School food, hold the allergies

By Mir
August 6, 2008

The very pretty Beth writes:

I have not seen anything on this in a while and wonder of you or your readers have any ideas for us. My son is in 1st grade this year and sort of eats lunch at school (it is not officially lunch but they get 2 snack breaks and he does much better with a sandwich or real food). The dilemma is his room is a nut free room (no peanut butter at all, and avoid any nut contaminated stuff as much as possible). He also is good friends with the little one with the allergies so we try to avoid all nut stuff before and during school anyway. He needs to have a decent lunch that is not messy (he eats at his desk while he’s working), can be left in a lunch box all morning, and no nuts at all. We’ve been doing salami sandwiches and grapes but he is getting tired of them already. Any other nut free ideas?

Allow me to start this conversation by throwing myself prostrate in front of Beth and saying “Thank you for not complaining about the nut ban.” I know it’s a hassle, particularly for folks who have kids who live on peanut butter, but as a mother to a child who used to have a deadly allergy to nuts, I want to say thanks. You’re pretty!

Now: What to eat.

We’ve talked about this before, a little bit. Check out this post (and be sure to read the comments, too; lots of great ideas there) that was more of a hot lunch vs. bagged lunch kind of thing, but has some pointers. Basically, if your child is bringing food to school, you want something that’s going to be quick and easy and enjoyable and not too big of a mess. In other words, you want something he’ll eat.

And it can’t involve peanut butter.

I’ll start, and then hopefully others will chime in. I pack my kids lunch and a snack, every day. For snacks I generally give them a baggie of homemade trail mix (out of favorite cereals, dried fruit, and mini-pretzels) or banana bread (because I bake that regularly) or either a granola or cereal bar.

For lunches themselves, I make sandwiches sometimes, sure. They both like cheese, or cheese and ham, or cheese and turkey, or cheese and salami, or cheese and cheese. Did I mention that they like cheese? I think I may have. Ahem. They also both like it when I give them “homemade lunchables,” which is simply slices of cheese and some sort of lunch meat cut into quarters and placed in stacks, and packed with crackers (like those horrid little things by the same name that they sell for way more money at the store).

They also both used to be very big on peanut butter alternatives, like sunbutter (in my opinion, the closest taste to peanut butter out there) or soybutter. And when I’m feeling very nice, I might pack cream cheese and jelly (on multigrain bread, so I can pretend it’s healthy).

Both kids also really like wraps, so I will often make them any of the foregoing on a spinach wrap instead of on wheat bread. Easy (and fun).

That’s the “entree.” Along with it, I will pack some sort of fruit—a banana, cut-up apple, fruit cup (one of the few pre-packaged convenience items I’ll splurge for, on sale), box of raisins, or similar—and one other item. That other item will either be some sort of “snacky” thing like chips/pretzels (always purchased in large bags and then portioned out into snack-size bags by me) or a small assortment of veggies. Both of my kids love baby carrots, celery sticks, grape tomatoes, and bell peppers. And because my kids are weird, when we eat edamame the night before they fight over who gets to take the leftovers for lunch!

The trick to keeping preparation from being a hassle is to do lunch prep on the weekends: Take an hour to portion out chips and such into smaller bags, to cut up veggies, to make your own trail mix, and to count out how many juice boxes need to be thrown in the fridge for the coming week.

Don’t view “nut-free” as an impossible hurdle. Think fresh: Veggies, fruits, and most grain items (that means crackers, pretzels, etc.) are nut-free and nutritious.

And the bottom line, of course, is that you should pack whatever you think your kid will eat. My son has gone to school with a baggie full of baby spinach and a hunk of cornbread and a cold hotdog, before. He ate it, too, so I’m not apologizing. Heh.

Readers? Share your school lunch tips and tricks, please!


  1. My daughter loves the homemade lunchables, too. Other ideas she likes include cold pizza (from a takeout order), sushi maki rolls, small veggie chunks with ranch dressing to dip, zucchini bread (Sweet! Veggies!), celery with cream cheese spread, and tortillas rolled with cheese and meat.

  2. Oh, I like this homemade lunchable idea. My daughter’s always begging for those things, but I’ve never given in. She has gotten quite tired of sandwiches this summer, so I’m looking forward to more ideas.

    I’ve sent dry cereal plenty of times for snack, but otherwise I don’t have much to offer that Mir hasn’t already said.

  3. So many great ideas!
    Just want to add a couple of my kids’ favorites:
    Plain or vanilla yogurt (portioned from a quart) with yummy things to dip in it or sprinkle on it.
    Hard-boiled eggs

    Oh, and a question: Would a nut ban prevent parents from sending anything with sunflower or pumpkin seeds? What about sesame — like cold noodles with sesame sauce? Thses are things my kids like to eat that I wouldn’t think twice about sending to school….until now!

