Raising gluten-free kids can feel overwhelming at times navigating school and social situations. I’m sharing my best tips from raising successful, healthy, happy gluten-free kids for 8 years!
As regular readers will know, I’ve been gluten free for over 8 years now, as have my children. I won’t recount my journey to learning about the need to eat gluten-free or the emotional process of coming to terms with something I’d never heard of before however I will say I live a happy, full life without a sense of want; as do my children.
When we learned about our need to eat gluten-free my eldest child was going into first grade and my youngest was only 2. My six year old daughter struggled a bit as her palate was formed so the absence of her favorite foods was noticeable. Fortunately due to both the wide variety of gluten-free forms of gluten-full food, as well as her own experience physically when accidentally ingesting gluten, she was propelled beyond any sense of gluten-want quickly. We were fortunate to be surrounded by caring classmates, friends and teachers making the transition easier.
My daughter will begin High School this year and even as I write that I can barely believe it. How the time passes is nothing short of mind bending. We have lived gluten free, mostly with ease, both in our regular routine at home or when traveling abroad.
I feel strongly about sharing information with others about the gluten-free lifestyle as I could not have made the transition without the kindness and information of others. One way in which I do this is through my role as a Community Leader in the Udi’s Gluten Free Community. The community is made up of 9,500 members (it’s free, and only requires signing up) who share in many topics and chat streams to answer any questions about all aspects of gluten-free living. The eleven other leaders and I also participate in gluten-free themed live chats during the month allowing members to hop on and chat about their experiences, ask questions and share information.
Last month we had a live chat about raising gluten-free kids. Some of the questions brought me back to my early days of navigating birthday parties, classroom activities, group holiday meals and uninformed relatives and friends. It can be a bit of a land mine situation. Eight years later I look at my food-educated children who are athletes, scholars, and comfortably self-advocating for their food needs. It can be very awkward to ask someone for the ingredients of a recipe for a dish being served at a dinner party, or navigating ingredient lists of food, especially for children. As we turn our sights to another school year sharing some of our family success strategies seemed apropos!
1. Own It. Perhaps a tough love statement but regardless of the emotional side of coming to terms with becoming permanently gluten-free (incidentally when I was diagnosed I had never heard of gluten), the quicker one realizes this path the more successful each you and your children will become. There is no middle road with gluten if you are intolerant or have Celiac; you can’t eat it, not even a little. Fortunately the food industry has realized the need from the consistent statistics of 1/132 people believed to have an issue with gluten (albeit mostly undiagnosed). Food manufacturers have risen to the opportunity, with both niche companies and mainstream giants like Betty Crocker producing gluten-free equivalent products to compliment the whole foods available to eat safely.
2. Take responsibility; bring substitutes. A key thing for me especially in the classroom setting and at parties was that I did not want my children to feel excluded if avoidable. I also had read early on about parents who would drop off 5 inch thick binders listing gluten-free foods to their Celiac kids’ teachers, expecting them to use that to ensure safe eating. My philosophy is this is our responsibility; I need to partner with a teacher though I also feel I need to make it easy for the teacher to keep my child safe when in her care.
- Treat Box in the classroom: At the beginning of each school year I inform the teacher of our eating parameters. I supply a treat box for the classroom so when unexpected birthday treats arrive, food rewards are being given out or special classroom activities involving food disallow sending a specific substitute, my child is covered. Stocking the box is part of our school shopping regime; it’s fun and I let the child select whatever they want (mini chocolate bars, peanut butter cups, M & M’s; all of which can be found in healthier brands now as well if there is concern about ingredient quality). Rather than feeling excluded I’ve found over the years my GF tot is often envied for their treats!
- Bring substitutes for special events and parties. With larger classroom celebrations or birthday parties I contact the teacher or coordinating parent to find out what is being served. When pizza is being served I prepare it at home, and send it in a cooler with special ice/heat packs to keep the pizza warm until serving. I keep a plastic storage box of cupcakes in my freezer at the ready for thawing if cake is being served. Get to know the best, easy shops carrying a variety of gluten-free foods for quick turnaround needs. This past year my son’s teacher would hand out Oreo’s for winners of a certain reading competition. I sent a package of gluten-free sandwich cookies to cover the three gluten-free kids in the classroom so they enjoyed everything their classmates did.
- Stash some extra gluten-free snacks in the backpacks. One experience gluten-free kids have that others don’t is the restriction that if their food is gone, they may not be able to find more safe food in situations they are in. I’ve found as my children grow they go through phases of being ravenous. Always stashing some non-perishable, healthy granola bars, dried fruit, crackers or nuts in their backpacks or sports bags has been great to ward off the unexpected hunger when gluten-free options are not available.
3. Educate the kids to take ownership of their dietary needs. The earlier you involved gluten-free kids in their eating regime, the more confident and capable they become. Having a backdrop of feeling badly if eating gluten has built strength in my children to not miss it. My son was 2 when we learned he had Celiac and even as a tiny tot I spoke to him about it when grocery shopping, at restaurants and at meal times. I remember a shopping trip when my daughter was probably in third grade and she grabbed a can of something like mandarin oranges wanting to have some. She read the ingredient list herself (which had about 20 ingredients which was suspect for mandarin oranges) and said to me ‘I want these but I don’t want to eat what is in these’. Even as a small person reading labels not only educated them about gluten, but also allowed a choice about what they wanted to put in their bodies in general. Through this path they’ve learned about ‘clean food’, organics, how they feel when they eat certain foods both good and bad.
4. Consider buying a Bread maker. Of all the kitchen items I’ve ever purchased our bread maker has been the most valued. Now there are quality, flavorful gluten-free breads available however when we began they were horrible. Playing card sized pieces of flavor-less white bread. We make 2-3 loaves of bread a week now. My son actually makes them using a favorite bread mix augmented with Chia and Hemp seeds to increase the protein and fiber (something often lacking in prepared gluten-free baked goods). We slice it and store it in the freezer, popping a piece in the toaster when needed.
5. Be open minded and creative. When traveling especially it can be difficult to find a full, gluten free meal in the traditional sense. Staying close to whole foods is always both safe and healthy. There are times when we have to think outside the box to put together alternative meals. Last summer we took a driving trip to Canada. We exhausted the extra gluten-free food we’d brought along by our trip home. We were in a hurry on the way back leaving gas station stops as the only source of food. Fruit, hard boiled eggs, cheese sticks, sliced lunch meat (checked for gluten) became our nutrition on two 15 hour driving days. Suffice it to say by the end the kids were begging for a salad but at times one must make work what is available.
6. Don’t let gluten-free eating hold you back. Though we must eat gluten-free, my attitude has always been it’s what we do, not who we are. By that I mean I refuse to allow it to restrict our life experiences or be such a focal point that we can not relax and enjoy life normally. There have been challenging circumstances certainly but that is when I resort to point 5 above and relax about it. Have we compromised our healthy eating standards when in a pinch, choosing less healthy gluten-free options? Absolutely but it’s only a meal or day, not worth worrying about; we can resume healthier gluten-free options when they are available.
Disclosure: I am compensated for my role as a leader in the Udi’s Gluten-free community, a forum designed to share knowledge of gluten-free living with others. All opinions expressed are my own.
Photography note: Some photographs in this post are from iStock.