Welcome to Dear Melissa, where we answer your questions about transitioning into or or maintaining a healthy Whole9 life, helping you figure out how to make this lifestyle work in the real world. Today, we’re talking to a Mom who feels frustrated with the amount of planning and prep necessary for her autoimmune-protocol family, and a woman who wants her company to change up their breakfast meeting offerings.

Dear Melissa,

I am very happy and proud of my family and our focus on a “Whole9 life.”  We are all on a fairly strict and limited paleo/autoimmune diet due to food sensitivities and allergies. I am so happy to have my family feeling better and on the healthiest track. We’ve had no issues, for the most part, with bidding adieu to processed junk. But sometimes I just miss the everyday pleasures that now have become more difficult. It’s summer, and it seems like there are so many festivals and events going on, for each of these we would have to bring our own food.  We can’t go to the Heritage Days or Folk Festival and try out all the international cuisine because it’s guaranteed to contain something we cannot eat.  We can’t attend the community Pancake Breakfasts or BBQ’s. We can’t go anywhere without hauling our own stuff.

Sometimes I just miss the ease of a normal life– being able to go out with the kids and stop off somewhere for something to eat. Traveling is difficult.  Going to friends’ houses and birthday parties is always a challenge, and sometimes people\’s comments can make you feel like an outcast.  Most of them time I am more than happy to do everything I do, and to know what we are eating and that my kids won’t have a reaction, but sometimes it just gets so mentally fatiguing to have to plan, prep, organize and take things everywhere and then explain to everyone why I am doing it –or just stay home. Any advice? –T.H., Lloydminster, Alberta, Canada

Dear T.H.,

First, understand that there are legitimate stages of grief related to medical diagnoses or dietary/lifestyle changes, just as there are when there is a death in the family. It sounds like you’ve arrived at a place of acceptance, but that doesn’t mean you won’t still have moments when you revert to feelings of loss, anger, or grief.

The first thing you need to know—to believe—is that it’s okay to feel the way you feel. At any given time, you may find yourself grieving for what you and your family have lost (what you consider a “normal” childhood or family existence)—and that’s okay. It’s expected. Healthy, even. So don’t compound the situation by saying, “I shouldn’t be feeling like this.” There is no should—these are your feelings, and they are valid, and you need to accept them before you can move on.

I’m also not going to tell you (just yet) to be grateful for the fact that you have figured out how to adjust your lifestyle so your family is happy and healthy. I hate it when people do that right off the bat—it sounds so condescending, and makes me feel like I haven’t really been heard. There’s a piece of you that already feels guilty for being upset you and your kids can’t eat corn dogs at the county fair, when other kids and other families have it way worse. I don’t need to compound that here.

Because the truth is that it IS hard. It’s hard to tell your kids “no, you can’t have that” day after day after day. It’s hard to be the “weird” family at social gatherings. It’s hard to deal with the aftermath of accidental exposures, and to have to prepare within an inch of your life just to go to the park for the afternoon. It IS hard. So right now, T.H., go ahead and vent all of your feelings. Get ‘em out. Bitch to anyone who will listen, either in person or online. Let them know this is just a vent session—that you’re not actually ungrateful, but you just need to get this out of your system. Seriously—do it now.

There. Don’t you feel better? Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s talk about how to move forward.

First, your family needs a special event focus outside of food. It’s way too easy to feel left out when your picnics, beach trips, or state fairs still revolve around the stuff you can no longer eat. It’s up to you, now, to change the focus. Make your Folk Festival trip about the activities. Plan to spend a little extra time or money letting the kids do pony rides, play games, or watch exhibitions. Skip the deep-fried-butter/bacon-wrapped-Twinkie/Nutella-stuffed-crepe aisle altogether, and make your day about the activities you do together as a family. Once you change your focus, I guarantee you’ll discover there is so much more to Heritage Day or Folk Festivals than the international cuisine.

Second, understand your preparations and special considerations at birthday parties or group gatherings are essential—not a weird preference, not an over-the-top health compulsion, but a valid treatment for a medical condition. Most folks don’t understand “autoimmune protocol” or the dietary implications of having an autoimmune disease, but they’d understand diabetes, or a peanut allergy. If you showed up at a birthday party with your own special cake, and parents said, “Oh, what’s that about?” you would just say, “My child has type 1 diabetes. We have to be really careful about his sugar intake.” And they’d go, “Oh, sure. Got it.”

You’ve got to treat your kids’ conditions just as matter-of-factly as that… and you don’t owe anyone a detailed explanation. “My kiddo has a medical condition, and we have to watch what he eats really closely.” That’s it—that’s all you have to say. If you can have the conversation ahead of time (before the party or gathering), that would make the situation even easier, as they would expect you to bring your own food. The less weird you feel about your food situation, the less weird your kids will feel—and you know how much they pick up on your emotions and feelings. Fake it, if you have to—drop that grain-free banana bread on the table totally nonchalantly, pass casually on the cookie plate, matter-of-factly serve your kiddo from his own “special” treat bowl, and others will take your lead.

Third, some of your frustration comes from how time-consuming it is to prepare special food every time your family leaves the house. Make that easier by coming up with a list of easy-to-make foods perfect for trips out. When we leave the house for a day at the lake or in the park, we always bring a cooler of salmon or chicken salad, fresh fruit and veggies, a few Primal Pacs, and a few cans of olives. Every time. That makes packing up for the day easy, and we know we’ll always have good food on the go. Do the same for your day trips, birthday parties (have a list of three easy treat recipes that your kids enjoy), and pot-luck dinners, and make your preparations that much easier.

