Anne Lee, EdD, RDN, LD, Professionals Manager of Dr. Schar USA goes in-depth on ensuring your child is kept safe from gluten exposure at school.
By Anne Lee, EdD, RDN, LD, Professionals Manager of Dr. Schar USA
The slight brisk feel to the early morning air ushers in the month of September. Whether your child is in preschool or college, the month of September means it is back to school time. From novice to veteran, starting a new school year brings with it a certain amount of trepidation. Starting the school year gluten-free can present its own unique challenges. However, with careful planning, getting the right information to key people will make the process as easy as any first day of school.
No matter what grade level your child is entering, two key elements to a successful school year are a positive attitude and lots of planning.
Scheduling meetings before school starts with the classroom teachers, school nurse, and cafeteria workers is vital. Before the meeting request a set of menus, you should get answers to a few questions:
- Find out the policy on holding food for your child, find out if there are other children in the school (or grade) that are on specific diets.
- Find out what the policy is in your district (state) on Accommodation Plans or Individualized Education Program (IEP).
Securing an Accommodation Plan or an IEP requires that the school address your child’s needs. An accommodation plan details the specific learning needs, adjustments, and any additional support services your child needs.
An IEP outlines the specific educational services needed by the student. Historically, it was used for special needs students, but more recently it has been used to cover students with a broader range of needs including health impairments. Neither program requires the school to provide complete gluten-free meals, but to make “reasonable” “service” accommodations.
When you do meet with the school, make sure to bring information on celiac disease, the gluten-free diet, your child’s specific needs and possible solutions for your child’s specific location and setting. Be sure to have a prioritized list of expectations for the school and classroom. You can use the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness’ (NFCA) Back to School Toolkit as a guide for important information to have on hand.
Navigating the Issues Surrounding Gluten-Free Food
Although the issues of cross-contact, label reading and maintaining a strict gluten-free diet are of ultimate importance, we sometimes in our efforts to make school less stress we tend to overcompensate and try to provide old favorites, comfort foods, or foods that are exactly the same as on the regular school lunch menu. Many of these items are not the healthiest in the wheat-based version and are worse in the gluten-free version.
Instead, focusing on naturally gluten-free foods, less processed foods and more fresh fruits and vegetables would benefit all the students. Using naturally gluten-free options may also decrease the risk of cross-contact in the kitchen and service area. Some great options include; grilled chicken tenders, bean tacos with whole corn meal tortillas, hummus and fresh vegetables, franks and beans and sliced turkey roll ups.
A traditional standby is to pack a lunch. While a brown bag lunch has a long tradition of less-than-exciting sandwiches, today’s versions of lunchboxes, complete with nifty ice packs, has taken the brown bag lunch to the 21st century and the taste, variety and nutritional profile is only limited by your own imagination. You can pack anything from a sandwich on multigrain gluten-free bread to leftovers from dinner. Have your child help pick out the lunchbox, decide what to pack, and even planning the week’s menu will go a long way in helping develop an understanding of their diet, autonomy and independence - all keys to success at school.
Different Needs for Different Students
Each grade level brings its own unique set of positive pathways and obstacles. The key to success at any grade level is to find the right fit for your child.
Preschool and Grade School
In preschool and grade school, snacks and crafts are probably the biggest hurdles. Check with the classroom teacher, as well as the art teacher, that your child has access to wash their hands after each activity. Although the universal hand sanitizers do a great job on the usual dirt and germs, it will not remove any residual gluten found in some craft supplies.
For snacks, there are really two different issues. The first is the usual planned snack. For these you can supply your child with a wide range of gluten-free snacks. The second issue is the unplanned celebration. For these, it is important to have a backup plan. One plan that allows your child to be empowered is to obtain a shoebox sized container. Let your child decorate it and put his or her name on it. Let him fill it with his favorite snacks / even goodies! Then, when there is an unexpected celebration that involves a snack, your child can go to their snack box and pick any snack they wish!
Middle School and High School
In middle and high school, the focus is on the group. Students strive to be like their peers. Being different from any perspective is cause for distress in kids and teens. This is where a lot of background work needs to be done. Check with the cafeteria staff to see if they would offer naturally gluten-free items on the menu for everyone.
Other areas to do some background work are the local spots where the kids gather. The local pizza shop, the coffee shops, even the diner. Talk to the managers ask for their help in either having a few gluten-free items on their menus or having naturally gluten-free items available. Go to each of these establishments with your child over the summer so they can practice ordering safe gluten-free items and enjoy a great snack or meal with the satisfaction of accomplishment!
There are several apps that can be downloaded directly onto your child’s smart phone that will help locate dining spots that have a gluten-free options. Having access to gluten-free dining information will make navigating your child’s social scene easier for both of you.
For college age students, the dining halls tend to be somewhat easier as the students are more self-assured and usually there is a greater variety of foods offered. Make sure to make an appointment with the foodservice director as part of your usual college tour. Planning ahead with the director will ease the transition from home to school. NFCA’s Gluten-Free in College Toolkit can help you and your teen navigate the college campus.
Grab a cheat sheet of school planning strategies for students in preschool through college. Download here.