Coeliac Parenting - How to Manage Play Dates and Parties

(This is the sixth 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 Parenting Guide' on the menu bar).

In this section, I share some thoughts on our experiences and on supporting your child to confidently attend and 'survive' playdates and parties.

Friends - How to Manage Play Dates and Parties.

Much of what is written in the sub-section titled "Christmas and Leaving Parties' (in Part 5 - Managing Childcare & Education) will apply to managing your child's attendance at birthday parties and tea dates as well, so check back and have a read. For us, it was really upsetting to find that following a diagnosis of Coeliac Disease and an increased knowledge within her peer group that Miss GF had dietary needs, she was notably missed off the invite list for some parties, including with some children who were considered 'close friends'. This was particularly noticeable for parties that involved sleepovers and on one occasion, it broke my heart when she reported that a child in the 'invited' group had told her directly that she 'wasn't allowed to come because she couldn't eat pizza or cake'.

Sad as it is, your child has to learn to live with (and as they grow older, challenge) crass and hurtful comments like this (which are often more reflective of adult anxieties than children's understanding) and hopefully these naive and unhelpful instances will be more than made up for by those parents and friends who go out of their way to accommodate them. Miss GF had some amazing friends, one of whom would provide party food that was entirely gluten free, so that Miss GF was totally safe and felt like everyone else and who would also have me make the birthday cake (you can see a couple of the creations here and here).

Your most likely scenario however, is that your child will be invited to ample birthday parties during their early years, so it is worth having a clear plan of response and discussion script in your head, so that you can be reassured your child will have a great time with his/her friends. The same rules apply pretty much to tea-dates.

Invitations for Tea Dates - When you make contact with the host parents to accept an invite to tea and to confirm arrangements, make sure they are aware your child has Coeliac, explain that they cannot eat gluten and ask whether this will cause a problem (it is rare at this stage for the host to withdraw the tea offer). I always found it helpful to ask whether there was anything I could do to help with food for the event and to think with the host about 'what they would usually have for tea when friends come round'. This usually opened up a discussion where the friend's parent would seek some guidance on what might be safe to eat and gave the opportunity to offer additional advice on safe preparation or on where to find GF sausages/nuggets/fishfingers, etc that are good to eat. I always tried to be as reassuring as possible and made sure I was available to talk again if needed (which was rarely the case).

It may be that the invite comes from someone who already knows about the Coeliac diagnosis and is more than willing and able to manage it, but even where this is the case, it is always worth asking and offering 'do you want me to send anything along to make it easier for you.... packed tea? Gluten free pasta? Bread? Burgers? etc...'. Given how expensive gluten free alternatives are, I have always felt very wary of expecting other parents to go to extra expense without warning them or offering to send alternatives along to the tea date, not least because I didn't want them to feel that having my child round was an imposition. I would also always be sure to thank them for their trouble in making my child feel welcome.... it went a long way towards encouraging future invites.

Depending on where your child is going to tea and the knowledge of the host in feeding them, it may also be worth labelling anything you send along with any special instructions you feel necessary and also to consider sending a little butter/spread pack if bread is involved, to avoid cross-contamination from crumbs.

Parties - Food at parties 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. 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 parents to discuss your child's needs in advance.

If the food is the cold 'buffet'-type spread, it may be helpful to talk to the party-givers about sending along a 'party pack' with your child (they will have a lot to manage without the extra worry of supplying unfamiliar food). This will give you greater control over what party food you need to send and ensure that the party-givers are happy with the arrangements. I would usually ask what sort of foods were likely to be put out for the children and would try to 'match' gluten free substitutes for the party food as closely as possible.

If the party is taking place at an 'all-in' activity centre, it may be helpful to contact the venue direct to check what their policy and options are for allergies and intolerances, explaining that your child is due to attend a party there. Most venues are pretty helpful and are able to reassure on what food can be available and on how it is prepared (it's always worth checking whether chips (which are a common offering) are fried separately from other battered/crumbed foods). Follow up with them nearer the time too, to make sure that your child's planned attendance is noted in their booking information alongside a note about dietary needs and ensure you have relayed any plans back to the host parents.

With very young children, it seemed usual with Miss GF's peer group that parents would also stay at the venue during the party, which enabled close supervision of the eating frenzy, but as your child grows more independent, explain to them why they have their own party pack/particular arrangements and why it is important for them to avoid other party food that could make them unwell. It will be helpful to ask the hosts to keep an eye out for any obvious unsolicited food-sharing, but bear in mind that they will be busy 'minding' a lot of other children at the same time.

With the always eagerly anticipated party bags containing a slice of cake, I would also usually send a 'special', sparkly, decorated cupcake, to be added to Miss GF's party bag in place of the usual slice of birthday cake. 
Be sure also to discuss and check that any party bags and sweets offered to your child are free of glutenous offerings.

Sleepovers - By late infant school or early juniors, if it hasn't happened already, your child is likely to be asked to sleepovers either with their closest friends or as part of birthday celebrations. In addition to the basic party food, remember that planning needs to be given to the possibility of 'midnight feasts' and breakfast. The same discussions apply 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 'treats',  a small pot of uncontaminated butter, a couple of GF rolls or some bread and some cereal... just in case. It can always be brought home again afterwards if it wasn't needed.

The most important thing to remember whatever the event, is that your child is able to have fun and to fit in with their friends. Our experience has been that for the most part, party hosts have been willing to embrace a few tweaks in the event planning to enable this to happen, but going the extra mile in offering foodie support and checking arrangements with venues is more than worth the effort when you see that beaming smile, party bag in hand at the end of the event.

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