Finally, on those days when you just can’t seem to muster up the energy to pack/prepare/deal with all of the special needs of your family, take a few moments to sit quietly, and think about how lucky you are to have discovered a means to keep them healthy and happy. Managing their symptoms via diet is really the best situation you could imagine for any medical condition, and while it’s an awful lot of work, you know there are other families with kids still suffering, who haven’t yet found the right path to good health. Reframing your perspective can be hard to do in the moment, and certainly doesn’t invalidate your feelings of frustration (you’ve been heard here, I promise you)… but I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least come back around to the idea that you are blessed to have the time, means, and energy to be able to care for your family as well as you do.

Best in health,

Dear Melissa, 

How can I get support for my Paleo diet from the staff at my work? My mom is on board and generally makes things pretty easy when I go visit family—I  may not be able to eat everything on the table, but I know I’ll always have at least 2-3 options to choose from. Work is another story. We frequently have breakfasts with staff meetings, treats offered for random special occasions, etc. Every once in a rare while we’ll get fresh fruit, but pretty much everything else offered is full of gluten, from the bread to the lunch meats. It seems unfair that the other staff get this great free food to eat, while I won’t be able to participate and may have to bring my own food. Is there any good way to encourage the staff to provide some gluten free options or more whole fruits and veggies at least? I feel like I’m missing out and being a party pooper because I can’t eat anything being served. –Amy, Colorado 

Dear Amy,

There’s something about free food that makes us forget our health convictions. It’s like if it’s free, we feel obligated to take advantage—almost as if the most primal part of our brain is saying, “Hey, there’s food there! You need to eat it, because maybe there won’t be food later.” Free food at the office tends to bring out the worst in people—I’ve seen some abominable behavior from grown men in suits fighting over the last cinnamon-raisin bagel. (Allow me to remind you, dear sir: that is a $2 bagel, you are a Senior Vice President, and this is your place of employment, not the set of Big Brother, Fortune 500 Edition).

But I digress.

Honestly, I’m not certain you’ll be able to change this situation. Your company is nice enough to provide free food to employees during meetings. That’s a sweet little perk, and probably very good for morale. Their concern isn’t to accommodate everyone’s special dietary needs—their concern is to provide food that their employees like as cheaply and easily as possible. Hence bagels and donuts for breakfast, sandwiches or pizza for lunch, cookies or candy for treats. You’re probably not the only one left out—I guarantee someone you work with has diabetes, or is vegan, or has food allergies. But again, the company isn’t trying to special-order food for everyone, only provide the kinds of foods that makes the majority of employees happy. And I bet most of your co-workers are thrilled with Bagel Fridays and free sodas from the vending machine. (I know mine used to be.)

If you want to try to make things a little more eater-friendly for you, you have to think like the company. Knowing they are buying food for employees to boost morale, your job is to convince them that not everyone’s morale is being boosted with the diabetes-fest they’re currently offering. Do some behind-the-scenes reconnaissance. How many of your co-workers would also like healthier options, either because of health conditions, dietary allergies, or food preferences? If you can approach the powers-that-be with a list of 20 people (instead of just you), you may have a leg to stand on.

You’ll also need to provide alternatives that are just as cost-effective, and just as easy. For example, ask for fresh fruit in the morning in addition to bagels, or ask them to order a few salads with their sandwiches for lunch. (Don’t ask for an omelet bar or double-burger-no-bun special orders.) Finally, think like an executive. Explain how healthier breakfast or lunch options will mean more energetic employees and an increase in productivity, and sends the message that employees’ health and well-being is valued by the company.

However, I’m guessing your chances of success here are slim—the company has their bottom line in mind, not your intestinal lining, and the foods they’re providing are both cheap and tasty in the eyes of the majority of employees. Which means you’ll just need to keep doing what you’re doing. Does it suck that you can’t partake of the free food your company provides? Yes. But get over it, because the world will generally not bend to your specific dietary preferences. Bring your own food to eat at meetings, or better yet, band with your fellow health-conscious employees to bring in foods you can all eat, pot-luck style, during the next Bagel Friday. (Maybe that will draw the interest of other employees, and the powers-that-be.) Finally, accept that the free brownies they offer at 3 PM just aren’t your style—and try to avoid the little voice in your head that says you should eat them because they’re free. As you and I  know, when it comes to gluten, there are no free rides.

Best in health,

Is this good advice? Do you want to add your two cents? We welcome your input! Share your best advice for T.H. and Amy in comments.

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Remember, we aren’t answering technical questions via this column, nor are we able to offer you specific advice about your medical issue, health condition, or body composition.

Published by Melissa Urban

Melissa Urban is a 7x New York Times bestselling author (including the # bestselling The Whole30) who specializes in helping people establish healthy boundaries and successfully navigate habit change. She has been featured by the New York Times, People, the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, The Today Show, and Good Morning America, and is a prominent keynote speaker on boundaries, building community, health trends, and entrepreneurship. She lives in Salt Lake City, UT with her husband, son, and a poodle named Henry.

Melissa Urban

Co-Founder / CEO

Melissa Urban is a 7x New York Times bestselling author (including the # bestselling The Whole30) who specializes in helping people establish healthy boundaries and successfully navigate habit change. She has been featured by the New York Times, People, the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, The Today Show, and Good Morning America, and is a prominent keynote speaker on boundaries, building community, health trends, and entrepreneurship. She lives in Salt Lake City, UT with her husband, son, and a poodle named Henry.