Is your gluten free baby starting school this year? Sending a young one off to explore the big wide world of primary education is a big deal even with zero food issues. So we have complete empathy with all the parents out there setting their gluten sensitive, wheat allergic or coeliac children free into the big wide world of gluten.
We have put together some tips below to help you prepare for this time. Rather than damage control, the best thing you can do is prepare your child to manage their own gluten free diet and this means preparing yourself to support them. Before a child starts school they are often exposed to your friend’s and family and their children, in other words people you have more control over, but when starting school there are a whole raft of new people entering their lives, many of whom don’t know much about coeliac disease and gluten sensitivity.
Here are a few tips to help you prepare for the big day (and the weeks that follow!);
What situations will expose your child to risk? Once you are aware of these you can work with the teachers/staff/parents involved to eliminate risk. These situations will include class parties, any lessons involving food (perhaps cultural or cooking based), visits to new friend's houses or parties and class trips.
Give your child the tools to be responsible for their diet. It is hard to push this responsibility onto your child when they are so young but their condition is most likely with them for life and there is no time like the present to teach them. When your child is eating away from home or eating food that hasn't come out of their lunch box, direct them to always ask an adult if it is safe for them to eat. This is one practice that could prevent many instances of your child falling ill from ingesting gluten. Ensure your child knows the foods that are suitable and unsuitable on the gluten free diet and that they have a few alternative suggestions for the adults around, if they get caught out.
Teach your child how to explain their condition and it’s seriousness in a way that they and others will understand and make sure they are confident in doing so. Children are like sponges so all it takes is an explanation they can comprehend.
Communicate with teachers and staff and get to know your fellow parents. So much of our lives revolve around food, even as a child. Talk to the teachers and staff at the school about having gluten free treats, snacks and frozen cupcakes, for special occasions, on standby. Get to know the parents of your child’s friends and offer to help or provide food for social occasions.
Talk to your child's school. Ask how they manage food allergies, if they have an existing program make sure you know the ins and outs. If they don't, perhaps you could do some research on other schools and make a suggestion on how it might look for them (e.g. a photo board with those children at risk in multiple locations throughout the school, staff and student education). Do they spend some time talking about food allergies and the importance of following a special diet for some in class? Education is the key to fighting ignorance and might help to ensure your child feels accepted.
Make lunch boxes fun and interesting. Include lots of colour and things your child will get joy out of eating. Stand by for our lunch box special, starting before the new school term.
Keep it ‘normal’. All the other kids will have sandwiches, crackers and muffins so try to include healthy gluten free versions of these things so your child doesn’t feel excluded. Don't rely too much on pre-packaged foods as many of these aren't healthy, gluten free foods are filled with sugars and other nasties to make them more like their gluten counterparts.
Variety is key. There are so many different gluten free products out there to try and a whole range of even healthier things to cook for your child’s lunch box. Experiment with new recipes, encourage your child to pick some things that are suitable for lunch box meals and involve them in preparation to help them understand their diet.
Don’t allow a gluten free diet to restrict your child. Always encourage them to get involved in everything. Just make sure you provide something they can eat. Never let them feel like they have to miss out because of their diet.
Allow a treat every now and then. Treats are a normal part of being a child. Surprise your child with a lunch box or after school treat occasionally so they know they can still have a treat just as a child with a normal diet can.
Stay positive and prepare ahead. You already have an advantage because you have done all this gluten free preparedness and education before, the only difference is that when your child is starting school it is on a larger scale and you have to relinquish a little control (which we all know can be a hard sometimes!). All the best to your not so little baby in their first year of school!
Let us know if you have any feedback or points to add to this once your school starter hits the primary playground.