Preparing school lunches for our gluten-free kiddos is no simple task. While kids can oftentimes be picky eaters making mealtime complicated no matter the location, school lunches introduce even more challenges…
Will the food keep until lunch time? What if his lunch is different from everyone else’s and he is embarrassed? What if the other kids make fun of him? What if he doesn’t understand the severity of his intolerance and is buying school lunch without telling me?
This process can be really difficult, but luckily, there are some tricks on how to navigate this process (and I’ve also included suggestions for gluten-free lunch ideas that your munchkins will love!)…
What’s the Deal with Cafeteria Food? Can I Request a Gluten-Free Lunch?
It’s not recommended for gluten-free kids to buy school lunches. Lots of options are obviously filled with gluten: chicken nuggets, pizza and rolls. The other options, even if they might seem safe, most likely have hidden gluten and are clearly subject to cross-contamination.
That said, there are some school districts that have started to provide certified gluten-free lunch options. But even if your school doesn’t offer this, your child’s school may be required to provide gluten-free meals to children who have celiac. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, “substitutions to the regular meal must be made for children who are unable to eat school meals because of their disabilities, when that need is certified by a licensed physician.”
Basically, you can begin this process by getting a note from his or her doctor and providing it to relevant people at the school. The level of difficulty in achieving gluten-free lunches will depend on how willing your school district is to participate and whether or not there are other parents willing to help. Depending on the resources and help you have, the process can involve meeting with school dieticians, reviewing menus and finding training for the cafeteria staff. The National Foundation for Celiac Awareness provides consultations and training for this exact purpose. If you would rather avoid this headache and make tasty, nutritious meals for your kids at home, read on!
5 Steps to the Perfect School Lunch
1. Think in Color: When preparing lunches, try to include as many colors as possible (and I’m talking fruits and veggies, not bright orange doritos and M&M’s). Pick a variety of in season fruits and veggies – the more colorful the better! This guarantees not only a delicious lunch but also one packed full of the vitamins and minerals that your little one needs, especially important when following a gluten-free diet. Veggies such as carrots, cucumbers, beets, and broccoli are perfect. Chop them up raw and send some ranch or hummus or add them to sandwiches and stir-frys. Great, nutrient packed fruits include berries, oranges, kiwi, pears and the favorite apple. Make fruit kabobs or send some peanut butter along with apple and pear slices. Making sure the lunch has a few colors will guarantee that your kid is getting a nutritious meal, and also a tasty one!
2. Make it a Group Activity: There is no better way to find out the likes and dislikes of your kids than to plan and make lunches together. Younger kids usually love being involved in things like kitchen prep (it’s the dishes they hate!) so go ahead and ask for help chopping veggies, spreading PB & J on bread and packing everything away. This is also a great way to find out what your kid’s friends are bringing for lunch, depending on his or her age it may be important to them to bring what their friends are bringing. If you can’t find the time to prepare together, then plan menus at the beginning of each week.
3. Repeat After Me: Protein: Protein is not only an important part of a gluten-free diet, it’s super filling and should be a staple in any kid’s lunch. Some great protein ideas for school lunches are turkey sandwiches, chicken salad, hard boiled eggs, yogurt, and mixed nuts. You can make homemade trail mix with mixed nuts, gluten-free chex and raisins or surprise your kids with deviled eggs or a classic, turkey and cheese roll-ups. Remember to make it colorful, adding fresh fruit to the yogurt and veggie slices to the turkey roll-ups. As mentioned, a nutritious diet is especially important for kids with celiac and gluten sensitivities, so pack on the healthy protein!
4. Variety is Key: Fill your kid’s lunch with lots of options instead of the run of the mill sandwich and apple. It’s a great idea to pick up some bento boxes which have tiny compartments and are great for sending lots of little portions. Ideas for small portions in the bento box: fruit leather, Lara Bars, veggie sticks, nut thins with PB, cottage cheese, scrambled eggs, grapes, pistachios, cheese cubes, ants on a log, pepperoni, cherry tomatoes, edamame, olives, sandwich rolls (make a sandwich and roll it like sushi and slice), cut-up hot dogs, clementine slices, baby carrots, dried fruit and chocolate chips). Bento boxes like this one are adorable and a great option to pack a lunch with lots of gluten-free options.
5. Send a Healthy Dessert: While it’s always a treat to have something sugary and sweet at the end of a meal, it doesn’t have to be super unhealthy. This is your chance to brush up on your gluten-free baking skills. This way you can control the sugar and fat content in the sweets and avoid sending processed, calorie packed desserts. Some ideas (that the rest of the family will love too): oatmeal cookies, rice crispy treats and banana bread. Up the nutrition content of your sweets by using healthy gluten-free flours such as brown rice and almond meal and by adding fruit and mixed nuts. Your kids will be thrilled to have a sweet treat!
I hope this guide will help out your headache when preparing school lunches for your gluten-free cuties and has also provided some guidance regarding what you can do to make some changes at your local school.
Also, as a quick reminder, gluten can be found in places other than the cafeteria. Whether your kiddo is spending his pre-school days playing with playdough or your teen is experimenting in science class, it’s important for your kids to inform you of what’s going on in school and for their teachers to know about gluten.
Here’s to happy, healthy kids and yummy lunches! What are some of your favorite gluten-free school lunch ideas?