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.
Last month I participated in a live Twitter 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!
Tips for Raising Happy Gluten-Free Kids
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.
D. Loeffler says
I love bread and I cannot imagine life without bread, good artisan breads. Can you suggest a brand of breadmaker and even a mix that makes good GF bread? I know there are recipes for home made GF bread with rice flour. I would like to try them but am hesitant since the ingredients are not cheap and I am unsure of the end result.
Toni Dash says
I have this bread maker. It is a Japanese brand with great reviews. I have had it for over 8 years, making at least one loaf a week (more now) with great results and no issues.
The main bread mix I use is from Gluten Free Pantry ‘Favorite Sandwich Bread’. I add chia and hemp seeds to increase the protein and fiber, and sometimes sunflower hulls too.
Amazon.com is great for gluten-free products at a discount. I buy GF pasta, bread mix, pancake mix through them. They sell products ‘in bulk’ which is multiple packages but not an unmanageable amount. The packages are discounted and with orders of $25 or more shipping is free. You can find it in single packs too. I’m also discovering more prepared breads that are ‘gluten bread comparable’. I think the gluten free bread options will only continue to improve.
I love this post 🙂 while I don’t have GF kids I have a boyfriend reluctant to admit his gluten intolerance and these steps will help me help him I think. We living in Southern California, so Mexican food is a serious part of our lives. Have you found a best alternative to the large flour tortillas for burritos and the like? The rice ones at TJ’s are ok but tend to fall apart really easily – if you soak them really quick it helps but it’s still not quite there. Thank you!
Toni Dash says
I’m so glad this may have helped you/your boyfriend! I have other posts about learning to become gluten-free and it was stark at first. I remember sitting in the nutritionist’s office after learning I needed to eat gluten-free, listening through her instructions then bursting into tears telling her I felt there was a country in the world named ‘gluten’ that I’d never heard of and I’d been given a passport and told I’d be living there for the rest of my life with no notice. The good news is we live in this day and age and there are tons of resources and foods available.
Sadly flour-equivalent tortillas aren’t the best. We love Mexican food but have mostly stuck to corn tortillas. Udi’s recently came out with some larger tortillas more on par with what you’d expect in a traditional flour tortilla and in my experimentation they held up well. Other than those I’d stick with corn.
Jennifer-The Adventuresome Kitchen says
I couldn’t agree with you more!!! This is a great list! Because I was diagnosed with celiac 15 years ago my kids have been gf since day one. The adults would be rendered speechless by an 18mo or 2yo asking if the treat offered is gluten free. My blog was an outgrowth of my work to bring delicious gf treats for school parties that would be enjoyed by everyone. I gave away my breadmaker 15 years ago, and now you have me thinking about purchasing another. Thankfully the girls’ new school has just moved to a ‘no food’ policy for celebrating birthdays because there were so many different food allergies.
Toni Dash says
I love the ‘no food’ birthday treat practice. Ironically in my son’s school (still in elementary) that practice varies from grade to grade in the school. Within his grade (around 50 kids) there are 7 gluten-free kids for various reasons as well other food needs. It’s a challenge. I also had to troubleshoot a teacher giving his gluten-free food away to GF kids whose parents were not providing for their children. That was a complete point of anxiety both for him and me. I think those who do not have a dietary restriction don’t realize the gravity of having a limited food supply. It’s a learning experience for all involved!