(Gluten-Free Family Life) Handling Gluten-Free at School
Elizabeth Carroll

September 19, 2012


Starting back to school is an exciting time for children of all ages. In addition to supplies and backpacks, we always think about a few extra preparations in our family, to ensure my daughter's back-to-school experience is healthy and gluten-free.    

In the classroom
Maintaining the gluten-free diet in the classroom has become easier as my daughter has grown. When she was in preschool and early elementary grades, I'd meet with the teacher to discuss these topics:

  • Classroom snacks -- I would inquire whether these were provided by one person for the entire class or brought individually by each child. When a group snack was provided, I was able to keep a supply of a variety of gluten-free snack foods at the school. The teacher provided my daughter a different snack each day from her supply. In every case, I have asked the teacher to have my daughter wash her hands before she eats and clean up her desk or table space beforehand with wipes or spray and paper towel, so no residual gluten will lurk there.

  • Classroom “manipulatives” -- In the early grades, it seems that little hands benefit from using little items to enhance fine motor and counting skills. Pasta, cereal, Play Dough (or similar product) are all used. I will tell the teacher that my daughter may partake in these activities, but to please have her wash her hands afterward, and clean her workspace by wiping it with cleaner. Where supplies are shared, a common container of pencils, for example, I have asked that my daughter have her own supplies so that gluten that is on the common supplies does not make its way to my daughter's hands and mouth. If you are not comfortable with your child using these gluten-containing manipulatives, you could talk to the teacher about providing substitutes. Some examples are linked to the words above.

Image courtesy of Julie Kirkwood, Creekside Learning

  • Classroom parties -- Does your child's school allow special treats for birthdays at school? I have been fortunate to be at schools where these were not allowed though, perhaps, a treat bag was sent home in a backpack. However, seasonal parties still occur at our elementary school and are much loved by all!

In the case of any parties where food will be served, it is important to talk ahead of time to the teacher and parents involved in planning the party to understand what will be served. I send in a treat for my daughter that she will enjoy that is similar to what is being served. Sometimes, the treats provided have the potential to be gluten-free, such as ice cream or popsicles. In these cases, our school now posts ingredient listings for all snacks provided, so parents of children with allergies or celiac disease can check to see if the treat is acceptable. Our elementary school also typically provides an allergen-friendly snack, upon request, often a popsicle or Italian Ice, so that it is not necessary to send a snack from home. Nonetheless, my daughter appreciates it when her treats are as similar as possible to what her classmates are eating, and I do my best to send in a close match.  

In the lunchroom

There is so much written about fabulous gluten-free lunch ideas for children to bring from home. I must admit that when reading some of these ideas, our's pale in comparison. I will link to a piece recently in Gluten Free Living for those looking for creative lunch box ideas. My daughter tends to eat sandwiches on gluten-free bread; homemade “Lunchables” consisting of corn tortilla chips and containers of salsa and shredded cheese; corn-based taquitos which I cook at home and wrap in foil; and gluten-free chicken nuggets, again prepared at home. I will also send fruit, maybe almonds, and some type of gluten-free cookie or dessert.   

Typical lunch box contents, including a bag of gluten-free pretzels and bagel chips, for the afternoon snack at school.

Our school district, Indian Prairie District 204 in Illinois, implemented a gluten-free, casein-free lunch program in 2010. It was started as a pilot and rolled out to all the schools over time. The program necessitates that a doctor's note be provided documenting the need for the special diet and the food must be ordered in advance on a monthly basis when the menu is published. The food is the typical cafeteria food that children enjoy -- chicken nuggets, pizza, and pasta. The entire meal meets federal guidelines for healthy school lunches. When we have used this service, I have sent a “back-up lunch” in my daughter's backpack, just in case something in the delivery process does not work. We are so grateful to have an option for a kid-friendly, gluten-free hot lunch in the elementary school!    

Despite preparation and communication, we certainly have had our share of things not going well. Once, my 3 year old told me she was accidentally given the wrong snack at preschool and then told to spit it out (note, that the teacher did not share this). On another occasion, there were tears when I assumed a provided snack would be gluten-free, and it was not. My major learnings are that there can never be too much communication with educators, the school, and the PTA about the special dietary needs of children; never assume a treat will be gluten-free, even if it has been in the past; and, always have back-up food and treats available.  

I know we will encounter more challenges, and more opportunities for creative solutions, as my daughter gets older. I look forward to learning from others! How have you handled it when your child first goes out to a restaurant only with friends? How do you help ensure your child eats nutritiously in high school, where everyone seems to buy their lunch? And, college -- my most anxiety-filled future moment! By continuing to communicate with other families in similar situations, and with the educators that fill our children's lives, we can continue to learn more ourselves and educate others about the gluten-free diet.          

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