School Lunch For Every Allergy And Dietary Need

August 29, 2012 Heather Chin
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Back-to-school season is a tough couple of months for parents and kids alike. Your days are filled with to-do lists: shopping for the cutest or coolest backpack and lunchbox, making sure all his school supplies are in order, and updating her wardrobe so that everything is both functional – and fits – and relatively fashionable.

Increasingly, another item on the list is coming with its own mini-list of considerations: grocery shopping. In a world where the rates of nut and other food allergies or food sensitivities are on the rise in children, and kids have ever more options in the supermarket or farmer’s market aisle, deciding between a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with milk and a vegetarian empanada baked in a potato bread crust in the shape of an octopus with a container of coconut water can feel like a daunting task.

That is why we have compiled these tips and tricks from fellow moms and dads, food bloggers, chefs and health professionals on how to make lunch prep as painless as possible. With any luck – and perhaps a little help from your little monsters – it may even become a task that is more fun than fret-worthy!

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Wheat-free and gluten-free lunches

According to Dr. Arlene Spark, professor of nutrition and public health at the CUNY School of Public Health at Hunter College, if your child has celiac disease or is trying a gluten-free diet for another reason:

  • AVOID food with the following ingredients: all-purpose flour, bleached flour, bran, bread crumbs, breakfast cereals (various types), bulgur, cornstarch, couscous, duram wheat, enriched flour, farina, gelatinized starch (or pre-gelatinized),  gluten, graham flour, hard duram flour, high gluten flour, hydrolyzed vegetable protein (HVP), miller’s bran, modified food starch, modified starch, MSG (monosodium glutamate), semolina, spelt, vegetable gum or starch, wheat bran, flour, germ, gluten, starch, whole wheat & whole wheat flour.
  • ENJOY fruits, carbonated beverages, all milks, cocoa, rice wafers, corn, rice, barley, buckwheat, flaxseed, potato, rye bread made without wheat flour, cornmeal, cornstarch, soybean, oatmeal, molasses, honey, jams and jellies, cottage cheese, clear bouillion, pickles, chili powder, peanut butter, cheese, yogurt, eggs, and food prepared with animal products or fats.
Sandwiches and wraps are perfect portable lunches for your kids, who can help stuff them with whatever they like.

With this as a guideline, some ideas for school lunches include:

  • PB&J on potato bread, tapioca or rice pudding, fresh fruit, milk (elementary school)
  • PB&J on potato bread, popcorn, fresh fruit, milk  (junior high and high school)
  • Roast beef  (or chicken, turkey, ham) sandwich on rye bread with mustard or salad dressing, lettuce & tomato, potato salad, fresh fruit
  • Tuna or egg salad on rye bread with lettuce and tomato, carrot & celery sticks, oatmeal cookie, fresh fruit

Dairy/Lacto-ovo free school lunches

Sharon Moseley’s youngest daughter, Shaquana, will be starting first grade at a Carroll Gardens school this September, and she already has a list of things she wants in her lunch bag: Polly-O string cheese, apple juice, fruit snacks, and Lunchables pizza or sandwiches.

However, since Shaquana, six, has a milk allergy because of broncoasthma – causing milk to clog up her lungs if she drinks milk or eats more than half a banana at a time – her mother is careful to pack her lunch carefully – and only include a small portion of her favorite string cheese.

If you are planning to make your child’s lunch from scratch, Dr. Spark recommends the following milk substitutions:

Instead of Use
1 cup milk (for drinking) 1 cup soy, rice, or nut drink (milk substitute)
1 cup milk (for baking) 1 cup water + 2 tablespoons milk-free margarine
1 cup buttermilk (for drinking or as an ingredient) 1/2 cup milk substitute + 1/2 cup water + 1 tablespoon vinegar or lemon juice

If you have to avoid eggs as well, then the following substitutions can apply:

When baking from scratch, instead of Use one of the following
1-3 eggs 1 tsp. baking powder, 1 T. liquid, 1 T. vinegar
  1 tsp. yeast dissolved in 1/4 cup warm water
  1 1/2 T. water, 1 1/2 T. oil, 1 tsp. baking powder
  1 packet gelatin, 2 T. warm water. Do not mix until ready to use


Diabetes/Low sugar diets

The American Diabetes Association and the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation has tips for how to manage your child’s diabetes and/or low-sugar dietary needs while keeping them healthy and active.

