Going to playdates and parties is part of childhood… ‘Coeliac Children + Friends’ offers lots of tips to make sure Coeliac disease never gets in the way of having fun.
(This is part of the series ‘Gluten Free Kids – A Practical Guide to Parenting a Coeliac Child’. To access the Introduction and subsequent ‘chapters’, please click on the drop-down menu ‘Coeliac Kids’ on the menu bar).
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Coeliac Children + Friends – The good, the bad and the ugly…
Growing up is always tough… But interactions between Coeliac Children + Friends can be extra complicated.
For all children, friendships can be fragile and ‘besties’ can change with the wind. And while your coeliac child will have great friends that are always kind no matter what…, there will equally be kids who find the weak spot and become ‘nasty’ and unpleasant. The weak spot for Coeliac Children (which is all too easy to ‘pick on’) is usually what they can’t eat. And when what they can’t eat means they get excluded, it really really hurts.
It’s not always deliberate… Sometimes it comes down to naivety combined with anxiety of other parents who don’t want to feel responsible for potential health risks. But for Coeliac Children, it can make friendships harder. And might leave them standing on the side-lines while other kids have fun.
The reality of hurtful comments…
I speak from experience. Following a diagnosis of Coeliac Disease, Miss GF was notably missed off the invite list for some parties. And particularly upsetting, it included some children who had been considered ‘close friends’.
Being left out was more likely for any party that included a sleepover. On one occasion, it broke my heart when an ‘invited’ child told her she ‘wasn’t allowed to come because she couldn’t eat pizza and cake’.
Sad as it is, your child is likely to receive crass and hurtful comments. And while it is important that you (and they) find helpful ways to challenge and manage any unkindness, it is worth remembering that such responses are often more reflective of adult anxieties than children’s understanding.
Coeliac Children + friends who go the extra mile…
Hopefully, these naive and unhelpful instances will be rare. And they will be more than made up for by friends and parents who go out of their way to help your Coeliac Child fit in.. Miss GF had some amazing friends. One in particular, would make sure their own birthday party food was entirely gluten free, so that she was totally safe and felt like everyone else.
But the good, the bad and the ugly aside… Your Coeliac child will be invited to ample playdates, teas and birthday parties during their early years. So, it is definitely worth having a ready discussion script in your head… And a clear plan on how best you can support your child’s social life.
Coeliac Children + Friends – Invitations to Tea and Play Dates
It may feel particularly worrying the first time your child gets invited to a play or tea date. And it might feel easier to decline the invite. But it’s really important for Coeliac children to have a normal social life.
It may be that the invite comes from someone who already knows about the Coeliac diagnosis. And they may be more than willing and able to manage it. But regardless, try to see it as a normal tea date but with the need for a little extra planning. It won’t be long before you’re an old hand… But in the meantime, here’s my top tips for making playdates with friends safe and happy…
- When you contact the friend’s parent to accept the invite and confirm arrangements, make sure they are aware your child is Coeliac. Explain that they can’t eat gluten and what this means in practice. Ask whether this will cause a problem. (It is rare at this stage for the host to withdraw the tea offer).
- It is helpful to ask what they usually do for tea when friends come round. Based on the response, ask whether there is anything you can offer to provide to make it easier. (Some gluten free pasta, bread, burgers etc).
- Bear in mind that gluten free alternatives can be more expensive. So, it’s helpful to ‘forewarn’ them (and offer to provide basics), not least because you don’t want them to feel having your child round is an imposition.
- The questions above will also open some discussion about safe and unsafe food. And will give the opportunity to offer additional advice on safe preparation. But it’s also worth offering tips on where to find gluten free sausages/nuggets/fish fingers, etc.
- Depending on where your child is going to tea, it may also be worth labelling anything you send with any special instructions you feel necessary. And consider sending a little butter/spread pack if bread is involved, to avoid cross-contamination from crumbs.
- Be as reassuring as possible. It really is the same as any other tea date, but with gluten free alternatives. And if the friend’s parent needs to talk again, that’s fine.
- Be sure to thank them for their trouble in making your child feel welcome… It goes a long way towards encouraging future invites.
Coeliac Children + Friends Parties
Parties are a little less personal and can be harder to get reassurance about supervisory oversight. The number of children often involved can create a more chaotic atmosphere (particularly with younger kids). And this can result in greater risk of your child inadvertently eating food containing gluten. But if your child has been invited, it is important that they are supported to attend. They need to fit in. And ‘fitting in’ includes going to friend’s parties.
Party food will vary from traditional shared plates of savoury and sweet treats… To pizza and burgers, sometimes at ‘all in’ party and activity venues away from the home. But in order to be able to support safe eating, it is important to know what the arrangements are. So, make sure you directly contact the host parent to discuss your child’s needs in advance.
The party food options and tips for keeping things safe…
Party food for the Coeliac child can be a minefield. And it will vary in management dependent on the party venue as well as the age and understanding of your child. With very young children, it seems relatively usual for parents to also stay at the venue during a party. This helpfully enables close supervision of eating and reassurance too. But soon, your child will grow more independent and your attendance is no longer needed or wanted.
Whatever the arrangements, explain them to your child, emphasising why it is important for them to avoid party food that could make them unwell. And while it’s helpful to ask the hosts to keep an eye out for any obvious unsolicited food-sharing, the chances are that you will have to leave supervision to chance… They will simply be too busy ‘minding’ a lot of other children at the same time.
The main buffet spread… ‘Let’s all dig in at the table’
This is the most common scenario for traditional parties… Lots of different foods (savoury and sweet) are spread out on the table and the kids dig in. It’s often a feeding frenzy and there’s no telling what’s safe and what’s not.
