Back to School Gluten-Free: Tips To Promote Safe Eating at School

The kids are headed back to the classrooms and for gluten-free eaters—especially those with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity—the first day excitement can be mixed with some trepidation about eating at school. Here are a few ways to help ease everyone back into the routine safely.

Wheat (Triticum aestivum L.)
Wheat (Triticum aestivum L.) / Dag Terje Filip Endresen / CC BY

Call a conference with school staff.

Being proactive is essential. Ideally, this would be done prior to school starting, but if that wasn’t possible, schedule a meeting now with the principal, school nurse, foodservice manager/dietitian, school counselor and your child’s primary teacher (assuming the child is young). Older kids can have many teachers and it’s unlikely that you can meet with them all, but meeting with administration is still important—especially because teens won’t want to draw attention to the issue and therefore may not make school personnel aware of any issues.

Lunch time will be the primary concern (here are some ideas that may prompt your questions for talking with the school foodservice), but don’t forget sports coaches and others involved with after-school activities. School administrators may be acquainted with the dangers of gluten for those with celiac disease, but don’t assume so. Be prepared to provide educational materials that you can obtain from your physician or dietitian, along with your contact information and a letter from you. Discuss your child’s condition and the issues that can come up at school in a matter-of-fact way that conveys appropriate seriousness, but without making it seem scary or dire. Lots of people don’t know much about the day-to-day life of someone with a gluten sensitivity, and you want them to feel empowered to help your child, not afraid to get involved.

Show your willingness to “be a part of the solution.”

When talking with school personnel, be positive and provide practical ideas for dealing with typical school situations that could impact your child’s health. One way to start the conversation is by sending letters to the key people at the school. The Celiac Sprue Association has sample letters that you can use as templates to inform the school about the child’s condition, symptoms and how it should be handled during school hours and at after-school activities. In your communication with the school, make it clear that you are not just presenting them with more things for their “to-do” list, but that you’ll help them by being communicative and helpful.

Provide ideas and suggestions to the teacher and administration, point them to good information sources, and yes, offer your assistance right at the school if you possibly can. Being “room parent” or at least helping plan special events that occur in-class or at school helps others and also keeps you in-the-know. Joining the PTA or other similar group at school and attending meetings is another possibility. Some ideas you may want to present to the school might include:

  • Fostering peer support with the formation of a once-a-month lunch meeting or an after-school club for kids with gluten sensitivities or food allergies may appeal to middle-school and older kids.

  • Moving to non-food rewards in the classroom. This trend is growing nation-wide, and lots of parents (and teachers) are getting behind this idea for a variety of reasons.

Make things easier for your young child’s teacher.

While the teenage years provide extra challenges to teenagers who need to eat gluten-free, at least teens can advocate for themselves somewhat—though getting them to do so might be difficult at times. (For a terrific teen-authored blog on living gluten-free, check out Gluten Away.)

If you have a younger child with a gluten-sensitivity, you’ll be the point-person for the teacher. Provide him or her with your contact information directly and encourage questions. Make sure the teacher knows how to handle food in the classroom so that your child is safe (think cross-contamination, proper handwashing, etc.) Look ahead and ask about upcoming field trips, special in-class parties and activities (that harvest foods tasting party is coming up!). If birthdays are still celebrated with food at your school, get the calendar of birthdays early and plan ahead to send a special treat to school with your child that day. Make sure there are adequate gluten-free snacks for your child in the classroom for snack time. Your child’s teacher may not monitor the snack supply you send in, so sending one each day with your child might be the way to go.

Taking care of a child with a food sensitivity can seem stressful, I know, but good preparation and open lines of communication can go a long way towards making you less anxious and keeping your child safe. Your child’s teachers and school staff care about your child’s health, so if establishing the routine is a little stressful at first, just remember they’re on your team and they want to help.