back to school

When my 11-year-old daughter Emma was diagnosed with celiac disease almost two years ago, I initially went into a pretty major panic. How would I ensure she was safely eating at school? Would she feel excluded from class parties because she no longer could eat the gluten-filled cupcakes? I’m a “fixer” by nature and this was a situation that was out of my control. I couldn’t take her celiac disease away. I’m sure any parent whose child has been diagnosed with celiac disease or gluten intolerance can relate on some level. In anticipation of back to school, I wanted to share what I’ve learned along the way with you.

First of All, Take a Deep Breath…
Your child is resilient, smart, and strong! You can empower them to make the right choices and learn how living gluten-free isn’t really that different at all. Know that it’s okay to feel helpless as a parent in the beginning. It’s okay to go through an “I blame myself” phase. But then you dust off your boots and realize that you and your child can totally do this. And the most wonderful part of it all is that your child is healthy and thriving!

Reach Out to the School
There’s a saying that “it takes a village to raise a child.” This is so true! There are several people to contact at your child’s school:
School Nurse – Set up a meeting with the school nurse. Alert him or her to the fact that your child needs to be 100% gluten-free. Find out what protocol is in place for children with food allergies or intolerances. Ask if there is a gluten-free or food allergy support group within the school.

Classroom Teacher – Your child’s teacher is a key component to keeping the school year running smoothly. If birthdays are celebrated in the classroom, request a class listing of all birthdays to make sure you have a gluten-free treat sent in on that day. I was able to keep gluten-free snacks and desserts in the nurse’s office so that Emma could pick one up anytime there was a gluten-filled celebration.
Room Parents – If your school has “Room Parents” who oversee special activities and holiday celebrations, contact them. Explain about your child’s need to be gluten-free. Ask them for details on all planned activities that will involve food. When a class party was scheduled, I would volunteer to make cupcakes (gluten-free of course). The gluten-eating kids were none the wiser and Emma was able to have the exact same treat that everyone else enjoyed.

Cafeteria Staff – Many schools offer gluten-free lunch menus. Emma’s included gluten-free pizza, pasta, and grilled chicken. This was fantastic news; however, it’s very important to make sure the cafeteria staff are knowledgeable of the risk of cross contamination. Set up a time to visit with the cafeteria supervisor and tour the kitchen. See how the gluten-free food is handled and prepared. If your school doesn’t have a specific gluten-free menu, ask if you can review the food labels with the cafeteria staff to see if there is anything gluten-free available. Be sure to check the snack and ice cream options as well. Prepping your child on what they can safely buy in the cafeteria is an excellent way to empower them.

Art Teacher – Who knew that some art supplies contain gluten? In addition to play doh, several items used in art class contain gluten. For example, I recently found out that paper mache is traditionally made using flour. I needed to work with Emma’s art teacher to find out how the paper mache was made and if it was made in the classroom (imagine a classroom filled with airborne gluten!).

Follow Up
Keeping in touch with the school and any staff who are in contact with your child is key. Build a good rapport with them. An important part of that relationship is giving credit where credit is due. Emma’s teacher and her school nurse were absolutely amazing with her transition to gluten-free in school. At the end of the school year I wrote a letter to the Principal letting him know how much I appreciated this assistance and their extensive knowledge of the needs for gluten-free.