School Cafeteria Meal Options for Kids with Food Allergies

By Jill Weisenberger, MS, RDN, CDE, FAND
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Does your child have a food allergy, intolerance or sensitivity? Partner with your school's foodservice and nutrition staff Tweet this (many of whom are registered dietitian nutritionists) to find safe and nutritious options.

Parents, students and the school nutrition team must work together when a child has special dietary concerns, says Debbi Beauvais, RD, SNS, school nutrition director in Rochester, New York, and past spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (2011 to 2014). "The school nutrition staff takes food allergies and intolerances very seriously, and they're willing to make reasonable accommodations," she 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, suggests registered dietitian nutritionist Joan Salge Blake, MS, LDN, FAND, also a past spokesperson for the Academy (2007 to 2016).

Once you've made the initial contact with the foodservice and nutrition department, obtain the monthly menu, urges Corey J. Wu-Jung, MS, RD, program coordinator for the Northern Region of Grow Healthy Team Nutrition Program of Rutgers Cooperative Extension. Review it with your child, so he or she knows the acceptable menu options. Feel free to ask for ingredient lists of prepared foods and recipes for scratch items, Wu-Jung suggests.

Peanut allergies are on the rise. According to the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network, one study suggests that the incidence of peanut allergy in children doubled between 1997 and 2002. 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 ethnic foods. Many schools serve a popular peanut butter substitute made from sunflower seeds, says Beauvais. If your school doesn't already offer it, ask them to have it on hand.

Gluten-free Options

Because of celiac disease or other intolerance, 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. "Some hidden sources," says Wu-Jung, "include sauces, marinades, gravies, soups and some prepared cold cuts and salad dressings. These items may contain soy sauce, malt, malt vinegar or a thickening agent that contains gluten." The good news, Beauvais points out, is that so many wholesome and delicious foods are naturally gluten-free. Among them are fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, lentils, eggs and unflavored milk. Swapping breads and flour tortillas for corn tortillas is another option. So is requesting that your school offer gluten-free breads, she 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 he or she can eat and not just what must be avoided.

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