q&a with katie chalmers from g-free kidby caroline
Today’s Q&A features Katie Chalmers, founder of G-Free Kid and author of Mommy, What Is Celiac Disease?, a book made especially for children who have been diagnosed with celiac disease. Chalmers was diagnosed with celiac disease in 2007, shortly before one of her twin daughters, Morgan, was given the same diagnosis. Her other twin daughter, Lindsey, was diagnosed with gluten sensitivity in 2011. Here, Chalmers talks about her personal experience with celiac disease and what led her to eventually write and illustrate her children’s book.
Q: How did the process of writing your book, Mommy, What Is Celiac Disease?, help you and your girls with your personal processes of learning how to deal with your individual diagnoses?
A: I began thinking about a way to explain celiac disease to my daughters after I was diagnosed myself. I wanted to describe my condition in a way that they could understand (they were 4 at the time) so I came up with some analogies that they would “get”. Since we’re an outdoorsy family, I naturally (no pun intended) thought of comparisons between nature and a park/playground environment. The process of writing and illustrating the book kept me positive, in that I was very careful in my wording to set the right tone, and to cover all of the necessary bases without being too overwhelming. When one of my twin daughters (Morgan) was diagnosed with Celiac a few months after I was, it really got the ball rolling and helped turn my book idea into a reality. It was fun for my daughters to see the book progress, between the text and the illustrations and they were excited and interested in it the whole time. Throughout the process, the positive tone I was setting rubbed off on them and anything gluten-related has always been a positive subject with our family.
Q: How did the process of re-training yourself on how to eat and be healthy differ from that of helping children to understand why these dietary eliminations are necessary?
A: I was the first one to switch over to the diet so it was an easier process for them to go gluten-free after seeing how I was eating differently. I was diagnosed in October of 2007, and my family started a semi-gluten free diet with me since we all ate the same meals for dinner anyhow. While I was learning the diet, they learned too. They also saw me keeping it positive, even if there were issues in all of my trial and errors in the beginning. I remember buying a loaf of GF bread that tasted like styrofoam and all I could do was laugh and tell them that I would definitely find something better! Right after that, they saw me begin baking my own bread with great success. No matter what I encountered, my husband and I kept the whole topic positive. I honestly believe that really helped them both transition well. When Morgan was diagnosed, it was just natural for her to join me in the diet. She had already seen that I was happy with my food and that I wasn’t lacking in anything. During those few months before she went gluten-free, she had come to understand what celiac disease was all about and why she would also have to go gluten-free. It really couldn’t have worked out any better. I’m sure it must be a lot harder for a child to be the first one diagnosed in the family and have everything be new right off the bat, which is the reason I wrote my book. It starts a child off on a positive note with a sunny outlook about the gluten-free diet, which is the key to success. The book helps a child understand what gluten does to his or her body and explains why they have to eat gluten-free.
Q: You meet a mom who has just found out her child can no longer include gluten in his or her diet — what are the top five resources (other than your awesome book!) you point her to first?
A: There are so many to choose from … (but) here are my top five resources for parents of newly diagnosed gluten-free kids:
- The University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center is an excellent resource with its comprehensive and constantly-updated website. It offers a telephone hotline to help with those burning questions, a gluten-free care package program for newly diagnosed celiacs, detailed guides & fact sheets, printable PDFs like “Jump Start Your Gluten-Free Diet eBook” and “The Trouble That Jack Had” and much more.
- NFCA’s Website has a ton of information & features available, such as “Ask the Dietitian”, printable guides & lists, Kids Central (info. for both parents & kids) and ways you can get involved to help spread awareness.
- Children’s Hospital Boston has a great series of videos that are helpful, covering 12 different topics, from both parent & child perspectives.
- Blogs like Adventures of a Gluten-Free Mom and Gluten Free Easily, where the hosts (Heidi and Shirley, respectively) will welcome you in and make you feel comfortable, and where you will learn a lot and find tons of delicious recipes. Get into the conversations on Facebook and you’ll feel right at home.
