As the summer months wane and a return to school is clear on the horizon, many of you parents are probably pondering how to send your school-age young one back into the messy, pasta necklace-ridden environment of the elementary classroom without derailing a medically necessary gluten-free diet.
Whew! We hear ya.
Whether you’re a parent with a newly diagnosed tyke or you’ve got a few years of experience under your belt, preparation is always the key. That’s why we’re here with some handy tips, important resources, and a menu or two to help get your family started on the right foot.
First: Make Sure Your Child Understands
Telling the adults around little Billy that he can’t have cupcakes can become a moot point if little Billy doesn’t get it. Lunch swapping, dried pasta portraits, basic art supplies, even seemingly innocuous ice cream at the class party can be potential health hazards. Teaching your little celiac to be vigilant for their own safety is incredibly important.
If your child has just been diagnosed, there are some frequently asked questions you may need to be prepared to answer in a way that is positive and unintimidating. There are a few examples here of some responses as well as some fantastic “pep talks” here to encourage a positive attitude about the gluten-free lifestyle.
The President of the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness wrote a great article about how to use games and toys to teach your young child about gluten-free dietary needs. Things like a trip to the grocery store can become learning experiences with a little parental finesse.
Also talk to your child about how to communicate their needs/how they’re feeling with the adults around them. If their skin gets itchy or their stomach hurts, they should feel comfortable speaking up and letting their teacher or school staff know there may be an issue with cross-contamination.
Before School Starts
Do you have all the necessary paperwork ready to communicate your child’s special dietary needs to the school? What about a list of everyone to talk to?
This great and simple visual checklist from the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness is perfect for printing out and pinning to the fridge as a quick reminder.
Most schools will be a receptive and helpful resource for your family. However, in the event you run into any kind of push-back from staff, remember: Legally, schools are required to make reasonable accommodations for children with celiac disease under the Americans with Disabilities Act. It is well within your rights to ask that healthy snack alternatives and lunch options be made available, even if you intend to send your little one with a homemade meal each day.
Make a Meal Plan
Speaking of homemade meals: putting healthy, well-rounded, and delicious school lunches together everyday is challenging enough. But with a serious dietary restriction? Woof.
Thankfully, there are some creative pre-planned menus out there to take some of the pressure off. This great printable guide by the NFCA includes snack ideas as well!
It’s important to remember to infuse variety and even the occasional treat into your child’s weekly lunch offerings. If you think adults are tempted to “cheat,” that’s nothing compared to a hungry 6-year-old staring down the Hostess cupcake their classmate just unwrapped across the cafeteria table. Plus, if they have fun food of their own, they’re less likely to feel like an “outsider.”
On That Note: Treats, treats & more treats
There are a million different holidays, birthdays, and “just because” pizza parties throughout the school year. Be prepared by asking your child’s teacher to communicate these events to you as far in advance as possible so you can be ready with alternative treats to provide your child as necessary. Of course, it’s always a good idea to to pre-emptively provide teachers with a stock of non-perishable snacks they can dole out in the event of spontaneous celebration.
Parenting Magazine has a great list of gluten-free dessert recipes kids are sure to love! If it’s a pizza party, help your child make their own personal pizza from scratch at home or ask if the teacher would be willing to order a gluten-free pie (where available).
For more comprehensive resources and ideas about how you can help your young one adapt to their dietary restrictions, read our previous post “So Your Child Has Celiac: First Steps For the Classroom And Beyond.”
We wish you and yours a happy, healthy, adventurous school year!