Everyone eats several times per day, but do you feel like you have a firm grasp on the inner workings of nutrition? If your answer is ‘no’, you are absolutely not alone! Half the time we are not sure if a food is healthy or going to kill us. It’s such a confusing topic with tons of conflicting information, it’s no wonder that there are so many diet plans! But which one is the right diet plan? Nutrition is an ever-growing and fluid field; the “right” diet for you may not work well for others.

Some people require a specific diet due to cultural and social influences, to manage a medical condition, or to accommodate preferences within the family. Regardless of the reason for dietary modifications, it is important as a nanny or sitter to adhere to any requests made by a child’s guardian. Sometimes special diets can be intimidating, especially if you’re managing one for a child. Take your time to understand the special diet, prepare for anything (including a back up plan), have patience, and be a great example, and you will set yourself up success when leading a child through modifications to their diet. Here are four things to remember when a child has special dietary needs.

meat and veggies in portable containerUnderstand the special diet. Say you start caring for a child and the mother informs you that he follows a strict low FODMAPs diet. You think to yourself, “What in the world is a FODMAP?” When we know absolutely nothing about a situation we’re getting ourselves into, it’s scary, isn’t it? You have no idea what this child can eat, what you have to avoid, or what would happen if you missed something and he ate one of these mysterious FODMAPs. Your research will tell you FODMAPs are carbohydrates that include fructose, lactose, fructans, galactans, and polyols. Make a list of the foods that are low FODMAPs and a cheat sheet of safe foods for the child to eat while you’re out. Research will also let you know that people who are on a low FODMAPs diet generally experience gastrointestinal distress if they have one of the forbidden carbs, and you can confirm with the parent if the child ends up with a horrible stomach ache. You’re no longer flying blind! Information can go a long way to help you get comfortable with a special diet.

Prepare for anything. Once you have your cheat sheets, you’ve taken the first step in knowing what to do to manage this special diet. Now, what else can you do to be ready to manage a low FODMAPs diet while you’re out? Pack appropriate snacks for the child and have them with you every time you leave the house. But what if you run later than expected or run out of snacks and it’s time to eat? Eating out can be a challenge for any special diet. You need to know what to look for on ingredients lists, what questions to ask at restaurants, and what foods to check for on online menus. If medication is needed to combat symptoms, be sure to always have it with you. Proper planning, and knowing what questions to ask, allows for more flexibility in your day and less worry about managing the child’s dietary needs.

Have patience. You understand your role as a nanny or sitter with respect to special diet management, but let’s not forget that we’re dealing with a child. This child may not appreciate that he can’t eat ice cream. Why would he want the meat and vegetables that you’ve prepared for dinner? He doesn’t care that it will make his stomach hurt; he wants ice cream! Patience and positivity will be crucial to successfully implementing the dietary guidelines, especially if they are recent changes. Don’t push, and don’t force. If the child is included in preparation of the food and exposed to new foods regularly, they are more likely to accept these guidelines.

woman eating berries and yogurtSet a good example. You can also influence a child’s feelings about food. Children pick up habits from the people they spend the most time with, so be a positive part of developing their dietary habits. Let the child see you eating things that they are able to eat. Don’t eat ice cream in front of a child that can’t have it. Also, encourage children to eat a variety of foods by preparing and showing that you eat a variety of foods. By displaying healthy habits, you’ll encourage children to develop their own healthy habits that will stick with them through adulthood.

Nutrition is so important to our daily life, so don’t let it become a source of confusion and stress! If you ready yourself to manage a special diet through knowledge, preparation, patience, and your own lifestyle, you will be much more confident and successful as a childcare provider.

To learn more, a Special Diets course is available with enrollment in the Specialist Childcare program.

About the Author: Allison Markham Winkelmann has a Master of Science degree in Human Nutrition and Functional Medicine from the University of Western States and a Bachelor of Science degree in Kinesiology from the University of Texas. She also holds a Certificate in Nutritional Therapy from the Health Sciences Academy. She is a youth soccer coach, youth and adult fitness trainer, and wellness coach. Allison Markham Winkelman is an adjunct faculty member of Amslee Institute and has worked with children extensively in fitness centers and preschool. She uses her educational background and experience to help others live a healthier life.