So, if this is the party plan, I absolutely recommend sending in a ‘party-pack’ for your Coeliac child… There is simply too much risk from crumbs, spillages and gluten-contaminated fingers. And the party hosts will have far too many other things to organise without the extra worry of supplying unfamiliar food.
- Talk to the birthday friend’s parent at the time you accept the invite to explain your child’s Coeliac food needs. And let them know you’ll bring along a ‘party pack’. This will also enable you to check they are happy with the arrangements.
- So that you can send things that will help your child fit in, ask what sort of foods are likely to be on the table for the children. This will enable you to try and ‘match’ gluten free substitutes for the party food as closely as possible.
- Explain the arrangement to your child when they attend the party. Older kids are usually fairly good at sticking to the ‘eat the party pack’ rule. With much younger children, it is normal for parents to also attend as well. So, this will allow you to oversee the proceedings directly.
- Be sure to clearly label the party pack with your child’s name. And include an instruction that it is not to be otherwise shared.
The ‘all-in’ and activity centre party
Increasingly, parents opt for parties that take place at ‘all-in’ venues… Play centres, gyms, bowling alleys, zoos, swimming pools, skating rinks, etc. And the food can vary between the party parents providing and setting up a table in a designated room… Or, the venue providing it direct.
If the party hosts are providing the food themselves, the above ‘all dig in at the table’ suggestions remain the same.
If on the other hand, the party food is being provided directly by the activity centre or venue, this is what I have found helpful to keeping my Coeliac child safe…
- Talk to the host parent about your Coeliac child’s food needs and ask what food is planned for the party. Ask if they are okay with you contacting the venue direct. (You don’t want to be seen to be ‘treading on their toes’, but I have never had a situation where this wasn’t welcomed. It’s one less thing for them to worry about).
- Contact the venue directly well ahead of the party to ask them about options for allergies and intolerances. Most venues will have experience and may have a policy that guides them.
- Explain that your child will be attending a party at the venue. (And give the date and name of the party family).
- Talk to them about what food is usually served at their parties. Most venues are helpful and are able to reassure on what food can be available and on how it is prepared.
- Be sure to check whether chips (which are a common offering) are gluten free and are fried separately from other battered/crumbed foods.
- Also check what brand of ketchup/mayo/sauces are offered, as these can contain unexpected gluten.
- Confirm that your child’s planned attendance has been noted on the booking information alongside a note about dietary needs.
- If the food provided is not safe, use ‘plan B’ (provide a party pack!).
- Make sure you relay any discussions and decisions back to the birthday friend’s parents.
Coeliac Children + Parties… The Birthday Cake
The birthday cake is always the big event… And while some parties cut and eat it there and others send it home at the end, it’s highly likely that the cake will not be gluten free.
Given the eager anticipation of eating the cake, it’s always worth sending a gluten free alternative. Arrange for it to be handed out to your Coeliac child at the same time as the other children get theirs… Or, to be popped in the party bag to maximise the sense of inclusion. Just be sure to put it in a coeliac-safe wrapping or small airtight container to protect from any cross-contamination.
Party Prizes and Party Bags
In addition to the cake, most parties share sweets and treats as prizes for games. And then they pop more in the party bags that are taken home.
To avoid inadvertent gluten consumption from excited sweet eating, talk to the party hosts in advance. Ask that any party bags and sweets offered to your child are free of glutenous offerings. If there is doubt about whether this is possible, it may help to offer to send along a few safe treats.
As noted above, if the party is for very young children, it may be that you are already there with your child. In this case, you will be able to check any sweets and prizes along the way.
Otherwise, talk with older children and remind them of the importance of gluten-safety. Let them know what discussions you have had with their friend’s parents. And suggest that if they are unsure about whether treats are safe, to save them until after the party so that you can check them together.
Give all children time to discuss any worries they may have. Coeliac children will often have their own anxieties about social gatherings (either because they feel different or because they are worried about getting ‘glutened’). So, they may need reassurance about how to navigate through a tricky situation.
Coeliac Children + Friends – How to manage sleepovers
By late infant school or early juniors (if it hasn’t happened already), your child is likely to be asked to sleepovers. Sometimes these are with their closest friends and sometimes as part of birthday celebrations.
In addition to negotiating basic party food (as discussed above), remember that planning also needs to take account of the possibility of ‘midnight feasts’ and breakfast. The same conversations will be needed with the host parents as for tea dates and parties. But be sure to check what else might be needed.
I always ensured that Miss GF headed off with a couple of Coeliac-safe treats for ‘midnight’ scoffing. And for breakfast… a small labelled pot of uncontaminated butter, some gluten free bread and some breakfast cereal… just in case. It could always be brought home again afterwards if it wasn’t needed.
Coeliac Children + Friends – a final thought
The most important thing to remember whatever the event, is that your Coeliac child has fun and fits in with their friends. And that they don’t have to waste time worrying too much about food safety.
Our experience through the early and primary years was that for the most part, Miss GF’s friend’s parents were willing to embrace a few tweaks in event planning. Ultimately, they wanted to make sure that all the children had fun. And some would bend over backwards to be supportive and understanding.
It was always welcomed when we offered support and advice. And never seen as either undermining or excessive to have conversations in advance.
The extra effort checking arrangements with friends and venues was more than worth it… Especially when greeted with a beaming smile, party bag in hand running towards you at the party’s end. 😁 🎈🎂
Let me know how you get on and if there’s anything you feel should be added, leave a comment or get in touch via the Comment Form.
For thoughts on how to manage childcare and school at a broader level… There is a separate post on Coeliac Children + School.