My neighbor’s daughter was recently diagnosed with celiac disease, a condition that causes the immune system to react adversely to gluten. In layman’s terms, this means that food containing gluten — a protein in grain products — makes her sick.
Since this diagnosis, her mother has been struggling to find safe products that are convenient to pack in a lunchbox.
While many parents are overwhelmed by the idea of feeding a child with celiac disease, it isn’t as hard as you might think, according to Sibyl Yvonne Cox, RD, a pediatric dietician at the Southern Illinois University School of Medicine. Today, Cox says, there is a large selection of natural, healthy foods that don’t contain gluten. There are also many gluten-free versions of some popular treats.
The Building Blocks of a Gluten-Free Meal
When packing a gluten-free meal for your child, Cox suggests keeping it simple. “Building a nutritious gluten-free lunch may seem difficult, but using the basics of building any nutritious lunch will make it easier,” she says.
She points out that a balanced, healthy lunch includes a fruit, vegetables, lean protein, low-fat dairy, and whole grains. “With a gluten-free lunch, you are just replacing that whole grain with a gluten-free choice,” she explains.
But there is one catch: When you forego foods that contain gluten, you may be excluding fiber and other important nutrients in the process. “It can be difficult to make a gluten-free diet healthy if you simply replace gluten-containing foods without making sure you’re making up [for] the missing vitamins and minerals in other things you include. Therefore, it’s important to choose your menus wisely and to incorporate foods that are naturally gluten-free while being nutrient-rich, too,” explained Cox.
Five Gluten-Free Meal Options
Here are some of Cox’s favorite gluten-free meal ideas that check all of the nutritional boxes:
Meal 1: Deli-cious Treats
- Deli ham roll-ups
- Gluten-free crackers
- Low-fat cheese slice
- Carrots with hummus or other dip
Meal 2: For Cold Days
- Vegetable soup
- Gluten-free crackers
Meal 3: Celiac-Friendly Mexican Lunch
- Taco salad, made with lettuce, tomato, low-fat shredded cheese, black beans, avocado, low-fat sour cream, and salsa
- Air-popped popcorn
Meal 4: A Lunchtime Classic
- Peanut butter and jelly sandwich with Udi's Omega Flax & Fiber bread
- Low-fat cottage cheese
- Broccoli or cucumbers with dip
Meal 5: That’s a Wrap!
- Gluten-free, corn tortilla wrap with chicken breast
- Lettuce, tomato, and low-fat ranch dressing
- Celery and peanut butter
In addition to packing healthful and delicious gluten-free lunches, you might also send a stash of gluten-free snacks that your child’s teacher can stock for special events. This way, when the class enjoys a treat containing gluten, your child will have a safe alternative to eat. Gluten-free snacks that don’t need to be refrigerated include gluten-free pretzels and chips, gluten-free popcorn, gluten-free cookies, and gluten-free granola bars.
For more information about how to help your child with her allergies, check out:
Cox, Sibyl Yvonne, RD, pediatric dietician, Southern Illinois University School of Medicine. Email interview, Nov. 8, 2014.
Kids Health from Nemours, “Celiac Disease.” Updated Sept. 2012. Accessed online Nov. 10, 2014. Kids Health
Gluten Free Mom. Accessed online Nov. 10, 2014. Gluten Free Mom