It’s time for the grandkids to visit. Mom and Dad get a break. Grandpa and Grandma get a kid fix and the grandkids get love and attention. Ideally, it’s a win-win-win situation, right?
It can be for grandparents who understand their grandchild’s gluten-free lifestyle. But for grandparents new to the gluten-free diet, feelings can range from uneasy to downright scary.
One day your grandchild is like all the other kids, and the next day you have to take a crash course in all things gluten free so you can safely care for your grandson or granddaughter. It can seem like a daunting task, but simple steps will help ease the way.
Ask the parents for help
Many parents are happy to help with the gluten-free meals while their kids are at Grandma’s and Grandpa’s house. They send snacks, bread and cereal, or perhaps even everything needed for breakfast through dinner. Some provide a list of favorite safe foods listed by brand. If you would like any of these, be sure to ask the parents.
The parents are the best source of information on how they specifically handle the gluten-free diet. They can guide you on age-appropriate steps to make your grandchild feel welcome, loved and safe in your home. Even if you have a different opinion on how things should be done, it’s best to keep consistent with rules the child follows in his or her daily life. For example, if the parents only trust ready-made products that have been certified as gluten free, make sure that’s what you buy. These will have a symbol on the package from the certifying group.
Grandchildren shouldn’t feel strain between parents and grandparents over the gluten-free diet. If you have issues to discuss, make sure you do so privately before the child comes to your house. Don’t dismiss concerns about always being gluten free and never suggest that a little gluten won’t hurt or give in to any claims by the child that gluten is sometimes allowed.
Learn about what gluten free means
Gluten-free food is free of wheat, barley (malt) and rye. Regular oats that you buy in the supermarket, including Quaker Oats, are not gluten free. Only oats that are certified gluten free are safe.
You may not realize how many items have gluten in them until you start looking for products without it. Mainstream bread, crackers, pasta, cookies and other baked goods, and pizza are among the items that are likely to contain gluten. You will have to buy a gluten-free specialty version of any of these kinds of products.
But feel free to stock up on fresh fruits and vegetables. Plain meat, potatoes, rice and corn are also gluten free and can be used to make a safe lunch or dinner. If you are looking for a mainstream gluten-free treat, head for the ice cream freezer, where you will find many options. Always read labels looking for wheat or barley, and avoid any flavors with pieces of cookies, cake, pretzels, cookie dough, etc.
Read labels on any processed food you plan to give your grandchild. Look for wheat in the ingredients list or a statement that says, “Contains wheat.” A federal allergen labeling law requires that wheat always has to appear on the label when it is used in a food, either in the ingredients list or the “contains” statement. Also look for oats and barley, malt, malt extract or malt flavoring and avoid foods that contain any of these. In the beginning it might be easier to get a list of safe foods from the child’s parent or to buy only foods specifically labeled gluten free. Food labeled “wheat free” is not necessarily gluten free.
Linda Thielke, of Phillips, Wis., is learning to cook for her grandchild, 3-year-old Roxy. If an ingredient listing isn’t clear, Thielke takes it to the manufacturer. “Calls to the 800 numbers on food packages answer a lot of questions,” Thielke says.
Many supermarkets now have special sections where they stock all kinds of gluten-free products. Check with your grocer about where they put the gluten-free items. Some supermarkets do spread them throughout the store so you might find gluten-free pasta in the same aisle as the wheat pasta. If you have a smartphone, there are a number of apps you can download that will also help you find gluten-free items in the supermarket.
It’s natural to have a lot of questions when you are learning the basics of the gluten-free diet.
Linda Mensing of Beckemeyer, Ill., says it took time to learn what is safe and what is not for her 4-year-old gluten-free grandson Kasen. “How extreme do you go when you have (a grandchild) with celiac disease? Does your dish soap, laundry detergent, makeup all have to be checked?”
The best available scientific research says gluten cannot be absorbed through the skin and has to be eaten to be harmful. So it’s very unlikely any of these products pose harm to your visiting grandchild. Even if they kiss you, the amount of gluten they could ingest from lipstick or makeup would be far below levels that are considered safe for gluten-free food products.
