Celiac Disease in Kids: 10 Strategies to Keep Your Celiac Child Included and Gluten-Free at School
10 Strategies to Keep Your Celiac Child Included and Gluten-Free at School
- Create a 504 Plan for Celiac Disease for your child.
- Work with your school to arrange legally-required gluten-free school lunches and breakfasts.
- Give your child a seating choice for meals.
- Encourage your school to choose non-food-related activities.
- Leverage gluten-free candy lists.
- Match the party food with gluten-free substitutes.
- Share something gluten-free and amazing.
- Make everything 100% gluten-free.
- Have the school notify you 48 hours prior to any food-related activity.
- Involve your child in these strategies.
As our family navigates celiac disease at school, each year and event looks different, depending on Miss E’s needs, her teacher’s desire/ability to meet the safety standard, or even go far above and beyond, and my own bandwidth.
We use some of these strategies, such as having a 504 Plan, in all contexts, and at times we mix and match other strategies. Use the following strategies as inspiration for helping your child be both included and gluten-free at school.
We also start out the school year with an introductory teacher letter or email, which includes a basic celiac disease fact sheet for teachers and a few key takeaways about how to handle her celiac disease at school.
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We have managed to successfully include Miss E in a wide variety of seasonal activities and celebrations at her school throughout the years, from a Thanksgiving feast to gingerbread men cookie decorating, from cooking at a school-affiliated summer camp to an End-of-Year Pizza Party, and every holiday and party in between.
The included part of the equation is just as important as the gluten-free part. In our quest to keep our kiddos gluten-free, which is essential, we cannot overlook their desire to belong.
I teach Miss E that “everyone has something” and our own challenges can help us be more compassionate towards others’ challenges. I am also keenly aware that for social Miss E, her need to fully join in is strong. So, I do my best to help her.
Create a 504 Plan for Celiac Disease for your child.
Guess what! In the US, we have a disability law, a couple of laws actually, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, that pave the way for inclusion.
Your celiac child is entitled to reasonable accommodations and equal access to a free and appropriate education at a public school. By law, your child gets to be included. (Deep sigh of relief and happy tears.)
This means that if your child’s class incorporates parties into its educational experiences, your celiac child gets to have equal access to those educational experiences.
In our experience, this has been a partnership between me and Miss E’s wonderful teachers over the years.
If your child does not already have a 504 Plan for Celiac Disease, you can learn more about it in Go Gluten Freely’s article on 504 Plans for Celiac Disease at School, including 50+ possible accommodations.
Work with your school to arrange legally-required gluten-free school lunches and breakfasts.
When Miss E started public school, I assumed I was at the beginning of more than a decade of packing school lunches. Even when I heard that the cafeteria could provide gluten-free meals, I initially didn’t bat an eyelash, because surely they couldn’t make them safe for Miss E. I was wrong.
Schools participating in the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program are required by law to make accommodations for students who cannot eat the regular school lunch and breakfast due to a disability. This also means they are required to make the meals safe for your child, with protocols to ensure the meals are truly gluten-free.
If your school has not yet set up a system for producing gluten-free meals, most of the information you need to get started is on the USDA Accommodating Disabilities in the School Meal Programs: Guidance and Questions and Answers (Q&As).
There are also training programs for gluten-free protocols in commercial kitchens, including school kitchens:
For our school district, celiac moms who went before me had toured the kitchen and worked with the district to identify celiac-safe products and cross-contamination prevention methods. Our school district has been doing an amazing job. After several years of gluten-free school lunches, Miss E has not been glutened by these meals. Yay!
The meals have to meet the USDA guidelines for a healthy breakfast or lunch, but they do not have to replicate the standard meal offerings. Some districts have multiple choices per day, while others have repeating weekly menus.
Admittedly, our district hit a quality low when faced with supply shortages of previous gluten-free offerings, staffing shortages, and the newly implemented 2021-22 requirement to provide free lunches to all. With a supply and demand problem, my child was offered gluten-free chicken strips three times a week! A few emails and a long list of possible gluten-free lunches later, and the gluten-free students in our district were again offered a repeating weekly menu of five different meals. Whew!
While the federal requirement to offer a free school lunch and breakfast to all students has ended, some states, like California, are offering their own free meal for all students program. If that is not the case in your state, your child may otherwise qualify for a free or reduced-price meal, based on income qualifications or other criteria, such as being in foster care. If your celiac child is eligible for a free school lunch and breakfast, those meals need to be gluten-free and celiac-safe.
