A Guide to the Gluten-Free Diet for Kids
If your child has been diagnosed with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, they’ll need to follow a strict gluten-free diet. Always talk to a doctor before cutting gluten out of your child’s diet.
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, rye and the derivatives of these grains, including malt and brewer’s yeast.
A gluten-free diet excludes all products containing these ingredients. Those who are gluten-free can still enjoy a healthy diet filled with fruits, vegetables, meats, poultry, fish, beans, legumes and most dairy products. Such ingredients are naturally gluten-free, and safe for individuals who do not have allergies to these respective food groups.
Eating gluten-free is the only way kids with celiac disease can stay healthy. There’s no medicine or shot you can take to make it go away.
By sticking to gluten-free food, kids with celiac disease will start to absorb the vitamins and minerals needed to grow. Lots of gluten-free kids feel stronger and have more energy after being on the diet.
Downloadable Gluten-Free Diet Resources:
- The Gluten-Free Diet Overview
- The Beyond Celiac Getting Started Guide, a comprehensive guide to living with celiac disease
Gluten-Free Foods & Alternatives
Luckily, there are lots of delicious foods that are naturally gluten-free! Fresh fruits and vegetables are gluten-free, and so are most meats like chicken and fish. A lot of ice cream is gluten-free, too!
There are also gluten-free versions of your kid’s favorite foods, like gluten-free bread, cereals, pancakes, chicken nuggets and even pizza crust. Just make sure you look for a gluten-free label on the packaging.
Additionally, there are many grain, flour and starch alternatives that naturallydo not contain gluten and thus can be consumed by children on a gluten-free diet.
Gluten-Free Grains and Flour-Alternatives Include:
- Brown, white and wild rice
- Almond meal flour
- Coconut flour
- Guar gum
- Pea flour
- Potato flour
- Soy flour
However, all grains are considered “high risk” for cross-contact because they are often grown, milled and manufactured near gluten-containing grains. “ Cross-contact” occurs when a gluten-containing food touches a gluten-free food. Eating even tiny amounts of gluten like this can cause damage to the small intestine and prevent nutrients from being absorbed into the bloodstream. Whenever possible, purchase naturally gluten-free grains, flours and starches that are labeled gluten-free and, also, certified gluten-free by a third party.
Gluten-Free Eating for Kids Throughout the Years
If you’re a mother who has been diagnosed celiac disease, you must still maintain a gluten-free diet while breastfeeding.
If your infant has been diagnosed with celiac disease and you are formula-feeding, make sure to check with the manufacturer to see if the formula is gluten-free before feeding it to your child.
When feeding a gluten-free toddler, it’s important to consult with your child’s doctor and a nutritionist that specializes in the gluten-free diet.
10 Gluten-Free Toddler Snack Ideas:
- “Mushy” fruits and vegetables – avocados, bananas, kiwi, pears cooked potatoes/sweet potatoes. Smash or chop into tiny pieces and let your little one enjoy!
- Cream of rice – just make sure it’s labeled gluten-free to avoid cross-contaminated grains.
- Scrambled eggs
- Gluten-free macaroni and cheese
- Gluten-free mini pancakes (try this recipe for gluten-free eggless nog pancakes!)
- Gluten-free muffins/zucchini muffins/pumpkin muffins (try this recipe for mini chocolate chip muffins with kale!)
- Cucumber “sticks”
- Gluten-free toddler pouches
Just remember, for toddlers, it’s important to avoid foods that pose a choking hazard, such as uncut grapes or hot dogs.
- Learn about these and more gluten-free toddler food options on our Feeding a Gluten-Free Toddler page.
The gluten-free diet is confusing for anyone of any age. So it’s tempting to spare your child the details. Instead, you choose their food. You talk to their teachers. You grill the server. While the precautions are both necessary and reassuring, keeping your child on a “need-to-know” basis won’t help in the long run.From grocery games to toy food parties and tending the garden, nurture your child’s gluten-free awareness from a young age to keep them involved and help them become an advocate for themselves.
- Learn more about educating your young children about eating gluten-free in this article by our CEO, Alice Bast.
Packing a Gluten-Free Lunch
Many parents opt to pack a lunch for their child instead of the school cafeteria. This can help to alleviate many concerns surrounding ingredients and preparation practices of the cafeteria. Most parents say they get stuck in a rut when packing lunches – gluten-free or not. Use these tips to keep your child’s lunch both gluten-free and delicious.
Gluten-Free Lunch Packing Tips:
- Spend two weeks experimenting with new products and recipes. Have three envelopes in the kitchen for your child to cut out labels and distribute in envelopes labeled “like it,” “love it,” “hate it.” Don’t forget to experiment with raw fruits and veggies, too.
- Get creative with spreads, dips, jams, etc. Just keep them contained in something that is truly airtight (for extra protection, store in plastic bag). Make sure they are labeled gluten-free on the package when you purchase.
- If you have a picky eater or a child who needs to gain weight after their diagnosis, nutritional shakes, power bars and calorie powders can pack a punch. Make sure they are labeled gluten-free. Consult with a registered dietitian to help with your meal plan.
- When you find a winning combo, send enough with your child to share. That will show your child’s peers that gluten-free food is not “weird” and your child will have the opportunity to feel part of the group.However, other children may like to share or trade lunches, too. Be sure to talk to your child about the risk trading food could pose to their health.
