Let’s be honest – packing school lunches every day can be hard. As a parent of a kid with food allergies, you want it to be:
- Free of your child’s food allergens
But these types of lunches take time to prepare. Busy days make it easy to fall into a rut where you find yourself sending the same lunch with your child every day.
Kids With Food Allergies (KFA) is here to help make packing lunches a little easier with some creative tips and recipes from our staff and food allergy community members. Check out these allergy-friendly lunch box hacks!
Sandwiches and Wraps
Let’s start with sandwiches – the go-to for kids’ lunches. They are simple and customizable. If you’re looking for some ideas outside of lunchmeat or nut- or seed-free butters, try these sandwich spreads free of milk, soy, egg, gluten, peanut, tree nuts, and sesame from Melanie Carver, Chief Mission Officer of the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA):
- Chickpea-free and sesame-free hummus – Use great Northern white beans instead and blend with lemon juice, olive oil, garlic, and salt.
- Olive tapenade – Blend up olives, capers, olive oil, and add herbs and/or garlic as well.
- Artichoke tapenade – Blend artichoke hearts with lemon juice, herbs, and olive oil.
- Pesto – You can make your own pesto using pepitas (pumpkin seeds), parsley or sorrel leaves, basil, garlic, olive or grapeseed oil, lemon juice, and nutritional yeast (optional).
- Sundried tomato spread – There are a lot of different ways to use sundried tomatoes. You can do a “tapenade” or even mix it with a safe cream cheese.
- “Cream cheese” and jam sandwiches – If your child has a milk allergy, pair a safe jam with a milk-free “cream cheese.”
You can turn just about any sandwich into a wrap by using a safe tortilla or flatbread. To add some fun, send salsa, guacamole, or a homemade sauce with it for dipping.
Since we’re talking about sandwiches, let’s talk about presentation. Sometimes adding a little fun is enough to make a common lunch more entertaining for little ones. Use cookie cutters to turn any lunch into a themed lunch. You can cut sandwiches into shapes to go along with holidays, seasons, or your kid’s favorite animals.
Quesadillas are also a versatile option that can be customized according to your child’s allergies and cut into fun shapes. Fill them with your child’s favorite taco fillings, such as refried beans, taco meat, chorizo, and regular or milk-free cheese. Or make pizza-dillas filled with pizza toppings like sausage, pepperoni, pizza sauce, and regular or milk-free cheese. Use cookie cutters to cut them into fun shapes. Add toppings like olives, bell peppers, mushrooms, and more to add faces or decoration to cutouts.
But don’t stop there. Cut fruit slices, pancakes, flatbreads, homemade brownies, and Rice-Only Crispy Cereal Treats into fun shapes.
Nothing gives you endless options like a bento box. A bento box is a type of lunch box that holds a single-serving meal. They are a great way to give your child a varied, nutritious lunch.
You can buy bento boxes that come with separate food compartments. If you don’t have a bento-style box, you can make your own with a large, reusable food container. Use cupcake liners or smaller food containers to hold individual food items.
The internet is full of bento box ideas to inspire you. AAFA Content Manager and Editor, Tanya Bumgardner, recommends keeping it simple by giving a purpose to each section in the box.
“I like to have one section for the main protein or entrée, one for a vegetable, one for a fruit, one for a carb, and one for a dip,” Tanya says. It takes away the guesswork by making it easy for me to choose one item in each category each day.”
Lunchables® are similar to bento boxes and a popular lunch for many kids. Create homemade versions by putting safe crackers, lunch meats, regular or milk-free cheese, and cookies into bento box.
An insulated food jar, like a wide-mouth Thermos, can be used for much more than soup. Pack it with preheated leftovers, such as last night’s stew, chili, or leftover pasta and sauce.
Many of our community members like to use a food jar to keep foods like hot dogs, chicken nuggets, and fish sticks warm. Heat them, and then wrap them in aluminum foil before placing in the food jar.
Some of our members recommend filling it with jambalaya or Asian dishes. You could even try a layered Chipotle-style burrito bowl.
Kathy Przywara, AAFA’s Senior Community Director, recommends that you get a quality food jar that will be sure to hold heat well so your child’s food doesn’t dip into an unsafe temperature range before lunchtime.
Be sure to preheat your food jar before you put food in it. It will help the food stay warmer longer. Put hot or boiling water in the food jar and let it sit for about 10 minutes while you heat up the food. Then empty the food jar and fill.
Allergy-Friendly Foods and Recipes
When you’re planning lunches, check out KFA’s Allergy-Friendly Food Finds for lunch foods you can buy. You can search for foods free from the allergens you are avoiding. Our collection includes lunch-friendly foods like granola and snack bars, protein bites, chips, trail mix, tortillas, cookies, and more.
You can also find almost 1,500 recipes in our Safe Eats® Allergy-Friendly Foods collection. It includes recipes submitted by our KFA community members free of many of the most common allergens. You can search for recipes based on the allergens your child needs to avoid, or you can browse by category.
Other Lunch Prep Tips and Tricks
Plan lunches like you plan other meals. One community member finds it easiest to “plan lunches the same way I do dinner – protein, carb, fruit/veggie, nutritious drink, and maybe a dessert or chips as a treat.”
Consider your child’s preferences, lunch time, and eating style. For example, a “build your own” pizza or taco lunch may seem fun, but your child’s eating time may be limited. They may not have time to both put their lunch together and eat.
Use small food containers from the camping department to hold seasonings and spices. Kathy notes that putting salt on vegetables ahead of time draws out the water and can make them soggy come lunchtime.
Try breakfast for lunch. For a change, send breakfast foods for lunch. Breakfast burritos, breakfast muffins, and overnight oatmeal make easy lunches you can customize according to your child’s allergens.
Involve your child. If your child is old enough to help pack their lunches, have them help. Let them pick cookie cutters and cut their own sandwiches the night before. Store a variety of single-serving snacks in the pantry or refrigerator and let them choose their snack each day. Also ask your child if they have any creative ideas for making lunches fun. Kids can be so creative and may have ideas you haven’t thought of. Involving your child in the process helps them learn beneficial self-management skills.
KFA is the food allergy division of AAFA.
Looking for more school lunch ideas? Join our online community where you can share tips and tricks with other parents of kids with food allergies. You’ll also get educational information, food allergy news, and food recalls.