By now I should know that I don't even need to ask a Catholic youth group what they want to eat at a youth group function. There is always and only one answer, "PIZZA!". Every youth group that I have been involved in has the same menu, just a different source.
Some like the fast, phone-in order pizzas from Pizza Hut or Godfathers. Other groups enjoy baking their own from the local take-and-bake chain, Papa Murphy. One group just wanted to pick up grocery store pre-made pizzas to pop in the oven. The type varies slightly, but usually we have the cheese-only crowd, the pepperoni-only group, a veggie lover's crew, and gotta-have-lots-a-meat team.
We've entered our second year of youth group with Nate. The first year I was busy with other events on our parish campus; daughter Emily had her own activities in the school building, only twenty yards from the youth room. This year, Nate is going to be on his own for the 90 minutes of youth group as Emily's group is meeting on another night of the week. Nate's diet is becoming more and more his own monitoring; less and less am I informed in advance about special pizza nights or pot-luck snack events.
I've had a year to prepare for this new independence and time to ask friends in other churches for suggestions. One friend just doesn't allow their teenage child out of sight for any such events and has given strict rules to never eat anything unless the parent has verified the gluten-free purity of the food. In short, unless it comes from their kitchen, the teen is never allowed any other foods. This is a bit too strict for our family. Our goal is to encourage Nate to be responsible for all food that enters his body, whether we are present or not. This has been a gradual increase of independence. In their strict regimented diet, I am concerned about it becoming the battle point in some late-teen or early adulthood rebellion.
On the other extreme, not a healthy one, another friend just allows her celiac child to eat whatever is present, "One day a week of forbidden foods will help keep him on the diet for the other six days.". This is not a healthy option for Nate, as with gluten foods he stopped growing and Nate really hopes to pass his dad in height. Philosophically this approach does not match our belief, Nate is still learning to make choices in the midst of his peers and under peer pressure. We want him, in many different scenarios, to make the statement that he will choose what is best for his body, mind, and soul, even if it is different from the group. Practicing this with something familiar to him, like gluten-free foods, is just a small rehearsal for the big issues that will come along in the future.
For the earlier years of Religious Education, we kept a box of gluten-free snacks for "emergency" snack raids. A surprise special birthday celebration for a classmate would bring thick-frosted-gooey cupcakes to class; out comes Nate's special gluten-free snack box for a chocolate treat. The solution for us in youth group has been to create a freezer box of a couple gluten-free pizzas and a quick microwaveable meal. (Special treats! We make everything from scratch at home, so things in cardboard that just need heating seem like the royal treatment.)
Nate knows how to read labels for chips and candy; and he makes great choices, keeping a good balance of sugars, carbs, and proteins. There seems to be a regular appearance of popcorn at youth group nights, something that Nate knows to gravitate towards. However, occasionally something different comes, a nacho dip, corn dog dippers, sub-sandwiches, or cheese and crackers. It's on these nights that Nate has the hardest time. He's hungry, the choices are limited or non existent. A once-and-a-while fasting until he reaches home is tolerable, but a regular weekly fast from the community gathering around the snack table seems to be a sentence for starvation for a young male teenager.
Personally, I feel that being celiac should not be a trial of deprivation. Others need to know that we want to be aware of special event; we would like to bring fresh gluten-free pizza or gluten-free cookies. Nate's does not need to regularly go without, but neither do I need to become the gluten-free martyr, "It is SUCH a hassle to bring gluten-free foods. Why doesn't anyone ever remember to bring gluten-free foods? Nate is special and should get first choice through the line before the gluten-free foods are gone."
I have to admit, that even though I do not voice these complaints aloud at the event, I have felt them and in a private moment gripped to close friends and my husband. My voice has whined. I have groaned as walked into a youth group meeting to see pizza boxes ready to be served. I have counted to ten, knowing that a positive comment to encourage advanced warning would make it easier for me to provide options for Nate. Nate is the first in a long string of celiac kids, coming through the parish. The need for gluten-free options is not going to disappear after Nate graduates. Maybe I am just the forerunner and carving the path for the families to follow. My attitude and time invested to share, will make it easier for the others coming up in another year. My attitude will make it easier for the other parents when they make requests.
The youth group leader at our parish has been really wonderful. She tries to remember to give me a schedule of special food events. She has a place for Nate's special snacks. On a recent pizza feed, she ordered pizza from a more expensive source so that everyone had pizza from the same boxes. Food is a common place for all communities to gather, teenagers are no exception. It is her extra effort that allows Nate to belong and not to feel like the outsider.
Being a Catholic Youth Group, the center of their lives is Christ and the center of the Mass is the Eucharist. Being able to gather around the snack table and not feel excluded may not seem significant to an adult, but to a teenager, partaking and enjoying pizza (gluten and gluten-free) with friends means you belong, you are in communion with your friends. For Nate, being able to gather with his friends at the altar and share in the Lord's Supper, with a low-gluten wafer, is a moment to be part of the Body of Christ, to belong to the Catholic community.