School Cafeteria Meal Options for Kids with Food Allergies


Does your child have a food allergy, intolerance or sensitivity? Partner with your school’s foodservice and nutrition staff (many of whom are registered dietitian nutritionists) to find safe and nutritious options. The best way for schools to meet the needs of children with food allergies is to work together as a team with the child, the child’s parents and the healthcare provider, says Wesley Delbridge, RDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and a school food and nutrition director in Arizona. “Effective communication is key to helping everyone understand the specifics of each food allergy and to try to serve appealing menu items that the children enjoy eating,” he says.

Meet with Staff

Make time for a field trip to the school to meet with the cafeteria manager. Be sure the staff recognizes your child and they know the problem foods or ingredients. Additionally, identify a go-to person because there should be at least one individual your child is comfortable asking if a food is safe to eat, Delbridge suggests.

Once you’ve made the initial contact with the foodservice and nutrition department, obtain the monthly menu, Delbridge says. Review it with your child so you both know the acceptable menu options. Feel free to ask for ingredient lists of prepared foods and recipes for scratch items. “Schools should do their best to make sure they have accurate labels and information on all of the food items they serve,” Delbridge says. “Having your food ingredients and nutrition facts online can be an excellent resource for parents and students to use when choosing what works best for their specific diet.”

Peanut Allergies

Peanut allergies are on the rise. According to the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network, the number of children with a peanut allergy in the U.S. more than tripled between 1997 and 2008. Many schools avoid peanuts and peanut butter in their menus, but not all schools. If peanuts are a concern to your family, be certain to ask which foods may contain them. Peanut butter cookies are an obvious example, but peanuts and peanut products may be hidden in sauces, gravies, salad dressings, chicken salad, egg rolls and a variety of foods from global cuisines. Many schools serve a popular peanut butter substitute made from sunflower seeds, says Delbridge. If your school doesn’t already offer it, ask them to have it on hand.

Gluten-free Options

Because of celiac disease or other intolerances, some students avoid gluten, a protein in wheat, barley and rye. Some easy-to-spot sources of gluten are bread, pasta, pizza and breaded items like fish or chicken nuggets. “Children with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity should be taken very seriously and every ingredient should be analyzed to ensure there are no hidden sources of gluten,” Delbridge says. “Cross-contamination of serving and prep utensils in the kitchen can be a source of this as well as processed foods, powdered mixes, seasonings and many snack items. Check all labels in advance and be sure to have a specific set of kitchen prep dishes and utensils in the kitchen for food allergies only.”

The good news, he points out, is that so many wholesome and delicious foods naturally are gluten-free. Among them are fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, lentils, eggs and unflavored milk. Swapping bread and flour tortillas for corn tortillas is another option. So is requesting that your school offer gluten-free bread, he adds. Most importantly, be prepared by talking to both your child and the school staff. And help your child feel comfortable by focusing on what is safe to eat and not just what must be avoided.

Adapted from: Jill Weisenberger, MS, RDN, CDE, FAND

Nutrition Tip of the Day

Trying a new food or new recipe every week helps to ensure you are adding variety to your diet. Experiment with new vegetables and fruits as well as different seasonings.

Daily Inspiration



Three lessons to know:

  1. Eating disorders are like a cancer in that they grow insidiously and slowly. They grow from temperament. An easy kid, perfectionist, self disciplined, modest; wonderful traits to have but also grounds for developing these disorders. It is helpful to understand and recognize the disorder at a much earlier stage. Behavior is the last thing to change when the illness develops. The brain is wired in ways to compensate for amazing changes. It is an amazing computer, and this also presents an opportunity to identify the illness early, before behaviors start to appear. This is true now in heart disease and diabetes so the aim is for pre-emption rather than prevention. This can make a huge difference (in the prognosis).
  2. Eating disorders are family disorders. They are not necessarily a family system problem but the family provides the context in which the eating disorder develops and exists, and this is the context in which the illness will ultimately be resolved. The culture counts too, and family is the prime culture. The focus needs to be on learning to express emotion, to ‘out’ any secrecy. It is tough going. Family-focused treatment in recent years has a clear track ride. This treatment may not be the right answer for everyone but for everyone, unless family is involved in some way, there will still be problems that won’t be resolved in that family culture.
  3. Most people with an eating disorder are doing great. Although there are scars and fatalities; the story, however, is mostly a hopeful story. Most people who develop such an illness go on to do spectacular things as adults, using the very traits that may have taken them into the addiction of an eating disorder. It may be assumed that we know how people get sick or better but with this problem there is no single path either way.

The soil for anorexia – low self-esteem, perfectionism, obsessiveness – grows an awful tree of chaos, guilt, and helplessness.

Families and support organizations are passionate about advocacy for getting access to insurance coverage and quality care. We have to be humble because we also need better science, more information, and understanding. For instance, with diabetes and cystic fibrosis, the focus is where they already know a lot: they are deeply and continually focused on science. This provides an important lesson. We need to be thinking how to advocate for better treatments that will be cures rather than slow, rehabilitative interventions.

President John Kennedy, 50 years ago, stated:
“Yet mental illness and mental retardation are among our most critical health problems. They occur more frequently, affect more people, require more prolonged treatment, cause more suffering by the families of the afflicted, waste more of our human resources, and constitute more financial drain upon both the public treasury and the personal finances of the individual families than any other single condition.”

President Kennedy focused the country for first time on these issues. That was 1963. How do we make sure that 15 or 16 years from now, we are not having the same conversation? It is great to be aware and measuring things, but we cannot accept a significant increase in prevalence of these diseases. We need to be mindful, and identify much early through biomarkers, screenings, or whatever we need to focus on family and culture and define the paths to recovery. Most of all, we need to build a community of addressing these biological illnesses.

At the end of the day it is up to each of us, and this is ok because we CAN make a difference by working in communities and supporting others.

National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA)