A Parent’s Guide to Allergy-free School Lunches

Allergy-free lunches with different colors and shapes can encourage kids to try new foods
We eat first with our eyes – different colors and shapes can encourage kids to try new foods

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.”

Milk Alternatives

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:

Protein

Every balanced meal needs a protein source. Try these:

Dairy-based proteins:

  • Milk
  • Cheese
  • Yogurt

Plant-based proteins:

  • Nuts
  • Seeds
  • Legumes

Meat-based proteins:

  • Beef
  • Chicken
  • Turkey
  • Pork

Seafood-based proteins:

  • Fish
  • Shrimp

Legumes

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.

Whole Grains

Nutrient-dense whole grains include:

  • Brown rice
  • Quinoa
  • Millet
  • Buckwheat
  • Oats
  • Barley

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.

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