It’s hard to raise a child with celiac disease. You want to protect them from every scrap of gluten but at some point they will have to be able to figure out what to eat on their own. That’s why it’s so important to teach your child to eat gluten free without you.
The long term goal in raising any child is that eventually they can be an fully functioning, independent adult. A child with celiac disease has even more to learn in order to be independent.
Preschool aged children cannot be expected to figure out on their own what they can and cannot eat but you can definitely start laying the ground work for the future. Start by pointing out typical snack foods for children that are always gluten free. These may include baby carrots, cheese sticks, apples, grapes, and nuts.
Make sure they are always with someone they can trust to tell them what is gluten free and what is not. Teach them to never take food from someone who is not one of those people.
Early Elementary School
Since they still can’t read very well at this stage, this isn’t the time to teach them how to read ingredient lists. However, you CAN teach them how you figure out what is and isn’t gluten free. You can also show them the words “gluten free” on packages of food. Also, teach them that wheat, barley, rye, and oats are bad. Teach them to recognize more food that they know they can eat such as their favorite cereal or snack bars.
At this stage, it is important that you teach them that other children should not be allowed to touch their food. This is their first experience with cross contamination. My son once had a classmate grab his gluten free pizza. He wave it in the air after he had eaten his own piece of gluten filled pizza. I’m so happy that my son realized he should not eat his pizza and told me what had happened. I reached out to the teacher and the whole class got a lesson on not touching other people’s food the next day.
At this age, I still accompanied my children to birthday parties. I made sure they had their own food that complimented what was being served at the party. I also pointed out any gluten free food being served and showed them little things I did such as grabbing a plate from the bottom of the pile to put their food on.
Late Elementary School
Here is when you will really start to teach your child to eat gluten free without you. They should be able to start reading ingredients lists on packages and recognize when something is labelled gluten free. Always be practicing this with them.
Your children will start having more unannounced parties at school. Make sure they know to tell you if something is coming up. Explain to them that the only way they can have a treat is if they tell you about the upcoming party. See if you can leave a gluten free treat in the teacher’s closet for these times. Make sure your child knows they can get the treat in these instances. We once had a teacher who was awful about these things. Even though I had sent in a box of treats, she just told my son to go sit down when he couldn’t eat what was being served. This is the age where they have to learn assertiveness. I told him next time, to remind the teacher about his treats and to ask her if he could go get them himself.
You probably won’t be attending your child’s friends’ parties with them anymore. Try to pack food for them in their school lunchbox. It is something they are familiar with and will have less problems serving themselves. Remind them, if they have a phone, that they can always text you if they have any problems or questions. Also, to politely refuse any food they aren’t sure about.
Stress to your child that when they are at someone else’s house, if they are not sure if the food is gluten free, DON’T EAT IT! I always sent food with my children when I dropped them off at someone’s house. It would be something simple like tortilla chips and salsa. This means your child has something to eat even if everything else has gluten. It also shows the parents how easy it is to have food available next time. They don’t need to buy some fancy expensive gluten free snacks.
At this point your children may not be able to order by themselves. Even if I ordered for them, I always had my kids pay attention to my conversation with the waiter. I would then discuss our conversation with them after I was done. I would emphasize if I mentioned about a dedicated fryer and discussed cross contamination.
Junior High School
In junior high your children will be spending a lot more time on their own. This is where all of your training will start to be put to good use. Continue teaching and reinforcing the lessons you have been teaching them.
Overnight field trips start in junior high. These were very worrisome for me. I had to put my trust in all of the teaching we had been doing these many years.
When your child is going on a field trip, research the location for any gluten free options. Discuss them with your child. Be sure to pack lots of high protein gluten free snacks in case there are any problems. See if there is a teacher going who is also gluten free. Tell your children if they have any problems they can speak with that teacher.
At this point most of your child’s friends will know all about their gluten free status. I found that they often had a few gluten free options at their parties or get togethers. Make sure they never go somewhere on an empty stomach. Also make sure they throw a high protein snack bar in their pocket just in case.
This is it. This is the time for you to let go. Let them figure things out on their own. Remind them that they can always call you to ask any questions. Also, help them pack food and research for any overnight trips or restaurant visits. This is the time for them to figure things out on their own while you are still here to step in and help them when needed. After that, they will be on their own with no safety net, so let them make their mistakes now while you are still there to help when needed.
One thing I left out of all the sections is teaching your children how to cook. The best thing you can do is teach your children how to cook gluten free. They will never be hungry if they can cook gluten free for themselves. This is probably a subject for another article but briefly, start with simple tasks like mixing and introduce new things as they can handle them.
Figuring out how to teach your child to eat gluten free without you can be difficult and scary. The most important thing is to give them the same tools you use everyday to navigate the gluten free world and allow them to practice them on their own. Do you have any other tips for parents to teach their child to eat gluten free without them? Leave them in the comments!