Young children in preschool and the early years of elementary school face particular challenges in the classroom. Even if you try to keep your children gluten-free by giving them packed lunches, they may still be exposed to gluten through messy classmates who eat gluten foods, daily classroom treats that are gluten-y, various birthday celebrations that feature gluten cake or cookies, and craft supplies that may have gluten.
To provide a safe environment and help your kids cope with their gluten-free diet even when in school, you will need to work closely with their teachers and ensure they understand your child’s condition and diet. It’s also essential to teach your young children so they stay safe among their gluten-eating classmates and friends.
Here are six specific situations in school that you’ll need to monitor and manage for your young child with celiac/gluten sensitivity.
Make Sure Your Child Gets a Safe Cafeteria Lunch
Have you scanned a school cafeteria menu recently? If yes, then you probably noticed how much gluten the meals include. Despite schools’ committing to provide healthier food choices to prevent obesity, the cafeteria menu is still dominated by cheeseburgers, chicken nuggets, pizza, and grilled cheese sandwiches.
In this world full of gluten, it’s still possible for your child to have a gluten-free meal at school. But to achieve this, you will need to work very closely with the school dietitian and the cafeteria staff to address any possible issues about gluten-containing ingredients and cross-contamination risks.
Some parents strive hard and get their desired arrangements for their kids’ meals, especially if they have a 504 plan in place, a blueprint for how the school will support a student with a disability to ensure they are protected and accommodated in school.
But always be cautious about cross-contamination in the cafeteria, which can still happen even if the staff is committed to giving a gluten-free lunch. Keeping your child safe requires diligence, but this can lead to a happy child who gets to buy lunch with their friends.
Warn Your Child Against Sharing Lunches
It’s common for young children to share lunches with their friends, and parents know this well, so they pack extra cookies or crackers for their children to share with friends.
But this can be potentially dangerous for a child with celiac disease or gluten intolerance because these snacks often contain gluten. And even if the food itself is gluten-free, like carrot sticks or corn chips, there may still be a high risk of cross-contamination when it was prepared.
As sad as it may sound, you will need to advise your young children against sharing snacks with their friends at school. Remind them of how they get bad symptoms when they eat foods with gluten, but also make sure to pack yummy gluten-free snacks in their lunches daily so they don’t get sad about not being able to share food with their friends.
While you’re at it, why not pack some extra snacks for your children’s friends, too? Who knows, some of their friends may even prefer having gluten-free treats on their own. Just make sure that your children understand why they can’t sample any of their friends’ snacks.
Avoid Those Ubiquitous Gluten Crumbs
Children being children who travel everywhere with a handful of cookies or pretzels anywhere they go can sometimes be crumb factories. Their school desks, especially in classrooms where they are regularly given snacks, are often covered with crumbs.
While adults know how to keep a safe distance and to wash hands frequently, children still need to be reminded about it. Teach your child to practice this when they are around gluten-eating friends. Hand sanitizers can kill bacteria, BUT they CAN’T remove gluten, so make sure you communicate this clearly to your child’s teacher as well.
Preferably, your child’s classroom should be completely gluten-free, but it’s almost impossible to achieve that, especially when the school allows the children to eat their snacks at their desks. You may want to address this issue in a 504 plan, especially if your child is particularly gluten-sensitive.
Avoid Play-Doh at All Cost
Classrooms for preschool and the first years of elementary school often have extensive amounts of reusable modeling clay, like the brand Play-Doh. But sadly, there’s gluten in Play-Doh. And while your child probably knows not to eat clay, they may still accidentally ingest it if bits and pieces get stuck on their hands and under their fingernails.
An ideal classroom for kids with gluten sensitivity shouldn’t feature any modeling clay that’s gluten-based since it’s highly unlikely for the school to provide a separate brand for your child to use. Fortunately, there are gluten-free Play-Doh alternatives that exist.
Ask your child’s school to use gluten-free modeling clay instead of PlayDoh. If the school officials refuse the request, some parents choose to provide the material for all the kids out of their own pockets. Other art supplies also contain gluten, like cream-based face paint, and many brands of finger paints.
Redesign School Projects That Use Flour
A school year won’t go by without a classroom project that involves the use of flour, such as making paper maché creatures, which require the use of wheat flour and pies. Several science experiments also require the use of flour.
Just like Play-Doh, the flour-based products of these projects can stay in the air, and your gluten-sensitive child will get sick from it while the project proceeds (airborne flour can make your child sick).
Your two options include asking the teacher to use gluten-free alternative materials for these projects or pulling your child from school the day the class is going to work on a project that involves flour.
A win-win situation would be to help the teacher ensure that the project is safe for everyone, your child included. To make this possible, you need to know about the projects in advance, so, open communication with the teacher is key. You’ll also need to source gluten-free substitutes for the four.
One option is to make a gluten-free paper maché with water and gluten-free glue, like Elmer’s, and substituting gluten-free flour in recipes and projects that require the use of regular flour.
Prepare Gluten-Free Classroom Treats in Advance
These days, elementary school classrooms seem to have a birthday party almost every week, and more often than not, these parties feature sweet treats and other snacks that contain gluten.
It would be impossible for the teacher to warn you before a parent appears in school with treats, as the teacher often gets no heads up either. To avoid the scenario of a child in tears for not getting a cupcake when everyone else did, you have to prepare for these parties in advance.
Prepare some frozen cupcakes or brownies, and ask the teacher if it’s possible for you to place them in the school’s freezer. If the teacher gives you a go, prepare a large batch to freeze so anytime there’s a party, the teacher can simply grab a cupcake for your child.
If it’s not possible to use the freezer, prepare a box filled with your child’s favorite gluten-free treats and deliver it to the teacher. Make sure to check in regularly so you know when it’s time to replenish the supply.
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