When your grandchild visits
It’s likely you have been to your grandchild’s house since they were diagnosed with celiac disease or gluten intolerance, so you might generally know the drill. But it can be a different story when it’s your home and you don’t have the comfort of knowing the child’s parents have taken all the needed steps to keep things safe. Here are few simple tips to ensure your grandchild’s visit will be successful.
Have gluten-free food on hand.
Make sure you are already stocked with some gluten-free options when your grandchild comes to visit. Find a little space in a cupboard or on a shelf for his or her items so they always know where to look. This way they feel welcomed and accepted.
Ready-made products might be easier at first if you are not confident about cooking and baking gluten free. Donna Hoel of Cedar, Minn., grandmother of 8-year-old Isaac, says she struggles with preparing meals for him. “We all try to cook for [Isaac’s] needs, and mostly we waste our time and the expense of food,” she says.
Find out your grandchild’s favorite foods and treats. Consider buying single-serving, gluten-free foods to avoid waste. You can find frozen gluten-free pizza, chicken fingers and chicken nuggets, bagels, bread and other items that will make meal preparation easier.
If you like to bake and cook, there are numerous child-friendly gluten-free recipes available. And traditional recipes can be adapted to be gluten free. Sometimes all it takes is the substitution of one gluten-containing ingredient for one that is gluten free. You’ll find easy-to-make cake mixes from companies like Betty Crocker, Glutino, Wegmans, Wholesome Chow, 1-2-3 Gluten Free and many others. These are available in many supermarkets and in even in some Marshalls and Home Goods stores.
Always make sure your grandchild is included at meals. For example, if you are making spaghetti, it’s a simple matter of making some gluten-free pasta while being mindful of the potential for cross-contamination in cooking and serving utensils. Most spaghetti sauce is gluten free and many now have a gluten-free label.
If you are offering a treat or dessert, make sure to have something for your grandchild. It’s great if you can make something gluten-free that everyone can share, but if that’s not possible have a gluten-free equivalent. Even if it’s not exactly the same, the most important thing is making sure your grandchild does not feel left out.
If others might be visiting while your grandchild is there and bring unexpected goodies, use the same strategy that works in the classroom – have a backup supply of one of the child’s favorite treats in the cupboard.
It takes practice. “I have to think and concentrate when I am cooking for him,” Hoel says of Isaac. “Remember to clean all areas and don’t use the same serving spoon.”
Thorough washing by hand or in a dishwasher should be sufficient to make utensils, pots, pans and colanders safe, according to sanitation experts. But some grandparents and parents like the peace of mind they get by purchasing a separate colander, pot and cutting board that’s only used for gluten-free food.
Crumbs in a toaster can cross-contaminate gluten-free food, so it’s best not to share one. You can toast gluten-free bread, bagels and other products on a clean cookie sheet in your oven, purchase special toaster bags that will prevent cross-contamination or have a separate toaster used only for gluten-free items.
Grand parenting is supposed to be fun. There is no reason the gluten-free diet should change that. By following these suggestions, you will understand the diet quickly, and it will be much easier to feed your gluten-free grandchild without worry. Then you will be free to enjoy your time together.
You can find a lot of information about celiac disease, gluten intolerance and the gluten-free diet online. Our website has details on the basic gluten-free diet, kids and the gluten-free diet, ingredients, recipes and more. You can also read our blog, which includes updated gluten-free news and other observations of the gluten-free world by our staff.
You can also go to the websites of support groups and celiac research centers like these:
• Celiac Disease Foundation celiac.org
• Gluten Intolerance Group gluten.net
• National Foundation for Celiac Awareness celiaccentral.org
• Celiac Center at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center celiacnow.org
• Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University celiacdiseasecenter.org
• Center for Celiac Research at Mass General celiaccenter.org
• University of Chicago Celiac Research Center cureceliacdisease.org
These are trusted sources of accurate information about the gluten-free diet. Be cautious of things you might read from less-reliable sources. There are also a number of books on celiac disease and the gluten-free diet or cookbooks with gluten-free recipes available at amazon.com and in bookstores.
Amy Leger writes regularly about family issues for Gluten-Free Living. She lives in Minnesota with her husband and two daughters. Her oldest daughter has celiac disease. Amy’s website, thesavvyceliac.com, covers news, cooking & shopping tips in the gluten-free world.