25 Gluten-Free Snack Ideas for Kids:
- Corn tortilla chips and salsa or guacamole
- Gluten-free baked corn dogs
- Gluten-free pretzels
- Ants on a log (celery sticks with peanut butter and raisins)
- Cucumbers cut into fun shapes with hummus
- Avocados mashed on gluten-free toast
- Berry yogurt parfaits
- Brownie bottom pumpkin bars
- Cheddar, bacon and chive topped gluten-free crackers (we love Crunchmaster crackers!)
- Fruit popsicles
- Kale chips
- Kale muffins
- Gluten-free quesadillas (gluten-free tortillas with cheese and veggies)
- Apples with peanut butter
- Rice cakes
- Gluten-free crackers with cheese
- Frozen grapes
- Potato chips and gluten-free dip
- Fruit salad
- Candy corn mini muffins
- Butternut squash pizza slices
- Peanut butter and bananas on gluten-free crackers
- Gluten-free lunchmeat wrapped in a gluten-free tortilla with cheese, mayo and lettuce
Developing a 504 Plan
In certain situations, your child may be protected under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. This act applies to all institutions receiving federal financial assistance, such as public schools. Under this law, public schoolsmust provide a free, appropriate public education and not discriminate against disabled students.
You can work with your child’s school to develop a 504 Plan, which stems from Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. This section prevents discrimination against public school students in grades K through 12 because of disabilities. A 504 plan is meant to “remove barriers” to learning by providing a specific outline on how to make accommodations or modifications on a student-by-student basis.This could translate into the school providing a safe environment for your child’s health.
Learn more on our Navigating the Gluten-Free School Years page.
When the focus turns to one child’s celiac diagnosis, brothers and sisters can suffer feelings of neglect.
- Learn about dealing with sibling blues and celiac disease in this article by our CEO Alice Bast.
Gluten-Free Kids Recipes
The links below go to lists of gluten-free and kid-friendly recipes. The gluten-free recipes are divided up into breakfast, lunch, dinner and dessert/snacks. Parents, you’ll find gluten-free lunch ideas for the kids, plus inspiration for every meal. You can team up in the kitchen to help your child learn basic cooking skills, as well as help them identify gluten-containing ingredients and understand how to avoid cross-contact.
College can be a frustrating experience for students who need to follow a gluten-free diet. Living on campus means you have limited access to food. Gluten-free options aren’t always available, and the dining hall staff may not know the best ways to keep students with celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity (‘gluten sensitivity’) safe.
Going to college gluten-free is getting easier, but having the right tools, advice and inspiration can make a big difference.
In some cases, students with celiac disease can be protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). In December 2012, a lawsuit filed against Lesley University set a precedent for college students living with celiac disease. Essentially, gluten-free students were being denied accommodations for their special diets and were unable to opt out of the mandatory meal plan. The case was sent to the US Department of Justice, who ruled that Lesley University must make reasonable accommodations for students. While this case is not a law that all colleges and universities must follow, it provides great guidelines for other schools to follow. Among other things, here’s what the Lesley University settlement agreement required:
- Provide gluten-free and allergen-free food options in its dining hall food lines in addition to its standard meal options
- Allow students with known allergies to pre-order allergen-free meals
- Display notices concerning food allergies and identify foods containing specific allergens
- Train food service and university staff about food allergy-related issues
- Provide a dedicated space in its main dining hall to store and prepare gluten-free and allergen-free foods
- Work to retain vendors that accept students’ prepaid meal cards that also offer food without allergens.
These agreements can serve as suggestions when you speak to a foodservice director or other authority on your campus.
- Learn more in the Gluten-Free in College section of our website.
Advice on Raising a Gluten-Free Child, From a Parent Who Has Been There
By Amy Ratner
Children with celiac disease can grow up normally and be happy and healthy. It takes pre-planning, either by verifying safe food will be available when they go to someone’s house, a school activity, a party or some other event or by preparing food that they can take. There are many examples of children who’ve never let the diet stand in their way from preschool through college.
The best thing a parent can do for a child with celiac disease is convey the message that the gluten-free diet does not have to limit them in any way. Being positive is extremely important. Kids with celiac disease often have a great attitude and deal very well with the fact that there are times when they can’t have some foods the other kids are having. Usually, that attitude is fostered by their parents who make sure preparations have been made so their child does not feel deprived. Food is often less of a big deal to kids with celiac disease than their parents.
Some new research is showing that kids who are diagnosed very young and don’t have symptoms are the least likely as young adults to get important follow-up healthcare, including blood tests that show when gluten is triggering antibodies. Since these kids have the benefit of being diagnosed at a point where less damage has been done by unknown celiac disease and a good chance at recovery, it’s a shame for them to lose ground by neglecting follow-up. A recent study found that children were more likely to get follow-up care as adults if they: are introduced at around 16 years old to the idea that they will eventually need an adult gastroenterologist; have a pediatric gastroenterologist who initiates a plan for a transfer to an adult gastroenterologist; and complete the transfer of care by 18 years old.
When she was diagnosed with celiac disease at two years old, I worried that my daughter would not be able to grow up happy and healthy. But she’s now 27, and she went through everything from preschool to college in a perfectly normal way. We decided early on that the diet should not stop her from doing anything she wanted, and that’s how she has lived her life. She participated in activities ranging from Girl Scouts to dance team, went to college far from home and studied abroad in London. Now she’s all grown up and getting married.
If your child is newly diagnosed, I have been where you are, and I know how you feel. So, I hope it helps to know that your child will be OK, too.