Give your child a seating choice for meals.
A separate table for kiddos with allergies might keep your child safer. For Miss E, we opted for inclusion. She wanted to sit with her friends and have the flexibility to choose which friends on any given day.
This can be accomplished by having an adult (especially if your child is young) wipe down all of the tables before meals, so any existing crumbs are removed.
If older, your child can wipe off the table before sitting down. As an adult with celiac disease, this is the method I personally use when dining at a fast food restaurant, cafe, or picnic table in the park.
Another option is to provide a placemat for your child to use wherever they want to sit with friends. Miss E often uses a napkin, which is similar to the placemat but allows her to more discretely create a clean eating surface.
Encourage your school to choose non-food-related activities.
Many schools have gone the no-food route for parties, to keep kiddos with a variety of allergies safe at school. Certainly, when there are a number of children in a class or school with a complex constellation of different allergies this may be the safest solution.
While I am personally not a huge fan of the no-food policy (because food is fun!), there are many non-food ways to celebrate…
Crafts with bunnies for Easter and hearts for Valentine’s Day. Learning a song to celebrate a special holiday. Pumpkin carving (which is technically a food, but an uncommon allergen) for Halloween. Or even “Pumpkin characters” for fall-themed book reports. Students bring gift bags or pencils to give to classmates on their birthday.
Miss E’s first-grade teacher requested that students gift a book to the class, which is then read to the class as part of the child’s birthday celebration.
Encouraging your school to include at least some non-food celebrations streamlines your efforts to keep your celiac child safe and included at school.
Leverage gluten-free candy lists.
Miss E has perfected the skill of looking up whether or not a particular candy is gluten-free, and already knows most of them from memory. Those of us without the memory of an elementary student wanting candy have spent significant amounts of time searching manufacturer websites for the gluten-free status of a treat.
Check out my Valentine’s Day Candy Tips and Gluten-Free Easter Candy List.
The Celiac Disease Foundation has also simplified much of the process for us with helpful gluten-free candy lists for Easter, Passover, Valentine’s Day, Halloween, and a General Candy List.
These candy lists are useful for quickly looking up whether or not a brand of candy is safe, particularly for Halloween and Valentine’s Day.
I also regularly reference or share these lists directly with teachers when they ask about safe candy for holiday-themed activities.
Match the party food with gluten-free substitutes.
For Miss E, “matching” food is very important; so we do our best to help her do so when possible.
We do this so frequently that my brain can come up with substitute options for just about any activity or occasion. If you are new to this celiac journey, I promise it gets so much easier. The things that used to take so much work and research, have largely become second nature.
Just today, Miss E needed a gluten-free alternative to Nestle Drumstick Sundae Cones. I instantly thought of Jolly Llama Dairy-Free, Gluten-Free Vanilla Fudge Sundae Cones, which look very similar to the drumsticks, and I knew which store carries them. It was easy to help Miss E feel fully included.
Over the years, I have become adept at finding gluten-free substitutes for almost everything.
One Thanksgiving, Miss E’s class was having a Thanksgiving Feast at school. I listed off all of the items her classmates were bringing to the potluck and asked her which she would like me to make for her. She replied, “everything.” So I did.
For Miss E’s Thanksgiving Feast for one, I used as many shortcuts as I could: Annie’s microwaveable gluten-free macaroni and cheese, canned corn, store-bought, labeled gluten-free, mashed potatoes, pre-sliced apples, Immaculate pre-made, gluten-free, chocolate chip cookie dough (be extra careful with this one as Immaculate sells gluten-free and wheat-containing cookie dough), and a pre-made gluten-free pie crust for a homemade pumpkin pie.
Thankfully, nobody made stuffing and they served turkey hotdogs in lieu of an actual turkey. So I bought gluten-free turkey hot dogs, gluten-free hot dog buns, and grapes to round out the “matching meal”.
For an end-of-the-year, grade-wide party at the park, the teachers ordered Costco pizza for all of the students. Miss E got an individual gluten-free pizza delivered to the park by Fresh Brothers, a Southern California pizza chain with over 20 locations, and solid cross-contamination prevention protocols.
I realize that celiac-safe, gluten-free pizza delivery is not an option everywhere. Before Fresh Brothers opened, Miss E would pick from one of many gluten-free, frozen pizza options.
Share something gluten-free and amazing.
