Back to school means the same thing for so many people—buying school supplies, sneaker shopping, planning the first day of school outfit. However, there’s more involved in the back to school mayhem for a child with celiac disease. In this three-part series, I will explore the nitty-gritty of sending your celiac child back to school, safe, healthy and happy.
5 Steps to Prepping for Back to School, Celiac Style
When my daughter was diagnosed with celiac disease, I had no idea what it was. That’s not true, I knew it had something to do with eating gluten free, but beyond that, nada. I didn’t understand the cross-contamination piece and I didn’t understand that a crumb could make my sweet girl sick. Now that I get that, it’s my job to educate anyone at school who will be with my daughter in any way, because once she’s outside the walls of our gluten free home, she’s vulnerable. But mom as “educator” isn’t enough. She needs to be a self-advocate, because she’s in middle school (ACK!) and with that comes more freedom, independence and more time away from the nest. (fly little bird, fly, but avoid the crumbs along the way…) So, here are 5 steps for a successful back-to-school for your gluten free kid.
- Send out an email. Send an email to all your child’s teachers, the principal, the lunch services staff, the school nurse. Assume they know nothing about celiac disease, because most likely they don’t. Explain that your child needs to eat gluten free, but don’t leave out the WHY. Describe what happens when she gets “glutened”. Explain that three crumbs on her desk from an innocent snacking classmate could make your child very sick. Be specific.
- Supply your child’s classroom/classrooms with containers of cleansing wipes. It takes 30 seconds to get a wipe and clean crumbs off a desk and chair. Classrooms today are mixing it up a lot—kids aren’t necessarily confined to only their desk, some classrooms use communal tables instead of desks, or, as in the case of my middle-schooler, kids can sit in up to seven different classrooms a day. Clean desk means peace of mind.
- Pack up an awesome treat/snack stash. Send in a bag of snacks and treats with your child to be kept at school as a back up. There will always be some occasion, some impromptu celebration, or a day you’ll forget to put a snack in the backpack. A teacher, advisor, or even the lunch staff can keep this stash safe for your child. Another great idea is to bake some cupcakes and ask the school kitchen to keep them frozen for your child, clearly labeled with their name and “gluten free”, so if an unplanned party happens, there is a treat available at a moments notice.
- Make friends with the cafeteria staff. The people that run your child’s school kitchen are on the front lines at the only meal your child will have without you. Sit down with them. Bring them a gluten free treat. Explain celiac disease. Make sure they understand what cross-contamination is. My daughter packs her lunch most days, but there are a few meals that the school makes gluten free that she loves. They have their own cook space for gluten free cooking. I’m confident they are doing things right. If your child’s school can’t guarantee a safe cooking environment, the staff should at least be aware of any child with celiac to prevent any possible mishaps.
- Raise your child to be a self-advocate. You can spew celiac facts and gluten free knowledge until you are blue in the face, but if the second you walk away, your child is allowing friends to stick their hands in to help themselves to his/her gluten free snack, thus contaminating it, or if your child is accepting food from friends or even well-meaning adults without questioning it, all your talking was for naught. Your child needs to learn to say, “Do not touch my food. Do you know if that is gluten free? May I see that label?” Show them what to look for on a food label, tell them to ask for their teacher’s help, and tell them over and over and over, “If in doubt, go without.”
Sending your celiac child out the door to be on his/her own at school for seven hours a day can be daunting, but it’s not impossible. Educating the people around them, being proactive to create a carefree school day, and arming them with knowledge and confidence will make their back to school happy and successful.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of this Back-to-School series, “Rockin’ the Gluten Free Lunchbox”. Look for it in my weekly post next Thursday!
The Celiac Mom is CEO of Diehl Enterprises. Her duties include executive chef, pastry chef, taxi driver, housekeeper, kisser of boo boos, popsicle distributor, counselor, and champion Uno player. She is also the Content Coordinator and writer for Allens Creek Living Magazine. She lives in Pittsford, NY with her husband and three children.