Staying gluten free away from home

Are you sending a child off on a school residential course or other camp this summer? Are you worried about keeping them gluten free?

This question came up again on the message-board this morning, and it prompted the following questions in my mind:

  • how sensitive is your child to cross-contamination?

    Some people seem to be more sensitive to this than others, and it is something to bear in mind when planning the trip. Obviously you will be alerting the carers to cross-contamination issues, but they do need to understand the importance of this.

  • how far away are they going? Could you easily rescue him or her if they fell ill?

    Clearly any child could fall ill on a trip, but it has to be said that those with chronic conditions that are vulnerable to the environment are more likely to have a problem – including asthmatics and diabetics. It is no fun to be ill away from home, particularly if there is the ongoing risk of further problems because the caterers haven’t properly understood the issues.

  • how long are they going for?

    You might be able to send foodstuff for two or three days, but if it is longer then you will almost certainly be relying on others to prepare and cook meals for your child.

  • is it literally camping, or is it somewhere with trained caterers?

    In theory, trained caterers should be aware of the issues, but this isn’t always the case. Check!

    If it is camping, there will be constraints over availability of preparation space, cooking utensils etc, and possibly an increased risk of contamination as a result.

  • is it a destination where just your child’s group will be present, or will there be other groups there too?

    Going to a location where just your child’s group will be there offers a better chance for control of the environment than if they are going to a large mixed venue. On the other hand, if it is a big place, used to catering for lots of people, they are more likely to have come across the need for a gluten-free diet before.

  • how much responsibility does your child take for their own diet?

    It can be difficult for a child to say to a relatively strange adult ‘I can’t eat that’ or ‘don’t use that spoon to serve my meal’ – but this is an important skill that they will have to learn if they are to control their own diet in the future.

  • does your child know what they can or can’t eat?

    Again, this is something that they will have to learn for the future, and part of the point of this kind of away-trip is to increase independence in the children. This is why I think these trips are so important – and it’s amazing to see how different your child seems on their return.

  • is your child likely to swop food with his or her friends?

    Well, do they do this at the moment? Dreadful thought …

  • Or are they likely to succumb to peer-pressure and have what everyone else is eating?

    Children vary in how they react to peer-pressure. Problem is, if they do eat what everyone else eats and don’t react, they may think it is OK to do this more often. And, of course, it reduces the importance of a strict gluten free diet in the eyes of those around them, too.

  • How supportive of your child’s diet are the other children in the group?

    If your child has been gluten free for a while, and they are going with their school, it is likely that the others in the group will have accepted that your child eats differently. But in a group of children your child doesn’t know, the other children will want to know why your child isn’t eating X Y or Z. Does your child know how to explain? How will they react to any teasing?

  • how much trust do you place in the carers?

    You will be able to assess this better if you speak to them and discuss the issues. Some people are more knowledgeable than others about gluten-free issues; some people are more open to learning than others. Ask yourself – does school/Brownies/whoever cope with the gluten free diet at the moment?

  • do you want to send food with your child?

    There may be practical difficulty with this – as well as financial. Usually, I have found, you don’t get a discount for food that your child doesn’t eat!

  • how integrated do you want your child to be with the other children?

    Eating a completely different meal because you sent food, rather than a slightly modified meal prepared on site, may simply make your child seem even more ‘different’

  • have you discussed the menu plan with the carers?

    If not, then you should. Even if you trust them, going through every meal with them will help emphasize the importance of the detail. Remind them that snacks and sweets can be dangerous too …

  • do the carers know what symptoms to look out for?

    Not all celiacs react the same way. If you make sure that the carers – and your child – know how to recognise a gluten episode in your child, then your child is likely to get care quicker. And if your child is likely to vomit at the table (as some do) it might just help focus their minds!

I’ve now sent my daughter away four times (Brownie camp, two separate weeks holiday with ATE, and a school residential) and we have another week with ATE and two more school residentials coming up this year.

On each occasion, I have discussed things carefully with the teachers and/or caterers at the destination. I send her with a box of GF items (bread, buns, cake, breakfast cereal, biscuits, pasta, pizza base, flour) based on the menu plans, but not with pre-prepared meals. Part of the worry with pre-prepared meals is how they would travel or keep! Perhaps you could send known and trusted brands of non-perishables as an emergency supply (such as a tin of beans, snack meals).

I believe strongly that this kind of trip – without the support of family – is an important step in raising an independent adult. Your child will probably have a wonderful time, and their meals should not be the main focus of the trip – the trip should be the focus.

And if there are mistakes – unpleasant as they might be – your child will learn from that too.

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Lucy is the mother of a coeliac, and has been managing a gluten free diet for her daughter for 20 years - though, to be fair, she does do most of it herself now...

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