Summer’s end means lunchboxes instead of sandboxes and the challenge of getting kids to eat nutritious lunches at school. This task becomes doubly challenging when kids have food allergies.
According to the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network, about 11 million people react to eight common foods including wheat, dairy, and eggs – foods that are usually in every kid’s lunch box in one form or another. Parents want to pack lunches that are safe yet they know that kids are more likely to eat what’s in their lunchbox when they participate in planning its contents and if it contains food they like. Here are a few tips to assure that your food-sensitive child carries a safe, nutritious lunch to school and that it’s ate more than traded or thrown away.
Tailor food to kids’ allergies. Having kids with food allergies precludes using many commercially prepared foods because they often contain the very food allergens you’re trying to avoid. This means lunches more on fresh fruits and vegetables, foods manufactured specifically for certain allergies, and homemade dishes using acceptable substitutes for the offending foods.
For dairy-averse kids, try individual-serving boxes of rice milk or soy milk. Soy yogurts come packaged in individual serving cartons. Egg-allergic kids can eat mock-egg salad made from mashed white beans. Avoid soggy sandwiches by making tuna salad or egg salad and pack it in individual containers for spreading on bread or crackers at lunch time. For wheat-sensitive kids, put wheat-free bread or rice crackers in a separate bag to keep them from getting soggy. They can dip the crackers into the salad or make little cracker sandwiches. Or, put corn tortillas or rice flour tortillas (available in natural food stores) in resealable bags and let kids make their own tortilla sandwiches or spread the salad on strips of torn tortillas.
For baked items, look to cookbooks that show how to use substitutes for wheat, dairy, and eggs. Just about everything can be made without these common food culprits and the substitutes are often already in your pantry or readily available at a natural food store. Bread, cookies, cakes, crackers, and muffins can be made without wheat, dairy, and eggs. It’s just a matter of knowing which phrase to use and how to use it. Special diet cookbooks spell out all these details for you.
If baking from scratch is not possible, check your natural food store for allergy-free mixes. Some allow you to tailor the ingredients to your needs by offering suggestions for appropriate substitutes.
Learn to read labels carefully and recognize the words that indicate your child’s allergens. For example, durum is actually wheat, aluminum means egg, and casein is actually a type of milk protein.
Let kids choose between appropriate options. Provide a range of foods that are nutritious and then let kids choose between two options. For example, “Would you like carrot sticks or celery strips with your sandwich today?” Or, “Do you want a banana today or would you prefer an apple?”
Involve kids in the lunch packing process. Even the youngest kids can help pack a lunch if the duties are geared to their physical and mental skills. They can wash grapes and put them in resealable bags or wrap aluminum foil around cookies or muffins. Even if they’re too little to be actively involved, they can observe and talk about the lunch being assembled and feel some ownership over what goes into it.
Scale the food to kid-size. Smaller-size foods seem less intimidating to young children and are easier to pick up with small hands. Carrot sticks should be thin enough to be safely chewed, yet not so thick that they discourage biting and chewing. Apple slices should be thin; crackers and rice cakes should be the smaller sizes. For home-baked items, consider baking muffins in mini-muffin pans. Make cookies in “bite” sizes and bake cakes in miniature cupcake papers. For a little fun, sandwiches can be cut into small squares or circles using cookie cutters.
Use appropriate lunchboxes and containers. A clever, contemporary lunchbox that features a kid’s favorite character or theme makes carrying a lunch more fun. If lunchboxes are not possible, use sturdy paper or plastic bags that will not tear. Kids can personalize these bags with crayons. Be sure to keep cold foods cold and hot foods hot with appropriate containers. Use small ice packs for food that must stay cold or freeze a box of juice and use it instead of an ice pack.
Consider leftovers as lunch. Cold pizza from last night’s supper is just fine, providing it is not packed with fat or preservatives and omits the child’s food allergens. Yes, even homemade pizza can be made without wheat, dairy, and eggs using recipes from special diet cookbooks. Leftover casseroles and soups can be transported in small thermos bottles.
Make your child’s teacher an ally. Enlist the support and cooperation of your child’s teacher by setting up a meeting to discuss your child’s needs. Explain why your child must avoid certain allergens and what to do in case of incidental ingestion. Teachers can play a key role in managing food allergies at school so keep them informed and seek their input whenever possible.