Tips to manage celiac disease in children during the holidays

A child with celiac disease eating a holiday meal with family

From classroom festivities to the big dinner with your family, there will be a number of opportunities for cookies, popcorn, bread and other holiday goodies to land on your child’s plate. This can pose quite a problem if your child is living with celiac disease.

Celiac disease is an inherited autoimmune disease that affects the digestive process. When someone who has celiac disease consumes gluten — a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley — their immune system attacks the small intestines, stopping the absorption of important nutrients into the body. Celiac disease causes symptoms of diarrhea, constipation, bloating, gas, and less suspecting symptoms like chronic headaches, anemia and short stature.

Currently, the only treatment for celiac disease is to remove wheat, rye and barley and eat a gluten-free diet. So if you’re traveling over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house for the holiday, here are tips from Ritu Verma, MD, medical director of the University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center, to help keep your child who is living with celiac disease healthy and in the holiday spirit.

Talk about your child’s gluten-free needs with your host

Share the particulars of meal preparation for a child living with celiac disease with your host. You can offer a list of ingredients to avoid, help prepare the gluten-free dishes or share your favorite recipes.

Eat before you go

A gluten-free, pre-holiday meal before the big group dinner will make sure that your child is well fed and more likely to avoid triggers.

Ship some gluten-free goodies

Not only will you lighten your luggage, but you’ll ensure that your child has some of his or her favorite dishes for the holiday.

“You always want to be prepared when you’re away from home,” said Verma. “We always advise our patients to take a snack with them that’ll be easy to handle. They will want to do the same while traveling.”

If you’re hosting the holiday festivities, consider these tips to help keep your kids’ table gluten-free:

Beware of holiday gluten-containing food

Avoid items that are typically found in holiday meals unless they’re labeled as gluten-free or made with corn, rice, soy or other gluten-free grains:

  • Bouillons
  • Breads
  • Cakes/pies
  • Candy
  • Cookies/crackers
  • Croutons
  • Gravy
  • Pasta
  • Salad dressing
  • Self-basting poultry

Avoid cross-contamination

While research shows that using the same kitchen utensils to prepare gluten-containing and gluten-free food showed low traces of gluten, you still want to work to avoid any cross contamination. Prepare the gluten-free plates first and be sure to cover dishes to avoid the gluten-free and gluten-containing dishes from commingling.

Remind your child to wash their hands

“With this condition, it’s important for the child to wash their hands often,” said Verma. “This will help avoid accidentally ingesting any gluten.”

Enjoy yourself

Holiday travel and preparation can be stressful but when it comes to managing your child’s celiac disease, you have support. Patients of the UChicago Medicine Celiac Disease Center are assigned a care team who are always available to answer celiac-related questions from mysterious ingredients to visiting a home with pets. If you have any questions, contact your healthcare provider and put your mind at ease.

Ritu Verma

Ritu Verma, MD

Dr. Verma is a highly respected pediatric gastroenterologist and a leading expert in celiac disease. She works closely with her patients and their families to manage this condition.

See Dr. Verma's profile