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Cooking for Special Diets: Heading Back to School Brings New Challenges

Do some extra preparation to make sure your kids will stay healthy and feel included.

Back-to-school time usually generates a mix of excitement and anxiety in my home. I am happy to get the kids prepared for another year of learning and structure. I am also nervous about a lot, and each new year brings new challenges. Among them is my son's special diet, and making sure he can participate in school activities and not ingest anything that is harmful to him. In his case that is gluten.

Special diets can mean special preparation. And as I'm stocking up on pencils, glue sticks and folders, I am putting together a special diet plan of action.

The key to making sure your child is safe at school is good communication with his or her teachers and staff. I like to e-mail my son's teachers at this time and offer to bring in bags of treats, cupcakes for parties to put in the freezer or any supplies needed. My tactic is to keep his special diet as low-key as possible, which means planning ahead and just having the things he needs on hand.

The in Ferndale has a great selection of allergen-friendly goodies and candies. I'm putting together a “goody bag” for my son for his teacher to have on hand when special treats are needed. Yummy Earth suckers, gummies and Enjoy Life chocolate bars are a good start. The Food Patch has plenty to choose from, so I'm stocking up and getting the punch on my Carrot Club Card.

A stop at in Berkley is good to get a few cupcakes to freeze for birthday parties, or make a batch and ask if the teacher will keep it frozen at school. in Berkley has Udi's products, and it might be a good time to stock up on bagels. Our school has bagel days, so I like to include an Udi's bagel on these days.

And, I'm already thinking about Halloween. in Clawson has candy for every diet, and is a good place to stop well before Halloween candy is even mentioned. Start getting a bag ready and add some candy to your teacher's goody bag.

The treats will come before you know it.

What to do

Dinner Divas Gluten Free Cooking Club leader Beth Lohmeier has some advice for those who have school-age kids with celiac disease.

The Dinner Divas is a group based in Oakland County of mostly women, who offer support and advice via email. The group also meets on occasion, shares recipes and is a lifeline for those going through special diet ordeals. I'm happy to be part of it and to get the good advice of Lohmeier, who is busy putting together a guide to distribute to those newly diagnosed with celiac. An early draft provides a section for managing schools, which is useful to families with allergies or special diets alike. Here are some of Lohmeier's tips:

  • Snack time and birthday treats: Lohmeier suggests contacting teachers and making sure students wash their hands after snack and that desks are washed well, too. “Even trace amounts of gluten passed on a borrowed pencil can cause a reaction,” she said. She also suggests providing the teacher with a “stash” of treats to be given out during celebrations. I would also suggest getting chummy with room mothers.
  • Baking projects: As a general rule, Lohmeier says, baking projects should be avoided. It takes 24 hours for wheat flour to settle out of the air.
  • Art and school supplies: PLAY-DOH contains wheat flour, as do some of the “edible” art supplies kids use, such as cereal necklaces and noodle art. Suggest that the teacher buy a commercial gluten-free alternative, such as Colorations Dough, which is also free of most allergens, or bring in your own pasta and cereal for projects. Offer to make your own PLAY-DOH (recipe below) and bring in little containers of different colors. It's very easy and keeps for months.
  • Express your concerns: Call a special meeting with all your child's teachers, the building principal and someone from the cafeteria, Lohmeier suggests. Many schools provide action plans for food allergies. For example, sent out a packet at the end of last school year and again a few weeks ago with district allergy forms and a letter inviting parents to set up an appointment and meet with the secretary and principal to go over their children's allergy issues. 
  • Resources: The Food Allergy and Anaphalaxus Network offers a FAAN Tool Kit, which provides checklists for teachers, educators and parents. Lohmeier also describes the 504 Plan: Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 is a federal civil rights statute that prohibits discrimination due to a disability in an educational institution that accepts federal funding. For more on this act, click here.

Lohmeier offers a lot of good advice, and I follow most of it. But truly, it comes down to getting involved and communicating. Lucky for me, I feel safe knowing my son is in good hands and confident I have done the preparation needed so he can participate and experience all non-special-dieters do. It just takes a little preparation.

Contact Lohmeier at BethLohmeier@hotmail.com to join the support group.

What to pack

Now, for filling those lunch boxes. Here are some ideas for quick snacks to fill those snack bags with:

  • Crackers and hummus: Sabra makes little individual cups to pack in lunches or make your own for a healthy dip that goes well with gluten-free pretzels, corn chips or crackers. .
  • Rice Krispies treats: Find gluten-free Rice Krispies at major grocery stores and natural, gluten-free brands at most stores as well, including Westborn, Natural Food Patch and Kroger.
  • Ham rolls: Find Boar's Head ham (gluten-free) at Westborn Market. Ask for a clean slicer.
  • Crackers, cheese and Bologna cutouts: Make your own “Lunchables” by cutting out lunch meat, such as Boar's Head bologna, with a cookie cutter and pair with gluten-free crackers and cheese.
  • Kind Fruit and Nut bars (not if child is in a nut-free room, though): Found at Westborn and Natural Food Patch.
  • Applesauce, fruit and veggies: The “healthy snack” suggestions in most schools, such as carrot sticks and grapes, are usually safe for everyone to eat.
  • Bagel sandwiches: Udi's makes a great gluten-free bagel to stack with cream cheese and toppings.
  • Yogurt: We like So Delicious Coconut Yogurt for lunches, but Yoplait and Stoneyfield Farms are a couple other gluten-free brands to pack in lunches.
  • Muffins: Stock up now and stick them in your freezer for go-to morning snacks and breakfasts. Grab a mix and add berries or try this recipe:

Cinnamon Carrot Muffins

  • 3 tbspns. agave
  • 1 cup gluten-free flour mix
  • 1 tspn. xanthan gum
  • 1 tspn. baking soda
  • 1 tspn. baking powder
  • 1 tspn. cinnamon
  • 1/4 tspn. nutmeg
  • 1/2 cup applesauce
  • 1 cup carrots, shredded
  • 1 small apple, diced
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 tspn. vanilla
  • 1/4 cup milk (or milk substitute)


Mix all ingredients and scoop into prepared muffin tin. Fill each cup 2/3 full and bake 20-25 minutes at 350F. Great with raisins, also.

Gluten-free Play-Doh

  • 1/2 cup rice flour
  • 1/2 cup cornstarch
  • 1/2 cup salt
  • 2 tspns. cream of tartar
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 tspn. cooking oil
  • Food coloring, if desired

Mix ingredients in small saucepan. Add food coloring if desired. Cook and stir on low heat for 3-5 minutes or until it forms and begins to look slightly dry. I like to scrape the bottom and flip a few times so it doesn't burn during cooking. Place on wax paper and cool. Knead until soft and pliable. Store in plastic containers. Will make 2 cups (I like to split into two pans and make two, 1 cup balls of dough – like the one at right).

Disclaimer: Please make sure to read labels before using any product, as manufacturers may change ingredients or manufacturing practices.

spencer jackson August 29, 2011 at 07:54 PM
Always good to see info on healthy food for kids. Keep it up Cheers Spencer :-)

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