  4. ADifferentLaura: The reason nut allergies are prompting bans is twofold; First, because nut oils tend to be very sticky, and second, because those with nut allergies tend to be contact-sensitive (which is unusual for most food allergies). I don’t think sesame and pumpkin seeds fall into the same class, on either count.

    Lisa: My kids won’t eat hummus. Edamame, yes. Hummus, no. I never claimed they made sense, by the way. But that’s a great idea for kids who will eat it!

  5. We also like to give cheese sticks and fruit leather (real fruit, not “fruit” roll ups) in our lunches, too. I am not a fan of peanut butter unless it’s in a Reece’s or a cookie, so I grew up eating jelly sandwiches on wheat bread. My 4 year old sometimes likes those, too. We’ve also given cold pizza and I love the homemade lunchables idea.

  6. I’m not a mom, so I don’t have this problem. But I do have something to contribute… sort of. I found this blog and I love what she does for lunch. So creative… it makes me almost wish for kids.

  7. Kandle: Love that site!! Bookmarking it now.

  8. Girl Child is allergic to peanuts and tree nuts, too. So my ears perked up a bit Mir, when you said, “USED TO” have a deadly allergy to nuts. Does that mean he outgrew it??? Here are some ideas that work for us:

    Fruits: including grape tomatoes and applesauce, or whatever is fresh and in season. I don’t do canned fruit. Sometimes dried cherries.

    Veggies: Black olives are a big hit with my kiddos, also pickles (sometimes wrapped in hard salami and speared w/ a toothpick. They’ll eat anything w/ a toothpick stuck in it), cut up green peppers…they’ll eat most anything. They don’t even require dip…but if I send dip, I make my own. Sometimes they like plain dill veggie dip and sometimes something a little spicy. I do a lot of experimenting.

    Dairy: Cheese of any kind. String cheese, cubed cheese, or wrapped in wax cheese. It’s all good. Yogurt (from larger container…natch!) and sometimes, if I’m feeling like a really good mommy, I’ll toss a few chocolate chips on top for a treat. Or granola or berries.

    Grains: Spelt pretzels, Envirokids rice bars, Nana’s NO-NO bars, banana bread, even dry cereal. Or cereal w/ dried cherries, pretzels, popcorn and an m-n-m or two tossed in.

    Protein: We should own stock in Soynut Butter! My daughter especially likes soynut in a hot dog bun w/ a banana cut lengthwise inside like a hot dog. We made it for a class snack once, it was a big hit! Try spreading ham with cream cheese and then rolling it around a pickle spear. Wraps are popular too, don’t forget to cut in half and stab with a toothpick! Cottage cheese will keep well w/an ice pack. Deviled or hard boiled eggs. Egg salad w/ crackers. Tuna fish? With a side of Altoids, of course. Edamame or dried soynuts.

    Whew! I hope you find some of that rant useful.

  9. We do the home made lunchables too, as well as the wrap.

    Make sure you check the packaging on what you buy. Some things have peanuts, or were manufactured with them, that you might not expect. I’m looking at you Snyder’s Of Hanover pretzels.

  10. I have to ask…why does a first grader have to eat lunch at his desk, while he’s working? That’s what we corporate drones do.

  11. LOL, I knew that question would come up Karla 🙂 He is not technically eating lunch at school because he is on the condensed day schedule. They do the same work as a regular grade room but miss one hour of lunch/recess and 30 minutes of “free” time and get off super early. He gets off school at 12:30 everyday (starts at 7:30). So, in order to get in the required time of “learning” they eat at their desks or during recess outside. He prefers to eat inside and play when they are outside. This schedule works well for us as we then have all afternoon to do whatever we want. They also do the same condensed class in the afternoon (I think they start at 11 and go to 4). Thanks for all the great ideas. Homemade lunchables are a super idea I know he will love.

  12. I really don’t have any ideas to offer, I have the same problem myself (figuring out lunches in a nut free school). I want to know why I didn’t think of the homemade lunchable idea?? That is brilliant!

  13. Karla, I wondered the same thing. Maybe they are eating at their desks so they don’t miss an important e-mail? Or a deadline? Ha!

  14. I also have a peanut/tree nut allergy and have lived with it since I was in elementary school. A few ideas that haven’t been mentioned (I think):

    – cubed chicken or beef (I’m thinking leftovers as finger food), with cheese and veggies as a side

    – homemade quesadilla (tortilla filled with cheese, veggies, and meat)

    – my mom used to send the little smokies sausages. I loved them as a kid, but despise them now.

    – trail mix, homemade with your son’s help to be sure that it is nut free.

  15. don’t think I read this above, but my go-to when kids were in a nut-free preschool was whole wheat mini-bagel with cream cheese.

    or a cold chicken leg which they both will inhale.

