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


Vegetarian Diet And PCOS

Reprinted from author Susan B. Dopart, M.S., R.D., C.D.E. 

You are diagnosed with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) and hear you have trouble metabolizing carbohydrates and need more protein. You’re vegetarian so you’re wondering how that’s even possible. Although you may like protein, your body is constantly asking for carbs. So what’s a girl to do in this carb friendly society? How can you incorporate protein into your vegetarian diet?

First let’s discuss the importance of protein. Most women with PCOS have insulin resistance, which is a result of higher levels of androgens in the body. Insulin resistance means although your body is asking and craving for carbs, once you ingest them, it increases those cravings rather than satisfying them. The amount of carbs per meal you are able to metabolize is variable depending on your level of insulin resistance. Eating more protein and healthy fats, with less emphasis on carbohydrates will assist with fewer cravings, improved energy and ultimately an easier time with weight management. If you are an ovo-lacto vegetarian, getting enough protein isn’t as big of a challenge as vegan diets.

Here are some easy protein ideas:

Greek Yogurt: Having a cup of plain Greek yogurt with 1/2 cup fruit and 2 to 3 tablespoons of sliced almonds packs almost 30 grams of protein for a healthy meal or snack.

Egg: Eggs contain the highest quality protein there is since the amino acid profile is impeccable. Concerned about cholesterol? New research shows cholesterol in eggs does not increase your cholesterol levels. The yolks contain choline, which actually lowers stress in the body, as well as lutein and zeaxanthin which help with healthy eyes, so eating a few eggs a day helps your health bank. Two eggs provide 15 grams of protein and are an easy protein source for any meal. Enjoy hard-boiled ones for a portable and healthy snack.

Cottage or Ricotta Cheese: Both cottage and ricotta cheese are easy vehicles for protein and can be dressed up with sweetness by adding fruit, nuts, and cinnamon, or savory when topped with tomato, cucumber and avocado. They both have approximately 28 grams of protein per cup.

Cheese: One of the most vilified foods around, cheese is a great source of protein and calcium. Cheeses that come from grass-fed or European cows contain higher levels of omega 3 fats, which are anti-inflammatory. A snack of 2 ounces of cheese packs 15 grams of protein to add to your protein bank account.

Nuts and seeds: Nuts and seeds are versatile and provide 7 to 8 grams of protein per 2 tablespoons. Have as a snack with fruit, or add to salads, yogurt, and veggies to add extra protein, fiber, healthy fats, and nutrients. Current research shows that there is an inverse relationship between nuts and weight: those who consume nuts on a regular basis weigh less since they are more satisfied and have higher levels of fiber in their diets.

Nut butters: Don’t just settle for peanut butter. Now there’s almond, cashew, pecan, sunflower and a few others. They all have different tastes and provide flavor, and satisfaction as well as 7 to 8 grams of protein per 2 tablespoons. Stick to the natural for the healthiest fat and have with a square or two of dark chocolate for a treat.

Beans and Lentils: Beans and lentils have approximately 15 grams of protein per cup, along with almost half the recommended amount of fiber per day. Beans also contain approximately 40 grams of carbohydrates per cup so if you are watching your carbs this is something to take into account at a meal.

Protein Powder: If all else fails, having a smoothie can be a good option with protein powder. Looking at the integrity of the protein powder is essential: i.e. how many ingredients it contains, what is the source of the protein, etc. Ones with protein coming from whey, pea, and hemp that have minimal ingredients, and no sweeteners or extra fillers in them, are recommended.

Mix and match your protein sources to satisfy not only your taste buds, but quell hunger, help cravings, and assist with blood sugar balance. A little protein goes a long way towards helping your metabolism and insulin resistance besides assisting with mood, energy and sleep; key essentials to every woman with PCOS.

Tip of the Day

Calcium Quiz! Can you name a non-dairy source of calcium? Non-dairy calcium sources include calcium-fortified juices, canned fish and some leafy greens, just to name a few!

Daily Inspiration


Wannabe Vegetarians

As more research reinforces the value of a diet rich in vegetables and low in meats, more individuals likely will be considering a vegetarian lifestyle. What used to be a choice of conscience now is increasingly becoming a choice of health consciousness.

