Back to School Gluten Free

Amy Keller, MS, RDN, LD, is a dietitian and celiac support group leader from Bellefontaine, Ohio. 

My son is a high school freshman and starting his first year of marching band. Band camp is the week before school, and while they used to go away to a local university, this year they will have it at school. While I’m relieved not to have to worry about him being away from home, he will still need to eat meals at the school during camp. I don’t want him to have to pack everything and feel left out. Do you have any suggestions?

Marching band is an excellent experience for kids, so I’m glad he’s involved. I would start by finding out what foods will be served at the camp and who is in charge of purchasing them. If there is a band parent organization that is planning meals for camp, start by contacting those leaders for more information. If you aren’t sure where to start, try contacting the band director to find out who will be taking charge of meals. In future years, maybe you can get involved in some of the meal planning for camp! 

While you might need to provide specialty items, such as gluten-free bread, pretzels or cookies, you might be surprised and find out many of the foods served are naturally gluten free.  Fresh fruits, veggies, bottled water and tortilla chips are examples of foods that he can safely select without feeling different than his friends. If you send items, remember to keep them cool with enough ice packs or ask if refrigeration is available during the day. 

My seven-year-old daughter was diagnosed with celiac last month. Her dad and I are divorced, but both of us have remarried, and we are on good terms. We share custody, and she stays at his house a few times a month. What can I do to help make sure our households are consistent in making sure everything is gluten free? 

Because you get along well, this transition will likely be much more manageable. For more contentious divorces, or when one parent doesn’t take the diet seriously, it can be very stressful. In these situations, it may be necessary to sit down with a family counselor or, in extreme conditions, hire a mediator. Still, navigating two households can be complicated for many reasons, especially when there is a special diet involved. It’s vital that everyone is on the same page and that rules are consistent no matter which home she is in. Encourage open communication about what is best for your daughter and talk directly to each other; never send messages regarding food through your daughter.  

If you haven’t already seen a registered dietitian, an excellent place to start would be inviting everyone (including step-parents) to that appointment. That way everyone hears the same thing and can ask questions. If that’s not possible, ask for a duplicate copy of the educational materials so each parent has the same information in their home. If there is a local support group, encourage everyone to attend.

 If your daughter has a few favorite gluten-free foods, ask her dad to consider purchasing them when she is at his home. Another option would be to pack some food when she stays over. Make sure each home has necessities to prevent cross-contamination, such as a separate toaster and colander. If he does not live locally, sit down together and figure out what restaurants have gluten-free options near his home. 

My son is headed to third grade this year, and we are going to let him buy school lunch on some days of the week. The school suggested we have a 504 Plan on file for him, but I’m afraid of him being labeled as “different.” Also, his teacher is very understanding. Is it really necessary?

Having a formal plan in place is good for everyone. Kids have 504 Plans for lots of reasons (not just celiac disease), so there is no cause for him to feel different or singled out. It’s great that his teacher is working well with you, but a 504 Plan provides written documentation and describes the kind of accommodations you would like to have in place. For example, you might request that you be notified if food will be served in the classroom or on field trips, who in the kitchen will be responsible for preparing and handling his lunch, or if macaroni might be used to do a craft project.

How do you get started with a 504 Plan? Contact the school and ask what the procedures are to get one put into place. You will need documentation from your son’s doctor that he has celiac and requires a gluten-free diet. Additional information on 504 Plans for celiac can be found on the Celiac Disease Foundation website at celiac.org.

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