Birthday parties, summer camp, sleepovers, or even just lunch … the gluten-free diet presents unique challenges for children and their families. We asked Jacqueline Jacques, a California-based naturopathic doctor whose son has celiac disease, for her tips on nurturing a happy gluten-free household.
Get informed, and foster acceptance
At the time of diagnosis, Jacques encourages parents (and children) to meet with qualified professionals such as a registered dietitian or pediatrician who can ease the transition to a gluten-free diet. Check out gluten-free books and resources available at your local library. Against the Grain (Holt, 1996) by Jax Peters Lowell is a must-read for newly diagnosed families, says Jacques.
Rather than sheltering kids from the facts, children should learn as much about their condition as early as possible, Jacques says. Teach them how to read food labels, get them involved in menu planning, and emphasize that they won’t outgrow celiac. “This will go a long way in helping them accept their condition,” says Jacques. No child wants to feel “different”—especially with family. So consider making your entire home a gluten-free zone, recommends Jacques. “There was some heartache at first, but now it’s just part of our family’s lifestyle,” she says.
Educate your child’s day care or school
To diminish mishaps, at the start of each school year meet with teachers and principals to educate them about the unique dietary needs of your child. The Celiac Sprue Association (csaceliacs.org) has helpful example letters that you can print and distribute to appropriate school personnel.
Packing a lunch and snacks for your child is safer than relying on school-provided meals. Rice crackers, yogurt, gluten-free fruit bars, and almond butter and jelly smothered on gluten-free wraps are some of Jacques’ son’s faves. Your child will feel more comfortable around their peers if lunch-box contents look similar to conventional options.
Don’t let parties get them down
With their abundance of pizza, cake, cookies, or pretzels, birthday parties can leave a gluten-sensitive child feeling left out. Talk to the host ahead of time, and send your child with gluten-free goodies that can be shared or offer to provide safe fare for everyone, including gluten-free pizza, cookies, or cake. (Check out these 20 gluten-free family favorites!) The good news? “Awareness about celiac disease and food allergies is increasing within communities, so it is easier than it used to be to get parents to make adjustments,” Jacques says.
Set up your gluten-free freshman for success
A whole new set of challenges await gluten-free first-time college students, particularly if they live in a dorm. Encourage your college students to establish a friendly relationship with the campus food-service managers. Give them the tools to educate college staff that avoiding gluten is not a diet choice, but a health necessity. Your college student might consider becoming a “gluten-free ambassador” to campaign for the food needs of the gluten-free student body.
During the first days in the new location, help your student locate stores that carry gluten-free options and stock up on healthy gluten-free snacks. Many stores offer lists of gluten-free foods they have available. If possible, make sure your child’s living area has a kitchen with a microwave, stove, and fridge. This way she can fuel her body and brain with safe meals when ready-made options aren’t available.