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Gluten-Free in Grade School
Gluten-Free in Grade School
For parents of gluten-intolerant kids, especially young ones, starting school can be filled with apprehension. The unknowns are many, gluten dominance prevails in the cafeteria and cupcakes are frequent interlopers in the classroom. But there are plenty of effective ways to negotiate school that can prioritize your child's dietary needs without isolating him. And you might not meet as much resistance as you think: As awareness of celiac disease grows, schools have stepped forward to become more accommodating, including offering gluten-free lunch options. Here are five simple steps you can take to make sure your child's lunch, snacks and treats are gluten-free.
Get a doctor's diagnosis
It's important to make sure teachers understand that this isn't just an eating preference but a serious health issue. “It's become almost trendy to hop on the gluten-free bandwagon, but if you don't need to avoid gluten, you could be cutting out an important food group,” says Boulder, Colo.-based dietician Jane Reagan, RD, who specializes in child nutrition. “Celiac disease is an autoimmune issue in which the individual can't assimilate gluten and needs to avoid it 100 percent of the time.” For the gluten-sensitive, the symptoms might seem similar—gastrointestinal distress, fatigue, bloating, constipation, nausea—but the consequences of eating gluten are much less severe. Having a doctor's confirmation of your child's condition serves as a helpful asset. A doctor's note, and explanation, can often get the school to more readily comply with the specific restrictions of celiac disease, namely, a strict, cross-contamination-free diet.
Send a letter to school staff
Reagan advises sending out an explanatory, introductory letter to the principal, nurse, receptionist, teachers and food service staff. An open communication with everyone, says Reagan, “lets other people advocate for your child besides your child.” You can find a well-crafted sample letter on the site glutenfreemom.com.
You can also meet with the staff at the beginning of every school year to keep everyone updated and establish a personal connection. If you present yourself as helpful and appreciative, you will probably be met with a similar attitude, says Reagan. Lisa Edwards, of Boulder, whose son has celiac disease, says she always reaches out ahead of time to both the school and the other parents. The teachers have a lot of kids to consider, she says, so reaching out in advance tends to make them more inclined toward receptivity than having to grapple with a new issue at the last minute.
Make lunch special
Even if your school offers a gluten-free lunch option, you might want to pack your child’s lunch to avoid cross-contamination. Not only do you want to give her delicious, varied meals, but you would do well to give her a unique lunch box as well. “Make sure the lunch box is unique enough that no other child would mistake it for theirs,” Reagan says. She's seen patients who tell of other children inadvertently switching lunch boxes, which can have disastrous consequences. Even though it's a no-no, trading at lunch still happens. Emphasize to your child the importance of not being swept into the trading frenzy. You can still pack a few extra treats for your child to give away, if he wants to feel included in the exchanges. Other solutions: Have your child team up with another gluten-free kid for swaps, or come up with a list of safe packaged foods your child can learn to recognize.
Beware of surprise gluten
One of the biggest hurdles to surmount for kids is the ubiquitous classroom birthday party. Edwards makes a bunch of different kinds of cupcakes in advance, which she has the teacher stash in the school freezer and defrost as necessary. For other random occasions, Reagan suggests supplying the teacher with a stash of gluten-free treats. For example, if the kids are eating candy to celebrate Halloween, give the teacher some gluten-free candy to dole out to your kid.
Gluten can also sneak into the environment through art supplies. Ask the teacher to inform you of food-centered crafts that involve certain glues, play-dough and pasta (for necklaces and other projects). Edwards bought gluten-free pasta for the entire class for when they made necklaces, but you can also opt to just supply enough gluten-free materials for your child.
Educate your child
Explain to your child what foods are always safe, and encourage her to ask a teacher or nurse to double check if she’s not sure. The celiac catchphrase “when in doubt, go without,” a useful mnemonic for your child, teaches not only caution but also the importance of delayed gratification. And when you teach your child how to advocate for herself, says Reagan, she’ll also learn the invaluable qualities of responsibility and self-confidence. With foresight, preemptive strategies and careful explanations, your child can learn to chart her course through the sea of snacks and lunches and cakes with nary a crumb of telltale gluten on her lips.
Elizabeth is an award-winning journalist who has written about everything from agave syrup to placebos to zero waste. She writes for the magazines Natural Health, Backpacker and FitPregnancy, among others, as well as a handful of websites, including Gaiam and Natural Medicine Journal. She also has coauthored a 52-card oracle deck with guidebook called The Mother’s Wisdom Deck (Sterling Publishers).
September 20th, 2012