For potluck-style school events, I try to make sure the gluten-free dish we bring is something amazing! We still try to bring a bunch of “matching foods” or other Miss E favorites just for her plate, but the dish to share is something she and her classmates will really enjoy. She feels included by eating something special that everyone is eating, and her friends see that gluten-free food can be fabulous!
Recently, Miss E’s school had an after-hours, Mother-Daughter tea with tea sandwiches and mini desserts. We picked up gluten-free macarons from Costco. They were fancy, delicious, and a hit with all the girls!
Make everything 100% gluten-free.
Miss E’s school keeps her safe and included by making all of the ingredients gluten-free for food-based activities in her classroom.
Some gluten-involved activities involve a higher risk of accidental gluten exposure.
When it comes to activities that involve flour, such as baking and making play-doh, airborne flour can get on everything and is difficult to clean thoroughly.
Similarly, when elementary kids are decorating cookies, gluten and crumbs can get all over the classroom, and it is difficult for a teacher to clean up all the crumbs in the middle of the day.
One year, when Miss E’s class made Valentine’s cookies, the teacher wanted just one basic sugar cookie per student, so it was easy enough for me to donate gluten-free cookies that were made safely in my 100% gluten-free kitchen.
The room parent sent out an email request to parents asking for donations of frosting and sprinkles. I typed up a quick list of which brands were safe and where to buy them, locally, which she included in her message:
- Betty Crocker sprinkles are gluten-free. I’ve seen them regularly at Ralph’s. They are not sold at Target.
- For frosting, all Betty Crocker, Funfetti & Simple Mills brands are gluten-free. Those are sold in most grocery stores and Target. Many brands will write “gluten-free” on the label; and those would be safe, as well.
Another year, the teacher wanted six dozen, large gingerbreadmen cookies. Two other moms and I divided the responsibility, each making two dozen ALL gluten-free gingerbread men cookies, using the teacher’s standard recipe and substituting a measure for measure gluten-free flour. We just made sure that Miss E got two of the cookies made in my safe kitchen with my safe baking supplies. I sent out a vetted list of frosting, sprinkles, and gluten-free candies for other parents to donate, and I double-checked the donated items to make sure nothing questionable ended up at Miss E’s table.
That same year, Miss E’s class made turkeys out of pears and candy. The teacher sent me the list and asked for gluten-free alternatives to make all of the turkey-pears gluten-free. I responded with gluten-free options for all of the ingredients: Kraft marshmallows, Sun-maid raisins, Dot gum drops, SmartSweets “licorice”, and Jelly Belly candy corn. All but the latter were available at our neighborhood Target, and the candy corn was sold at a local grocery store.
I am so thankful that Miss E’s teachers have worked hard over the years to keep her safe and included, but I suspect that their incredible effort is probably more common than not in those who devote their lives to teaching.
Have the school notify you 48 hours prior to any food-related activity.
This one is a biggie.
Finding out about a donut party as you are dropping your kid off for school does not give you time to track down gluten-free cones or toppings.
But, you can prep for almost anything, if you have a little notice.
48 hours notice is enough for us. We live in a well-populated area with lots of conveniences, like same-day grocery delivery. If you have a harder time accessing gluten-free products in your area, you may need as much as a week’s lead time. You can discuss this with your child’s 504 team and add a specific time frame for notice as an accommodation in a 504 Plan for Celiac Disease.
Involve your child in these strategies.
As Miss E has gotten older, she is an increasing part of the solution to gluten-free and included.
She just finished a summer camp that involved a cooking day. Fish tacos, Spanish rice, and chocolate chip cookie bars were all on the menu.
Keeping her gluten-free and included was a group effort. The teachers and I communicated and worked together to tweak the recipe and source gluten-free ingredients. Miss E was involved in the accommodations and went with me to inspect the kitchen and ingredients in advance.
The instructors provided clean cooking utensils and supplies for the fish tacos and Spanish rice. I purchased gluten-free flour to be used by three separate groups of students when making the chocolate-chip cookie bars, since they were doing all the cooking and baking in a shared space with Miss E, and she wanted to be fully included.
Because the baking supplies were not free of cross-contamination, Miss E made a batch of gluten-free chocolate chip cookie bars at home, so she would have a safe bar to eat with her peers. Bonus: I got to sample Miss E’s bars and they were delicious!
Because Miss E had attended this particular camp before, she knew better than I did where the cooking curriculum and class structure contained pitfalls. Her involvement not only strengthened her self-advocacy skills, it actually made her safer.
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