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IDEA and Kids with Special Dietary Needs

by Wrightslaw

Our doctor has recommended that my daughter, on an IEP, be gluten and dairy free.  The school is giving me a hard time, though I know they are providing a special lunch for at least one other student.

You’ll need to do some research (and so did we).

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) nondiscrimination regulation (7 CFR 15b), as well as the regulations governing the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program, make it clear that substitutions to the regular school meal must be made for children who are unable to eat school meals because of their disabilities.

These regulations require substitutions or modifications in school meals for children whose disabilities restrict their diets.

USDA has a Guidance Manual “Accommodating Children with Special Dietary Needs in the School Nutrition Programs”.  It explains the school food service role in providing meals to students with special dietary needs. The Guidance Manual can be found at

Nutrition Services under an IEP

The guidance addresses IDEA 2004 and the ADA and makes it clear that if a student has a documented disability that restricts their diet, the school food service department must make the substitutions as listed by a licensed physician on a medical statement form.

The physician’s statement must identify:

  • the child’s disability
  • an explanation of why the disability restricts the child’s diet
  • the major life activity affected by the disability
  • the food or foods to be omitted from the child’s diet, and the food or choice of foods that must be substituted

If your child’s IEP includes a nutrition component, the school is required to offer special meals, at no additional cost, if your child’s disability restricts her diet. When nutrition services are required under a child’s IEP, school officials need to make sure that school food service staff is involved early on in decisions regarding special meals.  It would be wise to include food service staff on the IEP Team.

Nutrition Services under a Health Care Plan

Some states supplement the IEP with a written statement specifically designed to address a student’s nutritional needs. Other states employ a “Health Care Plan” to address the nutritional needs of their students.

Nutrition Services in Cases of Food Allergies

If you request food substitutions for your child who does not have a documented disability (as defined under either Section 504 or IDEA), the school food service department may make the substitutions listed on the medical statement, but is not required to, make food substitutions for her.

However, when a doctor states that  food allergies may result in severe, life-threatening (anaphylactic) reactions, the child’s condition would meet the definition of “disability,” then the substitutions prescribed by the licensed physician must be made.

Under no circumstances are school food service staff to revise or change a diet prescription or medical order.

If your child has “life threatening” food allergies that are part of his disability you should read When a School Refuses to Protect a Child with Life Threatening Allergies at

Other Special Dietary Needs

USDA Guidelines define a person with special dietary needs as someone who” may have a food allergy or intolerance (for example, lactose intolerance) but does not have life-threatening (anaphylactic) reactions when exposed to food(s) to which he/she is allergic.”

At the very least, the  Guidelines strongly encourage “food substitutions or modifications for children without disabilities with medically certified special dietary needs who are unable to eat  regular meals as prepared.”

State Regulations

Be sure to check your state regulations as well as your local district policy regarding  school nutrition programs.

USDA Guidance and Resources

USDA – School Food Service

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11 Comments on "IDEA and Kids with Special Dietary Needs"


Prader-Willi Syndrome is another condition that requires a special diet. It is a genetic syndrome (chromosome 15) that causes a constellation of medical and cognitive disabilities. The most challenging aspect is the constant intense hunger, the food-seeking behaviors, and the restricted calorie diet. I prefer to send lunch with my child so that I can have control over what exactly is in it, but my school district told me about the procedure for getting special lunches for my child. You can find the form at Seattle Public Schools website. Click on District, then Departments, then N, then Nutrition, then Food Allergies and Special Diet Requests at the bottom of the page.


my son has special heating instructions-school wants to heat his food a microwave (I have many concerns over this) I have already gotten the dr’s notice saying that because of his mental condition, food must be heated in toaster oven. School still heats food in microwave (it is not in his IEP yet) I will get that put in his IEP, I dont know what else to do to get them to heat the food properly

I found your article to be thought provoking and you also raise many good things to consider. I’m glad I came across this website and saw your article. It helped me out with a paper I had to write for a class I’m taking for my major at my university. I will be citing you as a source. Thanks for the great article.

New to This-Mom

Hello, would someone please help me, I need to find some reference information regarding food allergies (hidden disablity) and how food allergies affect your behavior, ability to focus, and classroom performance. Our kid is having behavioral problems from about six different foods, the main one being wheat. We are schedule for a 504 meeting tomorrow. Waiting on your response.


I do not understand why only “children with disabilities” are provided with special nutritional needs by school systems. I think there should be equality for ALL children who have special dietary needs if medical documentation is provided. I believe laws that do not provide the same needs to all children is discriminatory. As a parent with a child who gets very ill “but not life threatening” I think it stinks!