Healthy Children at Home, at School & On the Go
A gluten–free diet can be a big transition at any age and there are certainly unique challenges for children. However, it also encourages an awareness of food and nutrition from an early age, often leading to greater maturity, responsibility, and ownership of personal health.
The earlier you start educating little ones, the more natural it is for children to grasp a basic understanding of what they need to eat and what they need to avoid. By elementary school, most children can read labels along with you. Sure, they won’t understand every word on the label (who can?) but that can be a learning lesson, too! They should be on the lookout for key words: wheat, barley, rye, oats that aren’t marked gluten-free, as well as the other names for barley, such as malt, malt flavoring, and malt vinegar. They can also recognize the symbols for various gluten-free certifications. Encourage them to be your “double checker.” You can swap roles with them as they grow older and more confident. I guarantee they’ll catch some of your mistakes from time to time!
Often, children have overheard bits and pieces of information or comments from the doctor, their teacher, or classmates. Children have vivid imaginations, making it easy for them to believe that they’re sick or that they did something wrong. The more educated children are about their health and what they eat, the better for everyone involved.
Granted, most elementary school children are not going to fully grasp the inner workings of an autoimmune process, and they certainly don’t need to. Books can be a great bridge to explaining and normalizing celiac disease, including:
• EatingGluten-FreewithEmily by Bonnie Kruszka
• Mommy,WhatIsCeliacDisease? by Katie Chalmers
• Adam’sGlutenFree Surprise by Debbie Simpson
• Eat LikeaDinosaur by Paleo Parents (includes an adorable illustrated story within the cookbook, which is a great resource for children with dietary restrictions)
• Games, explanations, and more at: www.celiaccentral.org/kids
Explore these resources with your child and expect questions. If you don’t know the answers, write down the questions and make sure to ask at the next appointment with your doctor, dietitian, or nutritionist.
On the Go
It can be hard to feel secure when your child is out of your sight. After all, this is your baby! It’s a balancing act between making sure your child’s needs are met and giving your child the freedom he or she needs for normal emotional development. Besides, children can “smell” fear, and when they know you’re nervous, it’s easy for that to rub off on them.
Preparation goes a long way to make everyone comfortable. No matter where your child is off to, it’s a good idea to connect beforehand with the teachers or parents and make sure they’re aware of your child’s needs.
In the US, if a diet is considered medically necessary, the school may provide gluten-free food under a 504 plan. A 504 plan is a specific, formal plan designed to ensure access for children with disabilities. The process differs between states. Some schools are very responsive and may already offer a gluten free menu, but if you’re the first gluten-free family, this may require quite a bit of vigilance and effort. The American Celiac Disease Alliance offers a great compilation of resources on school meals. Visit www.americanceliac.org/for-families.
• Chat with your child. Does he or she want school lunch?If so, decide together how you want to handle it.
• Encourage your child to choose celiac disease or a gluten-free diet as a special topic for projects. Some children will want to share about themselves; others prefer not to. It’s a ready-made topic for a science project, book report, or health class.
• Check in with the teacher about upcoming food-related events, parties, and projects. Art supplies, like paper mache, finger paints, and even Play-Doh often contain gluten.
• Create a “yes” list for other parents with foods that your child enjoys and are easy to source, such as Hershey’s bars, strawberries, pistachio nuts, popcorn, and the like.
• Substitute teachers happen. Make sure there is a note explaining your child’s needs.
• Ask the teacher to keep a gluten-free goodie stash in case of unexpected treats in the classroom. This can be a 2-pack of gluten-free cookies, a favorite gluten-free candy, or non-food treats like small games, puzzles, and stickers.
Do role-playing exercises with your child to teach them how to act when someone offers them food, when they are sharing food with friends, or if they are reminding teachers of gluten-free needs. This will help both you and your child become more comfortable with what to say and how to say it.
Sleepovers & Other Events
On one hand, these events are great fun, but they also pose more unknown variables. A few tips:
• Make sure to talk to the parent in charge beforehand and plan ahead with delicious gluten-free goodies for all of the children.
• Host activities that don’t center around food. Some places (such as pools, gymnastics studios, ice rinks, and bowling alleys) don’t allow food or have a designated room where you can “cater.”
• There are more and more places with gluten-free options available, such as Chuck E. Cheese’s and Uno’s. Investigate to find accommodating venues.
One in 100 children have celiac disease and many more have gluten sensitivity, a wheat allergy, autism, or ADHD. The best way of letting your child know that they’re in good company is getting them involved with other kids their age!
• ROCK (Raising Our Celiac Kids) has many groups throughout the country. For more information, visit www.celiackids.com.
• The Celiac Sprue Association (CSA) has Cel-Kids chapters. For more information, visit www.csaceliacs.info/children.jsp.
• Nothing near you? Start your own group!
As a parent, it’s vital to keep a positive attitude whenever possible and to encourage your child to do the same. All children are different. Some will quickly embrace new foods and “feeling better,” while others may become anxious, upset, or withdrawn. If you are concerned about your child’s adjustment, the support of a qualified professional can help ease the transition.
Written by Cheryl Harris