Dr. Spark’s notes are to avoid or eat sparingly foods and beverages with the following ingredients:

  • added sugar; foods that are naturally rich in sugar, such as fruit juices, bananas, grapes, and dried fruits; and foods with the following ingredients on the label or in a recipe: barley malt, beet sugar, brown sugar, buttered syrup, cane-juice crystals, cane sugar, caramel, carob syrup, corn syrup, corn syrup solids, date sugar, dextran, dextrose, fructose, fruit juice concentrate, glucose, grape sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, invert sugar, molasses, raw sugar, sucrose, sugar, turbinado sugar
Pasta and grain salads can be tossed with leafy greens, tomatoes, turkey, and whatever else you'd like!

Nut Allergies

            Park Slope mom Jamie Pepa’s twin daughters are entering the second grade at P.S. 321 this year and one of them does not like much meat in her lunches, so Pepa often packs her lunchbox with spaghetti, macaroni and cheese, turkey sandwiches, rice, plenty of fruit, and vegetables such as spinach or okra.

However, as fellow P.S. 321 mom Tracie King noted, each parent of a first grader receives a welcome packet instructing them to avoid nuts in their child’s lunch, in case a classmate has a nut allergy that could be triggered by the nut’s residue. Suggested alternatives are soy butters.

“My six-year-old daughter likes to help make it herself and we make a point of having at least one fruit in there,” said King, who also has a son, three, who eats at home. “She’s a creature of habit, so lots of tuna, strawberries and baby carrots. No chips or soda. The chips are a family rule; the soda is a school rule.”

“We’re very aware of [food] allergies,” added King. “Students can also buy school lunch, and [first grade] parents provide snacks as well: one parent a week brings snacks for their child’s class. I’ve brought baby carrots and pretzel sticks.”

If your child has a nut allergy, Dr. Spark recommends avoiding prepared foods with the following ingredients:

  • artificial nuts, beer nuts, cold pressed, expeller pressed, or extruded peanut oil, goobers, ground nuts, mixed nuts, monkey nuts, nut meat, nut pieces, peanut butter, peanut flour, peanut protein hydrolysate. Read the label on every processed food. According to FAAN, all FDA-regulated manufactured food products that contain peanut as an ingredient must include the word “peanut” on the product label.

Vegetarian and vegan diets

The lunch options for parents of young vegetarians and vegans – or parents who are experimenting with Meatless Mondays – are far from limited, says writer, food blogger, and vegan chef Kathy Patalsky, who writes her blog and created a series of kid-friendly characters called the Lunchbox Bunch.

Ants On A Log is a fun standby for lunchboxes or after-school snacks.

A simple rule of thumb is to keep lunch colorful and make sure it includes portions of protein, iron and other nutrients that are popularly associated with animal products. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends the following easily accessible nutrient sources:

  • Protein:
    • Beans – lentils, pinto, kidney, chickpeas
    • Whole grains and seeds – flaxseed, quinoa,
    • Leafy greens – spinach, kale, swiss chard
    • Soy products – soybeans, tofu, tempeh, seitan
    • Nuts and nut butters – cashews, almonds, peanuts
    • Dairy products and eggs
  • Iron:
    instant oatmeal, nuts and nut butters, potatoes with skin, enriched pasta. fortified milk and juice
  • Calcium:

    • Fortified soymilk or rice milk
    • Leafy green vegetables and broccoli
    • Beans
    • Calcium-fortified juice
    • Almonds and almond butter
    • Sesame seeds and sesame butter (tahini)
    • Soy nuts
    • Blackstrap molasses
    • Figs

Kid-friendly lunch standbys that are also fun to make include Ants On A Log – celery sticks stuffed with peanut or soy butter and dotted with raisins – as well as pita bread pizzas, pasta salad, veggie sushi, and a variety of wraps, sandwiches and hot paninis that can be stuffed with any and every vegetable, bean or fruit imaginable.

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