Help your gluten-free child fit in

Dec 23, 2011 at 11:00 a.m. ET

A diagnosis of celiac disease may be a welcome one. You suddenly know what has been ailing your little one and the cure isn't medical, it's dietary. That being said, many kid-friendly foods are in fact loaded with gluten, and in school and around peers, your child can feel left out or even picked on for being different. We give you tips on how to keep him from standing out from his classmates and friends.

Gluten free child at party

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease where gluten (an antigen in wheat, barley and rye) triggers damage to the villi in the small intestine of the sufferer, causing malabsorption and pain as well as a dizzying number of symptoms such as diarrhea and weight loss. With more and more people being diagnosed, physicians are turning to celiac testing earlier, so more children are going gluten-free than ever before.

Gluten, gluten everywhere

Quite a bit of food that children love is simply loaded with gluten -- pizza, pasta, the coating on chicken nuggets, cake, cookies, bread, crackers and even some fast food French fries. Gluten isn't an ingredient you can simply search for on a food label, either -- there can be cross-contamination during production and preparation or there can be hidden sources of gluten.

Birthday parties, school nights at the local pizza place and school lunch itself are areas that need to be monitored. Even if you suspect there is no gluten in the food being served, you may not be able to read the ingredient list or have time to track down the manufacturer of each food to look for hidden gluten. Often, your child will have no chance to try the foods her classmates and friends are eating, and she may feel left out.

Save the day -- in advance

Prepare in advance for occasions where food may be present or become an issue with your celiac kid. For surprise occasions (such as when children bring cookies or cupcakes to school to celebrate their own birthday), provide your child's teacher with a stash of gluten-free goodies in advance to dole out with the other treats.

For parties your child attends outside of school, talk to the parents beforehand. Most parents won't know much, if anything, about celiac disease, so don't expect them to know where to buy or how to prepare a gluten-free cake. If they are willing to do so, guide them through it. If not, simply send a treat of your own with your child to enjoy with his friends.

Cool school lunch

Unless your school district has a really awesome gluten-free menu (many do, so check!), you will likely be sending school lunches every day. Keep her lunches lively by rotating different foods instead of sending the same things every day.

Invest in a bento-style lunchbox and fill it with vegetables and fruit -- bite-sized pieces are eye-catching and fun to eat. Cut 100 percent beef hot dogs into octopus shapes and experiment with egg shapers when you make hard-boiled eggs. Cheese sticks are another fun source of nutrition and are easy to cut and shape yourself.

Share your knowledge

Be sure to take time to explain to your child the details of his condition and also talk to his friends about it. See if his teacher will allow you to have a talk with his class, and be sure that the teacher includes gluten-free treat ideas whenever class parties are being planned.

More gluten-free info

Healthy gluten-free bread made easy
Gluten-free Friday: Change up your chicken soup
Gluten sensitivity more widespread than previously thought