How to Make School Lunches Safer for Your Gluten-Free Child

Most parents whose children follow the gluten-free diet send bag lunches to school, and for good reason — school lunch menus usually represent a gluten minefield of pizza, wheat-coated chicken nuggets, and whole wheat rolls.

However, you may not realize you do have another choice. If your child is officially diagnosed with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, public schools actually may be required to accommodate her with a safe, gluten-free meal.

Even if it is required, this likely will take plenty of effort on your part — you'll probably have to work extensively with the food service staff and the school district dietitian to teach them how to create safe food in the cafeteria. But it may be worth it, especially if your child is eligible for free or reduced-price lunch and breakfast.

Here are the six steps you'll need to follow to get safe food for your gluten-free child in the school cafeteria.

school cafeteria line
Baerbel Schmidt / Getty Images

Make Sure Your Child Is Eligible for School Food Accommodations

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, "substitutions to the regular meal must be made for children who are unable to eat school meals because of their disabilities, when that need is certified by a licensed physician."

In short, this means you'll need to obtain a letter from your child's pediatrician stating that she must be served gluten-free food (yes, being unable to tolerate gluten is considered a "disability"). It will help you to first establish a gluten-free 504 plan for your child spelling out exactly what the school district must do to accommodate her in the cafeteria and elsewhere.

If your family is gluten-free but you don't have an official diagnosis (or at the very least, a doctor's informal backing), the school district doesn't need to accommodate the request (even if you have no doubt that your child needs to be on the diet).

Meet With the Head Dietitian or the Head of Food Services for Your District

In all likelihood, this person will understand at least the rudiments of the gluten-free diet, but expect to do some educating on how tricky it can be to avoid gluten (it continues to amaze me how little some dietitians know about eating gluten-free).

Emphasize nicely but firmly that you expect the school to accommodate your child with gluten-free meals, and that you'd like to work together with food service officials to accomplish this goal. Repeat as necessary.

Ask for Someone to Be Responsible for Your Child's Food

Ask the head dietitian to designate someone in your child's school cafeteria to be responsible for her food on a day-to-day basis. This person will be your main contact, and should communicate with you on a regular basis about meals and ingredients.

For your part, you should provide this person with a gluten-free food list, information on gluten-containing foods and resources showing how to identify gluten on food labels.

Strongly Emphasize the Problems Inherent in Gluten Cross-Contamination

It will do your child no good to have a perfectly gluten-free lunch prepared in a way that cross-contaminates it — for example, a salad cut on a cutting board where gluten-y sandwiches are prepared, or a 100% beef hamburger prepared on a grill where buns are toasted.

If at all possible, seek to have one corner of the kitchen designated as the "gluten-free" corner, where only gluten-free food is prepared. If that's not possible (and in most schools, it won't be), try to make certain that the same person (preferably, your main contact) prepares your child's food every day, and teach that person to guard vociferously against cross-contamination. Emphasize the need for clean pots, pans, utensils and fresh gloves. These rules for staying gluten-free at restaurants also can apply to school cafeterias.

Watch for Fillers and Hidden Gluten Ingredients

It's not unusual in a school cafeteria to have hamburgers or hot dogs that contain wheat as a filler, and many people — even skilled cafeteria workers — may not think to check those foods for questionable ingredients. Warn your contact person that gluten can hide anywhere, and make sure all labels and ingredients are checked.

Don't Be Afraid to Make Suggestions for Foods or Ingredients

You almost certainly know the gluten-free diet much better than the folks in the cafeteria, and you'll probably think of possible foods that wouldn't have occurred to them.

For example, you can note the availability of frozen gluten-free pizza crusts, which can enable the cafeteria to create a gluten-free pizza using the same sauce and toppings (assuming those are gluten-free, too) as are used for the regular pizzas.

NFCA Offers Gluten-Free Training for School Cafeteria Staff

If your school district seems particularly receptive (or if there are several gluten-free children to feed, as may be the case in larger schools), you might want to recommend school officials consider the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness GREAT Schools program. The program, based on NFCA's restaurant program, can help to train cafeteria staff to handle gluten-free food safely.

Even if your school district seems to have its act together, you'll need to remain closely involved, and probably help to educate new cafeteria staff members as they come on board. Watch your child carefully for symptoms (here's a list of celiac disease symptoms in children), and ask questions of both your child and your cafeteria contact if you see signs of a glutening.

Hopefully, with some work on your part and with helpful school officials, you can enable your child to eat regular, safe cafeteria lunches at school. That may save you some money, but more importantly, it will enable your child to feel just like all the other kids as she makes her way through the cafeteria line.

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By Jane Anderson
Jane Anderson is a medical journalist and an expert in celiac disease, gluten sensitivity, and the gluten-free diet.