The Meatless Monday campaign, in association with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, reports that going meatless even one day per week won’t only reduce cancer and heart disease risk, help prevent diabetes, curb obesity, and increase life-span, it also will support the environment by reducing people’s carbon footprint and water usage as well as decreasing dependence on fossil fuels.

Whether or not persons wish to become vegetarians (avoiding meat but still eating eggs and dairy), vegans (eschewing all animal products), or pescatarians (including fish and seafood in an otherwise vegetarian or vegan eating pattern), the transition can seem daunting. But if individuals begin with a clear understanding of protein sources, a willingness to try new things, a little patience, and some creativity, they’ll get off to a better start.

While dairy and eggs are the most obvious sources of protein in the vegetarian diet, plants contain protein as well. For example, the soybean has long been a versatile leguminous protein source in Asian cultures. Eaten steamed right out of the pod (edamame), roasted (soy nuts), coagulated (tofu), and fermented (tempeh), or as a paste (miso), porridge, nut butter, or milk, soy is an excellent source of protein. Other legumes, such as beans, lentils, peas, and peanuts, provide protein as well, and many dishes can be built around them, such as rice and beans or couscous with chickpeas.

Nuts and nut butters are a tasty way to add protein to meals, along with good monounsaturated fat. Grains and quinoa also contain protein. While it was once believed that plant-based meals had to be eaten in combinations that produced complete proteins (containing all nine of the essential amino acids), it’s now understood that eating a variety of fruits, vegetables, grains, beans, nuts, and seeds over time can provide all of the amino acids the human body needs.

Meat and Dairy Substitutes
Today’s market is flooded with a wide variety of meat substitutes. Vegetarian burgers, hot dogs, and sausage; faux chicken patties and nuggets; crumbles for tacos and Bolognese sauces; and even meaty “steak tips” are readily available in the refrigerated or frozen sections of mainstream and specialty stores. Many of these products are soy based, but others consist of grains, beans, vegetables, or mushrooms.

Ready-to-eat vegetarian entrées also are increasingly available, and just a few minutes in the microwave away from the table. While these prepackaged options can be helpful additions to a vegetarian diet, fresh-prepared meat-free meals can be simple and satisfying. Adapting some traditional favorites can ease the transition. Vegetarian chili with beans is nutritious, but adding bulgur or other grains can provide a meaty chew. Top chili with shredded cheese, sour cream, and sliced green onions or cilantro, and serve with sides of rice and cornbread for a meal. Make tacos or sloppy Joes with prepackaged meatless crumbles, but lentils work nicely as well. Portobello mushrooms are known for their meaty flavor and texture, so suggest to eat them whole as a burger replacement or chopped in pasta sauce.

Macaroni and cheese is a comfort food that’s still on the menu for vegetarians as well as grilled cheese, pasta primavera, veggie lasagna, and pizza. For those avoiding dairy, cheese substitutes that actually melt can keep these favorites on the menu and, with some experimentation, milk can be used as a substitute in baking and breakfast cereal.

The willingness to try new things can open up a whole world of flavors to emerging vegetarians. Many non-Western diets rely less on meats and offer a variety of unexplored flavors. For example, Chinese vegetable stir-fries and tofu dishes may be familiar to many, but the fresh tastes of Vietnamese cooking, the rich coconut milk curries of Thai, the lentil dal in Indian food, bean dishes in Mexican cooking, and the chickpea-based hummus and falafel from the Mediterranean region are just a few examples of vegetarian options clients can discover. For those who cook, suggest you choose a vegetarian cookbook or use the many free vegetarian websites or the vegetarian sections of popular recipe resources on the Internet.

One Day at a Time
Eating meatless meals just one day per week is a stress-free way to ease into vegetarianism. This approach allows individuals to experiment with new recipes over time without the intense planning necessary to change purchasing, cooking, and dining decisions all at once. After a list of favorite vegetarian meals are developed, it doesn’t take much effort to add another day or two of vegetarian cuisine.

Whether committed to improving health, the health of the planet, or the welfare of animals, vegetarianism can achieve their goals. Going meatless doesn’t have to be a chore. There are many resources and all it takes is a little patience and practice. Vegetarianism opens up new worlds of wonderful tastes and textures that can reawaken the senses to the joys of food.

By: Judith C. Thalheimer, RD, LDN, is a freelance nutrition writer and community educator living in the Philadelphia area.