- G-Free Kid: Even if this wasn’t my Website, I would still send people there. You can find everything you need for parents, supporters and gluten-free kids of all types — not just celiacs. You’ll find down-to-earth advice, tips and ideas for raising a g-free kid and helping them live a happy, healthy life.
My other daughter, Lindsey, was finally diagnosed with non-celiac gluten sensitivity about a year ago, after suffering from bad tummy aches, slowed growth and weight loss. Her sister and I were on the gluten-free diet 3 years more than she was, so she had a few more years to eat favorite gluten-foods. It was definitely easier for Morgan to go gluten-free at age 4 than it was for Lindsey at age 7. I think the younger the child, the easier the transition is. But with Lindsey, she remembered the stomach aches and knew that they were gone once she started the gluten-free diet. So that was extra incentive for her to go gluten-free. Also, she probably felt like she was joining a club or something, since Morgan & I were already on it. 🙂 Anyhow, she has hardly complained herself even though I know she misses certain foods. Her favorite thing she used to eat was regular bread and butter. So for special holiday meals I’ll buy a pack of Schar par-baked rolls, heat them up and slather them with butter for her. She acts like she is in heaven and I know she really appreciates the gesture.
For both girls, we just try to celebrate all of the delicious foods that we are able to eat, and try to make the best of all situations. None of us feel like we are lacking in anything when we regularly try new recipes, visit new restaurants, vary our meals and discover new products.
Q: When did you realize your children are completely comfortable with living a gluten-free life? Any “aha!” moments?
A: I think that kids in general don’t feel completely comfortable until they truly understand exactly what their special diet entails, and that the real comfort comes when they know they can do it themselves. A while back my girls showed some confusion about seeing the words “whole grains” on food packages, for example, incorrectly assuming that it meant the product contained gluten. So we spent a long time at Wegmans the next day wandering down the aisles, reading a bunch of different types of packages. Once they realized that “whole grain” might also mean corn or rice, then they really understood the need to read ingredients if they weren’t sure about something. With so many things in life, comfort comes with clarity. Once we cleared that up, they became much more confident in themselves and their own abilities to decipher what they can eat.
One “aha” moment just happened recently … Lindsey started a list of 1000 blessings in a notebook and she didn’t even think to write anything about gluten-free food until around #500 when she was running out of things to write. What that tells me is that I am doing a good job helping her live the normal, happy life of a normal, happy child. I love the fact that being g-free isn’t first and foremost in her mind — and that instead, she is thinking about all of the other wonderful aspects of her life and world — which far outweigh thoughts of gluten-free food.
Q: Why is living a gluten-free life with children fun and, ultimately, rewarding??
A: First of all, we feel blessed that we were all diagnosed. When I think of all the millions of people out there who don’t know they should be on a gluten-free diet, it makes me feel so fortunate to have gotten to the right doctors and put on this healing diet of ours. I have especially seen so many changes with Lindsey in the past year after going gluten-free. Her before and after pictures are amazing and to see her body growing and flourishing is such a joy, not to mention the fact that she’s not in pain anymore. We just celebrate the fact that we are gluten-free and that there are so many awesome options out there for us. That in itself makes it fun, plus we also enjoy spending time together trying new recipes and discovering new foods and restaurants. The whole book process was so rewarding (they are still so proud to show and give people the book), and now they are enjoying hearing what I’m sharing with people on the gfreekid.com Website/blog. They share in the excitement of coming up with new ideas of things to post, remind me to take pictures of food before we gobble it up, and are always supportive of whatever it is I’m doing to help spread awareness. My daughters are also learning lessons when they see me doing pro-bono design work for our local support group — like their newsletter or marketing work for special events. And every spring we get friends and family together as a team for two “Making Tracks for Celiacs” national awareness walks in our area, and we enjoy getting exercise, having fun and raising money for an important cause. It truly is a rewarding and fun gluten-free life we are living together!
My gift to you: Win a copy of Katie Chalmers’ book by leaving a comment below. All you have to do is tell me what makes your gluten-free life fulfilling and rewarding! All comments must be received by Thursday, February 23rd at 11:59 p.m. EST. I’ll pick a winner Friday morning!