Working with Schools to Address Special Dietary Needs

table of eating students

It can be difficult to control what foods your children have access to at school, but proactive measures can be taken to ensure your child’s dietary needs are still met. This barrier can be especially nerve-wracking when children have dietary restrictions due to medical conditions or food allergies. Parental cooperation with the school administration and food service is crucial to creating a safe eating environment for your child. Follow these steps to ensure that your child is receiving the food they need.

Ask your family doctor for a medical statement.

In order for the food service staff to make a food substitution, children are required to provide a medical statement identifying their dietary condition, food restrictions, and food substitutions. Note that food substitutions are not legally required for non-life threatening food allergies or food intolerances. The medical statement must include:

  • The child’s medical condition and the dietary restrictions that result from this condition
  • Major life activity affected by the condition
  • Food restrictions and appropriate food substitutions

Click here for a sample medical statement.

Check with your local school district or the school principal about how other food restrictions are managed.

For non-life threatening food allergies, food intolerances, and religious food restrictions, local school districts vary in policies. Many districts require parents to fill out a separate form indicating the dietary restrictions of the child. State guidelines for food allergies are listed here.

Educate your child.

Make sure your child knows what he or she cannot eat. The school is only responsible for food substitutions due to medical conditions or anaphylactic shock. Teach your children:

  • What foods they cannot eat
  • The foods that their allergens are commonly found in
  • To recognize the signs of an allergic reaction
  • What to do, and who to notify in the case of an allergic reaction
  • Not to share food if they do not know what is in it
  • How to read food-labels (for older children)
  • The proper hand-washing techniques
  • Methods to avoid cross-contamination

Work with the school nurses, teachers, and school food service staff.

Prior to the start of school, meet with the school staff and faculty about your child’s dietary restrictions. This is especially important if your child has life-threatening allergies or has medically-related dietary restrictions. Collaborate with the school to develop a plan for prevention and treatment.

Ask for advanced copies of the menu.

Contact the school’s food service staff and see if it is possible for you to receive copies of the school menu in advance. This will allow you to identify allergens in the food ahead of time, discuss substitutions with the food service staff when appropriate, and educate your child about foods to avoid.

Participation in school meal programs is still possible where dietary restrictions are present. Adopt a proactive approach and follow the steps provided to ensure that your child is healthy and safe in the school environment.

For more resources about managing food allergies in schools click here! 


Bertilia Trieu and Tisa Hill, Cornell University


Food Allergies

Celiac Disease


Lactose Intolerance