Tips for Including Dietary Restrictions in Your Child’s IEP

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If your child is on a special diet due to food allergies, sensitivities, or aversions, it is essential to include these dietary restrictions in their IEP.  In fact, this is the only way to ensure that all school staff–both inside and outside of the cafeteria–have a legal obligation to accommodate your child's dietary needs.

This article discusses how you can include dietary restrictions in their IEP, specifically:

  • Information schools need to include dietary restrictions in an IEP.
  • The school's obligations once dietary needs are added to an IEP.
  • Sample IEP accommodations that create safe and inclusive learning environments.
  • Sample IEP goals to help your child learn how to manage their dietary needs independently.

For parents wanting to learn how to obtain allergen-free meals through the school's cafeteria service program, please read Must Schools Provide Meal Modifications for Students on Special Diets?


Information Schools Need to Include Dietary Restrictions in an IEP

To begin providing accommodations for dietary restrictions, the school may request documentation from your child’s physician in the form of a medical statement.

When obtaining information from your child’s physician, please keep the following in mind:

  • Medical statements typically require specific information, such as:
    • Your child’s disability.
      • What major life activity/activities their disability affects (bowels, cognition, speech, behavior, etc.).
    • The reason why your child's disability restricts their diet.
    • Foods to be omitted from your child’s diet.
    • Choice of foods for substitution.
  • Medical statements require a signature from a licensed healthcare professional.
  • Medical statements do not need to be updated annually as long as the document the school has on file reflects your child’s current dietary needs.
  • Most importantly, schools cannot ask for medical records or medical charts as part of the medical statement.

The School's Obligations Once Dietary Needs are Included in an IEP

Federal laws and regulations offer protections to students with dietary restrictions not just in the cafeteria, but throughout the school. This includes classrooms, recess, specials, extra-curricular activities, class celebrations, and other school-sponsored events.

However, these protections only apply when dietary needs are written into an IEP or 504.  In other words, the school is under no obligation to honor any verbal agreement you make with teachers, administration, or school staff.

If your child does not have an IEP, they can still qualify for accommodations through a 504. Unlike an IEP, a student's disability does not need to impact their ability to learn to be eligible for a 504.

Once dietary restrictions are in the IEP, all school staff has a legal obligation to:

  • Follow your child’s dietary needs (as written in the IEP or 504).
  • Work together to prevent/reduce the risk of exposure to food allergens throughout the school and at school-sponsored activities.
    • This includes field trips, recess, extracurricular activities, after school programs, class celebrations, etc.
  • Eliminate the use of gluten-containing foods in the student’s incentives, rewards, counting exercises, educational tools, arts, craft projects, science experiments, cooking activities, etc.
    • Be sure your child’s IEP accommodations outline what to do in circumstances where a gluten-free alternative may not be available (see below).
  • Implement evidence-based practices to help prevent and address bullying due to food allergies by:
    • Developing and communicating clear policies that address food bullying.
      • When introducing or discussing these policies with other students, the school cannot single out your child or any other children who have food allergies.
    • Intervening and/or responding quickly and consistently to incidents of bullying.
    • Providing adequate supervision in areas where food is being served.
    • Notifying parents or guardians if bullying occurs.

Adding Dietary Accommodations and Goals to an IEP

When adding accommodations and goals for dietary restrictions to your child’s IEP, consider their ability to:

  • Verbally or non-verbally communicate needs and symptoms (when they occur).
  • Understand which foods are and aren’t safe to eat.
    • For example, items from their designated food bin vs. items outside of their bin.
  • Recognize foods that contain allergens.
  • Recognize non-food items that contain allergens.
  • Read labels and recognize hidden sources of gluten, dairy, and soy.
  • Safely and appropriately manage activities that involve items that contain gluten (Play-Doh, envelopes, paper mache, etc.).
  • Understand the risk of accidentally eating foods exposed to allergens via cross-contact or cross-contamination.

