Packing Enjoyable Food Allergy-Safe School Lunches

Updated on January 24, 2018
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Jillian is a food-allergic adult and mama with years of personal experience to share with the greater food-allergic community.

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Personally speaking, having a school-aged child with more than a few severe food allergies means that we always send him with lunch from home.​ This puts a great deal of pressure on us to keep the lunches (and snacks!) interesting, full of variety, and nutritious. Not to mention, creating delicious lunches with variety on a daily basis can be very time-consuming and exhausting! After a few years of this, I've learned some nifty tricks that have really come in handy.​ Check them out to decide what may work with your lifestyle and is safe for your allergies. Not every suggestion will work for everyone, but may help generate some ideas.

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Plan Ahead For Leftovers

This is the best trick of them all! For dinner the night before, make a little more than you usually do, and set it aside that night for easy packing in the morning. Because of our allergy set, we absolutely cannot eat deli meat because of spice, beef, and dairy allergies. I often buy larger chickens and turkeys than I would normally buy, just to have some leftover protein for lunch.

If it's food that your child will only want to eat warm, store it the night before in a glass storage dish, so that it can easily be heated in the morning. For a thermos, I highly recommend the Thermos King with vacuum insulation technology, claiming to keep food hot for 7 hours. It has a wide mouth and comes with a foldable spoon. Simply fill it with boiling hot water, and then let it rest a few minutes to heat up the Thermos. Then discard the hot water, and fill it up with your piping hot food. I aim for 200 degrees F starting point to keep the food above 140 degrees for 3 hours, and then seal it closed. This is the best food jar I have found yet because it really retains that heat well.

Reinvent Your Partial Leftovers

Only have a little bit leftover, such as a little chicken breast, some beans, or pasta? Reinvent them to something new, like a chicken salad, chicken sandwich, cold pasta salad, chicken dippers, roll-ups, bean salad, tacos, etc.

Compartmentalized Lunch Containers

Investing in a lunch container that has compartments may help promote more variety. A few that I like are:

  • YUMBOX, which offers larger sizes for older kids/adults and bigger appetites
  • PlanetBox, which is pricey, but also very durable and made with non-plastic materials
  • Cool Gear features a freezable tray to keep the containers extra cold

However, you don't need a fancy container to make your own "Lunchable" style lunch. You can simply use cupcake wrappers, reusable silicone wrappers, or small lidded plastic containers to compartmentalize larger lunch containers with fruits, veggies, dips, cheese (or dairy-free cheese substitutes such as Follow Your Heart or Daiya brands), crackers, granola, etc.

Most kids are not getting their recommended 5 servings of fruits and vegetables daily. Please visit Choose My Plate to learn more, and discuss your dietary restrictions with your physician and a dietitian.

Prep Ahead Of Time

Cut up and prepare fruits, veggies, and other slightly more time-consuming, homemade, healthy snacks ahead of time to save precious minutes in the mornings. We are much more likely to eat and choose fruits and veggies when they are already prepared for us!

Some items can be frozen the night before, and then packed with an ice pack in an insulated bag to keep cold enough, such as yogurt tubes, smoothies, and cheese.

Think Outside The Lunchbox

It doesn't have to (and really shouldn't) always include deli style meat. Don't be afraid to look on Pinterest for ideas that work with your allergies, such as wraps, kebabs, quesadillas, turkey and lettuce pinwheels, bagels and other breakfast-for-lunch ideas. Kids love soups, and pastas, chicken nuggets, anything dip-able, even mini pizzas or a pizza quesadilla! Many ingredients can be substituted.

Get The Kids Involved

Not only is this important so that all kids learn how to care for themselves, but also because it teaches them how to meal plan with food allergies and read labels. Bring them shopping, have them make lists of what they like, read labels together, and help you prepare the foods. Since this can be time consuming, you can make it an activity that they do when they get home from school the day before.

Try Something New

If you have questions or concerns about trying new foods, please speak with your allergist directly about this. In general though, I like to try new foods for the first few times at home, when I can observe my son for a few hours after (not right before bed). Finding new foods to try can be a lot of fun and even an educational experience. Look them up on Google together for a learning activity. Also keep in mind, just because you may not like something, doesn't mean your child won't. Keep an open mind. Even some foods you would prefer to eat hot might be something your child would enjoy cold, opening up more options for school lunches.

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Learn Some Gardening Skills

If the season is right and you have a small area of property to experiment, why not teach your children about growing their own food? How exciting would it be for them to grow, harvest, and pack their own healthy food? School lunches become more exciting if your child helped grow it him or herself!

Make It Fun

Young children especially, love when they find their favorite characters and colors in their lunch box. This can be achieved with themed napkins, and cookie cutter shapes and presses used on sandwich bread, fruits, cheeses, and tortillas. They can be themed by characters, holidays, animals, letters, numbers, sports, interests, etc. There is no limit to the imagination. You may be able to save money on these types of accessories by purchasing them after a major holiday or event has passed. And don't forget about your local dollar store if you have one.

Final Thoughts About Food Safety

I'm a stickler for safety in general, but especially food safety. This time, I'm talking about bacteria. According to the USDA, to keep food out of the "Danger Zone":

  • "Keep hot food hot — at or above 140 °F. Place cooked food in chafing dishes, preheated steam tables, warming trays, and/or slow cookers.
  • Keep cold food cold — at or below 40 °F. Place food in containers on ice.
  • One of the most common causes of foodborne illness is improper cooling of cooked foods. Bacteria can be reintroduced to food after it is safely cooked. For this reason, leftovers must be put in shallow containers for quick cooling and refrigerated at 40 °F or below within two hours.
  • Foods should be reheated thoroughly to an internal temperature of 165 °F or until hot and steaming. In the microwave oven, cover food and rotate so it heats evenly."

​You may want to test your food storage procedures and timing between when the food is finally packed, and when it is opened for lunch or snack at school. This could actually be a fun science experiment with your child. Use a food thermometer to test the temperature of the food after the number of hours have passed between when you pack the lunch and when it is opened at school. For example, if you pack the lunch at 8:30am and your child eats at 11:30am, check the temperature of your food in the storage container after 3 hours have passed. The temperature at the time of eating should not be in the Danger Zone:

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    © 2018 Jillian Erin

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