Milk, wheat, soy, egg, fish, shellfish, peanuts, tree nuts: These are the most common foods that can cause allergic reactions. Peanuts, tree nuts, fish and shellfish are more likely to cause anaphylaxis, a severe, potentially life-threatening allergic reaction.
You may notice your child’s school has put restrictions on bringing certain food items. We’ve enlisted the help of Tegan Medico, a pediatric dietitian and nutritionist, to suggest some allergy-free alternatives that are safe in the cafeteria.
Allergy-free Alternative Lunch Items
Make sure lunches accommodate your child’s specific needs while still providing the nutrients necessary for a healthy and happy student.
“Kid-friendly school lunches can be anything!” says Medico. “All food is ‘kid-friendly’ if it includes balanced and nutrient-dense options that are enjoyable for the child.”
The main nutritional concern of a dairy-free diet is inadequate calcium and vitamin D intake, Medico says. Fortunately, most major brands of alternative milks (e.g., almond, coconut, soy, rice) are fortified with calcium and vitamin D, so they’re convenient options for the dairy-restricted child. One disadvantage is that they’re relatively low in protein.
Find a Pediatric Dietitian
UVA Children’s Hospital has registered dietitians who can assess your child’s nutrition and diet needs:
- Pediatric Gastroenterology – sees kids with celiac disease and other digestive disorders
- Pediatric Endocrinology – sees kids with endocrine disorders, including hypothyroid and Graves disease
- Pediatric Diabetes Clinic – provides nutritional counseling and disease management for kids with diabetes
- Children’s Fitness Clinic – provides a six-month program to teach kids healthy lifestyle changes
- Orange Pediatrics – partners with the Children’ Fitness Clinic and Healthy Habits Clinic to help kids make healthy changes
Every balanced meal needs a protein source. Try these:
Beans, chickpeas and lentils provide protein, starch and fiber. They can help make up protein gaps with dairy, fish and/or egg allergies. They’re also a nutritional starch alternative for wheat.
Dry legumes can be boiled ahead of time and stored for quick additions to salad, salsas and rice. They can also be pureed and seasoned to make dips that can be paired with sliced vegetables. It’s important to note that soy is a legume, which may not be ideal for some children with food allergies.
Nutrient-dense whole grains include:
- Brown rice
Barley contains gluten, so while it may be appropriate for a wheat allergy, it’s not appropriate for those with celiac disease.
Similarly, most oats contain traces of wheat from processing, so it’s important to choose brands labeled “gluten-free” for both wheat allergies and celiac disease.
Fruits and Vegetables
The plethora of fruits and vegetables available provide countless lunchtime options for kids with food allergies and should be included in every meal.
Make Lunch Fun & Desirable
“We first eat with our eyes!” says Medico. “Incorporating different colors and shapes can increase interest and enjoyment of lunches, encouraging children to try new foods.”
A variety of age-appropriate textures (moist, crunchy, smooth, chewy, etc.) can help to improve the sensory experience of eating. Using simple meal components instead of mixing items also helps children identify what they’re eating. You can try making meals more interactive by adding spreadable items like dip.
Additionally, food should be appropriate for the child’s abilities. Hard-to-cut foods should be avoided for younger ages.
Well-balanced Nutrition Every Time
Created by the United States Department of Agriculture, MyPlate is a pictorial representation of a balanced diet that breaks meals into specific food groups. With appropriate substitutions, this tool can help you make well-balanced and nutritious meals. Not every meal has to match MyPlate perfectly every time, but using it regularly as a guide helps to ensure your child’s nutritional markers are met.