Sample Accommodations

Accommodations can help ensure your child’s learning environment is safe.  The following are examples of IEP accommodations that address dietary restrictions:

  • Teachers and staff will use non-food items as incentives/rewards.
  • The school will inform parents 24-48 hours in advance of learning activities or celebrations that involve gluten-containing items so parents can make appropriate substitutions.
  • The school will provide food allergy management training for staff.
  • School staff will inform parents immediately after any known or suspected dietary infraction.
  • Your child will have immediate access to hand-washing facilities after handling art activities involving products that contain gluten (Play-Doh, paper mache, glue, etc.).
  • Your child will have bathroom access without restriction.
    • This accommodation is crucial for those who suffer from GI issues after exposure to an allergen.
  • Your child’s classroom will remain allergen-free.
  • Parents will provide the school with a supply of safe foods to eat during class celebrations and snack time.
    • This supply will be kept in a safe location, free from exposure to allergens.
    • The school will notify parents when the supply is running low.
  • School staff members who prepare your child’s food will receive specialized training to help ensure that their food is safe.
  • Staff will prompt your child during snack and mealtime to make appropriate food choices by requesting their special food and refusing all other food or drink.
  • If your child has a propensity to mouth, chew, or eat any food they can grab:
    • No food, candy, or beverages, other than water, will be left unsecured in your child’s environment (classroom, therapy room, specials room, etc.). This includes food, treats, or snacks for other children or staff.
  • Staff will use social stories, video modeling, and/or play scripts to aid your child's understanding of their dietary restrictions.

Sample IEP Goals

It is absolutely appropriate to include diet management goals in an IEP to prepare children for independent living.

Is it appropriate to add diet management goals to your child’s IEP?  Of course!  Remember, IDEA's main objective is to prepare children for further education, employment, and independent living.  Therefore, it is absolutely appropriate to include diet management goals in an IEP.

To demonstrate, here are some examples of IEP goals that develop diet management skills:

  •  [Child’s name] will deny the offer of foods that are not brought from home.
    • First incremental objective:
      • When an adult asks [child’s name] if they can eat food not brought from home, he/she will answer “No,” 70% of the time.
    • Second incremental objective:
      • When an adult asks [child’s name] if they can eat food not brought from home, he/she will answer “No,” 90% of the time.
  • [Child’s name] will self-monitor the consumption of safe foods and non-edible items.
    • First incremental objective:
      • [Child’s name] will be able to decline offers of unsafe foods that look similar to his/hers by asking, “Am I allergic to this?” 2 out of 5 opportunities.
    • Second incremental objective:
      •  [Child’s name] will refrain from eating non-edible items (such as rocks, plastic, and wood) at all times independently or by asking an adult 4 out of 5 opportunities.
  • [Child’s name] will self-monitor safe food consumption (gluten, casein, soy-free foods).
    • First incremental objective:
      •  [Child’s name] will only consume foods provided for them from home.
    • Second incremental objective:
      •  [Child’s name] will be able to decline offers of unsafe foods.

Special/Allergen-Free Meals Provided By School Cafeterias

Federal law requires public schools to provide allergen-free foods through the cafeteria service, at no additional cost, to children whose disability restricts their diet. And, children with autism who are on special diets due to sensory issues, food allergies, or food sensitivities qualify for these services.

To learn more about the school’s responsibility for providing special meals for students with autism, please read Must Schools Provide Meal Modifications for Students on Special Diets?

Conclusion

In summary, the only way to guarantee the school has a legal obligation to respect your child’s dietary needs is to include them in the IEP.  Including dietary needs in the IEP not only ensures your child’s safety at school, but also creates opportunities for them to develop skills they need to manage their diet independently. 

Additional Resources:

Further Reading:

Federal Laws and Regulations that Protect Children with Disabilities Who Have Dietary Restrictions:


*All content of this article is for informational purposes only. Furthermore, it is not a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment. When it comes to matters of the law, please consult an attorney or advocate on your child’s behalf.