Freaked out at the idea of asking for gluten-free accommodations for your child? The idea can be overwhelming. I’m hoping to ease your angst and empower you with some quick tips that could help you with your foray into gluten-free school lunches.
Recently, I had the opportunity to sit down and talk with Esther Motyka who works in the nutrition department for the Anoka-Hennepin School District in Minnesota (you could also call her the Goddess of all things Gluten-Free in the district). She created the gluten-free menu the district began using last year.
Inquire about gluten-free accommodations NOW
Motkyka says summer is the best time to begin inquiring about gluten-free accommodations. It’s not that you can’t ask for a gluten-free diet for your celiac child any other time of the year, you absolutely can, but if you’ve been hesitating or wondering where to begin, summer is the time to take action. The reason is because during the summer the nutrition department is regrouping for the upcoming year. District nutritionists work year round and in the summer they bring in some new foods and work with specialized diets and menus. “If I know about a certain number of gluten-free students in a school for the upcoming year, I can go to that [cafeteria] supervisor and give them a list” so they can prepare.
So when’s the most challenging time to bring up a gluten-free diet? She says probably the first week of school. It is a very busy time for everyone. It’s not that the nutritionists can’t deal with it, but the process might take a little longer.
Talk to Nutrition Department first
The best place to begin a gluten-free menu or accommodations discussion is at the district’s nutrition department level, rather than at the school. “It’s not a bad idea especially if the district doesn’t have a protocol.” Motyka added then the district can look at their menu and say “How can we deal with this?”
Transitioning to a new school
If you have a child who’s already getting some gluten-free accommodations for lunch, and they’re transitioning to middle school or high school or another school in the district, give your contact in the nutrition department a call to remind them. Motyka says you can do this as early as May. The district may already have your child on its radar, but checking in with your nutrition office can’t hurt.
As you and the district work together to make the gluten-free diet work at school, stay in communication with each other. “Are there problems? Let the district know what’s happening,” Motyka says. They also ask for patience in this process. We all know how difficult getting gluten free information confirmed can be. The district works to confirm it on a commercial distribution scale, which tends to even be more difficult.
Know when to escalate
From my parental perspective, if you feel that it is truly taking too long or communication is breaking down in some way, a parent should politely check in with their contact, but then feel free to move up the chain of command and ask more questions if necessary. Try and keep the demanding to a minimum. I know the frustration and sometimes you feel so angry. But if you can try and keep those emotions in check and just work on finding a solution for your child, that’s the best way to go.
Other schools are doing gluten-free menus — including Anoka-Hennepin and the Rochester schools in Minnesota