combine gluten-free yogurt and fresh fruit. A few bites gives your toddler protein and healthy carbohydrates.

• Sandwiches: Use gluten-free bread or leftover pancakes. Fill with deviled eggs, cheese, meat or nut butters and jam.

Dinner might be your easiest meal. Look through your grocery store and you'll find gluten-free pastas, quinoa and other allowed grains and dinner ingredients that are naturally perfect for your child.

• Mac & cheese: Prepare using rice pasta or another favorite gluten-free pasta. Serve with a salad or colorful steamed vegetables. You might have to separate the broccoli from the carrots if your toddler has an issue with foods "holding hands."

• Meatloaf: Replace the wheat breadcrumbs in your recipe with gluten-free oatmeal or gluten-free breadcrumbs. Go ahead and sneak a bit of pureed vegetables into your recipe. The family will still love it! Toss a tray of winter vegetables in the oven right along with the main dish.

• Baked chicken fingers: Marinade or coat the chicken pieces and bake. Cut into small pieces and offer a fruity yogurt dip or a tomato based "barbecue" dip. Add a few pieces of vegetables or fruit.

Snack Time

• Baked sweet potato with ricotta
• Corn tortillas with hummus
• Plain yogurt with fruit
• Avocado bits
• Edamame
• Cooked vegetable squares and dip
Polenta bites
• Gluten-free pancakes cut in shapes with nut butter
• Banana slices dipped in yogurt

Parenting Challenges You Might Face

We asked our moms about their experiences and challenges parenting a gluten-free toddler. These were the most common difficulties:

Locating toddler-appropriate foods: Some things are gluten-free even though the label doesn't specifically say so. Other times gluten shows up in very unexpected places, so you have to be alert as you purchase.

Having the family on board: Your toddler "looks" just fine. You might need to educate the family. Share how gluten affects your child and share which foods contain gluten. A chart or list might be helpful.

Watching your child's eating: Until they're old enough to take responsibility for their diet, you and the other caregivers need to monitor everything that goes into your child's mouth and even lotions and personal care products that touch skin.

Taking medical concerns seriously Getting your doctor to acknowledge your concerns can be your biggest hurdle. Until recently, many doctors weren't familiar with gluten issues.

Stranger danger: People at community events and even booths in stores offer tastes to kids. Strangers aren't always aware that they need to ask before giving a child anything.

Family holidays: When your toddler is the only one who eats gluten-free, you might need to bring your own treats and snacks. At a family gathering, tiny tots tend to bum food from plates, feed one another and...gasp!...graze off the floor. You'll have to be especially diligent.

Cross contamination: Using the same knife or cutting board can add gluten to an otherwise safe food. Some moms delegate certain areas of the kitchen and certain utensils as a gluten-free zone.

Breastfeeding: If you have a nursing toddler, be aware that gluten can get to your child through breast milk. For the duration of breastfeeding, you could need to adapt a gluten-free diet.

Feeding a child with dietary restrictions can seem daunting and almost impossible, but it's doable. Is your toddler gluten-intolerant? How does your family accommodate this special diet?