  16. My son does not like any sandwiches. Urgh. He does like beef jerky, so I cut some up with my handy kitchen scissors and send it in a lil’ snack baggie. He has always loved cucumbers, so I slice those up the night before. We are trying out some pita bread/pocket bread combos this summer (I think he has a texture issue with bread getting soggy?). Leftover pizza slices work well with him, baby carrots, mini-candy bar or other snacky thing.

    Has anyone tried the freeze-dried blueberries at Costco? He LOVES blueberries but I haven’t convinced myself to buy that ginorous bag in case they are no good.

  17. My kids’ school is nut free so I’ve been there, done that. And I never send meat because I don’t trust how warm it might get, even with frozen cold packs. I’m nervous that way.

    Cold pizza. Homemade, of course, since who knows what the nut status of anything bought is! 🙂 Oh. Doesn’t everyone love cold pizza?

    Leftover grilled salmon mashed into light cream cheese with capers makes a great salmon spread two of my three will eat.

    For a while, goat cheese and sun dried tomatoes were eaten by one of mine, even with grilled eggplant. Makes a wonderful sandwich, but alas, she’s decided eggplant is “vile”. But it worked for many years.

    Sunflower butter, soynut butter. For a change, sometimes we’ll use raisins instead of jam/jelly/honey.

    Always fruit, yogurt (in small rubbermaid containers). I rarely send veggies because my kids like them with ranch and the smell of ranch dressing containers makes me queasy! Cheese -string or babybels- if no yogurt… Banana bread, or pretzels.

  18. Mir, thank you so much for this. My daughter is severely allergic to cashews and other nuts. There are some great ideas here. I wish I had some tips to contribute. We went through lots of Sunbutter last year…

    I also appreciate you bringing awareness to this issue. I know there are some people who think kids don’t have life-threatening allergies, they just have overprotective mothers who want attention. (Our trip to the emergency room and overnight hospital stay was quite real, thankyouverymuch.) I like my PB&Js, too – but it’s not worth it to endanger a child!

  19. OK, another question. How do you get away with sunbutter, etc in a nut free room. I know it is safe but, how does the teacher know it is not peanut butter with just a quick glance. we were asked to avoid anything that even looked like PB to avoid confusion.

  20. Beth S: Obviously if you’re asked to avoid anything that looks like PB, you can’t have that. In our case, because it was my kid with the allergy, everyone knew I was using a PB-free product! 😉 But yeah, in some cases they don’t want lookalikes, and then you just have to skip those choices.

  21. If you live in Canada (or know somebody who can shop in Canada for you), Golden Pea Butter is a fabulous peanut butter alternative!! My daughter likes to sit next to the peanut allergic child in her class, so we do a lot of cream cheese and jelly sandwiches and deli meat/cheese sandwiches.

    For snacks/sides… goldfish, pretzels, sun chips, homemade trailmix, fruit, cottage cheese, yogurt, veggies & dip, cheese cubes, occassionally pudding.

  22. When we send my kids to school with Sunbutter sandwiches, we include a note that says “this is a peanut free sandwich”. The first time we took the sandwich, we also took in the containers and showed it to the teacher, assistant, and prescchool director.

    My kid has an egg allergy – egg shows up in weird places, too (Pizza Hut pizza, for instance). Very frustrating and difficult to pack an egg & nut free lunch.

  23. Another great site for creative lunch ideas (and which includes very few nut recipes or sandwiches) is Even if you’re not vegan, she’s got some very creative and appealing lunch ideas there — search the archives (she did a full year, took kind of a hiatus while homeschooling, and recently has started posting more again).

  24. Pita bread with pizza sauce, turkey pepperoni and mozz cheese.

  25. As the mom of another peanut/tree nut allergic kid, I just want to thank you Mir, for putting the spotlight on this problem, and also all you other guys for being accepting and trying to make sure our kids don’t end up in the ER!

  26. Any chance you’d be willing to share your banana bread recipe, Mir? I’m looking for a good one.

  27. I’ve been following this thread, and was thinking today how amazing it is to me that there are people out there who seriously think food allergies aren’t real. I mean…what? That’s completely insane. And sure, I imagine having a nut ban at your child’s school or day care would be inconvenient, but come on! It’s either that or you risk making a small child very, very sick.

    Seriously. People are so strange. Of course food allergies are real. And of course we should all be as accommodating as possible, just as we would be accommodating of anyone’s special needs based on any illness or disability.

    Anyway. Don’t have kids, don’t have allergies, but just wanted to say I’m sorry to those of you who do (have kids and/or allergies) who have to deal with morons who really think it’s not real, as if that makes any kind of sense.

  28. Andrea – the freeze dried blueberries at Costco are a HUGE hit among the younger set around here. My kids will eat them, but my nephews will scarf down a bag in a matter of days.

  29. Fabulous ideas! My teen won’t eat sandwiches, and now that he’s had stomach problems, hot lunch isn’t always an option. These will be very, very useful for him, too!

  30. I found a great food allergy website,SPEWD Free. They have lots of great allergen free recipes.

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