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Back-to-School: Gluten-Free

A school bus driving down the road in the fall.

It's that time of year again. Soon the days will be getting cooler and the kids will be headed back to school. When you have a child with celiac disease, gluten intolerance, or a gluten allergy it can be very stressful as a parent. My daughter has had celiac disease since she was four years old. I'll never forget that first fall going in to speak with her preschool. I was hoping I could think of everything I needed to tell them to keep her safe. There was so much to remember. Here are a few of my tips for your child.

Preschool/Elementary School:

  • Meet with the school before or at the start of the school year. Speak to all of your child's teachers and explain what your child's medical needs are regarding gluten-free. Let them know that you are happy to answer any questions they may have going forward. Ask them to inform you of any in-class parties a few days to a week before the event. Let them know you would be happy to bring in gluten-free options that are similar to what they will be offering for your child. Remember you and the school are a team.

  • Speak to the art teacher. Many items in the art class contain gluten. Let them know if you would rather send in an alternative that is gluten-free or if your child can use it, but must wash their hands immediately after. This is up to you as the parent, there is no right or wrong answer.

  • Have cupcakes/brownies that can be kept frozen at school. When the teacher finds out there is a birthday that day a treat can be taken out of the freezer at school so your child doesn't feel left out.

  • Include your child in coming up with ideas that they would like for their lunch.

  • Have them pick out a fun, but functional lunch box. (If your child wants a lunch like their friends do your best to find gluten-free options similar to theirs.)

  • The big key here is communication.

Middle School:

This is when gluten-free can get really tough. I know you were thinking "I can breathe, my child pretty much knows what they can and can't eat." Well, if your child like every other middle school child they don't want to stand out and look different. Sometimes they will be angry about having to be gluten-free will be your fault. (Just kidding-it's not your fault but they will make you feel like it.) Take a deep breath and remember what it was like to be that age. I promise you will get through it.

  • Meet with the school to let them know about your child's medical needs and let them know if they ever have questions to reach out to you.

  • Make sure you have your child pick out lots of snacks/food for back-to-school. Most middle schoolers are growing and they are HUNGRY. You don't want them to get hungry and not have something safe to eat.

  • Make sure they have apps on their phone to help them find gluten-free restaurants as well as search food to ensure it's gluten-free when they are not with you.

  • Make a plan before a team event or if they are going to go out with friends to eat. Look at options ahead of time. Talk about it with your child when their friends/teammates are not around. They may need to eat before going just in case there is nothing or very little they can eat there.

  • Always have lots of food options in the house.

  • The key at this age is helping them learn to be more independent (with lots of support behind the scenes).

Honestly, I find sports to be the most challenging at this age. The sports bus usually stops at a McDonald's or a similar fast food place which has barely any options. Many children will no longer want to pack food because it makes them stand out. We look for lots of quick portable snacks and pack a lot of them.

High School:

Depending on how long your child has been diagnosed this may be a bit easier. If they have had to eat gluten-free for many years they have a pretty good idea of what they can and can't eat. If they are lucky they have great friends that also try to ensure they pick places to go where they can eat.

  • Speak to your child and ask if they want you to meet with the school. Would they rather communicate their needs on their own?

  • Continue to support them by buying food they can take with them on trips, sporting events, etc.

  • Help them think of part-time jobs that would be safe for them. Many part-time jobs are at fast food restaurants. Depending on you and your child's level of comfort this could be an issue.

  • If your child isn't already cooking/baking at home you may want to help them learn how to make some basic foods.

  • The key at this age is to prepare them to live gluten-free in a gluten world.

It's not easy to be a parent of a child that must be gluten-free. As parents, we are constantly learning and adapting. I hope these tips for the school year will help your year go more smoothly.

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