Starting back to school can be a stressful time for children and their families, and if your child is on a gluten-free diet it can be especially overwhelming. Following a gluten-free diet in the school setting can be challenging, but there are things you can do to prevent gluten exposure and make sure the school setting is a safe environment for your child.

As a caregiver of a child on a gluten-free diet, you should be aware that there are federal guidelines in place requiring any institution receiving public aid, such as public schools, to accommodate a special diet. This includes a gluten-free diet for children diagnosed with celiac disease. Most schools will require a form be filled out by your child’s primary care provider.

Communication with school staff is essential. If you plan to have your child eat school meals, you will need to talk to the food service staff to determine what procedures are in place to identify and substitute foods containing gluten, how and where they will be prepared, and what plans are in place to avoid cross-contamination. It is also important to talk about the cafeteria setting with school staff and your child. The school cafeteria is often a very busy and hectic environment. It is important that your child has an understanding of the food he or she can eat and those to avoid as mistakes can happen quickly in this fast-paced environment. Your child should know not to eat other children’s food or food that has come in contact with others’ food.

Teachers need to understand what food your child needs to avoid and what type of alternative food is safe. You will want to have gluten-free substitutes available for classroom events or, better yet, talk to the teacher about encouraging snacks that are safe for everyone to eat.

Teachers also need to understand what classroom materials need to be monitored or avoided. These items include envelopes or stickers that need to be licked, play dough, papier-mache or any activities using cereal or flour containing gluten. You may be asked to provide alternatives for your child. Good hand washing and clean-up practices can help avoid inadvertent gluten exposures. Also, keep in mind that your child may need special bathroom privileges and this should be discussed at the beginning of the school year rather than waiting for an unfortunate accident to occur.

Despite school protection plans to avoid gluten exposures, some parents opt to pack a gluten-free lunch from home. To get into the routine of packing lunches, you might want to develop a gluten-free lunchbox shopping checklist to make sure you have the necessary ingredients and food on hand. Have your child help you pack the lunch the night before to avoid the morning rush. This is also a great way to teach your child about ingredients and the importance of reading labels.

It is important to note, however, that these instructions are only relevant for children who have been prescribed a gluten-free diet to manage celiac disease. If your doctor has not diagnosed celiac disease or specifically prescribed a gluten-free diet, your child should not be eating a gluten-free diet.

Here are some fun and easy-to-prepare gluten-free recipes. Pack a little extra of your child’s favorite to share with a friend to show them that gluten-free food can be delicious and fun to eat!

“Smiley” salami and cheese sandwich

Makes: 1 sandwich

Ingredients

2 slices gluten-free bread

2 slices mozzarella cheese

4 slices gluten-free salami

1 small cucumber, sliced (you’ll need 4 slices)

2 black olives, pitted and sliced in half

Directions

Cut the two slices of bread in half diagonally so they are triangle shaped. Place a slice of salami on two of the bread triangles. The salami should stick out along the long cut edge of the bread to create a “tongue.” Cut each slice of cheese into four skinny strips. Layer these on top of the salami, again sticking out over the edge of the bread to create “teeth.” Top each sandwich half with the other bread triangle. Then place two cucumber slices, each topped with half a black olive, on top of each sandwich to make “eyes.”

Be creative. Add baby spinach leaf “ears” or carrot stick “antenna” or a cherry tomato “nose.”

Nutrition analysis: Per serving (does not include creative add-ons): 410 calories, 20 g fat, 21 g protein, 37 g carbohydrate, 1 g fiber, 1,270 mg sodium.

Yogurt berry crumble parfaits

Makes: 4 servings

Ingredients

4 gluten-free cherry almond bars, crumbled (about 1 cup)

1¼ cups low-fat vanilla yogurt

1¼ cups mixed berries (blueberries, raspberries and quartered strawberries)

2 teaspoons honey

Directions

In each of four parfait glasses, layer about 2 tablespoons each of yogurt, fruit and cherry almond crumbles. Repeat the layers and then drizzle each parfait with ½ teaspoon honey. Cover and place in lunchbox with ice pack.

Nutrition analysis: Per serving: 200 calories, 8 g fat, 3.6 g protein, 29 g carbohydrate, 3 g fiber, 45 mg sodium

Margie Ley is a Gundersen Health System registered dietitian.

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